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Psalm 26

Matthew 23.1-12

Hey!  Look at Me!

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

[Take selfie]

          “Go Pixel Yourself” is an installation art show currently on display in Boston that is billed as “a digitized dreamland for the selfie set.”  Artist John Carter has assembled a series of displays of both original art and “found art,” and arranged them in such a way that encourages taking selfies with the art.  His intent is to blur the line between the viewer and the art, so that the viewer actually becomes both the artist and the art at the same time.  “The participant becomes the artist,” Carter observed.  “The whole thing becomes sort of a Rorschach test of who you are and what you would do.”  I think Carter has craftily captured the desire of a cohort whose default mode is that the world revolves around the individual.   It only has meaning if it somehow says, “Hey!  Look at me!”

          Of course, this isn’t always a good thing, because most of the time the world does not revolve around me, nor should it.  As if to tell a cautionary parable, I read the other day that as of 2018, the latest year for which statistics are available, 259 people died in the process of taking a selfie.  Whether from the edge of a cliff, the brink of a waterfall, atop a vertiginous bridge, or behind the wheel of a moving vehicle, focusing a camera on yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time can be fatal.  One photo I saw, of someone who actually survived but had no business doing so, was of a young woman, sitting on the shoulders of her boyfriend, who himself was standing on the top of an abandoned factory’s 600 foot chimney shaft.  Got that? He was standing on the rim of the chimney while she sat perched on his shoulders, taking a selfie.  Accidental death while taking a selfie has actually become common enough to have earned its own name:  it’s called “selfiecide.”

          In the most recent issue of the journal The Christian Century, writer Katherine Willis Pershey plumbs the theological implication of our culture’s selfie mode by examining what she calls “the attention economy.”  “In an attention economy,” she writes, “one is never not on… since one is nearly always paying, getting or seeking attention.”  (Parenthetically, if there is a better definition of social media, I don’t know what it is.)  Pershey believes the current pandemic has only intensified the attention economy, as it had the effect of “abruptly collapsing our worlds into the glowing rectangles of our handheld devices.”  I have a friend who can’t wish someone a happy birthday on social media without including a photo of himself with the birthday celebrant.  Even when it’s about somebody else, it is also about him.  “It may be your birthday, but Hey!  Look at me!”

Still, lest we think this is something new that emerged with the development of the cell phone, the Bible suggests otherwise.  If our reading from Matthew sounded familiar to you this morning, it may be because we have heard it before – it is a bookend, if you will, to Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 that we read every year on Ash Wednesday.  It’s about the scribes and the Pharisees, or as Jesus also calls them, the “hypocrites,” who love to be seen praying and fasting and giving alms in the public square, regardless of their actual piety.  “They do all their deeds to be seen by others,” as Jesus describes the attention economy practiced by the Pharisees.  “They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places…”  Shades of Haman, right?  And I call it a bookend, because just before Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 are the beatitudes, “Blessed are the meek, blessed are the merciful, blessed are the peacemakers” and so forth; by contrast, right after this morning’s passage in Matthew 23, instead of a set of blessings, Jesus pronounces a set of curses, or woes: “Woe to you, scribes, Pharisees and hypocrites!  Woe to you blind guides!  [Woe to you who] have tithed mint, dill and cumin, but have neglected justice, mercy and faith.”  In other words, the scribes and Pharisees love to give the outward appearance of piety, but that’s as far as they’re willing to go. When the crowd is looking at them, they can do the ritual as well as anyone.  But when it comes to what really matters, their acts are empty.  It is all an act.  In fact, this is why Jesus calls them hypocrites, because the root word for actor is also the same root word used for hypocrite.  It is all an act, and they are simply playing their role in the attention economy.  When they pray and fast and give alms in public, the scribes and Pharisees and the hypocrites are all basically saying, “Hey!  Look at me!”

On Friday I sent you a link to an article that appeared in The New Yorker magazine last month.  It was written by environmentalist Bill McKibben, author of the book The End of Nature and founder of the group 350.org.   McKibben writes about a study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute that showed a surprising and significant drop in the number of Americans who identify as evangelical Christians, coupled with a corresponding rise in mainline Protestantism, an increase of 13% since 2016.  This is a remarkable turnaround.  For more than a generation, the mainline church had been losing membership to the evangelical church, a trend that has not only halted, but reversed.  There are at least two reasons for this, I think, and McKibben writes about one of them, which is the new generations’ commitment to a kind social justice largely missing from evangelicalism.  Whether it is directed toward LGBTQ concerns, social justice and equity, welcoming the refugee and the immigrant, understanding the marginalization of black, indigenous and people of color, and being intentional about mission and outreach, mainline Christianity has consistently outperformed evangelicalism at each turn.  And among people seeking fellowship with communities of faith, these values of community and justice in the light of God are at the forefront of their pursuit.

But I think there is another factor at work as well:  collective Christianity outperforms individualized Christianity.  Evangelical Christianity is primarily about the individual, about the self.  One of the characteristic catchphrases of the evangelical tradition is the question/challenge, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”  Full disclosure:  I attended a small evangelical liberal arts college – it occurs to me I haven’t really shared with you all my spiritual journey, I’ll have to do that some day, as it is a rather roundabout trip.  But when I was younger, if I heard that question once, I heard it a thousand times, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”  Notice that question is about the individual, about the self; “personal Lord and Savior” – it makes it sound like Jesus is some kind of religious personal trainer, a therapist, or perhaps a valet.  But the result is inevitably a church comprised of individual believers in Jesus at the cost of a community of faith.  Now yes, this is a broad brush I am using, and like any generalization it has its exceptions.  But when the emphasis is on the personal believer rather than on the collective community, the shared journey, then the entire notion of what it means to be a church breaks down, and people will begin looking elsewhere for engagement and meaning.

Deb Calamari read Psalm 26 for us this morning.  It is not one of the better known psalms, but like our passage from Matthew, it is not afraid to confront hypocrisy.  “For your steadfast love is before my eyes,” the psalmist sang, “and I walk in faithfulness to you.  I do not sit with the worthless, nor do I consort with hypocrites.”  And Deb also told us what is the antidote for hypocrisy, for the kind of false acting, the Pharisaism of those who go through the individualized motions of religious devotion without owning any communitarian commitment with those both like and unlike themselves.  The cure stands at both the beginning and end of Psalm 26:  it begins, “Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity,” and it concludes, “But as for me I walk in my integrity; redeem me and be gracious to me… in the great congregation I will bless the Lord.”   The remedy for empty hypocrisy is integrity, direct and honest engagement with the needs of world around us, both creation and our brother and sister human beings.

Faith that points primarily inward toward the self, toward the personal, is a faith that does not gaze out upon the world as God does.  I have used this painting before, but it is a powerful one, the Isenehim altarpiece created by artist Matthias Grünewald in the 16th century, the photo on the back of this morning’s bulletin.  It depicts the crucifixion of Jesus and features John the Baptist as a mute witness, pointing his finger, and thus directing the viewer’s attention, to the crucified Christ.  Now the painting is an anachronism, since John was beheaded years before the crucifixion.  But the focus is that John, the herald of Jesus, is pointing away from himself toward the Savior.  Pointing away from himself toward his savior.   It’s almost as though the artist is saying, “Hey!  Look at Jesus!”

In the end, I think what is true for individuals is also true for churches.  The churches that excel at mission and ministry will be the ones that don’t call attention to themselves, but rather point our gaze and our hearts toward God, toward God’s good creation, toward every one of God’s beloved children.

And, by the way, I see a lot of God’s beloved children in this morning’s selfie.

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