Don't Be a Complete Jerk!

Sermon: September 2, 2018
Proper 17B (James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)

“Sometimes the best evangelism is simply telling people you’re a Christian and then not being a complete jerk.” I’m not sure of the source of the saying, but in light of today’s passage from James and from Mark, it rings true.  Because let’s face it: one of the loudest critiques of Christianity in our day is our hypocrisy.  In recent months this critique has been fueled by white evangelicals who wholeheartedly support the current White House administration while espousing family values, by the sexual misconduct of the leaders of Willow Creek Church and, most recently and tragically by yet another large scale child sex abuse scandal and cover-up in the Roman Catholic Church.  These are some of the most blatant examples of religious hypocrisy in the present day and we are right to name them publicly, denounce them and distance ourselves from them.  But we need also to be careful.  In 1947 an Episcopal priest named Samuel Shoemaker offered this cautionary word:

“We are not perfection standing on one side of a line, and speaking to imperfection on the other: we are ordinary [humans], with problems, some of them still on the way to being solved, who stand ever under the same judgment of God as confronts all human beings.”[1]  
Scripture offers the same caution: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”[2] Religious hypocrisy does not only apply to public scandal.  It applies to our own lives as well.  Professor of Religious Studies Loye Ashton says that “Religious hypocrisy . . . uses sacred teachings about Truth itself to elevate self-deception.”[3] Religious hypocrisy, perhaps more so than any other hypocrisy, erodes trust.  More than that, religious hypocrisy becomes a form of idolatry in that as we distort the Truth we “make our pretending . . . a substitute for it.”[4] Jesus is quick to call out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the scribes who complain about the disciples eating with defiled hands while not attending to their own actions that are in contradiction to the words they preach: “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.’”[5] This cry of hypocrisy is echoed in the letter of James when the author writes, “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive” ourselves and others.[6]
When we gather together on Sunday mornings we begin as hearers of the word.  We come together to hear the scriptures, the stories that form the basis of our faith.  The letter of James says that this word which we hear has, in fact, already been implanted in us as we were given “birth by the word of truth.”[7]  So what we are hearing together this morning and any time we gather for worship is really a reactivation of that which is already dwelling deep within us. So, when we leave this place, we ought to be prepared to act on what we have heard; we ought to be prepared to live out of the word that is already within us.

In a few minutes we will share in an affirmation of faith [8 a.m. through the words of the Nicene Creed].  We will speak out loud that which we believe.  But Jesus’ words to the Pharisees and to the scribes and the letter of James tell us it is not enough simply to speak these words.  We must put them into action.  James, in fact, is quite strong is in his admonition saying that those who “think they are religious” but do not act out of the faith that is in them have a religion that is worthless.[8]  How do we demonstrate in our lives that our religious convictions are more than just words? James says, “care for orphans and widows in their distress, and . . . keep oneself unstained by the world.”[9] Jesus says we do this by not allowing anything from within us to defile us refraining from “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.”  

I sometimes wish that we did more than recite an affirmation of faith because it is only the beginning. The crafters of our liturgy for baptism knew this when they paired the words of the Apostles Creed with what Bishop Lee calls the “so-what” questions of faith – if you believe God is the creator of heaven and earth and if you believe in Jesus Christ and if you believe in the Holy Spirit, then what are you going to do about it?  This morning I would like us to review our answers again – answers to the questions asked of us (or of our sponsors) at our baptism.  If you believe these things. . .
        Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
I will, with God’s help.

        Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
I will, with God’s help.

        Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
I will, with God’s help.

        Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
I will, with God’s help.

        Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
I will, with God’s help.[10]
I guess a shorter – though crasser - version of this might be the following: “tell people you’re a Christian and then don’t be a complete jerk.” From a liturgical aesthetics point of view, I’m not sure it holds up.  But, holding ourselves and one another accountable to the promises of our baptism offers a solid start to ensuring that what comes out of our hearts does not defile us but rather builds us up – individually and as community - to be all that God created us to be – the “first fruits of his creatures.”[11]

[1] Samuel Shoemaker, “Personal Evangelism,” Anglican Theological Review 29, no. 3 (July 1947): 137-144 reprinted in The Anglican Theological Review, 100, no. 3 (Summer 2018), 484.
[2] Matthew 7:1.
[3] Loye Bradley Ashton, “Friday: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23: Reflection: Proper 17,” Daily Feast: Meditations from Feasting on the Word, Year B, edited by Kathleen Long Bostrom and Elizabeth F. Caldwell (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 443.
[4] Ashton, 443.
[5] Mark 7:6.
[6] James 1:22.
[7] James 1:18a, 21b.
[8] James 1:26.
[9] James 1:27b.
[10] “The Baptismal Covenant,” BCP, 1979, 304-5.
[11] James 1:18b.