Several months ago I caught a few minutes of live congressional hearings from Washington D.C. The hearings concerned possible illegal behavior by a very prominent former member of the current administration. In those few minutes I heard a lot of obfuscation and claims of memory loss by an employee of the person being investigated.
In the middle of all this an official-looking person, crouching low in an attempt to not draw attention to himself, awkwardly slithered to the witness table at the front of the room. He moved a name placard closer to the edge of the table, then slid a water bottle a fraction of an inch to the left. Apparently there is precise protocol for placards and water bottles at congressional hearings, and this guy’s job was to make sure it wasn’t violated.
I laughed out loud at the absurdity of it all, at the incredible disconnect between protocol and reality. In the mist of mountains of double-speak, calculated to suppress the truth, outward appearances were of utmost importance. To be clear, protocol does have its place. It provides structure and simplicity. Instead of spending time having to figure out for each congressional hearing where that pesky name placard and water bottle should be placed, time and attention can be given to weightier matters. But that moment of concern over correct placement was a vivid illustration that no amount of protocol can insure inward morality. The lies would continue while the placards and water bottles were kept in check.
Though there were no placards or water bottles involved, the gospel writer Matthew records a similar situation in Chapter 23. The whole chapter is a diatribe against the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, those who had set themselves up as the gatekeepers of God’s favor. They were extremely concerned about law keeping, even going beyond what was required, to the point of tithing a tenth of the herbs from their gardens. Outward cleanliness and ceremonial washings were vitally important. They lived lives of excruciating holiness, designed to impress, but Jesus was not impressed. He chastised them for neglecting more important matters, like justice, mercy and faithfulness. It was, he said, like making sure the outside of your cup and bowl are scrupulously clean, but never washing the inside, and continuing to eat and drink from them day after day, while the sludge and slime continue to build up. How absurd. How deadly.
We American Christians are living in an uneasy time, just weeks before an election that is the most bizarre in our history. We’re appalled at both candidates. No matter how this turns out, the future looks unsettled and frightening. The principles of freedom we were founded on are fading. We’re dealing with self-interested, power-hungry politicians, a biased media, and massive, wealthy funding machines, all with the goal of reshaping our culture. It’s easy to blame all of them for the mess we’re in.
But each of us needs to clean out the self-indulgence, selfishness and hypocrisy tainting our own cup and bowl. I hear a lot of voices telling me to pray for God to save America, and I think it’s mostly for the wrong reasons. We want God to save America for us, so we will be safe and comfortable. Safety and comfort has not been promised to us, and the loss of them, should it happen, doesn’t change our mission, as the body of Christ, to show Jesus to our world.
We worry about the loss of morality in our culture, about the absurdity of protocol trumping (sorry) inward goodness. But we need to deal with our own sins. The Christian community has spent a lot of time trying to restore morality to our nation, but a culture cannot be moral without being transformed by God’s grace and holiness. That transformation begins with us. People around us recognize a lack of integrity. They also recognize genuine love, humility, and grace.
So here’s a new protocol. Every day ask God to make you real, so you can love genuinely and communicate the great truths of God’s grace, forgiveness and transformation. Remember your mission. Run from the disconnect between outward behavior and inward reality.