Never Surrender Your Authenticity
Counterfeiters make over a billion dollars a year, making fake designer clothes and handbags. That billion is from the United States, not the rest of the world. These are not cheap knock offs from street vendors; they are well-made fakes. There's an underground black market where you can pay $450 for a well-made handbag that’s impersonating a $6k Chanel.
In 2018 The New York Times ran an article about customs seizing enough counterfeit handbags, shoes, and belts to fill 22 shipping containers. They estimated the loss to American retailers to be half a billion dollars.
One young woman, who spoke with anonymity, “Rachel,” as they called her, is 27. She works at a downtown law firm in Atlanta. She says she spent $1k on a fake handbag because the real one sells for $10k. When the reporter mentioned a proven link between the counterfeiters and human trafficking, terrorism, and arms trading, she said, "Look, all I want is a handbag that looks to be worth over $10k so people in my field will have a better perception of me."
The counterfeiting market highlights a spiritual problem. Authenticity no longer matters so long as deceit makes us look better in front of other people. I'm not criticizing nice things; I have them; you have them, John says that Jesus even wore a seamless robe. But I am against sacrificing our authenticity on the altar of perception.
Jesus didn’t mind the company of sinners, but he couldn’t stand fakes. This Gospel lesson is about a group of that Jesus thought were spiritual imposters. They were the Pharisees. Jesus saw their counterfeit religiosity from across the room. This reading is an encouragement to be genuine.
These verses sound so condemning. But when we hear them directed at the Pharisees, we can hear them as challenges to authenticity.
The passage teaches a very pointed and specific lesson:
Sin, rebellion against the inauthentic self, is an issue of the heart, not the hand.
Jesus is really direct here; until we can be honest with ourselves, we will sin, we will miss our target, we will surrender our baptismal identity, for a self-serving purpose.
Let's tell the truth... It’s exhausting when we pretend to be someone we’re not. When we do, we allow other people's perceptions of us to control us. That indicates a spiritual problem. Jesus says, “It’s not your actions – like the Pharisees say – its an issue of your soul. Therefore, be brave enough to confront your motivations lurking under the surface.”
On August 21, 1986, the villagers of Nyos, in Cameroon, heard a noise coming from the valley near Lake Nyos. The next morning, every person in the village (nearly 1800) was dead. The cattle were dead, the flies that would have been on the animals were dead too.
Scientists rushed to Nyos to discover what happened. They finally realized that a build-up of carbon dioxide gas on the bottom of the lake bed caused the tragedy. They say that lakes near volcanoes are prone to have carbon dioxide deposits under the water. Most lakes release carbon dioxide very slowly.
That night Lake Nyos released 1.8 million tons of Co2. It sat under the lake bed, continually growing for decades. The gases formed a toxic cloud, and when it reached the surface, a tragedy occurred.
No one realized that what was below the surface was more dangerous than anything on top. That's why Jesus lists all kinds of sinful behaviors, but then he says, “The real issue behind the behavior is the heart.”
I think the key to interpreting this passage is this: These verses are a response to Pharisees. God doesn't want us to 1literally pull our eyes out of our eye sockets. Jesus didn't 80literally mean we should cut off our hands and toss them in the garbage.
I hear these metaphors as an overarching message: Spiritual transformation matters more than behavior modification. Open the heart to the way of Jesus and, "Love the Lord your God..."
My sermon is titled: “Never Surrender Your Authenticity.”
It’s easy to beat up on the Pharisees, but I’ve been a Pharisee on numerous occasions. I’ve allowed myself to surrender my authenticity to impress people.
When I was in seminary, they emphasized the importance of "clergy as chief scholar of the congregation." I got dinged in a preaching class by a professor who said, "Your sermons need to develop an academic tone.” Ironically, he had never pastored a church.
I bought that cheap, non-creative, knock off preaching method hook, line, and sinker.
I came out of seminary well trained, and ready to use all the $20 words I learned. I wanted to impress people with my hard work. I knew theology, exegesis, languages (Gr. Heb. Theo…), and my homiletical marks were the highest in my class…. I had the world by the tail… and it was downhill pull.
Then everything changed.
Have you ever had a turning point that reset your entire trajectory? That’s what happened to me one faithful day. A decisive moment occurred, and I realized that I was a counterfeit when I tried to fit someone else's mold.
The sermon, which was an academic lecture, was on how the book of Acts charts Paul’s growth away from prejudice and exclusion against gentiles, to embrace them through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Well… I lost my place in my sermon notes because I didn’t have the pages numbered. So I had to ad-lib for a moment while I found my place.
Then I heard something come out of my mouth that shocked me: I said, “Thus the existential and spiritual ramifications make his ontological transformation plausible.” When I said that, I paused… I was so shocked at myself that I had an internal conversation. I won’t repeat all of it because I’m in church, but it sounded something like:
“OMG! That was a hot mess!”
I finished the sermon, and I went home and wrote in my journal, “Don’t be a fraud and worry about how other people see you. A sermon should be Hemingway, not Faulkner.”
Then my wife confirmed my suspicion, “They sure know that you know what you were talking about… all three of them who were awake.”
That’s when I learned a motto I carry today, “The privilege of a lifetime is to be who you are.” That’s also when I learned that I don’t need a fake handbag.