Pentecost 23, Proper 25C

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

One of the most amusing maneuvers in the world of political communications is the “Non-apology Apology”.  I’m sure you’ve heard them.  Some politician gets caught in a gaffe.  They’re overheard saying what they really think about their opponent.  When public pressure begins to mount, they offer a half-attempt at the appearance of an apology and say something like, “I’m sorry if I offended anyone.”

It’s not that they’re sorry for what they’ve said.  They don’t really see a problem with what they’ve said.  They just wish they weren’t having to live with the repercussions of their actions.

It’s a “Non-apology Apology”.

This morning, in the gospel lesson, we hear something very much like that in its style: “Ungrateful ‘Thanksgiving’”.

The Pharisee of the parable - supposedly a holy man - isn’t really grateful so much as he is bragging.  Bragging about all the pious things he does.  Bragging that he’s better than others.

It’s a bit of a silly prayer, because God knows not only all that he does, but all that is in his heart.  And his prayer tells us that it’s not really gratitude.

Last week, the message we heard was to “pray always and not to lose heart.”  But this week we hear that there’s a way that we do these things.

Yes.  We should talk to God.  More importantly, we should listen for God.  But until we figure that out, talking is a decent place to start.

But it’s not enough just to talk.  It doesn’t make sense to try to play politics with God.  It doesn’t make sense to try to reason with God, or to convince God of your way of seeing the world.

It’s true that we will all, at one time or another, probably argue with God, but that’s another matter entirely.  Where we go wrong is when we try to manipulate God.  It’s the most futile pursuit we might ever attempt.

One of the truths we hear from Jesus over and over again is that he has no time for hypocrisy - particularly among the pious.

False gratitude is a particularly insidious kind of hypocrisy.  The Pharisee knew that God required and expected gratitude, but the only gratitude he could muster was for himself: for how good he was; for how superior he found himself to be.

He wasn’t actually grateful to God.  He only tried to appear to be.

But God knows what is in our hearts.

That’s interestingly also one of the convictions we hear over and over again from people outside the church.

When I was first learning to preach, my mentor gave me an invaluable little bit of advice that I still take to heart.  She told me to never lie.  Never try to preach something you don’t really believe, because the congregation will recognize it instantly, and they won’t forgive you.  Never try to tell them what you think they want to hear in favor of what you think they need to hear, because they’ll stop believing you.

Don’t be a hypocrite.

It may seem like simple advice, but it’s worth remembering.  And not just for those of us who are called to stand in this pulpit and to preach, but for all of us who are called to share the love of Jesus with the world we inhabit (and that’s all of us).

One of the surest ways to drive away potential visitors to the church is for us to lie to them.

People have well-honed, built-in hypocrisy detectors.  Sadly, for too much of our history, we in the church have given people outside of the church too many reasons to need them.

I remember the story my father tells of one year when he was growing up: the First Baptist Church in town was holding its annual revival.  They decided to go around the countryside around the town trying to rouse up all of the heretics and backsliders to bring them to the Lord - which, of course, meant to bring them to the church.

A group of parishioners visited the home of one of the town’s most notorious “sinners”.  If Hance Koon had ever been to church, no one could remember it.

The good people of First Baptist Church put on the hard sell.  They told Hance about all of the rewards that awaited him in heaven.  They told him about how God so loved the world that He gave up his only Son, Jesus, to death on the cross.  They told him about the eternal damnation and punishment that awaited him if he failed to come along.

After all the arguments had been made, one of the men asked him, “Now Hance, don’t you want to come with us and be a Christian?”

Hance leaned back and put his feet up, he lit a cigarette and said, “I could haul every Christian in the First Baptist Church to the edge of town in a two-wheel wagon.”

Like most people we encounter today, Hance had a well-honed, built-in hypocrisy detector.

The church may have been full, but Hance suspected it was really empty.  He knew that these people weren’t really in it for God, even for Hance.  They were looking to make themselves feel good, and he wanted nothing to do with it.

As we interact with the world around us each day; as we each do our part to try to make this church grow and to help it succeed, we’d be wise to remember the story of Hance Koon.  We’d be wise to remember the story of the hypocritical Pharisee.

The people demand more of us, and so does God.

Fake apologies won’t work in politics.

Fake gratitude and conditional love won’t work in the church or in the world.  God and God’s people will see right through it.

Real Christians first have to be real - both in our prayer, and in all the rest of our lives.  Nothing less will do.  Amen.