Keeping Up Appearances
The Rev. Roger Osgood
The Rev. Roger Osgood is pastor at Heights Christian Church, an open and affirming congregation in Shaker Heights. The Rev. Osgood presented his homily as part of a round-robin preaching series among the clerical leadership of Heights Christian, Christ Church, and The First Unitarian Church of Cleveland.
If you are a follower of PBS, you are probably acquainted with Hyacinth Bucket, the indomitable aspirant to upper-class society in the never-ending reruns of “Keeping Up Appearances.” With her high teas, expensive china, and fragile airs, she is constantly knocking at the door of a world she longs to be a part of, and yet can never enter. It does not stop her from pretending, though, and her efforts are so glaringly transparent that they are comical.
This British sitcom shines a satiric and exaggerated light on both the snobbery and pretense which can be found among those who believe their privilege and place in society makes them better than the average person. In Hyacinth’s world, it is funny (sometimes very funny). In our day-to-day world, not so much.
As I was contemplating today’s gospel, my imagination augmented the scene a bit, as it tends to often do. I saw Jesus and his disciples leaving the temple where he had been teaching and finding a vendor in the street. Ordering a beverage – perhaps tea – and settling in to watch the crowd, Jesus could not help but notice the activity around the temple treasury. The disciples are, of course, distracted with all the commotion on the street, and Jesus has to call their attention to what is going on. Giving a nod to the obviously wealthy folks who feel the need to make a big deal about their contributions, he says,
“Remember what I said in the temple about the folks who like to strut around in their expensive robes and be seen in the best seats and places of honor? Well, here they are again, doing the same….
“But whoa, wait a sec. See that poor widow. Watch her. She just put a penny in the till, one tiny penny. And yet, that’s all she has, and she quietly and humbly gave it away. If you weren’t paying attention, you could have missed it.
“That’s what I’m talking about. Secure and generous in her faith, she doesn’t need anyone else to notice. It’s who she is, and she acts out of that integrity. Those other guys? You know what I like to say about them: they already have their reward….”
Now, I know that is a bit of an imaginative stretch, but not too far I think, for Jesus is teaching out of one of his basic bottom lines: Keep it real. You are made in the image of God; act accordingly.
Wrapping yourself in some sort of sacred finery will not make you holy, nor will it give you a bye on doing the work of searching out your connection with the Spirit.
And yet appearances still trick us, so much so that teachings about them continue through the decades and centuries after Jesus.
In Sufi lore, for instance, there is a character known as the Mullah Nasrudin. He is something of a trickster, often teaching by irony and example, or by sometimes taking things to an exaggerated, but illustrative end. So he does in a story what Idries Shah calls, “The Food of the Cloak.”
It seems that Nasrudin was invited to a feast at the Emir’s palace. Having no time to change from his work clothes in order to get there on time, Nasrudin showed up at the feast just as he was. He mingled among the other guests, but no one spoke with him. The events of the day were discussed and argued, but no one asked his opinion. Eventually the Chamberlain announced dinner and all the guests were shown to their seats. Nasrudin was shown to a seat just about as far as you could get from the head table where the Emir sat. Nasrudin quickly noted that it would be at least an hour before the servers would get to him with any food, so he slipped out and ran home.
There, he dressed himself in a magnificent sable cloak and turban and returned to the palace. Even though he was now late to the festivities, he was greeted with great fanfare – with trumpets and drums as is fitting a visitor of high rank – and the Chamberlain himself led Nasrudin to the head table where he was seated just a few chairs from the Emir. Immediately after he was seated, a dish of the finest food was placed before him. Without a pause, Nasrudin scooped up a handful of the food and began rubbing it into his cloak and onto his turban.
It took a minute for those around him to notice, but when they did, the murmuring traveled quickly to the Emir, who rose and came over to Nasrudin.
“Excuse me, sir,” he said, “but I am curious as to your eating habits, which are new to me.”
Nasrudin paused. “Your Eminence,” he said, “I am but feeding the guest you have truly invited. When I arrived at first, I was given no notice at all. But I return with this cloak and turban and here I am, seated at your own table. It is this cloak and turban that got me in, so surely they deserve their portion of this fine feast.”
Keeping up appearances…. Nasrudin and the poor widow would have a lot to talk about. And, moving along the decades and centuries in my spiritual time-traveling, so do I believe would Henry David Thoreau.
“Yes,” he might add to the conversation, “as I once admonished, ‘Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.’”
Keep it real. You are made in the image of God; act accordingly. Wrapping yourself in some sort of sacred finery will not make you holy, nor will it give you a bye on doing the work of searching out your connection with the Spirit.
That is one of the core principles of my own Unitarian Universalist tradition and faith: that of searching out your connection with the Spirit. This gets described differently by different people among us, but its essence, I believe, is consistent. Many, even in my own tradition, understand this to mean that we can believe anything we want to. Not much gives me more of a headache and heartache than that, for nothing could be more false. We may state it in different terms, in varying language – theological, philosophical, psychological, poetic – but the bottom line is the same: the religious task of our lives is searching out our connection with the Spirit, with our deepest self, with God. It is finding and living the faith that upholds and guides us, that nurtures the best that is in us and connects us with one another and our world. It is a faith that knows where our true treasure lies.
There is a Hasidic story told of one Rabbi Eisek who lived in the country in a one room house with a dirt floor. His bed was in one corner, his chair in another, and in the corner in between was his stove and hearth. One night he dreamed that if he ventured into the city, and found the bridge that spanned the moat which surrounded the king’s palace, and dug on the bank underneath that bridge, he would find a treasure that would end his poverty. The next night he dreamed the same dream, and again the night after that. He figured God was trying to tell him something so he packed up a few items to take with him and set out for the city.
Days later, when he arrived, he wandered the streets until he found that bridge. But there was a palace guard there, and he surely would see the Rabbi should he go under the bridge and start digging. So he hung around, thinking there would be a moment when he could slip down the bank. He paced back and forth and eventually drew the attention of the guard anyway, who came over and asked him, “Rebbe, what brings you here?” And the Rabbi, in his innocence, told the guard of his dreams.
“Hah!” exclaimed the guard. “I, too, have had the same dream three nights now. Only in mine, I travel to the home of a poor Rebbe such as yourself, and go into his home and dig under his hearth and there find the treasure of my life!”
Rabbi Eisek bowed to the guard, thanked him for his kindness, and made the journey back to his home. There he put down the few items he had packed, walked over to his stove, and dug into the dirt beneath it – where he found a treasure that put an end to his poverty.
Sometimes, we need to go on a long journey before we find the real treasure of our lives, the treasure that lies within our own hearths, within our own hearts. The journey is the work of searching out your connection with the Spirit.
The Rabbi and the poor widow, Nasrudin and even Thoreau, all have something in common. They have found a faith, which instead of giving them worldly wealth, gives them spiritual wealth instead. It enables them to speak from their true self, to know their connection with the Spirit and thus with the world around them, to know themselves as being made in the image of God, and acting accordingly.
By the trappings of the world, they are impoverished; but by the teachings of the Spirit – from Galilee to Walden and beyond – they are wealthy beyond measure. And so are we. Out of that place of being which these stories show us, we can give of ourselves – of our time and talent and treasure – and thus deepen that connection, keeping it real instead of keeping up appearances, not being taken in by some sort of sacred finery, but doing the work of searching out our connection with the Spirit, realizing ever and evermore deeply that we are all made in the image of God. Let us therefore give of ourselves and act accordingly.