Hypocrites, Pentecost 15 (B) – September 2, 2018

Proper 17

Pentecost Episcopal Sermon

[RCL]: Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

The church is full of hypocrites. Ever heard that? I hear it all the time. It usually comes from folks who are anxious to justify the neglect of their own religious duties by dumping on church folks. At first glance, it seems a well-aimed attack, too. After all, Jesus is very hard on hypocrites, in fact, he is harder on them than he is on anybody else. We just had a good example of that in the Gospel, where Jesus once more climbs all over the Pharisees and scribes, the official religious leaders of the day. So, if the church really is full of hypocrites, we have a problem—and we should probably fire a bunch of churchgoers, or go out of business, or something.

But before we do that, it’s a good idea to take a minute and look at what Jesus was talking about when he talked about hypocrites. This is one of those words that is surprisingly hard to get a grip on, and that we need to spend a little extra time with. What we usually mean when we use the word is most likely not what Jesus meant when he used it.

Today’s dictionary says that hypocrites are people who are playing a part, people who deliberately pretend to have beliefs and virtues that they, in fact, do not have at all, and which the hypocrites both know they don’t have and don’t particularly want to have. Hypocrites in this sense are people who are faking it and who know they are faking it. The point is deception. (In fact, the word comes from acting a part in a play). Hypocrisy in this sense is really vicious. It’s a misuse of religious faith and it mocks God and his Church. Doubtless, it greatly grieves the Lord. But two other things need to be said about this sense of hypocrisy. First, the Church is not full of this kind of hypocrite and, second, this isn’t what Jesus was talking about, anyway.

About the first thing: It just isn’t true. Most church people, indeed virtually all the church people I know, believe what they say they believe, or they want to believe it, or they are trying to believe it, or they wish they could believe it. And, truth be told, that’s as good at it gets.

In the same way, most church people I know are living by their best take on the moral precepts of our faith, or they are trying to, or they want to, or they know deeply both the struggle that comes with contending with God and the weight of judgment that brings. Nobody gets it right all the time; everybody gets it wrong more often than necessary; anybody and everybody can do better. But outright, deliberate faking the whole business to seem good while planning to be bad—this is rare, and I think we ought to realize that, and say that, and celebrate that. The church is not full of that sort of hypocrite. The church is full of sinners—but that’s another matter entirely—and that’s as it should be.

Now, in the light of all that, I’m not sure whether or not it’s good news that, when Jesus condemned hypocrites and hypocrisy, he was not talking about this, but about something else. You see, the notion of acting a part was a Greek notion, and there are really no Hebrew or Aramaic parallels to this idea of hypocrisy. So, we don’t know what Aramaic word Jesus used that the Gospel writers translated as the Greek word hypocrite. Still, the best way I know to get at what Jesus was probably talking about is by way of an old Zen story.

Once upon a time, the great Zen master Sasha was standing with a friend at the top of a tall tower. His friend looked down the road and saw a line of saffron-robed monks walking toward them. “Look,” his friend said to Sasha, “Holy men.”

“Those aren’t holy men,” Sasha said, “and I can prove it to you.” So, they waited in silence until the monks were walking directly below the tower.

Then Sasha leaned over the tower’s rail and called down, “Hey, holy men.” The monks all looked up—and Sasha turned to his friend and said, “See?”

Those monks were exactly what Jesus meant when he talked about hypocrites. So were the Pharisees and scribes. Jesus does not attack the Pharisees and scribes for pretending to be good when they were really evil. The vast majority of them were not evil.

Instead, Jesus castigates them because their self-righteous convictions about their own goodness had built a smug wall around them, isolated them from the rest of the community, and made them deaf to any further word from God.

The Pharisees kept the law and keeping the law—the moral law and the religious law—is a good thing. We should do that. But to believe and act like your own righteousness in the sight of God comes to you because you keep the law—this is absolutely deadly, and it is the heart of what Jesus means by hypocrisy.

To cultivate within yourself moral virtues and behavior which not everyone around you cultivates is, again, a good thing. Indeed, it’s a distinctive mark of the Christian life. But to believe and act like your own righteousness in the sight of God comes to you because you are more virtuous than most people you know—or more virtuous than some other group, or some specific other person—this is what Jesus insisted was far more evil than the particulars of any individual sinner.

There is only one place to look if we want to find out how good we are, or how righteous we are—only one place. That place is God—God’s absolute goodness, God’s absolute justice, God’s absolute demands, and, finally, God’s absolute love and mercy.

If we look to ourselves for our righteousness, if we look to the things we have done, or the rules we have kept or the law we obey—or if we look to the failings of others (and say, “at least I’m not like them”)—if we do that, if we try to find in ourselves, or in others, the answer to how good we are or how righteous we are—if we do that, then we are who Jesus is talking about when he talks about hypocrites.

To be sure, it’s a good and important thing to obey the law and to live the life we are called to live. None of this talk of hypocrisy excuses moral or religious failing, nor does it mean that the way we behave doesn’t matter. The way we behave matters a lot, for a bunch of reasons. Deuteronomy today talks about how God’s people are to live in such a way that the world around them can look at them and be drawn to God. And Paul talks about how every speck of virtue we can nurture is absolutely essential if we are to live our calling.

At the same time, when Jesus condemns the hypocrites, he is not talking about evil people who pretend. He is talking about well-behaved people who trust in themselves, who consider themselves finished products, and so cannot see or hear either themselves or God very well.

Now, I don’t think the church is particularly full of this sort of hypocrite, either; but we’re far from immune. And Jesus thought it was dreadfully important, so we have to pay especially close attention and keep alert.

Remember Sasha in the tower and those monks. And remember that our trust, and our hope, and our confidence, can be found in only one place—it is never in ourselves—it is always in the love and the mercy of God.

The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as Rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma.

Download the sermon for Pentecost 15 (B).

Love Received is Love to be Shared – Proper 17(B) – 2015

Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

It is, in the end, the return of the spirit to the place where love of God is born, not where it is mastered, that right relationship with God and one another will be found. Remember that life is short. We do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. Simply, very simply: let us be swift to love, and make haste to be kind. And the blessing of God will be received and given, in one fell swoop, in our relations with others and with God each day.

Yes. It is that simple.

To read the sermon, click here.

Download the sermon for Proper 17, Year B.

Written by Steve Kelsey who is missioner of the Greater Hartford Regional Ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut. Over the years Steve has been privileged to minister primarily with smaller, more remote congregations in New England, Alaska, New York, and Northern Michigan.

Becoming doers of the Word through obedience, not ritual, 14 Pentecost, Proper 17 (B) – Sept. 2, 2012

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Psalm 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Ritual is essential in life. National, religious or familial, rituals offer us the comfort of repetition and familiarity as they lend beauty to occurrences that otherwise might be considered mundane. Observe a little child who asks for the same story night after night – this is her ritual – or your own delight in keeping the Christmas rituals as you remember them from childhood. Look at the warm smiles on the faces of parishioners when a familiar old gospel song is chosen on a Sunday, even in some of our more staid Episcopal congregations. Remember the Thanksgiving dinners and the disappointment of family members if mother or grandmother veers away from the traditional turkey to beef roast. All of us have rituals that we remember and cherish. Some are simple habits; others are beloved and precious because they are tied to memories of love and affection from our earliest years; a few, like the Eucharist, are holy. Those that are mere habits may easily be forgotten or ignored, but those that are indeed enveloped in memories of love or sacredness are indispensable.

Our lessons today are centered around ritual, but with strings attached.

We are so used to hearing about God’s promises to ancient Israel – promises that are repeated these days even in the political arena without understanding and oftentimes with a meanness that ignores the suffering of other people. In Deuteronomy, as in the major prophets, the promises given by God, as reported in the Bible, always carry a condition and often a warning. Simply put it is this: I will give you the land, or a child, or a kingdom, if you are obedient to my commandments. As our reading today says, “So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe so that you may enter and occupy the land.” The promise is conditioned upon the action of obedience. Today’s lesson makes it clear: Pay attention to my teachings so that you may be given the land. And the opposite is true: If you don’t pay attention to my teachings, if you are not obedient, I will not give you the land. This last part is conveniently forgotten. God’s love is unconditional, but God’s promises are not.

As the years pass and the new church in the first century is learning the words and actions of Jesus, habits and rituals are being established. St. Paul introduces or interprets many of them. Later on, the church will make ritual so paramount that even salvation will be bought through supposed good words and indulgences while the poor people starve. The Protestant churches, attempting to correct this, focused on passages that glorify faith, or what came to be called justification by faith, and found ways to misinterpret Paul so that slavery was justified, the denigration of women and children into a lower status was perpetuated, and many wrongs and injustices toward the poor were ignored and, sadly, continue to this day.

Instead of religious rituals, rituals of injustice were established in the church and in the marketplace to the detriment of us all. And that lone voice of the epistle writer James was totally ignored: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” The word we translate as “doers” has depths in the Greek that remain untapped. The verb “to do” in this verse is the same as “to create”; and to take it a little further, it is the same word used in creating a poem, being a poet. So to do the word after hearing it has profound implications: the idea of being co-creators with God as we obey and then as we do the word.

Jesus, in this passage from Mark, puts ritual in its place. As he always did, he looked beyond the obvious, beyond the religious habit, to zero in on what lies in the heart. He quotes Isaiah to them. They really should know better. Isaiah has been with them for centuries.

“This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

On this occasion Jesus is asking the people to think of what is more important – the ritual of washing or the feeding of those who are hungry. Is compassion more important than ritual? What matters to us? The arguments we have among us as we interpret certain passages in scripture or the love that should undergird us as we discuss our differences? What matters to us in this crazy season of politics? The earning of votes or having integrity? What matters to us? Doing the will of the Father or holding on to traditions?

At the time of Jesus, the religious people were arguing about the cleanliness of their hands and of the food they bought in the marketplace and were criticizing the disciples for not doing the same. What they ate and when they ate it was of paramount importance to the religious people of the day. At a time when there were no chemical interventions, Jesus declares all food as clean and then tells them that what goes inside the mouth, inside the body from the outside is not what harms their souls. It is what emerges from the heart to find utterance in the mouth that truly harms them.

The world has changed drastically since then. But we have changed very little. The difference is that now we have too much to eat and worry about the pounds that are added instead of the unkindness that emerges from the mouth. In church, we too hide behind ritual and find it all too easy to ignore that which is difficult to obey. Our rituals in the Episcopal Church are so beautiful, so full of meaning. Our Book of Common Prayer is filled with exquisite prayers. And then we leave church and go back to our mundane lives. How can we become doers of the word as we hold on to the words we heard or uttered? Jesus surrounded himself with the poor and the disreputable perhaps because he saw in their hearts a true longing to love God and obey God’s commandments. He reserved his most acerbic comments for those who were respectable, who performed the religious rituals, but who had no compassion left in their hearts for everyone who was different from themselves. He said to them, in pain, “You abandoned the commandments of God to hold on to human traditions.”

Let this never be said of us.


— Katerina Whitley is the author of “Walking the Way of Sorrows” (Morehouse, 2003) among other books of biblical monologues. She lives and writes in Boone, N.C.

Love received is love to be shared, Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 17 (B) – August 30, 2009

(RCL) Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Love received is love to be shared.

Life is short – and we do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So let us be swift to love and make haste to be kind, and the blessing of God will be with us.

In the early chapters of Genesis, God says to Abraham: “I will bless you, that you may be a blessing to others.”

How intimately these two are tied together, always: the act of our being blessed and the act of our blessing others.

The first way it is known, in our human experience, is in the embrace shared by parent and child. Can anything fill one’s hearts more completely than an earnest exchange of hugs with those just learning to offer them? Little children are so intent in their first expressions of physical affection, to be the recipient of such a hug just opens your heart. Unconditionally.

Who is blessing whom in that exchange? Love received is love that is shared. It’s as simple and profound as that.

As we grow and discover love in all its intimacy, what a miraculous experience it can be! The heartbeat quickens, the imagination anticipates even a passing encounter with the beloved, the sound of their voice, a smile crossing their face as they recognize your presence, a casual touch. Oh my!

Our first reading today is a compelling expression of the giving and receiving of such love. The Song of Solomon can be given many allegorical interpretations, but at its heart, its imagery is as simple as the blush of first love, ignited by the holding of one lover’s hand by the other for the first time.

We can sense in this passage a growing excitement in this poet’s response to even the thought of the approach of her beloved:

“The voice of my beloved! Look: he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills! … like a gazelle or a young stag …Arise my love, my fair one, and come away … the time of singing has come.”


The surging of emotions is echoed in the Psalm: “My heart is stirring with a noble song.”

The should’s and the ought’s, the coulda’s and woulda’s of such relationships can, in time, get very complicated. But the human soul revels in the simple, mysterious act of offering one’s heart to another for the first time, for no reason other than the joy that its giving and receiving bring.

Love received is love to be shared. It is that simple and that profound.

The writer of the epistle of James also builds on this theme. Religious practices can get as complicated as interpersonal relations. Over time, we become more concerned about how we are “performing” those practices, and find ourselves further and further from the original fervor of religious passion that once impelled our religious choices.

James has to remind those who are growing long in the tooth in their religious practice that we need to be “doers of the word and not merely hearers.” They need to be reminded that “every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift is from above.” It is a gift we are given, the very motivation, the compulsion of the Spirit to join God in the act of self-giving love. It is not an accomplishment in ministry but a natural response of one beloved to another.

Again, in the embrace of lovers: who is giving and who is receiving in this exchange? Clearly, both, or something other than self-giving love is being exchanged.

It is so simple, when the heart of the beloved is truly led by love, until complications set in. And those complications are born of fear.

In his first epistle, John writes, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear.” And soon thereafter, he writes, “We love because God first loved us.”

Acts of kindness, patience, forgiveness – so many Christian virtues are second nature when one is in right relationship, and the sole motivation shared is love of the other. We are simply seeking to imitate God’s love for us as manifested in Christ Jesus.

It is only when one has replaced trust in such love with fear of rejection, that acts of charity become a chore. We all understand this, for as surely as we have all experienced the excitement of the first blush of love, we have experienced the onset of the more complicated swirl of thoughts and emotions that later infringe on that love.

In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, there is a story of a stingy old woman who sought, from the misery of hell, the lake of fire where she found herself after she had died, to be raised to the comforts and joys of heaven. “I wasn’t all THAT bad!” she asserts to an angel passing by. “What about the time when the poor beggar came to my door and I gave him an onion?”

The angel swoops down and hovers just above the old woman, as together they look back upon that scene from her life. The woman had resentfully come to the back door of her grand mansion to try to shoo the beggar away, complaining loudly about the filthiness of his hands and face. “You don’t even wash before you come to beg?” Nonetheless, the woman had reached down into the bottom of her larder and produced a rotting onion that she handed over to the beggar.

“Well,” said the angel, “that should be enough to open the doors of heaven for you.” The angel lowers to her a rope with that very onion tied to its end. The woman grabs on, but as the rope is lifted, others in the lake of fire climb on, hoping to be pulled out as well. The old woman, alarmed by this, cries out, “Let go! Let go! It’s not you who are being pulled out! It’s me! It’s not your onion! It’s mine.” And just when she says, “It’s mine,” the onion snaps in two, falls out of the rope, and she falls back into the lake of fire. The angel weeps, as she flies away.

If only the old woman had had it in her heart to say, “The onion is ours,” surely the onion would have been strong enough to have pulled all of them out together.

There is insight in this story, echoing the same wisdom as the teaching of Jesus in our gospel for today.

Here, Jesus is set upon by the Pharisees, who for all their earnestness and concern for the purity code, have traversed far from what James would call religion that is “pure and undefiled before God.” There are so many distractions for these too-well-practiced religious practitioners, the Pharisees. They care earnestly about their religion, but it is clear that only those who are equally obsessed with religious practices could relate to what they care about.

What Jesus is calling us to remains far simpler, and is, in the end, something that everyone, whether a professional religious practitioner or not, would understand and care about.

It is what comes from inside, from the center of our hearts, that will transform and quicken the heartbeat of our lives and the lives of those we encounter.

When one’s life is truly converted by God’s Spirit, the actions God yearns for us to know in our relationship with God and one another will be second nature to us. St. Augustine of Hippo once said, “Love God and do as you please.” If we are truly filled with love of God, what will please us will surely be what also pleases God!

Rumi, a Muslim mystic, spoke of the same phenomenon when he wrote: “Look inside and find where a person loves from. That’s the reality, not what they say.”

What does God require of us? What spiritual practices will open the gates of heaven to us?

It is, in the end, the return of the spirit to the place where love of God is born, not where it is mastered, that right relationship with God and one another will be found.

Remember that life is short. We do not have too much time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. Simply, very simply: let us be swift to love, and make haste to be kind. And the blessing of God will be received and given, in one fell swoop, in our relations with others and with God each day.

Yes. It is that simple.


— Steve Kelsey is missioner of the Greater Hartford Regional Ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut. Over the years he has been privileged to minister primarily with smaller, more remote congregations in New England, Alaska, New York, and Northern Michigan.

We are to be doers of the word, Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 17 (B) – September 3, 2006

(RCL) Song of Solomon 2:8-13 or Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Psalm 45:1-2, 6-9 or 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8,14-15, 21-23 

“Sit up straight! Elbows off the table! Napkin in your lap! Wait until everyone has been served before you begin to eat! And close your mouth when you chew!”

The rituals associated with eating begin early in a child’s life and grow more complex with our journey toward maturity. In every culture these rituals are one of the ways the “in” group holds itself apart from the “out” group. Those who are like “us” eat the same foods the same way “we” do.

Perhaps one of the more curious and exciting adventures we ever embark upon is our first awareness of these differences, the very first time we venture away from home to eat dinner with a family other than our own. At their house can one get dessert without eating everything on the plate? What is that stuff on the plate, anyway? So many differences define us: Is belching after dinner an expected compliment for the host or an embarrassment to your mother? Do they eat dinner with a fork, their fingers, or chopsticks? Is cold spaghetti or Cocoa Puffs one of the mainstays of their breakfast diet?

Though we can laugh at the mystery of our differences, when it comes to food, at the time the Gospels were written, food laws were a serious matter for Jews.

Many struggled to hold on to their identity after the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. Enforcing rules and regulations for maintaining purity was one way to maintain a sense of themselves as the people of Israel.

It was God’s commandment, after all, not unlike the admonishments of parents to “mind your manners and remember who you are” in the foreign land of a friend’s home.

Listen up Israel, says Moses, to the Israelites. Folks will notice how you behave, and folks talk.

Do what God tells you, and your upbringing will honor God. They will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people.”

For Jesus the food laws became critical arguing points to challenge the exclusion of Gentiles from the kingdom of God. A new identity for Israel was unfolding and it required a shift in understanding the purpose of the law. Table manners are not after all meant for banishing to the basement those who aren’t worthy enough to eat. They are meant to help make dining a pleasurable experience for everyone.

But the controversy over food laws persisted, and in the early Church reflected tensions between Jewish and Gentile Christians that kept them from table fellowship together.

Today, for us, other controversies keep Christians from coming to the table together. Opinions about policies having to do with genetic research, war, medical care, education, the environment, and gender give us all the opportunity for violent disagreement, if we let them.

Each of these areas of contention represent deeply held convictions about how we are to live. These convictions in part, tell us who we are. When they are challenged, we get scared. It feels as if our very existence is threatened. And it is fear, ultimately, that fuels the evil intentions of the heart.

What defines us? Jesus perhaps might have said, it’s not so much that “you are what you eat,” but “what’s eating you.”

Jesus reassures us that what we need to worry about isn’t whether we get the rituals exactly right. What we need to reflect upon is how willing we are to reach out to the people across the street who see things and do things differently than we do.

We are to be doers of the word, and not merely “hearers who deceive themselves,” James writes.

Jesus challenges us to see beyond the differences that threaten to isolate us from each other. He calls us to be together at the table so that we might find we have more in common than our evil intentions. Eucharist, pot-luck suppers, coffee hour, pizza parties, picnics, cookouts – we are called together to gather to at the table to remember that we all depend upon the grace of the One who loves us.

We come together again and again to give thanks and to be sent out once again humbled by that revelation. How do we show it forth, not only with our lips but in our lives? James suggests one specific practice: Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; Anger does not produce God’s righteousness.

The story is told of a family and friends gathered for a special dinner that called for the best china and everyone’s favorite recipes. All were seated at the table, waiting hungrily for the turkey to be served so dinner could begin. The proud cook strode through the doorway, the weight of the platter straining her grip, and she tripped on the carpet’s edge. As she fell, the turkey slid across the floor.

There was a moment of dead silence before the hostess declared in a bright voice directed to the cook: “It’s no problem, everything is all right. Just take that one back to the kitchen, and bring in the other one you prepared as back up.”

Of course, there was no second turkey. But a turkey appeared, moments later, nevertheless. Dinner was served.

Jesus challenges the purity laws so fiercely protected by the Pharisees and scribes who have come down from Jerusalem. It is in the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law that God’s will is to be found.

Pure and undefiled religion has to do with caring for others in distress, not stressing over pure religious practices.

Life in God, the creator of all, is our common ground, not the source of our differences. But the evil intentions that divide our hearts speak across cultures and religions, too.

What distinguishes us as Christians is what we do with our experience of this evil – and who we offer it to for redemption. What makes us Christian is not ritual or customs, what we eat or what we fear. What defines us ultimately is our faith in the great redemptive love that calls us into being and commands that we be reconciled with one another. A common thread runs through the diversity of our response to that command.

As the old folk song proclaims “We are one in the spirit, we are one in the lord. They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love, they will know we are Christians by our love.”


— The Rev. Mary H. Ogus is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Clinton, North Carolina. A graduate of the M. Div. and STM programs at the General Seminary in NewYork City, she is in her second year of parish ministry.