October 4, 2020

Pentecost 18A

“Woe to You, Hypocrites”

GOSPEL

Jesus said, “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:

‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;

this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.  Matthew 21:33-46

SERMON

 

“When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them (and their hypocrisy). They wanted to arrest Jesus, but they feared the crowds, because the people regarded him as a prophet.”

 

It’s worth remembering that the Gospels consistently portray Jesus as reserving his harshest criticism and condemnation for religious hypocrites.  Occupying a privileged place on this list were the Pharisees and their minions.  The Pharisees were the leaders of what we refer to, in our day, as the religious right.  

They were the law and order crowd that would gleefully stone a prostitute to death rather than embrace her with a compassionate, understanding and reconciling heart. 

They were those who strutted about in the prideful cloud of their own self-righteousness with the greatest distain, disregard and disrespect for the “others” with whom they were forced to share space.  

They were those who said one thing yet did another, particularly under the cover of their convicted religious beliefs or the guise of moral superiority.  

This crowd enraged Jesus and triggered a divinely righteous anger that was not shown even to thieves and adulterers, murderers and terrorist zealots.  No less than seven times does Jesus rail and rage against these religious leaders, saying, “Woe to you, you hypocrites!”  

Given the behaviors, beliefs and policies of many self-identified Christians today, I believe we need more of the righteous anger that Jesus modeled. The challenge is for Christians to take seriously the name we dare to appropriate for ourselves, as we lay claim to the identity of being a follower of Jesus Christ.

Addressing religious hypocrisy begins with self-examination, but it can’t stop there. We must hold one another accountable.  

And perhaps the greatest transgression, that has gone largely unchecked today, is the widespread dehumanization of particular groups of people. 

Often these groups are already vulnerable, marginalized, minority communities, made more susceptible to subjugation or violence by the rhetoric and agendas of self-styled zealous Christians who appear to see no apparent contradiction in their claim to follow Christ and the way they express their views and live out their lives.

Like the religious hypocrites Jesus condemned in His time, those in our time seem to operate with an agenda driven only to serve themselves and those with whom they choose to affiliate. Such self-identified Christians deploy strategies to identify as “other” those they view as a threat to their espoused ideology, comfort, sense of self-importance and superiority, power, political and religious hegemony or financial security.

The driving force behind such blatant hypocrisy — among religious leaders as well as the rank-and-file Christians who listen to them — is a lust for greater privilege, power and control rather than Kingdom priorities. 

If it is personally expedient to curry favor with political parties, these Christians will sacrifice the Gospel at the altar of self-preservation and self-service.

Fear and favor are powerful motivators, and these are often the incentive behind those dehumanizing practices that have real consequences and cost human lives.

Take, for instance, the persistence of anti-black racism. That this country is inherently governed by an illogic of white supremacy is without question. But its perpetuation and maintenance are not necessarily foregone conclusions. When confronted with the realities of racial injustice, white Christians are called to self-examination and need to shelve their white fragility, and in the case of law enforcement, blue fragility, so that they might actually hear the cry of the too-long oppressed.

As the Christian moral tradition has long taught, it is not only the sins of commission for which we are responsible, but also the sins of omission — what we have done and what we have left undone. 

Part of why so many white Christians fail to see what is so obvious has to do with the fear of admitting culpability, and their giving short shrift to the Gospel imperative for metanoia, or ongoing conversion. 

This failure is on full display in the behavior of some clergy whose sycophantic relationship to Trump, arguably the least Christian U.S. president in modern history, who lives in almost daily public violation of most of those ten commandments recounted in this morning’s first lesson.  This failure underlines the lack of necessary self-awareness expected of Christian leaders.  Clergy like Franklin Graham and Cardinal Dolan come to mind. 

But beyond the unwillingness of many white Christians to open their eyes to the reality before them as it concerns racial injustice, in general, and their part in it, specifically, others engage in a more insidious form of sinfulness: the active dehumanization of people of color. 

This can be seen in the way some white Christians responded to the murder of one black man or woman after another.  Social media posts are too often replete with defenses of alleged murderers; and fascist vigilante groups, like the Proud Boys, are raised up as praiseworthy associations and told to stand at the ready. 

This form of dehumanization is not limited to the passive and active contributions to racial injustice but can be seen with regard to a number of populations. LGBTQ persons, for example, are regularly condemned, rejected, dismissed and even physically harmed by self-identified Christians claiming that God hates them and that their very existence is “intrinsically disordered.”

In the wake of the attacks of September11, and the subsequent protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been a steady rise of Islamophobia. Many Christians reject the shared monotheistic ancestry they and Muslims enjoy as Abrahamic traditions, insisting that Muslims are not our sisters and brothers, seeking instead to dehumanize them and cast Muslims as “the enemy.”

Similarly, despite the call to “never forget” the Shoah, anti-Semitism is still on the rise 75 years after Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz. Violence against the Jewish community by Christians continues in many parts of the globe, including here.

Over the last four years, we have seen unprecedented dehumanization in terms of the rhetoric and policies of the current administration and its supporters. What was once the party of Lincoln has made white self-assertion and the aggrieved oppressor its unspoken political platform. 

The “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, in the latter decades of the 20th century reminds us that Christians have even engaged in dehumanizing one another to violent and tragic ends. No one is spared, not even Christians themselves.

Each and every act of dehumanization is not only unchristian, but it is also gravely sinful. Self-identified Christians, engaging in this behavior, expose themselves as the modern iteration of the religious hypocrites Jesus admonished and condemned.

Today, just as in every generation that preceded us, we need to embrace the covenant we made at Baptism to live kingdom priorities and follow in the footsteps of Jesus. This demands at times, the risky and unpleasant responsibility of naming injustice, condemning dehumanization and calling our Christian sisters and brothers to task for what we have done and for what we have failed to do. 

While the responsibility is all of ours, the most pressing duty belongs to religious leaders. If they continue to fail at this, then they no longer serve Christ but instead become complicit pawns who align themselves with those whom Jesus unequivocally denounces.

On the front page this past week, until it was sidelined by the announcement of Trump’s infection with Covid-19, has been the business of the appointment of a new justice for the Supreme Court.  The nominee would appear to be a darling of the religious right.  

If you look carefully at her profile you will notice that she would appear to be less a mainstream Roman Catholic, who would resonate with the spirit of the current pope.  Pope Francis, it should be noted, has warned against single issue voting. Rather, she identities with a narrower group or even cult called “People of Praise”.  

This cult lives like something of a less than benign evangelical malignancy in the more legitimate catholic heart. Our baptismal covenant does not need to be perfected with a second covenant to a supposedly more stringently orthodox position, such as the one taken by members of People of Praise. And certianly not a covenant that celebrates authoritarianism and misogyny.  

One of the most controversial aspects of People of Praise is the severely patriarchal belief system it promotes. Their members refer to female members as “handmaids.”  Women are expected to live in “total submission” to their husbands.  So, it certainly begs the question, as who will actually be the next Supreme Court Justice, the nominee or the husband who would shadow her should she be chosen to sit on the bench?

It is interesting that the one being proposed to be a dispenser of justice is willingly and eagerly participating in a process that is unequivocally unjust.  Her nomination and confirmation are being advanced and even railroaded through an abuse of power.  

The clown, yes the clown, as his current health issues do not make him any less the ghoulish clown that he has presented himself to be for years, said as much on Tuesday evening, when he acknowledged that he had the power, and would use it without apology, to advance an agenda that the majority of the population do not endorse and would not support if they were accorded their voice.  For example, it is patently clear that the majority want affordable health care for all. 

It is all so emblematic of the problem that is and has been holding us hostage in so many matters for far too long.  Power, position, wealth, maleness, whiteness, and privilege run roughshod over those deemed less.  

Children continue to be separated and caged at the border.  Among other abuses, they do not necessarily receive the medical care they may need.  Some have died because of this.  Trump, on the other hand, presents with symptoms.  He is taken by helicopter and limousine to a mini-White House suite at Walter Reed and receives around the clock attention by the best medical experts.   I say those innocent children at the border deserve as much or more, as they, by distinction, are absolutely innocent.  

Any, abuse of power is not Christian.  Its every expression must be exposed for the lie and sin that it is and opposed in its every expression and certainly on election day.     

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna                                                                                                                          October 4, 2020