Wednesday, November 02, 2011
October 30, Proper 26, True-Type Characters (#5 in the Character series)
Joshua 3:7-17, Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 23:1-12
I’ve been a pastor for thirty-one years, and I still hesitate to call myself Reverend Meeter. It’s not the formality of the title that bothers me, or that I doubt that I deserve it (any less than anyone else), but I do feel ambiguous about it, and this gospel lesson is partly why.
I have always found it easier when the title was not in English. In my first parish in central Jersey I was Tiszteletes, which is Hungarian. In Ontario, I was Dominee, which is Dutch. In Hoboken I was called Padre sahib, which is Gujarati. When the youth group there wanted to call me something else, I asked them how they addressed their teachers, so they decided to call me Doc. In Grand Rapids it was often Dominee again. These titles all mean the same as “master” or “rabbi” or “father,” so they violate what Jesus says. But they’re foreign, and thus a little counter-cultural, and I feel them as less about status and more about affection and aspiration. I feel those especially in “Dominee.”
When I came here ten years ago, I said it didn’t matter much what people called me, except, again, the children should do as they did with their teachers. It had not occurred to me that the kids would address their teachers by their first names. That was unthinkable to those Gujarati kids in Hoboken, and it’s still uncomfortable to me, but it does not violate what Jesus says. We call him by his first name when we pray to him, and he’s the Son of God for heaven’s sake. Though he did let people call him “rabbi” and accepted Thomas calling him “Lord”.
I have never felt ambiguous about wearing a collar in public or vestments here in church. I have a special role in church, I have been appointed to an office, and as an officer I wear a uniform. Like a cop. My uniform makes me publically available. If I’m wearing my collar on the subway, very often someone asks to talk to me and I end up praying with them on the train.
Jewish men wear these phylacteries when they say their morning prayers. Inside the leather cases are fragments of the Torah, because when they put these on, they enter into their role as brides of the Torah. I can imagine the affection and the aspiration these things develop. It’s like dressing for your wedding or putting on jewelry for your lover. You’re entering a special activity, you’re going to play a role, you dress the part, like wearing the proper robe at a wedding feast, as we saw in Jesus’ parable just three weeks ago. You have been graciously welcomes into God’s sovereignty, so play the part.
There’s a little boy who lives in the apartment beneath us who has been shy of me till now, but this morning he held the front door open and he said to me, “I’m strong,” and he showed me the green plastic ring on his hand and he opened his coat and I saw his costume and he proudly announced, “I’m Green Lantern.” That's the power of aspiration.
In this series of sermons I’ve been using a theatrical metaphor for character development. You can think of your character as the role that you are writing for yourself in the unfolding drama of your life. There’s theatrical language in our gospel for today. In verse 5, Jesus says, “they do all their deeds to be seen by others,” and his term for “being seen”, θεαομαι, from which we get “theater,” suggests they’re putting on a show. But they would say, “That’s right, we are, we are being symbolic, in order to remind the people.” Doesn’t Jesus say himself, “Let your light so shine before men, that they might see your good works, and give praise to your Father in heaven.”
In the following chapter Jesus calls them “hypocrites”, and that too is theatrical, and not originally a negative. A υποκριτης was an actor or a player on a stage. You played a character, and your character was someone different than yourself, of course. In certain theaters you would even wear a mask. So when Jesus calls them hypocrites, he’s saying that they hide behind their pious masks, they’re putting on a show, they’re just acting. Sort of like Willem Dafoe playing Jesus in a movie — listen to what he says on-screen, don’t do what he does off-screen.
The point of course is your integrity of character. Your integrity. Your public face and your private soul. What you present and what you protect. Your “purity”, in the sense of being a single substance through and through. Can I be true to myself no matter what role I’m playing at the moment, or do I show different faces in different situations? Does it help to have a special costume underneath your clothes, and a secret ring upon your hand?
So, for example, if I wear collar, that suggests I am a man of prayer. But do I look like a man of prayer no matter what I wear? In social situations or at meetings, does my body language display that special mix of both energy and rest that comes with spending time in prayer? When I talk to people, does my manner display that special mix of courage and humility that comes with talking to God? How about you? Does your body language express your citizenship in the sovereignty of God?
We all aspire to be persons of such integrity. You are here because you want to have integrity through and through. You are hear because you want the way you act to be the way you are. You don’t want to wear a mask. And yet you sometimes feel like you have to, that if people really knew some things about you, then what would they think, and you might lose your position, or their esteem. You feel like you’re always having to compromise yourself to get through life. You don’t think of yourself as a hypocrite, but you feel like they make you wear a mask sometimes, and you have to be careful not to let too much out. Maybe your situation keeps you from being too much out, maybe you have to hide yourself, and this can take a toll on you. When I was a pastor in Ontario, we saw frequently that men who had been in the Dutch underground in World War II had major family problems afterward. They had learned too well to dissemble. Your own situation is probably not that bad, but the human condition is that we all need mercy when it comes to integrity of character.
Is the challenge a burden? Yes, a heavy burden, when you look at it. But when you accept it, and start to carry it, you discover this burden is light. This is that special burden that when you carry it, it holds you up. It’s not a dead burden, it has lift to it, it’s full of the Holy Spirit’s life and energy. It’s the special burden of the gospel, the burden of the Word of God, which both challenges you and comforts you, the Word of God. As St. Paul says in our epistle, these words that we read out and repeat and echo here each week, they are human words, but they carry the Word of God which is at work in you. You can trust that the Word of God is at work in you to carry you from your private to your public, to help you get into your role, to put your soul into your face, and to teach your body language to express your deep convictions.
This is why you learn the Bible stories. Not so much to study them, but to get them into your head, for God to use them to help you make those choices by which you develop your character, and also for God to use to comfort you when your frustrated in your choices and integrity. Yes, you should study the Bible too, but let me suggest you do that in a small group, where it’s less of a burden, like we offer here at Old First. But don’t ever read it too hard or too heavy — read it lightly, trust the repetition and enjoyment, simply to get familiar with the Word of God so that God can use it in your head, and God will.
Here’s what I can promise you: coming to know the character of Jesus will help you with the gradual integrity of your own character. And more, to learn the character of Jesus is to learn the character of God. And as the face of Jesus is inside your imagination, so much more the Spirit of God in alive inside you to develop you. The burden of your integrity is not on you. The burden of your integrity is on the love of God for you. So you may feel ambiguous about yourself, just as I feel ambiguous about being called “reverend,” but you can find your comfort and your certainly in the love of God for you. I can tell you that the way to have integrity of character, in and out, through and through, is to let yourself believe the loving Word of God.
Copyright © 2011, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.