"Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing"
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
October 30, 2016
University Baptist Church
It’s Halloween time. People are donning costumes and trying out their spookiness quotient. Dinkytown was certainly high energy this weekend with costumed students all around. Members of the bell choir asked if they could wear Halloween costumes this Sunday instead of ye olde bell shirts.
Lately, it seems that there are a lot of costumes around. I have seen a lot of Cubs paraphernalia and I even have seen some Cleveland jackets. Clown costumes, not so much, since people dressed up in clowns have done unspeakable harm in the past month. Stores are even pulling clown costumes because the fear is so great.
Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing. It’s a lot like saying beware of murderers in clown’s clothing. We could also say beware of sexual predators in billionaire clothing or beware of corporate shills in candidates clothing. Jesus tells us to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves. Sometimes when a candidate accuses their opponent of misdeeds, it seems to be a tactic to divert attention to their own shady conduct. I can’t imagine there are a whole lot of undecided people when it comes to the Presidential election. The real issue is people down ticket—who do the heavy lifting of the political machine. We can’t just have anyone doing those jobs. That’s why it’s so vitally important to vote. Too many people have given their lives for this right. We ought not to squander it.
And it is with this backdrop that we approach today’s scripture. The thing about scripture is that it will be here long after the current candidates have served their terms. It’s there as a constant reminder, a nudge in the direction of God when there is so much to distract us. Today’s scripture comes at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus ends his three-chapter sermon by saying beware of deceivers. He uses lots of metaphors for this: wolves in sheep’s clothing, grapes among thorns, figs among thistles, Good trees bearing good fruit, just saying “lord, lord” and thinking that’s enough, building a house on shifting sand. While there seems to be little hidden in our elections these days, we are still called to be discerning and intentional about our allegiances.
This week, I got a very nice letter from Ralph Reed. He included 100 “non-partisan” voter guides and invited me to use them in today’s bulletin. When I was interviewing for this position 16 years ago, I preached at another ABC church just before the presidential election. Sure enough those convenient little voter guides were in the bulletin. They show all of the fundamental Christian issues and where the candidates fall on them: “Abortion on Demand; Repeal Obamacare; Federal Tax Increase; Same-Sex Marriage; Common Core; School Vouchers; Amnesty for Illegal Aliens; Iran Nuclear Deal; Defund Planned Parenthood; First Amendment Defense Act.” All of the core Christian issues.
But the voter guide said nothing about climate change, racism, care for the poor, transportation, minimum wage, building peace. It was said to be Christian and non-partisan. I wrote to the faith and freedom coalition about this and told them I wouldn’t be using the voting guide, except right here. I encouraged them to include some of the other topics in future guides. I haven’t heard back from them.
I’m concerned that many people who call themselves Christians are not really Christian. Sure, they may have the name and the confession of a Christian, but the actions, not so much. Or if they are Christians, then they suffer from what William Barber calls heretical theology disorder (HTD). He reminds us that there are over 2000 verses in the Bible that call for justice, and guards against accumulating wealth at the expense of the community. If we were to cut them out, the Bible will fall apart. Beware of wolves in Sheep’s clothing.
Throughout this fall, we have focused on Micah’s words about what is required of a faithful person. Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God.
Last week we looked at the Great Commandment, that we are to love God with all of our heart, soul, strength and mind and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. In September, we looked at the Great Criteria that Jesus said whenever we have clothed the naked, visited those in prison, gave drink to the thirsty we have done it unto God and we will receive great reward. Consequently, when we ignore the poor, the prisoner, the hungry, the thirsty, then we have ignored God and will be liable to punishment. We hear in scripture that we are to welcome the alien—the foreigner, the refugee for we were once strangers in a strange land.
This is the theology of Jesus. It’s good theology. It’s the kind of theology that cares for the poor and the outcast, that inspires people to think grand thoughts of justice, that inspires great institutions like the ecumenical One Great Hour of Sharing that responds with tangible aid when there are natural disasters, and the work of national and international ministries that bring potable water to people. It’s the theology that accompanies the people at standing rock who oppose a potentially polluting pipeline. It’s the theology that advocates for racial and gender minorities and seeks to bring about positive reform.
But for as many of these that there are, there are others who wear the face of Christianity and make us cringe. They are the people who use their Christianity to foment racism or classism or sexism or heterosexism. They are the ones who hide their cunning behind clerical robes, or endorsements of well-placed religious figures. Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Today is Reformation Sunday. As he pounded those 95 theses on the Wittenburg Cathedral door, Martin Luther and others loved Christianity, but said that Christianity had betrayed its best intent. It had propped up institutions and eschewed the movement of God to make it more inclusive. Martin Luther said beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Many of us heard Anthony Ray Hinton speak on Tuesday night. He was wrongfully convicted of murder and spent 30 years on Alabama’s death row before being exonerated. He reflected on the world he saw in the 80’s when he went behind bars and the world he sees now. He said that racism is worse now that in the 80’s. He said we’ve just learned how to hide it better. He said that the racists of Alabama had traded the white robes of the Klan for the black robes of the Judges. Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Be better than them. Have better theology. Have more compassion and more wisdom and more mercy. William Barber said, “Extremist immoral policies create victims. We need to stand up to extremist immoral policies with extremist moral passion.” We need to stand up to hopeless fear with just mercy.
Jesus begins the closing words of the Sermon on the Mount by saying that there is a difference between saying things and doing things. We need to remember that our lip service is a good start, but it is nowhere near enough. It can’t be the ending point.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls us to enter by the narrow the challenging gate, the nonconforming gate. He calls us to do the works which are about righteousness. He calls us not to judge. He calls us to give to each other. He calls us to watch out for people who use religion to their own ends and not to meet human needs.
The Sermon on the Mount is not about right belief, but right action. We need to love our neighbor. That’s how we show God’s love. Not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord will enter the Kingdom of heaven”…but only those who do the will of God. The sermon is not about who God is, but about how we treat each other.
We know plenty of people who say "Lord, Lord" and instead of loosening the bonds of oppression they tighten them up.
We know plenty of people who say “Lord, Lord” and instead of setting the captives free, they imprison more people.
We know plenty of people who say “Lord, Lord” and instead of preaching good news to the poor, they ignore the poor whom we will have with us always.
We know plenty of people who say “Lord, Lord save me from the speck of wickedness which is around me” while the log in their eye blinds them to all other sight.
We know plenty of people who say “Lord, Lord” and persecute and judge and condemn those whom they refuse to understand.
And we say, “Lord, Lord, help me not judge too much either, but help me to love my enemies. Help me to know my persecutors and pray for them and with them. Lord, Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”
Sisters and brothers, it is important in our faith life, to not simply talk the talk and say “Lord, Lord”, but we must also walk the walk. We must do the work of reconciliation, the work of inclusion, the work of justice, the work of setting the captives free (even if those people have been the captives of tired old religion or a church experience which has closed them off to God's joyous creation). We are called to take that step and walk because we can. Walk because we must. Walk because it will usher in the great banquet of God.
Too many worship services are opportunities to say “Lord, Lord”. But if it stops there, then it is not truly worship, according to Jesus. Worship needs to be a time when we garner purpose for our lives and strength for the journey; when we reconnect with our foundation. Church ought to be about doing acts of justice and mercy and compassion. It’s how we see God. The church’s action ought to spur outsiders to say, "Lord, Lord. How can I participate in this kind of hopeful movement?"
Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light is calling on people of faith to show solidarity with the people of Standing Rock and their fight for water safety. They are calling on clergy to join them this week at Standing Rock and at the Hennepin County Sherriff’s office. Hennepin country law enforcement officials violently cleared water advocates off land near Standing Rock this past week. We need to do something more than say, “Lord, Lord, what a shame.”
Jesus even says that at judgment day, the seemingly righteous will say, “I prophesied in your name, I cast out demons in your name, I performed miracles in your name. Huge miracles”. But who gets served the most through the performance of a miracle or prophesying or casing out demons? Those things do not serve God and hardly serve neighbors. Those things serve themselves. And Jesus said to them, “I never knew you.” Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Instead, says Jesus, build our lives on a solid, firm foundation. One that will not be swayed by storms or heartache or pain. One that is stronger than floods of intolerance and injustice. One that is more powerful than the worst offense. One that is worthy of the name Christianity. One that is the true identity behind the mask. That’s what it’s about.
We come to church week after week to get a reality check. We come to church to get the tools to look at the world with unclouded eyes. To see through the false prophets. To garner strength for the journey ahead. And we have a firm foundation in our faith that loves God and loves our neighbor.
The Biblical foundations are love, justice, mercy and compassion. You can’t go wrong if you build on those foundations. But if you build upon the foundations of fear, of suspicion, of prejudice, of narcissism, you may just find yourself on sinking sand. And that serves no one. Foundations of mercy, of justice, of humility—that’s what it’s about.
But here’s the thing: The Sermon on the Mount says judge not lest ye be judged. I know that I am judgmental of judgmental people. It says do not be angry with your sister or brother. Easier said than done. It says do not look at another with lust—that means no objectifying anyone based upon their outward appearance. Who of us has not done this? When we do any of that, then maybe we are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Maybe we are bad fruit. Maybe we are thorns and thistles. Lord, Lord. Maybe when we withhold mercy then we are just as bad as the most merciless warmonger. Maybe when we know that we are right, we are not walking humbly enough. The strong stand of a life of faith is not right belief, but right practice. It’s doing a whole lot more than saying “Lord, Lord.” It’s actually acting counter-culturally. That’s what Jesus would have us do. So watch out for wolves in sheep’s clothing. Especially when we are looking in the mirror in our very best sheep outfit. Don’t become what you hate in someone else.
We are to be better than our worst moments. Oh, I know it’s tempting to demonize all of those wolves. It’s important to vote them out of office or prevent them from taking office. But we are also to not become wolves in this pursuit. Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God. That’s the real hope. It’s never a passive enterprise. It’s always counter-cultural. And it’s always good news. Beware and be better.