You see, as I tell the groups who visit our church’s museum to learn about our history, John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, isn’t one of the revolutionary figures in history who argued that the Church was teaching the wrong things. He didn’t take on the Church’s Big Ideas like Martin Luther. No, Wesley, for the most part, was okay with what the Church had to say, but he was terribly disappointed with the way Christians of his day were living out the Faith.
Listless, joyless, filled with vice and void of virtue—common qualities like these were antithetical to the beauty and power of Jesus and his Good News, and Wesley intended to do something about it. We can think of him and our spiritual ancestors, then, as people who were committed to experiencing deeply the Gospel in the substance of their daily lives and living in trust that God gave them every gift—every grace—they needed to live in a truly right and loving relationship with God and their neighbors.
I told the group from Massachusetts how Wesley tried to instill an honest desire for the pursuit of these things among his people by encouraging them in the disciplines of introspection and self-awareness.
Wesley wanted the Methodists to love, and to think, and then to love better than they previously had. In order to facilitate that kind of spiritual growth, he often prepared lists of questions or rules for Methodists to consider and to check their hearts and actions against. Today, the most famous of these tools are the series of questions that are asked of every minister in our tradition at the time of his or her ordination and the three General Rules that are to shape everything we do; Do No Harm, Do Good, and Attend Upon the Ordinances of God (which is popularly paraphrased as Stay in Love with God).
However, I want to share a list with you this morning that seems to have been on John’s mind from his days at university until the end of his life. He published variations on these questions numerous times so they seem to warrant our attention. In fact, I share them with you with confidence that they’ll help us dig more deeply into God’s Good News for us today.
1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?It’s a probing list of loaded questions, isn’t it, ranging from topics whose importance might seem obvious to us—Can I be trusted? / Am I a gossip?—to those whose association with holiness seems more tangential—Am I getting enough sleep? / How do I spend my spare time?
2. Do I confidentially pass on to others what has been said to me in confidence?
3. Can I be trusted?
4. Am I a slave to dress, friends, work or habits?
5. Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?
6. Did the Bible live in me today?
7. Do I give the Bible time to speak to me every day?
8. Am I enjoying prayer?
9. When did I last speak to someone else of my faith?
10. Do I pray about the money I spend?
11. Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?
12. Do I disobey God in anything?
13. Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
14. Am I defeated in any part of my life?
15. Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy or distrustful?
16. How do I spend my spare time?
17. Am I proud?
18. Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisees who despised the publican?
19. Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I doing about it?
20. Do I grumble or complain constantly?
21. Is Christ real to me?
As interesting and thought provoking as this list is, however, it’s seems to me that the first question really is preeminent as it frames every other response.
1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?Jesus, as you probably know, had a lot to say about hypocrisy, especially when it came to matters of faith. For all the religious barriers that he broke down, Jesus had no tolerance for the person who could go through the motions of piety without engaging the heart. Hypocrites were, then, the targets of some of Jesus’ most pointed invective.
“Hypocrites! You tithe to the penny but you ignore the important things like justice, mercy, and faith."
“Hypocrites! You are so careful to clean the outside of a cup, but inside you are filthy.”
“Hypocrites! You’re like whitewashed tombs. Beautiful to look at, but filled with death.”
“Hypocrites! Why don’t you try taking the 2 by 4 out of your own eye, before pointing out the speck of dust in your neighbor’s?”
These examples are all found in Matthew’s Gospel, but in the seventh chapter of Mark we find Jesus at it once again.
The exchange recorded in this morning’s Gospel lesson speaks of an encounter Jesus and his disciples had with some local religious leaders who took exception to the fact that Jesus’ crew didn’t follow their traditions regarding washing their hands before eating.
Now, keep in mind, the group’s concern wasn’t for public health, like the signs in restaurants reminding all employees to wash their hands. Their concern was religious and the implication of their question was that Jesus and his disciples were behaving in a manner that was displeasing to God.
“You hypocrites!” Jesus began. “The old prophet Isaiah was talking about you when he wrote about people who honor God with their lips, but whose hearts are far away. You’ve ignored God’s Law and substituted your own traditions.”
Jesus then weighed in on one of the hot button topics of his day.
“You tell people that it’s all right for them to tell their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you because I vowed to give to God what I could have given you.”
The practice Jesus refers to here was called corban and, at first glance it looks like a pretty good thing. To make something corban was simply to offer it or to pledge it as a gift to God.
According to Jesus, though, this tradition was being abused. Community leaders were teaching people that they would be absolved of their obligations to care for the needy, in this case their needy parents, if they made their gifts corban—kind of like a spiritual version of a Cayman Islands’ tax shelter.
“Sorry mom and dad. I wish I could help pay for your prescription medicine, but I already gave my money to God, and you wouldn’t want me to cheat God would you?”
The practice Jesus condemned, therefore, was a clear-cut example of trying to maintain a façade of holiness without cultivating the necessary habits of prayer, devotion, and love.
“All of you listen,” Jesus said, “and try to understand. You are not defiled by what you eat; you are defiled by what you say and do!”
Actions always speak louder than words and hypocritical actions completely silence pious words, so it is our intention as disciples both to speak and enact Good News.
That Good News is, in part, the realization that Jesus offers us hypocrisy’s cure, the reconciliation that occurs between our hearts, minds, and our hands (our actions) when all are renewed by the Holy Spirit.
I once heard a personal trainer say, “You can look good without being healthy, but if you’re healthy you will look good.”
I’m sure we could quibble with this statement, but I think it’s on point. It also resonates with the truth of scripture.
We can look like pious people without loving God or our neighbors. We can do a whole bunch of religious looking stuff and say a whole lot of religious sounding things, but without love, as Saint Paul says, we are empty; we are nothing.
However, if we are growing in our love for God and our neighbors, then we will not only look and sound pious, we will be pious, holy, and righteous.
So, friends, are you defeated in any part of your life?
Is Christ real to you?
Are you consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that you are better than you really are? In other words, are you a hypocrite?
Yes? No? Maybe?
Wherever you stand today, the promise of God is that if your next step is toward Jesus, then you will be received with open arms for the love God calls us to share is nothing but the love already showered upon us.
Like our spiritual ancestors, then, we too can be a people who are committed to experiencing deeply the Gospel in the substance of our daily lives and living in trust that God gives us every gift—every grace—we need to live in a truly right and loving relationship with God and our neighbors.
Actions always speak louder than words and hypocritical actions completely silence pious words, so it is our intention both to speak and enact Good News that Jesus offers us hypocrisy’s cure, the reconciliation that occurs between our hearts and minds and hands when all are renewed by the Holy Spirit.
Thanks be to God for this Good News.