Sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas
January 4, 2015
Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a
Last Saturday, the Bishop Suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland was involved in a fatal car and bicycle accident. From what news stories are available, and from official sources, it appears that the bishop, Heather Cook, struck a cyclist, Tom Palermo, a father of two. The cyclist was in a clearly marked bicycle only lane. The bishop did not immediately stop her car, though by all accounts, her windshield was crashed in and there was a large dent on her hood. Some say that Bishop Cook returned twenty minutes after the accident, other says it was forty-five minutes. Other sources say that she only returned because other cyclists chased her down. The bicyclist soon died of his injuries in a local hospital. I am not a lawyer, but the case appears to be a clear example of a fatal hit-and-run.
In addition to this awful news, it has come to the surface that Bishop Cook received a DUI nearly five years ago for another distressing incident while she was still a priest. I am sure that some of you have heard these news reports, and some of the commentary attached to them.
The backlash against the Diocese of Maryland, the Episcopal Church, and indeed all of Christianity has been harsh and immediate. The internet has a way of quickening hate. There are a whole host of questions circulating. First, why didn’t the bishop stop after she struck the cyclist? It seems that “loving our neighbor as ourself” would mean stopping and helping. Second, how could she become a bishop after receiving a DUI? Shouldn’t such gross indifference to the law and safety prohibit someone from taking such a position of responsibility? Finally, there are questions about hypocrisy and corruption. How can the Church claim to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth if our leaders are guilty of such actions?
Of course, it’s not just this most recent incident with Bishop Cook. Charges of hypocrisy and corruption are levied against the Church and Christianity all the time. This is just another instance for those same charges.
So, the eyes of the world turn to us. Your co-workers, your family, your friends will ask you these questions. “Don’t you go to that church where that bishop killed that guy?” “How can you even believe that stuff?” “Don’t you know that you’re a hypocrite?”
We need to step back and start piecing it all together. The first thing the Church must do, in any situation like this, is not get defensive. We cannot become shrill. At the same time, we cannot pretend that these questions and incidents don’t matter. Because they do. A man was killed.
So we start with scripture. In today’s reading from Ephesians, we hear that “God destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will.” We are God’s adopted children by virtue of God’s eternal love. No matter what happens, God loves us. The blood of Jesus has redeemed Bishop Cook just as it has redeemed me and you. The crucifixion of Jesus was the adoption agreement between God and humanity. We are God’s children. There is no changing that.
But notice that, later on, we hear from the author of Ephesians, “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him.” As you come to know him. The letter to the Ephesians holds two seemingly contradictory ideas at once. We are God’s beloved children, no doubt about it. God loves us. And yet, at the same time, we do not fully know God. We are children who cannot do our Father’s will. Because we are still coming to know God.
This is the Christian struggle with hypocrisy. We are called by God to love others through the same spirit in which we are loved, but we never manage to get it right. In a way, when the world calls us hypocrites, they’re right. Not one of us could truthfully say that we are sinless. So yes, we are hypocrites – we want to proclaim the risen Lord Jesus, we want to love others in the power of the Holy Spirit, we want to serve the world in the name of God, but we screw it up all the time. That is why we say a confession of sin every single Sunday. Because we have to. Because we have to acknowledge our sin. Even on Christmas Day, the great joyous celebration of Jesus’ birth, we all got down on our knees and confessed. When people ask me, “don’t you know that you’re a hypocrite?” I say, “of course I do. That’s why I’m working on it.” There are only two ways to not be a hypocrite. One, is to not care at all. To have no love whatsoever in your heart for others. The other way, of course, to not be a hypocrite is to be one hundred percent love all the time. And that’s who Jesus was. That’s the goal, to be like Jesus, but any reflections on our own lives should be a stark reminder that we’re not Jesus. What I think separates us from the world is not a belief that we’re better than anyone else. Instead, what separates us from the world is our acknowledgement that we struggle with the power of sin.
The Church is the light of the world and the salt of the earth because we acknowledge our faults, our weakness, and our sins. Everybody else in the world wants to project power and perfection. We, in the Church, get down on our knees to remember our sins and to repent. We get down on our knees to say that we are powerless and imperfect. Even our leaders. There is no deacon, priest, or bishop that is without sin or without error. We are all still coming to know God.
This episode has opened up many questions about how clergy become clergy, and who is fit to serve as clergy. We’ll have to sort these questions out, and we won’t come up with any perfect answers. I am not trying to mitigate what happened last Saturday. I am not saying that mere confession of sin will make everything right. Because it won’t. Those responsible will need to be held accountable.
But the real mistake would be to walk away, to leave the Church or to leave Christianity. Rather, it is time to commit ourselves to making the Church better. To grow closer in our knowledge and relationship with Jesus. The world wants us to be cynics. The world wants us to stand on the sidelines and throw rocks. That would be the easy path.
The hard path is what the Jesus calls us to do. Jesus calls us to dig deeper into our souls, to allow God to open the eyes of our hearts, and to continue learning what it means to be a saint. For we are called to be saints. We are not there yet, and along the way we acknowledge our sinfulness, our hypocrisy, our own petty corruption. We take responsibilities for our actions.
Now that would be a great New Year’s resolution. A resolution to remember what Jesus said, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”
I do not know how this whole thing with the bishop in Maryland will play out. My guess is that things won’t get any prettier. That’s because sin is involved. And I’m sure some of you are scratching your head, wondering why I preached this sermon in the first place, why I raised this issue. You could have lived on in ignorant bliss. I raise this issue, and preach this sermon, because far too often we’ve seen churches shut their lips and allow their sicknesses to fester. In order to address our most pressing issues – issues of sin, hypocrisy, and leadership – we have to open the doors and shed light upon them.
But let me say this clearly and unequivocally – I love the Episcopal Church. Of course I am angry that one of our leaders could do such a thing, and of course I am heartbroken for the innocent man. But the fact that we’re dealing with this issue in the open, makes me love the Episcopal Church even more. We are a real church of real people struggling with real sin in the real world. And though it may not look like it now, I trust that God has destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.