God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change God grant us the courage to change the things we can God grant us the wisdom to know the difference. Serenity. Courage. Wisdom. May God grant those to us all.
Today I’m not going to talk about the big things in life and in this world that can bust up our serenity. I’m going to talk about something that’s more at the obnoxious level – aggravating, irritating, frustrating, infuriating.
And that is: Other people being hypocrites.
I hope I’m not alone here … the only reason for me to be preaching about this is because I’m pretty sure I’m not alone: it just gets to me to see someone jabbing out their finger blaming someone for something that they themselves are guilty of. Someone acting all high and mighty and spitting out all these judgments and then turning around and doing exactly what they condemn, and then when they’re caught in the act not even being upright and admitting it but getting defensive or going on the counter-attack… Whew, that really gets me pulling out my hair – and Lord knows I can’t afford to do that anymore.
It seems like it’s become our national past-time: hypocrisy hunting. Maybe it’s one of the symptoms of the soul sickness we’re suffering as a society: this bitter back and forth of one side obsessing over the other side’s hypocrisy. It’s the fuel for lots of bitterness and meanness and mockery.
So, good thing for us, Jesus has something to teach about this (Matthew 7:1-5): “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your friend’s eye, while you pay no attention at all to the plank of wood in yours?” This is meant to be funny, by the way. It’s a cartoon exaggeration of a hypocrite hunter: “Hey you! Gotcha. You got this obnoxious blind spot and it’s ticking me off!” All the while they’re reeling around with this huge heavy ridiculous thing stuck to their face. “How will you say to your friend, ‘Let me take out the speck from your eye,’ when all the while there is a plank in your own?” Then Jesus says, “Hypocrite!” Now, Jesus gets to call people hypocrites, and he does every now and again. He’s still the Prince of Peace, the living embodiment of God’s love, but he’s not just a meek lamb about it, all the time. This love is the kind of truth-telling love that cuts through puffed up ego stuff. That’s what Jesus is doing with this parable.
So after pointing out the hypocrisy, Jesus gives some guidance: “Take out the plank from your own eye first, and then you will see clearly how to take out the speck from your friend’s.” Be humble, in other words. And don’t just pretend to be humble – that’s the worst – but earnestly try to wake up to our blindspots, especially the damaging ones, and bring them before God and let God’s love take our blinder off. Now, Jesus does this masterful thing here. Notice that in this teaching Jesus says “friend.” Why do you took at the speck in your friend’s eye, when you have a plank in yours? Take out what’s in your eye and then you can see to help your friend. Help your friend.
See, all this speck picking is something we usually do with our enemies. We get so furious because it’s our enemies who have these horrible blind spots they claim aren’t there.
It’s easy to see the sins of our enemies. It’s easy to see the hypocrisy of our enemies, to see how they’re looking at things crooked. And it’s a great excuse to jam our finger into their eye.
But Jesus here says “friend.” He moves us from finger pointing to an earnest and humble desire to help someone see clearly. This forces us to consider our motivations. Do we really want to help this person, or do we just want to poke their eye out, score points off of them? That question – Is this coming from love or from hate? – that question is the first step in the harder work of finding what’s in our own eye that may be causing us to not see clearly. If we are doing this work, this can help us actually be helpful when it comes to other people’s hypocrisy.
Now, before I go more in this direction, let me be clear about something: All hypocrisy is not equal. Some is extremely damaging. Hypocrisy is an effective tool for abuse of power, a mask to cover the terrible things someone is doing off-stage. “Hypocrisy is the greatest luxury” – to quote the musician Michael Franti. Folks in certain positions gain more than others from saying one thing and doing another, from acting all righteous while turning around and taking advantage of folks. Jesus was very busy pointing this out. He railed against the people of his day who acted all holy while they were taking advantage of the poor and powerless. But, Jesus did not let this become an excuse for his followers to get self-righteous and puffed up themselves. His teachings are a guard against what seems to be a strong human tendency. Psychologists have done experiments that show that when anybody thinks they have more power over somebody else, they are more likely to be hypocritical. They – we- are more likely to condemn that other person for something they excuse for themselves when we think we have more power than they do. This goes for anybody, whatever their status. Power does corrupt. Now, corrupt people do indeed seek power. But, to make it worse, power itself does bring a real temptation to be corrupt, to let go of the principles that we claim we believe in. This temptation comes in even just small things, small ways that we have a little more power over someone else. Someone owes us a favor or a little money, the temptation is to be harder on them than we are to someone else or ourselves. Having more money overall, even just a little, or more status, or more friends or family with connections, whoever, where ever you are, those little difference do mean more power, more ability to make things happen, to get what you want. And even just small differences in this are ways that hypocrisy gets in. So let’s get back to Jesus. The image here in his teaching is sight. Clear sight. Having clear sight of ourselves. And wishing clear sight for all. Removing the log jam in our eye so we can help our friend, or help our enemy like a friend, be clear of the speck in their eye, this is about integrity. Integrity. Having our values and our actions line up. Not having a split between what we preach and what we practice. Waking up to that split in us, being honest about the ways our actions cut against our values, and bringing that all to God and allowing God’s love to help us let go of what we need to and grow into being a little more whole. We’re probably all hypocrites, in one degree or another. Actually I hope so: because I hope that the values we profess are challenging enough that we don’t live up to them all the time. It’s a matter of having the courage to be honest about how we fall short. I mean look at the values that we as a church keep putting out there in our quirky and earnest kind of way: Love – unconditional divine love – peace, hope, joy, serenity, courage, justice, wisdom, generosity, compassion, grace, welcome, purity of heart, unconditional regard for the dignity of all people as beloved children of the living God … That’s a lot to try to live up to. And we don’t, in some ways, and we do, in some ways. I mean, if we use Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as our north star (and I suggest that’s what Christians ought to do) we have to admit we stray most of the time. But the point is to keep looking up and seeing it again and tacking back to it. That’s why Christian spiritual life has built into it confession and forgiveness: the humble and earnest daily prayer before God admitting our blind spots (which maybe our enemies have pointed out), asking to be shown our blind spots, admitting whatever harm we may have caused, admitting the ways we’ve strayed, and celebrating what we have done, seeing and giving thanks for whatever good has come from our moments of integrity from the ways that we have gotten out of the way and become vessels for God’s love.
I give thanks to God for high standards of integrity, which we see through Christ Jesus. That integrity call forth courage to hold ourselves and our society accountable. But above all I give thanks to God for abounding grace, which we know through Christ Jesus, the grace we need because we fall short of integrity, the grace of being loved for who we are, not for who we pretend to be. There is serenity that that grace.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered November 12, 2017, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)