Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
Not long ago, I overheard some people talking about some friends who are members and regular attendees of a church that renounces drinking alcohol in any shape, form or amount. The denomination also “preaches against” dancing. The friends, however, are known to participate rather openly in both activities. They are not pretentious or hypocritical about it at all. This openness and lack of pretense was the subject of the conversation. It raises the question as to why someone would choose to attend a church that renounces as wrong activities that the person enjoys and does not consider wrong at all.
As a preacher, it raises a great many more questions for me. I can’t help but wonder how many things I say are taken with a whole shaker of salt? I’m not referring to minor issues or subtle interpretations. I am fully aware that there are many opinions, activities and decisions on which people will freely disagree and discuss their differences. At churches like the one above, drinking and dancing are considered a major issue–at least by the pastors. When I proclaim the very heart and soul of the Law and Gospel, do some faithful and regular church members simply let it go in one ear and out the other? Do they silently disagree or say to themselves, “Yes, but…”?
At what point are our attitudes and actions hypocritical in the negative sense? Let me begin by saying that there are many kinds of hypocrisy and I will quickly add that I’m sure we are all guilty, from time to time, of them all. There is a kind of innocent hypocrisy–it can be either amoral (neither right nor wrong), or it can be filled with kindness and love. In this category, we find things like good manners, good sportsmanship and the gentle art of holding our tongues. I also include those times when we admire a child’s scribbling, when we accept with gratitude and appreciation a duplicate gift and when we listen attentively to “Grandpa’s” story (even though we’ve heard it 10 times before).
A comedian once said that when he was a kid, he said, “Yes, Mother,” instead of “Shut up you old biddy!” because “Discretion is the better part of valor.” (He didn’t like the taste of soap or the pain of a spanking.) Later, he said the same thing because he loved his mother very much and wouldn’t hurt her
feelings for all the world. For the last 20 years he had said the same thing to his mother-in-law, because he wanted to keep peace in the family and didn’t like sleeping on the couch!
The first and last of his reasons lead us to a different kind of hypocrisy–one where we deceive people, or perhaps try to deceive God, because we have something to gain. But there is another universal hypocrisy that is brought on by weakness. Here we find the alcoholic on a binge; the woman who condemns drinking to excess, but still has “one too many”; the spouses who wanted to be faithful forever, but weren’t; the unmarried father and mother who “knew better”; the shoplifting kleptomaniac who “just couldn’t resist”; the apostle of non-violence who “lost it” and punched an enemy in the nose; and all the rest of us who, like St. Paul, do not do the good that we want, but do the evil that we hate.
A man in a bar once slurred, “I don’t go to that church any more–it’s filled with hypocrites!” The bartender responded, “Sounds to me like you’d fit right in!”
We all fit right in, but before I elaborate on that, there is one more category of hypocrisy. Here we find the store owner who attends church every Sunday because she knows it’s good for business, the con- man-evangelist who is only in it for the bucks and all the people who put on airs and deceive others with evil intent. While these hypocrites cause the most harm to others and to Christ’s mission, we must remember that they are in no greater need of repentance than any of the rest of us. Their sins are no more damning or less forgivable than our own.
A woman once told me that her church was filled with hypocrites. I think I surprised her when I responded, “So is ours.” I continued by saying, “All the world is filled with hypocrites–it’s easy to identify them–they are the ones still breathing.” In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, a strange switch occurs. Everybody knows what prayer is all about–people ask, and God provides the answer.
In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus prays: “My prayer is not for my disciples alone. I pray also for those who believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one…so that the world may believe that You sent me…. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that You sent me and have loved them even as You have loved me.” Notice, please, how important the mission is to Jesus– the purpose of our complete unity is “that the world know….” But do you see the switch? You and I are to become the answer to Jesus’ prayer!
As I recall, at last count there are more than 20,000 different denominations and sects–all claiming to promote the cause of Christ. Hearing that, if He was still in His grave, I think Jesus would turn over. Fortunately for all of us, He is not in His grave, but that many groups hardly sounds like “complete unity.” It is highly probable that He would not claim some of those groups as His church, but even if He only claimed two out of the 20,000, can two be the answer to His prayer that they all be one? I think they can be–if 13 apostles can be one, why not 13 churches or 20,000 denominations?
I don’t think Jesus expected Paul to be a clone of Peter, or Peter to be just like James. As a matter of fact, we know those three did not always see eye-to-eye on everything. Different people establish and/or attend different churches. I don’t think Jesus expects organizational unity, any more than He would expect unanimity among all individuals. I believe that Jesus prayed for the kind of unity that would prevent the devastating effects that sin can wreak when people are grouped together. We are often reminded that churches are not immune to big, well-publicized sins–TV evangelists meeting with prostitutes for reasons less virtuous than converting them, members misappropriating or running off with funds, one pastor operating a drug ring and another absconding funds and burning the church down to cover his sin. On the other hand, all churches are prey to the less flashy sins like the hypocrisies borne of weakness.
Jesus listed evil thoughts, lust, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly as a few of the unclean things inside all of us (Mark 7:21-23). To these we should also add: a judgmental spirit, quarrelsomeness, fits of anger, a passion for gossip, insolence, pettiness, boastfulness, lying and a delight in finding fault with others. This is the kind of dirt that grows trouble in churches and between churches and, sadly enough, it is as common as the dirt that grows fruits and crops all over the world.
These sometimes subtle sins can destroy small groups, including families, and they cause the kind of disunity in the church that results in duplicated efforts, a petty competitiveness, wasted resources and belittling other people’s service in an attempt to magnify our own. Jesus prayed for a oneness that would enable us to empathize and anguish with others over their faults, rather than gleefully pointing them out and accusing. I wrote earlier that it seems like we are to be the answer to Jesus’ prayer. By now it should be obvious that Jesus, as usual, knew what He was doing when He asked His Father to create that unity rather than telling His disciples to make it.
Our greatest need is to be reconciled with God. Only God could do that and only He can reconcile and unite us with each other. Jesus recognized in His prayer that we cannot make this happen–it is the result of God’s unconditional love. Years ago, I read a story about a small child trying to explain what we do when we go to church. The little one understood but had difficulty with pronunciation. The child meant to say “We go to church to worship,” but what came out was, “We go to church to wash up.” Many fellow-preachers receive these editions. I hope all of you join me in praying that every slip of the tongue we ever make could contain such insight!
Every member of every church in all 20,000-plus groups needs to go to church this Sunday, or Saturday for the “Seventh Day” folks, in order to wash up. Jesus gave His life so that we might receive and know the unwarranted, unlimited and unconditional love of God. He forgives our gross sins as well as our weaknesses and misunderstandings. With His Spirit, He renews, empowers and enables us. Far beyond being simply cleaned up, we are recreated.
Most of you probably already know what happened to Harry Truman between the time he went to bed on November 2, and woke up on November 3, 1948. He retired as a broken man–perhaps the biggest loser in America–he had lost the presidential election to Thomas E. Dewey. His defeat had been predicted by the “experts” and even he, though hopeful, had expected it. As he crawled into bed, the presses were already rolling on the early editions of papers that would tell the world about his greatest loss. At 5:00 a.m., while he was sound asleep–without his efforts or even knowledge–the count for the electoral vote in Illinois went his way. He awoke as the elected President of the United States of America!
Between the time that we enter Sunday washup and leave again, something infinitely more wonderful happens to each of us. Come let us wash up together.