St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 8th Sunday after Trinity, August 2, 2020
“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits.”
HOW DO YOU KNOW when a politician stops lying? His lips aren’t moving. We are in a season of political choice, and the candidates and incumbents are lining up to display their wares. What they sell are their images, words, claims and accusations. Our job is to tell whose stated goals and positions are closest to our own, and who looks like they can get the job done. But who can tell for sure? How often have you voted for candidates, and those political animals, once they were in office, quite literally changed their spots.
George Orwell said, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Winston Churchill said: “Men stumble over the truth from time to time, but most pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened.” He’s onto something: candidates who tell the truth are often not electable. People don’t want the truth. People want promises.
It’s important that we tell each other the truth, if we know it. By what we say is true, we guide others, shape others’ worldviews, opinions and understandings. Start a false rumor and those lies spread like, well, the coronavirus. I’ve been subject to rumors and untrue opinions. I even been sued for what was an outright lie. In seven years of legal battles, I proved I’d been telling the truth. And what did the judge do? Let the two sides opposing me blame each another, then made sure I lost the case.
1956 brought a TV game show featuring a panel of four celebrities and three unknown contestants. It was called To Tell the Truth. The unknown people all claimed some fantastic accomplishment. Two of them were imposters. The third had to be discovered by the panel’s questions. Everyone could lie except the real guy. It was fun. It showed how easy it is to believe someone who’s outright lying.
A liar in the family, or among friends or colleagues and peers, is trouble. Proverbs says that “six things doth the LORD hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.” Prov 6:16-19 So, of the seven things God hates, two or more involve lying.
Jesus warned us of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I believe sheep’s clothing doesn’t mean a sheep-suit, the costume of a big lamb. It means a coat made of sheepskin, wooly for warmth: the garment worn in cold weather by shepherds. Jesus was warning us—not about our fellow sheep, though we certainly are harmed by a friend who is treacherous—but about evil shepherds, false prophets who come like wolves dressed as shepherds to fool you into following them to the slaughter. A leader is able to harm his followers far worse than their friends.
So, how to tell? True or false? Things said convincingly may cause us to believe a lie. You know that bears don't have any taste buds, right? Well, if your red flag just went up, good for you. Bears can taste, and you probably taste good to them. You’re smart. Let’s see if you know these:
Pythons can live for over a year without food. True or false? True.
True or false: on average around 13 people are killed each year by falling vending machines…also true.
There aren't any wall clocks in Las Vegas casinos… True as well.
Did you know a goldfish has just a 3-second memory? Yes, it’s true.
What do you think: is hot water heavier than cold water? It is.
And is the Bible the most commonly-stolen book from bookshops in the United States? Sad but True.
We may get our facts wrong, but discerning a good leader isn’t just knowing facts: it’s smelling a rat or sensing a hero.
One study suggests five traits of true leadership.
1. Quiet resolution. They are cool and levelheaded. A leader who is quietly resolved is one we can trust.
2. Courage to take risks. One who never dares greatly will never succeed, never show strength to lead.
3. Readiness to share rewards. Great leaders humbly agree that no success is by solo effort; they share praise of others openly.
4. Readiness to take the blame. True leaders take responsibility for all consequences of their decisions, bad ones as well as good.
5. Nerve to survive storms and face each new day; not dwelling on success, nor being discouraged by failure. Great leaders all have times of success and of defeat. Five Traits of True Leadership by Brett & Kate McKay
In someone else’s list of ten traits of a true leader, we find a true leader: understands and listens to you; enlightens you; guides but does not dictate to you; enables and empowers you; motivates you; inspires you; credits you; helps you; leads you by example; and serves you. What you hear in this list is nothing about leaders advancing their career. A true leader does for others.
In any field, the true and God-appointed leader is not someone who claims leadership by right, by force, influence or a barrage of lies. Ideally, a true leader is recognized and called out by those being served because they recognize in him or her the qualities I’ve mentioned. True leaders do more for others than for themselves.
Jesus observed a struggle among His apostles for power and place. He said, “You know that the rulers … and officials have absolute authority over people. But that’s not how it will be with you. Whoever is great among you will be your servant. Whoever is most important will be your slave. It’s the same with the Son of Man. He didn’t come for others to serve him. He came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for others.” Matt 20:25-28
Jesus is the quintessential leader. All the qualities I’ve mentioned, He has in spades. His quiet leadership style, without flashy speech, garish clothing, or a big show drew more people to Him than flim-flam techniques ever could. It threatened the powerful in Jerusalem. It confounded Herod. It riled the Pharisees and rabbis. It worried Pontius Pilate, who tried to see if Jesus was really a threat. When he saw that wasn’t so, he tried seven times to release Jesus. But Jesus is the truth. Not only did He tell the truth, He embodied truth, even without speaking. His Presence told the story, and high-placed men called it blasphemy, hate speech. Truth is always called hate speech by liars.
In ancient times, God led His people through prophets that were called to hear Him and tell His words to the people. One who heard God’s voice became leader of the people. They were happy to let somebody else get that close to their big, scary God.
Jesus then came, Son of God incarnate, and He finally sent His Holy Spirit to inhabit a new nation: the Kingdom of God. As He comes to live in us, He brings all the wisdom and truth that God possesses. St. Paul, in today’s Epistle, writes: “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.” Rom 8:14 Being led by the Spirit of God, indwelling you, speaking to you, is to have the greatest lie detector ever devised right in heart. Do lie detectors make you nervous? Do you fear exposure? That’s only because you’ve done such a good job hiding your faults. Everyone has faults. Not everyone admits them.
A leader can have faults and still lead. David, Israel’s greatest king, committed a sequence of moral failings: adultery, conspiracy, lying, entrapment, drugging another, and murder. All these crimes were serious enough under Mosaic Law to have him executed. But David was deeply sorry, totally honest to God about his sins, and sought to make reparation. It’s possible for great leaders to fail. But not to be false.
Jesus warns us of false prophets and leaders in His Church. They will come like ravening wolves, seeking to devour us, but will appear as innocent as sheep, dressed with the authority of shepherds. How can we discern false guides, when they’re so good at deception? Jesus instructs us to be fruit inspectors. Ask ‘What has this person accomplished?’
Leadership is earned, not bestowed. We look at the record. Being faithful in certain matters, a leader is chosen for greater challenges. If they’ve done badly, hurt people, shown self-interest above the interests of followers, and lied about it, they should be disqualified. “By their fruits ye shall know them.” But what if they all lie about it?
Fancy speech never proved anything. Jesus said, “Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” It isn’t what a person says, but what that person does that will prove leadership. That’s true for salvation too. Claiming faith doesn’t prove faith. Faith takes time and demonstrated character, and salvation is who you are, not what you say about yourself.
I’ve heard that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. I’d say it’s next to last. The last refuge of a real scoundrel is religion, and our pulpits, altars, TV screens and arenas have graced the most amazing array of sham spiritual phonies in the 100 years. Amen?
Choose your leaders carefully, with the wisdom of God that lives in you, as He speaks to your heart. Humble yourself before Him, and pray that more people in this time of our greatest need for true leadership will do the same.
The choices are hard. The media doesn’t help. Who is God calling to serve us, and serve Him, in the years to come? It’s never been so hard to lead our country, our world, as it is now. True or false?