Sometimes entertaining, albeit tiresome, a part of being a priest is listening to the various excuses, justifications and reasons people offer for not participating in the life of the church. These could be variously catalogued. But one year, long ago, I was walking through a library and came up a book that was intriguing: The Book of Excuses. I do not think the book is available any longer, but as you well know, making excuses is something that we all do. Sometimes it has to do with putting off exercise, or convincing ourselves that the extra helping of dessert is a good idea—
We all do it because human beings are fairly good at it. And sometimes our excuses are fairly complex and sophisticated. Like the one that I hear frequently enough which I thought about because of this morning’s gospel: it goes like this:
“I don’t go to church because I could not stand to spend a morning a week with all those hypocrites who gather there.”
Now, generally, when I hear that I am keenly aware that the person making the statement is largely unaware that a large part of hypocrisy has to do with what is called the sin of presumption.
Presumption is a singularly beguiling sin which is this: looking at another with harsh criticism without looking at one’s self. Feeling that one is in some way entitled, or superior over others, as though the rules really don’t apply. Or as they say in certain circles, taking everyone’s inventory other than your own. Sort of like the old Eric Clapton tune that has as its refrain “before you accuse me, take a look at yourself.”
What I have come to observe as a priest over these years is that there is an answer to that allegation. And the answer is this, which is based on pastoral relationship. So I try patiently to explain that I don’t really know any hypocrites. What I known is people’s difficulties and struggles. And since I am aware of these, I have come to see how it is that most of us struggle to do the best we can, under the circumstances we have been given. And those of us who gather here regularly have discovered how we rely on the grace of God to help us with those struggles and challenges. That requires overcoming fundamental human pride and hubris, and requires a certain amount of humility rather than arrogance.
It takes a certain amount of humility to admit that one needs a Lord and Savior, and to turn to Jesus and accept Him as your Lord and Savior. It takes a certain amount of self-emptying to put your whole trust in His grace and love, just as the poor widow did in the gospel today as she entered the temple. For while that incident has much to teach us about stewardship, it also has much to teach us about trust in God and God’s providence. And it has much to teach in terms of gratitude and thankfulness.
It takes a certain amount of humility to try to recognize Christ in another person, and to respect the dignity of every human being to the degree that you would wish that everyone would respect your own.
So, I don’t really know any hypocrites in Church, just folk who struggle and who have discovered that participation in the life of the community of faith helps them and helps to make us better people than we might otherwise be.
Now, the last several weeks we’ve had readings from the Epistle to the Hebrews. And that is a very complicated book. It is a very fascinating book, for although it celebrates a lofty view of Jesus as the high priest, after the order of Melchizedek, the exultation of the Lord Jesus springs from his total identification in humility with us. His exultation arises from his humility. We share in that humility when we realize that we need a Lord and Savior.
And what does Jesus save us from? That could be a long addendum. But the short course is this? What does he save us from—He saves us from ourselves!