Sunday, March 30, 2014

Difficult Paths -- Sermon for Lent 4

Mark 10:32-34


Jesus took the lead on their journey toward Jerusalem.  Perhaps he was in a hurry to get there, but the disciples lag behind.  They seem to be caught up in the moment.  It could be that this was their first visit to Jerusalem.  There in front of them was the big city and the Temple.  They’d heard about this Temple many times, and when they saw it in real life, it seemed even grander than they had ever imagined.  Remember they didn’t have cameras back then.  But it wasn’t just the grandeur of the Temple that grabbed them.  There were also the rumors that a violent fate awaited Jesus in Jerusalem.  Jesus had even brought up the subject himself.  So, it’s no wonder that they wanted to take their time getting to Jerusalem.  Because they didn’t know what lay ahead of them, they were filled with mixed emotions – both amazement and fear. 

When Jesus realizes that a gap was beginning to form, he stops and takes the twelve off to the side.  Then, for the third time, Jesus explains to them that path before them would be difficult.  He doesn’t pull any punches.  Yes, “the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit on him, and flog him, and kill him.”  If you were a disciple and you heard that message – how would you respond? Would you stay with Jesus or would you walk away?  Amazingly they stay with him.  

Perhaps it’s the glimmer of a promise of resurrection that emboldens them to continue, or it may be that they took comfort in their earlier hopes that Jesus would take power in Jerusalem.  

As Mark tells the story, it didn’t take long before the disciples began to dream big dreams.  Remember what James and John asked Jesus for?  They asked Jesus to appoint them to leading posts in his new administration.  “When you take over in Jerusalem could you put us in charge of the Departments of State and Defense?  We don’t want to be the one who gets left back at the office when you go down to the Capitol to deliver the state of the realm address.”  Of course, when the others hear of their audacity, they want to get into the act also.  After all, no one wants to be the last one picked! (Mark 10:35-45).  Yes, they quickly forget Jesus’ warning – after all who is going to sign up for a mission is sure to fail?  And so they clung to their vision of  God’s realm – one in which they got to have the seats of honor.

As I pondered this text and its message for us as a congregation,  I thought about the many difficult paths that members of this congregation have taken in recent months and years.  

Some of you have experienced a death in the family:  A child, a sibling, a spouse, or a parent.  Whether expected or not, death can be a wrenching experience for us.  

For others of you, this difficult path involves a battle with cancer.  Others of you are undergoing tests to see if cancer is present, and if it is then what treatments can be prescribed.  Then there are the chronic illnesses, like Parkinsons.

Others deal with mental health issues, something that we find difficult to talk about openly.   

For others it’s the daily challenge posed by the aging process – including dealing with chronic pain.  

There are others who have found that reaching mid-life has been difficult.  A rough economy has led to job losses, the difficulties finding a new job, and the fear that retirement will bring unforeseen financial challenges.  Besides these challenges, many “middle-aged” folks live sandwiched between concerns about both parents and children.  

Many young adults have found themselves saddled with student debt and a difficulty launching into their careers.  They have their degrees, but jobs are scarce in an age of economic stagnation. 

I think I’ve covered most everyone in this church.  The challenges may differ from person to person, family to family, but as a community of faith, we have faced housing crises, job crises, health crises, and relationship crises.  Some of our families have dealt with multiple issues.  As a pastor, I often stand in awe of the resilience I see in some of your lives.  The answer you all give is that it’s prayer and the support of the community of faith that keeps you going. 

It is in the context of these difficult pathways that are common to us all that I chose to view Jesus’ own path to the cross.  To put it in the words of a Robert Johns hymn: 

In suff’ring love the thread of life is woven through our care,  for God is with us:  Not alone our pain and toil we bear.

And then in the final verse of the hymn:

In suff’ring love our God comes now, hopes vision born in gloom;  with tears and laughter shared and blessed the desert yet will bloom.

In suffering love, God comes to us, bringing hope in the midst of gloom. [Chalice Hymnal, p. 212].

The message that I hear from Mark’s text is that God in Christ understands the challenges we face.  In his own experiences of suffering, Jesus brings healing to our souls.  From the earliest of times the church has interpreted Jesus’ journey to the cross through the lens of Isaiah 53, one of the Suffering Servant songs.

  4 Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. 
                                                                                          (Isaiah 53:4- 5).

In embracing the way of the cross, this servant of servants shares in our experiences of suffering.  He bears the effects of our transgressions and our iniquities.  And as he does so, he brings us healing and makes us whole.

As we read the New Testament, it is clear that the early Christians connected the cross to our salvation.  This has led some to believe that God punishes Jesus instead of us – sort of like kicking the dog instead of the child when the child misbehaves.  As I read these texts, I see something different.  I see in Jesus, God working to bring healing to our brokenness.  I see humanity throwing everything it can at Jesus, and Jesus overcoming our resistance to his offer of reconciliation. The key to this interpretation is the message of Easter.  Good Friday will have its say, but it won’t have the last word.   

Yes, there are different ways of understanding the message of the cross.  We find one interpretation here in Mark 10, where Jesus speaks of himself as the ransom.  In traditional ransom theologies, Jesus gives his life to the devil in exchange for our lives.  He does this because we sold our souls to the devil. There is something of this theory in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.   Aslan gives himself up to the White Witch in exchange for the life of Edmund.  As you might remember, death cannot contain Aslan, who experiences resurrection. There was magic far deeper than the White Witch knew of.  

It’s interesting that in Mark 10, Jesus doesn’t name a recipient of this ransom payment.  Instead, we’re simply told that Jesus has given his life “to liberate many people” (Mark 10:45 CEB).  

There’s another atonement theory that I think fits our conversation this morning.  Back in the second century, Irenaeus developed what has come to be known as the recapitulation theory. In this theory of the atonement, as Jesus goes through life – from birth to death – he undoes the damage we create in the course of our lives.  In other words, by living faithfully in relationship with God, Jesus overcomes our resistance to God’s promises and expectations.  In his life, as well as his death, Jesus perfects our imperfections – bringing us to maturity of faith.  This is a difficult journey, because it will involve a violent death, but death is part of our journey toward God.  It is the last enemy that must be overcome.  So, in Irenaeus’ vision, by dying on a tree, Jesus reverses the disobedience of Adam who ate from the forbidden tree. [In Cyril C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers, Macmillan Pub., 1970, p. 389].    

As we make our way down the path of life, we will experience times of great difficulty.  But the good news is that Jesus has walked this path before.  He understands our situation. He knows our suffering, and therefore God knows our suffering.  

But the key to this journey is found in the last half of verse 34: “after three days he will rise again.”  It is this promise of the resurrection that gives us hope.  In the resurrection death has lost its sting.  In the resurrection every tear is wiped away and death will be no more (Revelation 21:4).    This is the promise that sustains us in season and out of season.

Note:  The text for this sermon comes from David Ackerman's Beyond the Lectionary
.
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Fourth Sunday of Lent
March 30, 2014

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Time to Weep -- A Sermon for Lent 3

Luke 19:41-44


For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.  There is:

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance. (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4 NRSV)

For Jesus, as he stood on the hillside overlooking Jerusalem, it was a time to weep.    There is another occasion in the Gospel of Luke, where Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem.  When a group of Pharisees comes to warn him of a plot to kill him, he laments Jerusalem’s habit of killing the prophets and stoning those sent to it.  Jesus declares that he wanted to “gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing”  (Luke 14:31-35).

Five chapters later, as the procession into Jerusalem we call Palm Sunday is underway, Jesus stops to take in the view.  There lying in front of him is the city of David.  Standing in the center of the city is the Temple that Herod rebuilt and expanded into one of the ancient world’s greatest wonders, making Jerusalem an important site of pilgrimage and commerce.  Jesus should be happy.  He should be rejoicing.  But as he looks out at the city, he begins to weep, because the city is unable to recognize the presence of God in its midst.  Therefore, they will choose a path that leads not to peace or justice, but destruction.  

By the time that Luke writes this Gospel, the city of Jerusalem and its Temple will lie in ruins.  The wars against the Romans that lasted from 66 to 70 CE ended with the destruction of the city and its Temple.  But, it didn’t have to happen this way. Unfortunately, the people chose the wrong way and suffered the consequences.

   When Jesus weeps over the city, this isn’t merely an emotional response at a perceived loss.  This is a lament.  And according to Fred Craddock:
A lament is a voice of love and profound caring, a vision of what could have been and of grief over its loss, of tough hope painfully releasing the object of his hope, of mixed, of accepted loss but with energy enough to go on[Luke: Interpretation, p. 229).  
As Jesus continued the procession into the city, he ends up in the Temple, where he overturns the tables of the religious marketers hoping to profit off of the people’s piety.  Of course, before long Jesus will be arrested, tried, convicted, and executed.  Thus, another troublemaker will be out of the way.  Except that’s not the end of the story.

The reason that Jesus weeps is that the city seems blind to the presence of sin in its midst and its need for repentance.  He weeps because the residents don’t seem able to recognize God’s presence.  And that inability will have disastrous consequences.

  That was then, but what about now?  What word does Jesus have for us this morning?

  In reflecting on this passage this past week, my thoughts went to the city in which we all live.  And by city I mean the entire metro-Detroit region – on both sides of the divide between Detroit and its suburbs.  Two weeks ago we gathered at First United Methodist Church of Birmingham to participate in the Metro Coalition of Congregation’s Action Assembly.  During this assembly we heard updates and calls to action on the issues of health care, immigration, human trafficking, and regional transit.  We heard stories about real life people caught up in modern day slavery. We  heard stories about a broken immigration system and a health care system that works well for some, but not for many others.  We also heard updates on the efforts to finally create a truly regional transit system for Metro-Detroit.  In our time together, we asked the question – what would God have us do?

  A few days after this assembly, Pastor Louise Ott, Justin Erickson, and I met with Oakland County’s Deputy Executive.  We wanted to get his sense of where regional transit is going.  We wanted to know where the roadblocks are and how we can help remove them.  I’m pleased to say that it was a productive meeting.  We even offered our churches as sites for town halls in preparation for the upcoming SMART millage.

  What I heard from our Scripture this week is that Jesus weeps over the city.  Although Detroit has a grand history, there has long been a dark lining to this history.  Back when Edgar DeWitt Jones first came to town in 1920, Reinhold Niebuhr was serving as pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church.  Although Niebuhr would leave Detroit in 1928 for Union Theological Seminary, where he became one of America’s leading theologians and social ethicists, during his time here he spoke out clearly against the presence of injustice in the city.  He also spoke against the complicity of the churches in this injustice.

  During his time in Detroit, Niebuhr kept a journal, which he published after his move to New York.  It’s called Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic  As he served Bethel Evangelical Church, he became disturbed by the inhumane conditions endured by the factory workers building cars for a growing middle class.  He was also disturbed by the unwillingness of the city’s clergy to stand with the unions in pursuing better wages and more humane working conditions.
  He wrote this in 1926:    
I wish that some of our romanticists and sentimentalists could sit through a series of meetings where the real social problems of a city are discussed. They would be cured of their optimism.  A city which is built around a productive process and which gives only casual thought and incidental attention to its human problems is really a kind of hell. Thousands in this town are really living in torment while the rest of us eat, drink and make merry. What a civilization!  [Niebuhr, Reinhold (2013-04-16). Leaves From The Note Book Of A Tamed Cynic. (Kindle Locations 1133-1136).]
Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem because it failed to heed the voice of God.  On this day in March, as we continue our Lenten journey, what is Jesus saying to us?  What responsibility do we have for changing the realities of our neighborhood, so that it is not “a kind of hell” where “thousands in this town are really living in torment?”

The causes of this hellishness might be different today than in Niebuhr’s day, but I believe that Jesus continues to weep over cities, states, nations.  Wherever injustice is present, where war rather than peace reigns, Jesus will weep. So how should we respond?

On another occasion Niebuhr wrote the following –  perhaps in frustration from being at too many conferences where religious leaders talked about doing the right thing, but never moving toward action.
Sermon after sermon, speech after speech is based upon the assumption that the people of the church are committed to the ethical ideals of Jesus and that they are the sole or at least chief agents of redemptive energy in society.
But, Niebuhr complained that too often we stay with general ideas and don’t move toward specifics.  Of course, when it comes to offering specifics:
If that suggestion is made, the answer is that such a policy would breed contention. It certainly would. No moral project can be presented and no adventure made without resistance from the traditionalist and debate among experimentalists.
Niebuhr was a realist.  He was also a doer.  It wasn’t enough to talk about ideals when there’s work to be done.  Yes, there might be resistance.  The preacher might get some flack.  But we must move to specifics.  That was the message that Martin Luther King gave to white clergy as he sat in a Birmingham jail.  Now was the time for action.

Detroit is in trouble, but so are the suburbs.  The trouble may not seem immediate out here, but we’re all in this together.  One of the possible bridges to a new day for the people of Metro-Detroit is the creation of a truly effective and affordable public transit system.  It will benefit young adults who want to live in the city.  It will also help residents of both the city and the suburbs get to their jobs in an efficient and effective manner.  It’s even friendly to the environment.  The question is – are we listening to each other and as we listen to each other, are we recognizing the presence of God in our midst?  And if we do, are we willing to follow God’s pathway to peace and justice in our world?  

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
3rd Sunday of Lent
March 23, 2014

Sunday, March 16, 2014

No Signs for You -- Sermon for Lent 2

Matthew 12:38-42


When I plan out my sermon schedule, I decide upon a text and then try to come up with a good title. Then, when I actually sit down to write the sermon, sometimes a few months later, the direction the sermon takes may have changed.  So, when I read this passage, a famous phrase from Seinfeld came to mind.  Remember the Soup Nazi?  He made great soup, but he was very particular about how you ordered the soup.  If you ruffled his feathers, he would say: “No soup for you!”  

In reading this passage some months ago, I heard Jesus saying to the religious leaders in his audience, who came to him asking for a sign, “No signs for you.”  What I originally heard in this text was the demand that many make on people of faith to prove the existence of God.  That can be a very intellectual pursuit.  Theologians and philosophers from Anselm to Aquinas to Kant, have expended a lot of energy trying to prove that God exists.  And when they’re done, the God they offer us can be abstract and lifeless.  It’s hard to have a relationship with the “Ground of Being.”  

In this case, the religious leaders weren’t demanding proof that God exists.  They wanted proof that Jesus spoke for God.  They wanted confirmation, which would include miraculous deeds like healings.  It’s not that Jesus didn’t offer them signs, they just weren’t satisfied with the ones he’d given them.   Since Matthew isn’t shy about offering up miracle stories, I can hear in this passage an impatient Jesus asking these inquisitors: “What more do you want?”  Only an evil generation keeps coming back wanting more evidence.  You have enough evidence, so make your choice – will it be God or not?

That is part of the story, but there’s more to it than that.  Jesus points us to two biblical stories. First, there’s Jonah and Nineveh.  Then there’s the story of the Queen of Sheba.  Jonah is the reluctant prophet who ends up in Nineveh, preaching to a people he despises, only to see them repent and follow God.  As for the Queen of Sheba, she comes to Solomon, seeking wisdom - a wisdom Solomon’s own sons reject.  Now, standing before them is a person greater than either Jonah or Solomon.  If Nineveh answered the call and the Queen of Sheba answered the call, why can’t they heed his voice?  

Once again, we need to be careful in how we read this passage.  It’s very easy to read it in an anti-Jewish manner.  We can find ourselves blaming the Jews for not believing in Jesus, while Gentiles embraced him.  So, if we can steer clear of that kind of interpretation, this passage may have something important to say to us.  

Last week we talked about self-examination.  That is an important part of our Lenten journey – looking inside, underneath the masks we all put on.  In this reading, we hear a question about our ability and willingness to hear the voice of God.  Can we, as Christians, become complacent and fail to heed the voice of God?  Or, are we looking for signs in the sky? 

Jesus isn’t interested in engaging in “apologetics” – trying to prove God exists.  Arguing with the likes of Richard Dawkins isn’t a pressing concern.   While there still are plenty of “cultured despisers” out there, the more pressing concern today is whether the church has something valuable to say about God.  

Rather than look to the philosophers, we might want to look at someone like Pope Francis.  He just celebrated the one year anniversary of his election to the papacy, and over the past year he has changed the face of the Catholic Church.  It doesn’t matter what your religion is – Francis has inspired people with his warmth, his compassion, his humanness.  

There is a lot of concern in Christian circles about the decline of the church.  Increasing numbers of people, especially younger people, have either left the church or ignore it.  Most of the folks who fit into the category that survey-takers call “the Nones” don’t reject the idea of God’s existence.  Many of them are quite spiritual in orientation.  They just don’t see the value in religious institutions, especially ones that they think exclude people because of their ethnicity, their socioeconomic status, their gender, or their sexual orientation.

  Forty years ago, church growth gurus declared that conservative churches were growing because they had very definite doctrines and expectations.  It is true, that many conservative churches grew by making very clear distinctions about what was true and what was false.  But, that’s changing.  It’s not that liberal churches are growing, but conservative ones have begun to see decline in their numbers, especially among people under forty.  

Why are the churches experiencing decline?  Well, liberal churches fell into the trap of privatizing their faith so they wouldn’t offend anyone.  They embraced the idea that religion, like politics, isn’t appropriate in polite company.  Conservative Churches have begun to decline because their message no longer resonates.  Many people simply aren’t attracted to places that claim to have all the answers, deny scientific truths, limit the roles of women, and exclude people because of their sexual orientation. 

One of the reasons why Pope Francis is so popular, especially among younger people, whether Catholic or not, is because he exudes a sense of openness to the world.  His decision to live in a monastery rather than the papal apartments, or his decision to wear ordinary shoes rather than red papal shoes are signs that he gets the concern about hypocrisy among Christians. 

 I recently finished reading a book by Ken Wilson entitled A Letter to My Congregation.  Ken is the pastor of the Vineyard Church in Ann Arbor.  What is important about this book, and Ken’s ministry, is that he has come to the conclusion that the church is called to fully embrace gay, lesbian, and transgender people.  What makes the book and the ministry somewhat unique is that he is an evangelical. He came to this understanding in large part due to his pastoral work, which led him to rethink his interpretation of scripture and beliefs about gay folk.  He began meeting with parents whose children are gay and lesbian, as well as gay and lesbian Christians.  They wanted to know – does God love me for who I am?  Besides the pastoral side of things, there was the missional element.  He realized that his congregation, though it did pretty well reaching out to younger people – it’s very contemporary in its worship – the congregation was aging.  He realized that in a place like Ann Arbor, having a policy that excluded people who are gays undermined the mission of the church.  Wilson concluded:
Causing an unnecessary disincentive to follow Christ is a serious offense, at least as serious as failing to uphold a moral good.  It would be easy to ignore or dismiss this concern if I didn’t think it had substantial merit. [A Letter to My Congregationp. 50.]
The way the church treats LGBT people is only one issue among many.  There is also the issue of science and climate change.  There’s the place of the poor, the immigrant, and the disabled. 

Years ago the movie The Elephant Man made a significant impression on me.  The movie tells the story of John Merrick.  Like many films this one takes considerable license, even changing Merrick’s name from Joseph to John.  One of the most compelling moments of the film came when Dr. Treves, who had come to examine this man who society saw as a freak and even a monster, overheard John reciting Psalm 23.  What made this remarkable was that Dr. Treves believed that John was so intellectually disabled that he couldn’t speak.  What was the message that I heard?  It was that a man whom society considered expendable and an object of disgust was in truth a man of great intelligence and compassion.  Therefore, I heard the message that we should always value people, no matter their intellectual capacity, their looks, or their ethnicity.  It would take me much longer before I could add sexual orientation to that list.

     Although there are those who struggle with intellectual questions about the Christian faith, more often than not, the questions that inquirers have on their hearts and minds have more to do with our behavior.  As Stacey Simpson Duke, another Ann Arbor pastor, puts it: “We do not need more evidence; we are the evidence.”  It is “our regenerated lives” that “are the sign of Jonah: Christ crucified and raised” [Feasting on the Gospels--Matthew, Volume 1,  1:336].  Yes, that is the only sign we need!!   

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Words of Woe -- Sermon for First Sunday of Lent

Matthew 23:27-36


Can we find good news in words of woe?  If you’re a fan of a softer, gentler, smiling hippy Jesus who preaches peace and love – all the time – then you might be glad that the Revised Common Lectionary tends to skip over texts like Matthew 23.  But, as we begin our Lenten journey, I decided to turn once again to David Ackerman’s alternative lectionary, which invites us to consider some of the darker and heavier texts. The season of Lent is a good time to hear texts like this.  Lent invites us to consider the darker side of our lives. In Matthew 23, Jesus offers seven “words of woe,” two of which we’ve heard this morning.   

This word of judgment comes after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  The crowd that gathered around Jesus is excited.  They’re hoping Jesus will turn the tables on their oppressors – just like he turned the tables on the marketers in the Temple.  He’s already debated one group of religious leaders – the Sadducees.  Now he addresses a group of legal scholars and holiness preachers who’d come to take him on.    Jesus responds to their challenge with a seven-point sermon, in which each point begins: “Woe to you Scribes and Pharisees, Hypocrites.”   As I read this passage, a song from Godspell came to mind.  Maybe you remember it.  It’s entitled  “Alas for you.” 

Alas alas for you Lawyers and pharisees 
Hypocrites that you be 
Searching for souls and fools to forsake them 
You travel the land you scour the sea 
After you've got your converts you make them 
Twice as fit for hell! As you are yourselves! 

As the song continues, Jesus mentions the prophets whom God sends, but whom they ignore and even kill. It’s a hard driving melody that brings out the intensity with which Jesus confronted the religious leaders of his day – and perhaps religious leaders of our day. 

According to Jesus, these religious leaders are like white washed tombs – pretty on the outside, but nothing more than a pile of rotting bones on the inside. It seems that they’re hoping they can cover the foulness of spiritual death that envelops them with monuments to the very prophets they murder.   

Of course, if you read on from here, you will discover that Good Friday is only a few days in the future. Because they won’t own up to their own complicity in these earlier acts of violence, they will continue the tradition by murdering the one who is speaking to them.  The same can be said for us.  Jin S. Kim, the pastor of Church of All Nations in Minneapolis has written this helpful commentary on the seventh woe:
In America, for example, people are fond of saying “our Founding Fathers” when discussing the admirable parts of history, but quickly exempt themselves from the genocide of Native Americans and the chattel slavery of African Americans.  Brutality and inhumanity are also at the heart of our founding and history.  Real leaders, according to Jesus take collective responsibility for the good and the bad. [Feasting on the Gospels--Matthew, 2:222].
This is an important point, though we must be careful how we make use of it.  Pastor Kim is right – good leaders must take responsibility for the good and the bad, but Christians have a history of using passages like this to demonize and brutalize Jews.   So, keeping in mind the history of Christian interpretation of this passage, I’d like us to consider the meaning of the word hypocrite, which stands out in this barrage of woes.
I looked up the word “hypocrite,” in the Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary.  They offer two primary definitions.  First, a hypocrite is “a person who puts on a false appearance of virtue or religion.” Second, a hypocrite is  “a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings.”  That is, a hypocrite is a person who isn’t authentic.  They hide their real identity behind false piety.  Consider that the prophet Amos pronounced judgment on Israel, because “they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals -- they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way” (Amos 2:6-7 NRSV).  Yes, they are pretty on the outside, but dead on the inside.

Do you remember the story of the “BTK” serial killer?  Over a period of nearly twenty years he tortured and murdered at least ten people.  He also served as president of his congregation and as a Cub Scout leader.  I don’t think any of you are serial killers, but how can we know for sure?
I can assure you that I’m not a serial killer, but as a religious leader I can identify with the Scribes and Pharisees.  People tend to expect religious leaders to be pious, so hypocrisy or inauthenticity is a professional hazard.  I know pastors who wouldn’t dare go to the grocery story without wearing a tie and jacket, because they might run into a member of the congregation. So, sometimes religious leaders feel like they have to put on a spiritual mask, because “being yourself” might not be acceptable.  I do try my best to be authentic, but I don’t reveal everything – not even on Facebook.  
So what Word does God want us to hear from this passage of scripture?    
Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr offers a helpful word in his book Immortal Diamond.  He talks about the difference between the “true self” and the “false self.”  The “true self” has to do with the soul, which is “who you are in God and who God is in you” [p. 16].  This “true self” begins with our “divine DNA,” or inner destiny.  It’s what makes us who we are, and it’s a gift from God.  We don’t create it or earn it, but we must uncover it.   
 Unfortunately, we tend to take short cuts.  We don’t give our “true self” room to emerge and blossom. Instead we put on masks and present that face to the world, because we think that’s what those around us want to see.  So, when it comes to religion, we put a pious face.  That face, however, is our “false self.”  
Now, we all have a “false self.”  It is, according to Richard Rohr, our “small self.”  It’s our “launching pad.”  It’s body image, job, education, clothes, money, car, sexual identity, and success – just to name a few.  “These are,” he writes, “the trappings of ego that we all use to get through an ordinary day?” (p. 28). The false self isn’t necessarily bad or evil; it’s just less than our real identity.

Now, I need to say that neither Richard Rohr nor Jesus are suggesting that we just let it all hang out. This isn’t permission to say to say whatever you want, whenever you want.  Remember Paul said that while “all things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial” (1 Corinthians 10:23).    

Rohr wrote that the “false self” is our “launching pad.”  It’s where we start, but hopefully, as we mature in faith, though not necessarily in age, this false self will begin to die away. That is, as we grow in faith, we can put aside the mask of piety.  Paul said something similar about the veil that Moses used to cover his face.  He had originally used it because his face was so radiant it blinded people, but he kept it on long after it faded, because he was afraid they would think less of him (2 Corinthians 3:13).

       This Lenten journey that we are embarking upon is an invitation to do a bit of self-examination.  In the seven woes, Jesus invites us to look behind the veil, so we can find our true self and let go of the false self. 
Why should we do this?  At a time when growing numbers of people are either walking away from the church or just avoiding it all together – especially younger adults – one of the biggest complaints is that religious people – that’s us – are hypocrites.  Or, to put it a bit differently, people are looking for authenticity, and they don’t seem to be finding it among self-professed religious people – especially in the church. Now, it’s true that authenticity is difficult to nail down.  But, the question is – when people look at us, do they see God in our lives?  Do they see compassion, love, and grace, or do they see judgmentalism and self-righteousness? 
The good news is that in Jesus, God has shown us grace, so that we might emerge from behind the veil and let the light that is Christ shine through us.