Sunday, March 27, 2011

Blood on the Hands

Matthew 26:57-68, 27:24-26
Lent 3
March 27, 2011
William G. Carter

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

I can’t imagine that they meant what they said. The Jews of Jerusalem looked to the cross and said, “His blood be upon us and on our children.” Did they have any idea how people would regard those words for the next twenty centuries?

I had brunch last Sunday with Sam Levine. He is a studio musician in Nashville, in the buckle of the Bible Belt. He was raised a Jew but is now a Presbyterian, an elder at Westminster Presbyterian Church. I mentioned the scripture text that I would read today and he visibly flinched. It wasn’t so long ago that Christian kids threw stones at kids like Sam, because some Sunday School teacher told them that the Jews were Christ Killers. They got that from this text. “His blood be upon us and on our children.”

On Friday morning, John Conklin and I went over to pick up the painting that is now on loan in the narthex. Our church is borrowing it through Lent from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. After wrapping it carefully and loading it on a large rental truck, we were invited to lunch at the conference center where we were picking up the painting. Within a few minutes of sitting down, we were joined by a female rabbi who heard why we were there. She was very interested in learning what a group of Christians were going to do with a painting of Jesus crucified in a Jewish death camp.

“You know,” she said, “the relationship between Christians and Jews hasn’t been so hunky-dory. Just thought I’d ask.”

She has a right to be suspicious. Jewish people have been kicked around by most of the countries where they have lived. In the time of Jesus, they were kicked around in their own country. The Empire had stomped in with bloody boots. They set up battalions and plundered the commerce, all in the name of peace – Roman Peace. They maintained control through sheer brutality. Any Jew that got in the way was considered expendable. That’s what empires do – they roll over anybody who gets in the way.

Through the centuries, the Jewish people of God have had far more than their share of brutality. Ever since the ancient Pharoah who did not know Joseph, Jews have been the victims of abuse. So I expect the rabbi in New York and my friend Sam in Tennessee to be quite sensitive to how the Jewish people would be portrayed by a Christian congregation.

I think we have to hear our text with a similar sensitivity. We are playing with dynamite here.

Maybe you have heard it said that Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospels. I don’t think that’s true. Luke is actually a cozier Gospel for Jews: there is high regard for the Jewish Temple, Jesus is described in terms of a Jewish prophet, and Luke is constantly alluding to the Jewish scriptures in the way he tells his stories.

By contrast, Matthew writes down his Gospel at a very painful time and place. The church was going through a bitter divorce from the synagogue. Christianity had begun as a small sect of Judaism, but the day had come when both affirmed irreconcilable differences. In 80 AD or so, the Jerusalem Temple had been demolished by the empire, and Judaism had to make its way without the central sanctuary of the faith. Congregations grew up around local synagogues. Rabbis took on a stronger role, replacing temple priests who were obsolete. With this, Judaism got nervous about those who believed the Messiah was Jesus.

At the same time, Christian congregations continued to gather non-Jewish believers. The church was slowly becoming an international movement. Christians decided to define themselves over against their Jewish grandparents. Matthew was writing in Syria, at Ground Zero for this major religious shift.

That’s probably why he remembers some of the things that he does. In Matthew’s Gospel, and only there, Jesus says, “I did not come to abolish the law and the prophets; I came to fulfill them.” Do you hear that? In Matthew, he hears Jesus say, “You have heard what the Jewish Law said, but I say something different to you…” Hear that? In Matthew, Jesus is very critical of the scribes, Pharisees, and the religious officials of his time.

In chapter 23, Jesus harangues endlessly against the hypocrites who say one thing and do another. He criticizes a religious system of heavy rules and ungracious legislation. He points an accusing finger at the nitpickers who always seem to bottom-feed in any religious community. Matthew never says Jesus is condemning the Jewish faith. But he does take on anybody who numbly follows the rules and forgets the graciousness of God that lies behind them. His Jesus says, “They strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (23:24)

The problem we have is that good Christian people have thought he was talking about all Jews everywhere. Not so! We can’t universalize a first century critique of a recurring ecumenical problem. Maybe you’ve noticed: Christian people can nitpick just like the people of any other faith. Sometimes they can put their brains on the shelf and function without their hearts. I am embarrassed at some of the mean-edged nonsense that some Christian pastors say when somebody points a TV camera in their direction. It seems the more extreme the position, the more play it gets on the news.

There is no place for hatred in the name of a Jesus who teaches us to love our enemies. There is no place for racism in the name of the Christ who says, “Blessed are the merciful and the peacemakers.” There is no possibility of moral superiority for those who hear their Master say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit and blessed are the meek.”

Nevertheless a lot of trouble got started by our text. Matthew takes a broad brush to paint the trial of Jesus. That is unfortunate and probably inaccurate. To quote him, he does say, “The people as a whole answered (Pontius Pilate), ‘his blood be upon us and our children.’” He says, “The people as a whole.” That cannot be. Historically that was not true. There were Jews who were very sympathetic to Jesus – there still are. To declare uncritically that they spoke with one voice would be to misunderstand how crowds work.

And as my rabbi friend says, “Have you ever known a group of Jews to agree on anything?” I responded, “I have never known a group of Presbyterians to agree on anything.” Even if the vote is unanimous, it is never unanimous. You never hear all of the opinions until you get out to the parking lot. Even if the majority is crying out for blood, there is always somebody in the crowd who does not agree. So we have to be cautious of universalizing the voice of the crowd.

Now, the account is clear: the chief priests and the whole religious council have it in for Jesus. They have grown annoyed at his teachings. They have paid off Judas to turn him in. By chapter 26, they have captured Jesus and roughed him up. They have even broken God’s commandments, particularly the ones that say, “Do not bear false witness, and do not lie!” Instead, they are skulking around, wondering out loud, “Surely there’s somebody here who would lie about Jesus.” To nobody’s surprise, a few such people speak up, twist the truth, and Jesus refuses to dignify their lies by making any response.

The condemnation of Jesus is a complicated matter. There are mixed motives, ambiguous feelings, divided hearts, jealous urges, even guilt and regret -- especially in Judas, his betrayer. We don’t make it any better by flattening the whole complicated mess and saying there’s only one way to perceive this.

Just take that self-inflicted curse, “His blood be upon us and our children.” They were painful words for generations of those children. Christianity began as a minority sect within the minority faith of Judaism. Some three or four hundred years later, the Roman Empire changed and became the Holy Roman Empire. With Christians on the throne, it was only a matter of time before the same unimaginative nitpicking began in those in charge.

In latter days, they read Matthew’s ancient report and flattened it out. The Jews supposedly said, ‘His blood be upon us and our children.” In some narrow minds, that justified pogroms, inquisitions, and exterminations. This is what Empire Status tends to do to insensitive people. They start using their God-given imaginations in most unholy ways. They convert trees into crosses. They turn showers into gas chambers. And they operate on the ambitious belief that they, not God, shall decide who is acceptable and who is not.

What did we lose in Hitler’s empire? Six million Jews, 75,000 disabled people, 500,000 Gypsies, 2.8 million Russian POWs, unnumbered thousands of homosexuals. Those are the ones we know about. Just like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, the empire murdered in the name of God. It could happen again, unless we say no. For genocide never comes in the name of the biblical God, the God of Israel. It comes in the name of an unholy trinity of arrogance, abuse, and power.

So who killed Jesus? Who bears the responsibility for his death?

The religious leaders played their part – chief priests, scribes, Pharisees, whoever. None of them wanted Jesus around. They heard his criticism and wanted to silence his voice. But they had no authority for a capital execution, especially in an occupied country.

There is the empire’s governor, Pontius Pilate. He had the authority to decide for death. Historians say he probably exercised that right every day. But Matthew says Pilate wanted nothing to do with the matter. Even his wife came out of the shadows and said, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man; he’s giving me nightmares.” So Pilate asks for a bowl of water, washes his hands, and says, “I want nothing to do with this.” That is, until he gave the order. The empire always gives the order.

And then there’s the crowd: “His blood be upon us” – if, in fact, they actually said that. Clearly there were many people in that day could not welcome Jesus with an open heart. But before we dare to accuse one group or another, let’s confess our own thirst for blood. Violence is a human addiction, a spectator sport. The most civilized nations in the world pay money to watch grown brutes knock heads together, and then retire them when their brains are damaged. We bomb dictators who live far away. We continue wars even after they lose their purpose. We grow comfortably numb with our viciousness. We love blood – even if it’s God’s blood.

“His blood be upon us.” And it is. Upon all of us.

The sermon illustration that I have for you is the stirring painting in our narthex. While it remains here during the season of Lent, I invite you to spend some time before it. It is called “Christ at Auschwitz.” The man on the cross wears a yarmulke. He is humiliated as one in a death camp. A religious priest on the left looks away in willful ignorance. The nun on the right scowls at a naked Jew and misses what is really going on – she is straining her own gnat, so to speak, while swallowing the camel. And it corrects every flattened-out, anti-Semitic spin on the crucifixion. See this: Jesus was not so much crucified by his people; he is crucified among his people.

The Man on the cross is surrounded by people who are tattooed, abused, and condemned. He is in the middle of them all. And he remains with them until the human race decides that violence is not God’s way.

Not then. Not now. Not ever.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Why Are We Here?

Matthew 21:12-17
Lent 1
March 13, 2011
William G. Carter

Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.”

I can't hear this story without remembering Shirley Seibel. She was married to the minister of the church where I grew up, and she was known to have a bit of a temper.

Up until Shirley and her husband came to town, most of the minister's wives did the things that minister's wives were expected to do. They baked cookies and served tea. They played the piano and consoled their ruffled husbands. They stayed in the background. You realize, of course, that was back in the days before ministers were allowed to have husbands. In our community, Shirley was the first to break the mold. She refused to join the choir. She boldly announced, "I don't teach Sunday School." And if that wasn't enough, she publicly denounced the annual rummage sale in fellowship hall.

The rummage sale was quite an institution. For one weekend every October, the women's association took over fellowship hall. They put up tables and invited people to donate their used mammon. A couple of volunteers spent the better part of a day writing prices on little pieces of masking tape and sticking them to each item. Then on Friday and Saturday, they opened the doors and invited the community to buy Presbyterian leftovers.

Shirley thought it was awful, and she said so. "The church isn't supposed to get involved in the buying and selling of junk," she said to anybody who would listen. "That’s not why we are here. If we're not careful, Jesus is going to come down here and cleanse this temple." That was my first real contact with this Bible story; ever since, I've been a little bit nervous.

The usual way we understand the story of the cleansing of the temple is that Jesus is condemning the buying and selling of merchandise on religious turf. I don't know how you feel about it, but I get uneasy whenever money changes hands. Some churches sell books, tapes, or videos in the narthex. I heard about a church that sells hot lattes. Sometimes the kids sell hoagies and chocolates so they can go to a mission trip. That’s innocent enough until the money becomes more important than worship. This is a house of prayer, first and foremost. And that’s why we are hear.

The usual way to interpret this story from Matthew 21 begins there. We condemn any kind of commercialism within the church. We may be strangely silent about commercialism outside the church, but within the church, we don't want to see it.

I remember a children's Bible that I sold on eBay. There was a picture of today’s Bible scene. Beneath was a caption: "Jesus is chasing some people out of the church. They didn't come to church to love God and pray. No, they are selling things to get a lot of money and be rich."

Whether or not you agree with that perspective, I should probably remind you that most of the Jews in the time of Jesus would not have seen the issue in quite this way. Never mind that the temple and the church were two very different institutions. For the first century Jew, there was no split between "sacred" and "secular." They would never have said, "Prayer is sacred, but buying and selling is secular." Oh no, that's a modern construct. It is usually perpetuated by people who don't want to part with any of their money when they go to worship.

No, the Jesus we meet in the Gospel of Matthew has the authority to rule over all of life. As an act of God’s mercy, he healed the blind and the lame who came to him in the temple. They come to him, says Matthew. They come to him – even though the book of Leviticus was clear: “anybody who is blind or lame shall not come near God’s altar” (Lev. 21:18). But they come to Jesus – and he cures them. He has the authority of God to do that.

The children know this. They come to Jesus in the temple – even though children were widely expected to be never seen and never heard. They shout out the praises, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” They name him as the Messiah, and the chief priests and scribes went ballistic. “Do you hear this?” they bellowed. Mere children, the weakest and littlest, dared to affirm Jesus. Jesus looked at the religious leaders and said, ‘Go and read your own Bible, Psalm 8 to be exact: “Out of the mouths of babes you have prepared praises.’” He could say, because he had the authority.

This Jesus, the man who drove out the temple merchants, was a rabble rouser with a purpose. He goes to God’s house to do a little housecleaning. And whenever we go to God’s house, we might have our own houses turned upside-down.

Shortly after he turns over the moneychanger's tables and shoos away all the doves, some people come up to trap him while he's in the temple. They say, "Teacher, should we pay taxes to Caesar?" He responds to that question with another question: "Anybody here got a quarter?" (One of them says, "Sure.") He asks, "Whose head is on the quarter?" Well, it's the emperor's head. So in our kind of thinking, we say, "Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, give to Obama what belongs to Obama, and sometime next month, give to the IRS what belongs to the IRS. Then and only then, give to God what belongs to God; that is, the leftovers."

But the first-century Jew didn't see it that way. You give to God what belongs to God. And what belongs to God? Everything! "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof." (Psalm 24:1) If you believe God is involved in everything, you have to recast your life so that God is served by everything, even that little silver idol with Caesar’s face on it.

That's why people went to the temple. They went to honor the God who is concerned about the whole of human life. The temple was the place where heaven touched earth. It was where people returned back to God something of what they received from God. If you receive a baby who opens your womb, you offer a sacrifice to say thank you. If you are cured of a disease by the Great Physician, you offered up an animal to express your gratitude. If you committed some sin, and wanted to atone for it, you could purchase an unblemished lamb as a sin offering.

In the ancient world, every good religion had a temple, and commercial activity was normal. Joachim Jeremias, the great Bible scholar, says the Jerusalem temple was the basis for the city's economy. If you wanted to offer up prayers to God, you had to have the right goods. Fortunately for most worshipers, the Jerusalem temple provided the very goods you needed in order to worship God. As one commentator puts it quite plainly, "If you're traveling all the way down from Galilee from three days away, do you really want to carry a couple of doves in a cage, where they might become sick or bruised or impure? Why not wait until you got there, and pick up what you needed at the temple?"

So why is Jesus so hot and bothered? He is not condemning the sacrificial system of Jerusalem. Otherwise he would be going after the high priest, who was authorized to do the sacrifices. No, he lets the theologians deal with that one after his death.

Rather, his attack is quite focused. He goes after the money changers. Do you know who they are? They are the street representatives of the Jerusalem financial district. They make a little money on every little sale, kind of like a legitimate tax collector who charges a little extra and skims off the top. According to the scholars, do you know who stood to benefit most from their sales? It wasn't the poorest of the poor; you can be sure of that. No, it was the priests' union. The whole religion was mandated by the priests, who stood to profit by their mandate. The poorest worshipers, the one who needed the most help, were the ones who gained the least.

Not only that, Jesus goes after the dove sellers. Not the lamb sellers, but the dove sellers. There was a difference. In the book of Leviticus, it says, "If you're going to offer a sacrifice, and you don't have enough money to buy a good lamb, you can buy a couple of doves as a poor person's offering." (Lev. 5:7, 12:8)

For what it's worth, that is how we know Jesus was born into a poor family. When he was dedicated in the temple, his parents offered a couple of doves as a sacrifice, because they were too poor to afford an unblemished lamb.

So why does Jesus go after the dove sellers? Because they exploit the poor. The whole system is requiring the poor to make religious sacrifices, and then charging them money to provide for the sacrifices. It was not only about profit; it was about exploitation. The religion of God the redeemer became more and more distant from those who needed it most.

So Jesus goes into the temple, and he throws out those who are buying and selling, and he casts out the money changers, and he stops anybody who gets in his way. If you know the Gospel of Matthew, you know what this is: it's an expression of his authority. He has the authority to cure the blind and the lame. He has authority to cast out the forces that oppress and demean human life. Now he goes right into the Jerusalem temple and throws out the money-changers. This Jesus is more than a reformer. He is a Savior, and he confronts any authority or any power that puts people down and keeps them down.

As a result, those who have a vested interest in the institution look for a way to kill him. It isn’t long before the chief priests and the scribes begin to plot against him.

The Bible wants us to know that Jesus comes to heal something more than ruffled feathers, broken fingernails, and bruised feelings. He comes to save the whole world. Jesus comes to attack the forces that hurt us and damage others. He is the Messiah of God, whom death cannot confine, whom illness cannot destroy. And he questions any form of religion where the rich and famous are honored and adored, while widows are plundered and people with basic human needs are thrown away.

"In fact," he said, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees! You sit on the seat of Moses, the great teacher, but you do not practice what you teach. You lay religious burdens on the shoulders of others, but you are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. You prance around in public, take the places of honor, and love to have everybody bow down in respect. You forgot that you were called to be servants, and exalt yourselves above everybody else.” (23:1-12)

I realize that's the way of the world. In our time, the gap between the mighty and the lowly continues to grow. The chasm between the few affluent nations of the world and the many, many poor nations continues to widen.

But listen to what Jesus goes on to say. "Do you see the big stones of this temple, which were constructed on the backs of the poor? Do you see these large buildings which are monuments to injustice? The day is coming when this entire oppressive machine will be pulled apart piece by piece. The day is coming when selfishness will be dismantled, greed will be dethroned. Not one stone will be left upon another." Tell me: is that good news? Or is that bad news? Depends on where you stand.

In the meantime, I do know this: anybody who talks like this could get themselves killed. Anybody who keeps standing up for justice is going to get crucified.

And if there's any justice in heaven, they will also be raised from the dead.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Specks, Logs, and Really Poor Acting

Matthew 7:1-5, 7:15-20, 7:21-23
Epiphany 8 (A)
March 6, 2011
William G. Carter

Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

Hypocrisy. We know it when we see it.

The Wall Street Journal quoted a congressman. I had to read it twice to make sure I got it right. In the midst of a debate, he stood to address the House of Representatives. Here's what he said: "Never before have I heard such ill-informed, wimpy, back-stabbing drivel as that just uttered by my respected colleague, the distinguished gentleman from Ohio."

Hypocrisy. We know it when we see it.

Maybe you heard about the church leader who was asked to speak to a Junior High Sunday School class. The teacher wanted him to talk about the positive aspects of being a Christian: how does your faith determine your business decisions, how does faith help to set your family priorities -- that sort of thing. Unfortunately the man was a bit pompous. Within a few minutes he was droning on about how wonderful he was. Some kids began to lose attention.

In an effort to keep their attention, suddenly he stopped, pointed at one kid, and said, "Do you know why people call me a Christian?" The startled teenager sat up and said, "Is it because they don't know you?"

Hypocrisy. We know what it looks like. We know what it sounds like. And we cheer when Jesus turns to teach against it. That's what Jesus is doing in the passage we heard this morning.

There are a number of independent teachings in our scripture text. Each little block of instruction could be treated separately. The thread that stitches them together is hypocrisy, that nearly fatal condition of acting like somebody you're not.

• Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye and ignore the log in your own eye?
• Beware of false prophets, who dress like sheep but are hungry as wolves.
• You will know them by the fruit they produce. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?
• You say, "Lordy, Lordy," but you don't do what I tell you.

At least nineteen times, twelve of which are in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus takes on people whom he calls hypocrites. The Greek word is taken from the acting stage. "Hupocrites" are actors or actresses. They put on a show, supposedly for the benefit of others. They wear costumes and masks, so that their appearance does not reflect who they really are. There is a difference between their outward appearance on stage and who they actually are when nobody but God is looking.

According to one wry definition, hypocrites are those "who, professing virtues that they do not respect, secure the advantage of seeming to be what they despise." They appear to be something other than what they actually are.

"Let me take that speck out of your eye." Let me take care of you. Let me point something out to you. All the while they totally ignore their own inability to see clear. On the surface, it sounds like they want to care; but something else is usually going on behind the mask.

As somebody points out, this kind of hypocrisy is all the more unpleasant "because an apparent act of kindness (taking a speck of dirt from somebody's eye) is made the means of inflating our own ego." That is, it looks like you are trying to help somebody, when actually you're trying to feel better about yourself. You exalt yourself by pointing out something deficient about your neighbor. Then you try to help them in their weakness from your position of superiority. "Here," you say with transparent deference, "let me give you a hand. Let me help you get that speck out of your eye."

We know it when we see it.

Ever notice? When somebody criticizes us, the criticism usually has as much to do with them than it has to do with us. Sometimes they are flinging their baggage at you rather than carry it themselves.

A man recently went through some personal difficulties. He said, "When I went through my divorce, the people who gave me the hardest time were people who came from their own troubled households. On the other hand, the people who saved my life were those who knew what it was like to go through something like that, and they helped me come through it alive."

Jesus says: "Take the log out of your eye. And keep your grubby fingers out of other people's eyes, until you deal with your own blind spots."

It reminds me of the day when Snoopy was sitting on the roof of his dog house. Charlie Brown comes up and says, "I hear you're writing a book on theology. I hope you have a good title." Snoopy replied, "I have the perfect title." Then he leaned over his typewriter and typed, "Has It Ever Occurred to You That You Might Be Wrong?"

That's the question to ask ourselves if we are ever going to get rid of the lumber yard in our own eyelashes. Jesus uses this ridiculous image to score his point. All of us have no problem turning to another person and seeing their faults. All of us have a lot of problems owning up to our own shortcomings and faults. And it's difficult to get a proper perspective.

In his commentary on Matthew, Tom Long says there are two transformations that have to occur if we are ever going to be useful to God or anybody else. First, you have to find the wrong in yourself before turning the spotlight on anybody else. You have to face what you spend your whole life avoiding about yourself. Only then, says Long, can you move from self-righteousness to compassion. The good news is that those who deal with their own blindspots can be helpful to others. Before you put on a mask and play the role of somebody superior, you take a good, long, honest look at yourself.

A number of years ago, novelist Frederick Buechner dared to tell the story of a day in his own life. He began the book by saying,

I am a part-time novelist who happens also to be a part-time Christian because part of the time seems to be the most I can manage to live out my faith: Christian part of the time when certain things seem real and important to me and the rest of the time not Christian in any sense that I can believe matters much to Christ or anybody else . . . From time to time I find a kind of heroism momentarily possible - a seeing, doing, telling of Christly truth - but most of the time I am indistinguishable from the rest of the herd that jostles and snuffles at the great trough of life. Part-time novelist, Christian, pig.

His honesty is refreshing. Religious people face the endless temptation of thinking they are better than they are. Just when we think we're getting somewhere, just when we think we're actually making some spiritual progress, the truth slices like a two-edged sword. And if you don't have a sense of humor about your own foibles, you can drive yourself over the edge. One thing I've noticed about true-blue hypocrites -- they are incapable of laughing at themselves.

They ought to know better. Life has a way of unrolling so that all things are revealed. Jesus says, "Look at the results!" Good trees bear good fruit, bad trees have rotten fruit. Build a house on solid ground, and it will survive every storm. Build on a shaky foundation, and sooner or later it will fall apart.

So today we are called upon to get it together: to seek out the truth about ourselves and to trust God to do something positive with what we discover. Jesus has a lot to say to hypocrites, probably because he knows that hypocrites are the only people who can ever pay any attention to him. There isn't a person here who is anything close to what he or she professes.

Through this text, the Risen Lord calls us to move toward a unity of word and deed, a consistency of intention and accomplishment, an integrity between what is seen and what is hidden. It is so easy to mislead ourselves. One evidence of our sin is that we can construct a view of the world that ignores the obstructions of our own making.

All of us do this. God knows we are not the people that we want others to see. There is always a shadow between our intentions and our accomplishments. But God has sent Jesus Christ to save us from our own poor records of achievement. Jesus never had a log in his eye, but he was nailed to a great big piece of timber. On the cross, he has taken away every sin. In his mercy, every speck and blemish has already been removed. Thanks to Jesus, we have been freed to serve God without needing to feel inadequate. All we have to do is trust that it's true.

Along the way, we learn how to love and laugh and take ourselves a bit less seriously. Like my friend Lois. She was working on the stewardship committee in her church one year. (Actually I think she was the stewardship committee that year!) As she prepared for a congregational mailing, she noted all the people who had drifted away from the life of the church. Then she picked up the phone and began to call them. "We've been missing you in all kinds of ways. Why don't you come back next Sunday?"

She called one man and got nowhere. The next week, she called him again with the same result. The following week she tried again. Finally he said, "Don't you get it? I'm not going to that church. There are too many hypocrites in the congregation."

Lois laughed, and she said, "Yeah, you're right. We have a church full of hypocrites. And we always have room for one more." At the other end of the phone, there was shocked silence. Then the man began to laugh. The next week he was sitting in a pew. After that, he was back almost every Sunday. Most of the time he had a smile on his face.

That's a picture of the gospel working itself out through us. None of us measure up to the righteousness of God, but all of us are held up by the mercy of God. And each one of us must work through that mercy, admitting the moments when we could not see, when we did not act, when we turned out to be something less than we were created to be. This morning Jesus is saying, in effect, "Before you point any fingers at anybody else, first take a long look in the mirror. Stand there and keep looking, until you know that you stand only by the grace and good humor of God." Only then are you of any use to others.

So give it up. Cut out your criticism of others and be humble. Stop reading other peoples' situations through your lens, and start paying attention to the places where your own life has gone out of focus. Refuse to stand on the shifting sands of self-affirmation. Stand firm, instead, on Christ the Rock, who has enough mercy and forgiveness for all of us hypocrites.

It reminds me of a beatitude. I don’t know if Jesus ever said it, but it’s the kind of beatitude that he should have said if he didn’t. The beatitude goes like this: blessed are you when you can laugh at yourself, for your laughter is God's opportunity.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved