Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Hypocrisy, or, Ash Wednesday Chapel Talk 2016

One of the great things about having a Greek housemate is the unlimited opportunity for etymological discussion. ‘Hey, George, I know you’re checking out the female lead in Blindspot right now, but what IS the real plural of octopus?’ Of course, our most recent discussion (after my amused explanation of polyamory – he got the poly part, of course) revolved around the word ‘hypocrite’ as found in today’s gospel, derived from the Greek ὑπο, meaning ‘under’ and κρίνειν, which seems to have several meanings: to investigate, to discern, to accuse, to judge, to separate.

The common explanation for the derivation of hypocrite is that hypokrites was the term for taking part in a stage production – and that wasn’t always a good thing. It is said that Demosthenes ridiculed his archrival, Aeschines, for having been an actor, reflecting the general belief at the time that because actors were skilled at putting on and taking off various personas, they could not be trusted as politicians. Certainly, this is borne out by the 1980 American election and the fallout across the ensuing decades.

But I’m more inclined to play with the possibilities offered by ὑπο and, using the first person present, κρίνω. In the interest of time, I’ll only mention a couple: if we put ‘under’ (as in beneath, e.g., hypodermic) together with ‘I separate’, the implication is that ‘I separate what is under from what is above,’ – the essence of hypocrisy. But equally interesting is the idea of ‘under’ (as in lacking, deficient – e.g., hypothyroid) and ‘investigate or inquire’, meaning that ‘I under-investigate’: i.e., I do not investigate enough – bringing in the idea that a hypocrite does not explore his beliefs or motives as he should, leaving him lacking in self-awareness, unable to discern properly.

So hypocrisy is the separation of what is below from what is above driven by the lack of self-awareness created by not investigating deeply enough, leaving us unable to discern clearly.

In Matthew’s gospel, it seems we are being told to give, to pray, to fast in secret. At first glance, we may think, ‘Wait, what? What about proclaiming the gospel, going out and sharing the good news? Aren’t we meant to be a missionary people? What’s wrong with going public?’ Let us not be like the hypocrites: let us take the time to investigate and discern.

What is actually said?

  • So when you give alms, do not have it trumpeted before you; this is what the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win men’s admiration.
  • Do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them.
  • When you fast do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they pull long faces to let men know they are fasting.

In other words, the problem isn’t public observance, but the underlying motive for such observance: winning the approval of others; being seen as good; showing one’s spiritual superiority. Here, religious observance becomes a hypokrisis, a public performance for applause (later ‘play acting’); it is not what is true – and therefore, not part of the faith Our Lord gave us.

It is what we do away from the public eye, what we do when we are (or think we are) alone that speaks our truth: it is where we sob out our grief when we tell everyone we are ok; where we feel our loneliness despite living a desperately active social life; it is the 3am wakefulness where our true fears and anxieties find us, no matter how we keep them at bay in daylight. 

Therefore, give in private – when you mean it, pray in private – when you will tell G-d the truth, fast in private – when it symbolises something to you: because it is when you are most real that you will truly give, truly pray, truly fast. Like all things, true faith and its observance must begin from the inside out…it cannot be created from the outside in.

We are all hypocrites, because somewhere, whether we are aware of it or not, what we profess and what we actually believe are not congruent. We may not be a Bernard Law or a Jimmy Swaggart, but somewhere, we’re not telling the truth, even to ourselves.

And you know what? That’s utterly human. We are wired for connection, for approval, for love – and early on, most of us learn that being ourselves may not bring us the connection we need, but being something else will – so we split, become that which brings us what we think we can’t live without and learn to hide that which we think would deny it to us. Hypocrisy arises because we live in a world polarised: this or that, good or bad, insider or outsider. Our world isn’t one that holds the opposites and paradoxes inherent in and threaded through the wholeness of Creation; it is one that mistakes reductionism for elegant simplicity.

In the end, hypocrisy leaves us living lives divided, out of integrity with ourselves, with G-d, and with the world, disconnected and alone, because despite our hope, it is not we who are loved, it is the persona we have created – the one that at first seems our liberation, but then becomes our prison.

So how, then, do we move towards the truth that will set us free? Like the Boston Globe Spotlight team, featured in a recent film, we investigate tirelessly, digging for the truth, leaving no story buried in Metro, even when it seems unbearable. We come to G-d, our hearts broken, not our garments torn – knowing that a broken and contrite heart, He will not despise.

Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being/And in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom. 

And what might that truth look like? In the Blue Peter tradition of ‘here’s one I did earlier,’ I offer Sara Bareilles’ song written for Waitress, soon to open on Broadway, as an example (and, of course, as appropriate, swap ‘boy’ for ‘girl’, and ‘he’ for ‘she’):

It's not simple to say
That most days I don't recognize me
That these shoes and this apron
That place and its patrons
Have taken more than I gave them
It's not easy to know
I'm not anything like I used to be
Although it's true
I was never attention's sweet centre
I still remember that girl 

She's imperfect but she tries
She is good but she lies
She is hard on herself
She is broken and won't ask for help
She is messy but she's kind
She is lonely most of the time
She is all of this mixed up
And baked in a beautiful pie
She is gone but she used to be mine 

It's not what I asked for
Sometimes life just slips in through a back door
And carves out a person
And makes you believe it's all true
And now I've got you
And you're not what I asked for
If I'm honest I know I would give it all back
For a chance to start over 
And rewrite an ending or two
For the girl that I knew 

Who'll be reckless just enough
Who'll get hurt but
Who learns how to toughen up when she's bruised
And then she'll get stuck and be scared
Of the life that's inside her
Growing stronger each day
'Til it finally reminds her
To fight just a little
To bring back the fire in her eyes
That's been gone but it used to be mine 

Used to be mine
She is messy but she's kind
She is lonely most of the time
She is all of this mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie
She is gone but she used to be mine

Whatever your shoes, apron, place, and patron, whatever your ‘X but Y’, whatever you feel is lost - you are not either/or but both/and: melancholy and joyful; regretful and grateful; angry and compassionate; tough and gentle - all of these mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie: whether it’s cherry, pumpkin, pecan, apple and blackberry, shepherd’s, steak and kidney.

Sound messy, uncertain, uncomfortable? It is. But G-d has always been in the mess – as Terry noted a few weeks ago, we’re not meant to simply be neatly immersed in G-d, separate as a swimmer is from the water, but infused with Him, as water is with tea or chicken with a marinade.

Hypocrisy, like all sin, is slavery born of fear – fear of being unloved, fear of lack, fear of being hurt, fear of not being enough - and rooted in division. So let us stop separating and start investigating the whole, replacing fear with curiosity, bringing G-d all of us, allowing Him to infuse it. Only then can we fully be in a relationship of love with Him, and then, with others.

This Lent, let us take our first steps from slavery into the unknown, into the desert – worrying, complaining, afraid, with all our belongings and mess - knowing that we won’t be led by a seraph, an archangel, or a messenger – but by G-d Himself:

Why does G-d come Himself, Grandpa?

Ah, Neshume-leh, many people have puzzled over this question and have thought many different things. What I think is that the struggle toward freedom is too important for G-d to leave to others. And this is so because only those who become free can serve G-d’s holy purposes and restore the world. Only those who are not enslaved by something else can follow the goodness in them.

(excerpted from 'The Real Story', in My Grandfather’s Blessings by Rachel Remen – read the whole story for the background to the last paragraph)

This Lent, let’s go home.

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