Hypocrisy is surely the charge that is most frequently and most painfully levelled at Christians. Look at you: you go on about God and morality and goodness, but you’re no better than anybody else. Look at those priests in such-and-such a place, or some of those bible-waving evangelists and what they get up to. And of course they’re right. And you don’t even need to go to the evident cover-ups of priestly-abuse or to tele-evangelists who end up in the wrong bed to see that. You only have to look in the mirror. None of us practise what we preach; we all fall short: we know it and it is painful. And that’s what Ash Wednesday is all about.
Today we come and we acknowledge our weakness, we see our sinfulness and that of the world around, and we very often embark on efforts to make ourselves better. And of course that’s not just about going without chocolate or red wine, but about much more significant things like spending time in prayer, giving generously, attending to the growth of Christ-like character within us. But even that can be a problem because, whatever we do, that too can look like hypocrisy: here we are going through these rituals and disciplines on Ash Wednesday and through Lent, and even then we mess up. Even more so because Lent runs the danger of being the time when we do precisely what the gospel warns against: parading our piety in public. ‘I’m giving up such and such this year’; or ‘As a church, we’ve got this project and we’re going to raise more money for it than we did last year (and certainly more than the parish next door).’ All public religious practice is fraught with dangers, especially the danger of hypocrisy.
In Isaiah’s day the people observed what they thought was an acceptable day – a fast day. They looked forward to a day of salvation: that day when God would right wrongs for them and their nation, the day when they would receive what they thought would be their just reward – the salvation and acclaim that (in their view) was rightly theirs. They were somewhat perplexed as to why it hadn’t all come sooner – after all did they not seek after God, seeking his judgements and drawing near to him? Did they not fast and humble themselves? Did they not do what God required? And yet it seemed that God was not taking a lot of notice. And Isaiah has to point out their hypocrisy. Yes, they may fast, they may go through the most elaborate rituals, bowing their heads and lying in sackcloth and ashes. But if they do it while continuing to oppress their workers, to quarrel and to fight – what good is that? Loose the bonds of injustice, let the oppressed go free, share your bread, give shelter to the homeless poor, clothe the naked. That’s when you will see God respond; that’s when light will shine, healing come and rebuilding start. Rebuilding – restoring streets to live in.
You may perhaps have noticed that we’re approaching an election and the bishops have put their collective head above the parapet with a Pastoral Letter encouraging us to engage with the issues. Over the coming weeks we will be subjected to an awful lot of words about how in one way or another different parties are going to go about the task of rebuilding – of restoring, as it were, streets in which to live. Isaiah is pretty clear about the kind of actions and attitudes that will bring about such restoration: it’s not moralising or preaching – it’s getting on and doing, and most particularly it is watching for the vulnerable, for those who might suffer most. And those matters sit in the centre of some of the concerns we might wish to raise in the context of an election. Who, for example, in our present economic and social circumstances might be seen as the oppressed, the hungry and the homeless poor?
But here I am falling into my own trap! I’ve begun to talk about what others should be doing, how they should be behaving, and I might even be in danger of calling others hypocrites. I need to go back and look in that mirror again. I rather think that St Paul came quite close to the line at times too. In our passage he does rather go on about all he has suffered, his sleepless nights, beatings and the like, in a way that comes a bit close to a ‘look at me’ kind of attitude. But I rather suspect that Paul may have been on firmer ground saying that kind of thing than I would be. And he does then go on to get right to the heart, because he talks about ‘purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God’. Those are the kinds of things that are heavenly treasure.
The challenge then is in terms of the people that we are and the ways in which we behave, rather than rituals, practices or acts of piety. But that doesn’t mean that the rituals, practices and acts of piety are of no value. For rightly understood and practised, the rituals, the acts of devotion and piety are given to us precisely to help form the people that we are and the way in which we behave. O dear – isn’t it complicated?! Those things that help us to shape our faith and our living – even our acts of kindness, justice and love – can themselves turn into something that is paraded outwardly and gives rise to the charge of hypocrisy. Not easy – but then nobody said that being a Christian would be! One thing is certain: we will get it wrong – we will fall short. But thankfully something else is also certain: God is gracious and merciful – when we fall short, he delights to raise us up and restore us. May Lent remind us of both those certainties.
Sermon preached 18th February 2015 – Ash Wednesday – at St John the Baptist, Erith