Thursday, November 17, 2005

Sermon: "Hypocrisy is Hip Again" (Delivered 11/6/2005)

[This sermon is inspired by the writings of Doug Muder, especially the sermon version of his "Red Family, Blue Family" essay.]

Reading: James 3:1-13, 17

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.

“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by Hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth comes blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh. Who is wise and understanding among you… without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy?”


You can always count on a good scandal. When I decided several months ago that I was going to preach on the subject of hypocrisy, I couldn’t help but wonder which scandal would surface for my use as a contemporary sermon illustration. As it turns out, this past week would prove to be rich in scandal considering it was a week in which the adviser to the vice-President would be indicted on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, a week in which the conspiracy and money laundering trial against House Speaker Tom Delay gained momentum as the investigation of insider trading against Senate Majority leader Bill Frist continued. And never mind the release this past week of the email correspondence of ex-FEMA director Michael Brown in which Brown, in the midst of the Katrina crisis, wrote emails cracking jokes about needing to be rescued, complaining of his difficulty finding a dog-sitter, and proclaiming, “I am a fashion god.”

I think hypocrisy may be defined as such: hypocrisy is a kind of insincerity, a claiming to believe things that you do not really believe. Hypocrisy is a kind of dissonance between our public words and private actions, between what you say should be done and what you actually do. And more to the point, hypocrisy involves a kind of tangible benefit – in which one derives honor or prestige or gain by claiming to have principles that one does not actually have.

If there is a lesson that I want for you to take away from Church this morning, it is that you should be a bigger hypocrite, because hypocrisy is hip again. Actually, that is not the lesson I want you to take away. I’ll explain this later on.

According to legend, we in this congregation have hypocrisy to thank for our being here today. And I don't mind telling this story, because it is not our own hypocrisy that we have to thank, thankfully. (The hypocrisy of others is always easier to spot and condemn.) According to legend, we as a church originally lost out on purchasing this land when it was bought by an evangelical church, whose pastor then turned around and left his wife for the church secretary, and left town with all the cash, leaving the church with a mortgage it couldn't pay and requiring them to put the property back on the market, allowing us to purchase it. How many of the ten commandments is that?

Of course, there is no commandment against hypocrisy, exactly. Hypocrisy is not a sin; it is more of an accessory, an enhancement, a bonus. The poet Matthew Arnold famously quipped, "Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue." What Arnold is saying is that while vice can exist anywhere, hypocrisy can only exist when vice exists amidst claims of virtue.

Claims of virtue invite hypocrisy. My favorite example of this is the author William Bennett. Bennett, as many of you know, wrote the "Book of Virtue." It was actually called the "Book of Virtues" and, checking in at an enormous 831 pages, it clearly had a lot to say about virtues. So, it was only fitting that the man who wrote the “book of virtues” would accumulate a reported eight million dollars in gambling losses. Now, Bennett is a wealthy man. After all, it was his many books instructing people in the practice of virtue, and condemning others for their moral shortcomings, that made Bill Bennett the type of guy who can easily afford to blow eight million dollars without having to worry about how he will feed his family. He was not gambling the milk money. And lots of people lose a million or two in the casinos: Pete Rose, Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, nameless business men in Armani suits... but Dennis Rodman’s autobiography is called “Bad as I want to be”, not "The Book of Virtues." Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.

So hypocrisy thrives amidst claims of virtue. So, it is only fitting that it would be found most pronounced among those who claim to be the most virtuous. It thrives amidst adulterous preachers like Jimmy Swaggart, and fraudulent and adulterous preachers like Jim Bakker, and preachers like Jerry Johnston, who had the nerve to preach to his flock about not cheating on their taxes while he himself was apparently over a year behind and ten thousand dollars in arrears on taxes he owed on his half-million dollar Johnson County home. He promptly paid up though; in fact he paid up on the very same day a reporter asked him about his unpaid taxes. (Now, if Jim Bakker or Jerry Johnston had been a little bit creative, they would have found a way to skip out on taxes legally, like Rick Warren did. From 1993-1995, Rev. Rick Warren paid not one single cent in income tax on his $80,000/year salary. He found a small loop hole for clergy and made it a big loop hole. And he got away with it. Of course, he had to win a Supreme Court case in the process, but that’s what you have to do when you’re doing God’s work.)

Of course, it is not just preachers who are hypocrites. There are politicians as well. In the last national election cycle there was a story out of Virginia that didn't get picked up by the media as one might have expected. The story involved incumbent Congressman Ed Schrock representing Virginia Beach, the same congressional district where Pat Robertson resides. Now, Representative Schrock earned atrocious ratings from gay rights groups because of his support of anti-gay legislation in Congress. The incumbent withdrew from the election at the last minute when it was discovered that he had a habit of making 1-900 calls to homo-erotic phone sex lines. Now, of course, neither political party has a monopoly on sexual misconduct, just as high stakes gambling can embrace both bad-boy athletes and former members of cabinet alike. But hypocrisy, hypocrisy is the sole possession of those who confess and profess a higher moral character. It is the tribute vice pays to that higher moral character.

Now, if my aim today were to instruct you not to be hypocrites, I could recommend two different courses of action. One course of action would be to tell you to be morally pure and ethically perfect. “Be ye perfect…” And, of course, you're not going to succeed, because who do think you are, Jesus? The other course of action, to perfectly safeguard you from ever being accused of hypocrisy, is to tell you to never make any sort of moral claim whatsoever, which doesn't of course mean that you need to live life full of vice. You might just as well live a life of model virtue, just don't say that's what you're doing and don't tell anybody else what to do either.

But, that's not why I'm here this morning. I'm not here to prescribe an antidote to hypocrisy, but to invite you to become hypocrites. Because hypocrisy is hip again, it's always been. Of course, that's not really what I'm going to do.

So, when I say the word "hypocrisy" to you, what do you think of? I would imagine that what you think of is something like the Jim Bakker's and Jimmy Swaggart's of the world. Or of the religious authorities we imagine Jesus rebuking for demonstrating showy piety but living lives of ethical shortcoming. I would imagine that you think of someone self-aggrandizing, arrogant, and holier-than-thou.

But I want to see if I can't suggest a different way of thinking about hypocrisy. What if we saw hypocrisy not as the emperor without any clothes, but something different. Unitarian Universalist Doug Muder, who is a political commentator and writer on culture, faith, and politics, writes, “[The Religious Right has] a fundamentally negative view of where the world is going. The Anti-Christ is coming. Armageddon is coming. Things are going to get really bad. And so, if Tom DeLay or Rush Limbaugh or Jimmy Swaggart get into trouble -- and they have -- that just shows how strong the winds of temptations are in this fallen society. It just shows how strong Satan is in these last days, [that even those paragons of virtue could stumble.]” [Scroll down to the June 03 entry] What Muder is suggesting is that scandals, paradoxically, often have the effect of strengthening and confirming people’s allegiances to their own biases. If it is your enemy that who goes down in shame, it just goes to prove how right you were to have that enemy. And if it is your own hero is the one who succumbs, then imagine how much worse your enemy would succumb to that same temptation!

Doug Muder argues that pointing out the hypocrisies of others is to engage in ineffective rhetoric. To paraphrase, “pointing out another’s vice has no ability to change them. Displaying your own virtue is the only thing that will change them.”

Thus, my invitation to you all to become hypocrites. Well, not actually. Thus, my invitation to you all to risk being hypocrites: My invitation to you to display virtue. To display liberal religious virtue. Because pointing out another’s vice has no ability to change them, but displaying your own virtue does.

A story from our tradition: the great Universalist minister Hosea Ballou was traveling along the road and got to talking salvation with a person traveling along the road with him. When Ballou admitted that he believed in Universal salvation and that there was no such thing as Hell, the traveler asked, “But if you do not believe in Hell, why do you not kill me and steal my horse.” Ballou’s response, “Because I am a Universalist the thought would never cross my mind.”

When I talk about this church, this faith in public, people will sometimes ask me, concerned, “Well, if you don’t all believe the same thing, then how do you get along?” “If there is no Hell, then what is the incentive to do good?” I say, we get along because we respect each other even though we do not all believe the same thing. We do good not for some future reward but because doing good is its own reward.

Although I feel that sometimes we internalize this notion of inferiority. Two years ago I was driving down 87th street and I decided I would drop in to each church and pick up their information on stewardship. I had a meeting with an officer of our church and I showed that individual the brochures I had picked up, comparing their challenging message about stewardship to our more relaxed message. And the officer says to me, “Oh, we can’t possibly ask like they do. We don’t have Hell.” But we would never, ever, say, “We can’t possibly help people to live ethical, principled lives because we don’t have Hell.”

Because we do help people to live ethical, principled lives. In this congregation we have amazing families. We have astounding kindness, understanding, compassion. We have passionate commitment to causes that make the world a better place. Our teenagers grow into these fantastic human beings with ethics and vision. Our children are the ones at school who speak out when a racist epithet or homophobic insult is spoken; they are the ones sticking up for the kid getting picked on, befriending the kid who is left out. These are our values.

Doug Muder writes, “the personal is political again.” By this he means that the everyday ways we live our lives are an expression of our deepest values and that we should choose to be out-spoken about the role those values play in our lives. This means that the conduct of our everyday lives, the virtues we embrace, and demonstrate, and live-by, if articulated, are a source of influence and moral force. How we take care of each other is a source of influence and moral force. How we spend time together as a family is political again is a source of influence and moral force. How we volunteer and give and serve the community is a source of influence and moral force. How we face the tough stuff life throws at us, and get back up again, is a source of influence and moral force.

So, I invite you to risk being a hypocrite: as you live out our values in community, as you walk the walk of justice and mercy, inclusiveness and love, don’t be afraid to speak up and say, “These are my values. These are my morals. These are my virtues.”