I have been spending a lot of time while trying to fall asleep at night wondering about hypocrisies—not just other people’s, but especially from myself. I recently rediscovered the transcript of a sermon given back in 1993 from the late Bishop Carl Moeddel, while he was then pastor at my parish of St. James of the Valley Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. A couple years ago, I took on the task of transcribing some of the bishop’s sermons that he had recorded (with his family’s permission).
Funny how things work out! I recently finished spending a couple Sundays in my seventh-grade PSR class that I teach, going over the Sermon on the Mount with the children. That is what started the whole “hypocrisy thoughts” ball rolling, keeping me up at nights. It was not long after that when I found the file on my computer containing this transcript of the bishop’s sermon about that particular Sunday’s Gospel reading from 1993 on the Sermon on the Mount. I would like to share this transcript with you now; I figure it’s as good a time as any since Lent begins in less than two weeks. The particular Gospel reading came from Matthew 5:38-48.
“Today’s Gospel continues the Sermon on the Mount that we’ve been reading the last couple of weeks. In this section of that sermon, Jesus calls his disciples beyond the moral values of their time and their society. He tells them (and us), his disciples, that we must be made perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. And when Jesus does in fact get specific in this section of the Sermon on the Mount, it really does sound like he is asking for perfection: offer no resistance to injury; if you are struck on the right check, turn the other; give to whoever begs from you; love your enemies; pray for your persecutors. It really does sound like perfection.
“I don’t know about you, but certainly I do not know anyone who lives that way. The advice that Jesus gives sounds so passive, so wimpy; it sounds as if Jesus is saying to be a good disciple, let everybody walk all over you. Just be meek, be passive. But I think a bit of reflection on the advice of Jesus reveals that he is asking us just the opposite. Jesus calls us not to be passive, but to be active in living the values that he teaches. And he calls us especially, I think, not to be reactive. Let me illustrate what I’m trying to get at with a story.
“A syndicated columnist of a number of years ago, Sydney Harris, in one of his columns wrote about how he and a friend of his, who is a Quaker, walked into a newsstand one evening to buy a newspaper. His friend bought the newspaper and thanked the proprietor very politely. The man did not even acknowledge the thank you. And as they were leaving, Sydney Harris said to his friend, ‘He’s a rather solemn fellow, isn’t he?’ His friend said to him, ‘Oh, he’s that way every evening.’ And Harris said then, ‘Why do you continue to be so polite to him?’ And the Quaker replied, ‘Why not? Why should I allow him to decide how I’m going to act?’
“And I think that is what Jesus is telling his followers: that is not to let others control our behavior because, if we think about it, that very often is exactly what we do. Someone mistreats us, so we mistreat them. Someone gets angry at us, so we get angry at them. We try to get even, and when we do that we end up doing exactly what we dislike in the other person. Someone else, even someone we don’t like is, in effect, controlling our behavior, and I think what Jesus is saying is: don’t let that happen. Don’t just react; be in charge of your own actions, of your own behavior. Don’t let someone else, especially somebody with different values, don’t let them control your behavior.
“Yeah, Jesus may be calling us to perfection, but I think he’s also calling us, first and foremost, to just be true to ourselves, to our own values, and not to be seduced or controlled by the values of other people. And if we maintain that freedom, to be our own person and not simply to react to others, that permits us to do the will of God. We are not passive. We do not just react. We are free to act according to the values God has given to us. We are free to do his will.”
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