I was asked to preach this Sunday, and so I went for it. Here it is!
In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the ill-fated prince assembles a group of players to act out a play that implicates the King in the murder of the previous King, Hamlet’s father. He says to them, “For
anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end both
at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere, the mirror up
to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image.”
In my experience, however, it is much easier to “hold the mirror up to nature” when you are not actually holding it up to yourself. Although I study theatre primarily, I don’t call myself an actor. I do act, but most of my work is in directing, so sometimes I am called, in service of the story, to make people aware of some of their acting habits. I have watched the actors in my program grow from freshman year to senior year; I have also seen them in class where their acting habits are brought into the light and smothered out of them. One actor has trouble in the upper register of his voice, another has trouble finding clear actions, and another has no sense a build in a monologue and scene. As a director, I am trained to pay attention to that and bring it to the actor’s attention if he or she is falling back into harmful habits.
This is always a weird role for me to play, because I am so aware of my bad habits as an actor. I actually have many of them. Its one of the reasons I don’t act as much. I can be immovable in my acting choices, stiff in the lower body, and unspecific with my arms. Often times, I have to tell an actor that she is doing the exact same things that I do. I always end up feeling guilty about that, because I hate getting direction. I’m really good at giving it, and awful at receiving it. I inevitably take it personally. “What do you mean, my character is unclear? What are you saying about me?”
Luke’s Gospel today is all about hypocrisy, and it has much more wide-ranging implications than my little anecdote about theatre training. However, that was my entry point into this lesson. When I am a director, I am in a position of power, and I feel like I abuse it when I give an actor a direction that also applies to myself, and it is that irony that makes it hypocritical. In the case of the Pharisee, he prays to God in the temple in a way that does not serve God, and the irony there lies in the fact that he is a religious leader.
It was the hypocrisy of the religious leaders in the Christian church nearly five centuries ago that led Martin Luther, a disgruntled Catholic priest, to post his famous 95 theses on a church door. We celebrate that today on Reformation Sunday, and I could not think of a better Gospel reading to stir us to action in a church that is sadly still broken. And although today is more about the Protestants, I sense I am called to talk about the Catholic tradition from which I come, a tradition that has been riddled with round after round of bullets of controversy, from extravagant spending to a particularly sensitive topic to Bostonian Catholics, the child abuse crisis.
Most recently, Pope Francis has dealt with one of the main public figures in the Catholic world in Germany, Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, also known as “Bishop Bling Bling”. He was recently suspended by the Pope on account of a massive renovation of clergy residences, poised to cost $7.5 million, and subsequently sextupling in cost (that’s times six).
Now, I am not suggesting that Pope Francis is going to bring about another schism in the church, but I think its important to note that he is taking on the powerful institution (ironically enough, that he runs) and the hypocrisy that has plagued it for years. This might not be the Reformation, but it certainly is a reformation. In light of the social justice impulse behind the Jesuit order of priests, in which Pope Francis is a member, Bishop Tebartz-van Elst is being extremely hypocritical, and finally the Church is paying attention.
Of course, it was Jesus who talked all the time about hypocrisy! You have today’s Gospel reading about the Pharisee and the tax-collector. You have Matthew 6.5, which also takes place in a church: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” You have famous metaphor of Matthew 7.3-5: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” I think Jesus is serious about this one.
For me, today is about the “protest” part of “Protestantism”. We need to stay engaged in the fight against hypocrisy in our church, like Martin Luther so courageously did nearly 500 years ago. But let’s first go back to the theatre metaphor really quick. Constantin Stanislavski, known as the grandfather of modern acting, was known to say, in regard to bad acting habits, “Awareness is the seed of all change.” My awareness of the hypocrisy of me giving direction to actors helps me be sensitive to the needs of the actor so he or she can stay in service to the story, in which case it is no longer really hypocrisy. All of this systemic change is only possible if we start from ourselves, and the first step is to just be aware of where in our life we do not follow what Jesus teaches, and with that awareness, we will actually be more equipped to join others in following his footsteps.