November 5, 2017 Sermon

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, November 5, 2017, Lectionary A, Proper 26


The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr. Rector                                       Scripture: Matthew 23:1-12

“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  Acts 4:30


Let us pray. Gracious Father, send now the Holy Spirit to open our hearts to serving others through Jesus Christ our Lord who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever.  Amen.


The horror of it has perhaps worn off to some extent by now, but if we have been around for a few years, we will recall the numerous allegations of sexual abuse brought against priests in the Roman Catholic Church.  On occasion we still hear accounts even since Francis has been pope.


The Protestant denominations have not been without their own failures.  Some of us remember Jim and Tammy Baker, where there was both sexual and financial malfeasance.  They did wrong and got caught.  Such often seems to be the plight or is the heighten visibility of those pastors who have ascended to such heights of popularity and success, if size of church and money mean that.


While we may be inclined to believe this failure of the church and its leadership are something that belongs to recent times that would only be true if we knew little of church history.  Every generation has its ecclesial or church shortcomings, embarrassments, disappointments, and sometimes criminality.  Regardless of where, when, or who, there has always been abuse and failure in the church, its leaders and its members, going back as far as the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament.


Of course, these shortcomings of the church have not been good for public relations, leading some to accuse the church of hypocrisy at the least.  How can the church hold up high moral standards when it falls short of those standards itself? It is not an invitation to join when the church fails in what may be called character stewardship.


In this morning’s gospel from St. Matthew we find Jesus teaching on this very subject of church failure.  (Yes, it was in the Jewish community, but no less an example to the future church.)  We hear Him chastising the Jewish leadership for their hypocrisy and lack of fairness. “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat;3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”


Hypocrisy is an obvious shortcoming of the scribes and Pharisees.  Jesus says, “. . . for they do not practice what they teach.”  Added to that offense is their unreasonable expectation of others (“They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others.”)  Not only did they insist upon the minutest requirements of the ceremonial law, with greater strictness and severity than God Himself did.  They also added to His Word, imposing their own inventions and traditions under the highest penalties; the Sabbath itself had become a burden rather than the day of rest for which it had been intended.  Indeed, the Ten Commandments had morphed into 616 by the time of Jesus.


If this burdensomeness sounds eerily familiar, those of you who came out of the Baptist tradition may sense it; even recoil with a kind of PTSD.  Though I have never been a Baptist, the rigid requirements by some of its leadership with accompanying judgment are no secret—not drinking and not dancing being two of the more notable prohibitions.  Certainly, the Roman Church has had its own legalistic requirements in the past pushing the grace of God out the door altogether.   This year marks the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church.  His theses propounded two important beliefs—the Bible is the central religious authority and that humans may reach salvation only by their faith and not by their deeds.


Some, having grown up under stringent church requirements and expectations have sought refuge in the Episcopal Church, where rules apparently have limited value if any at all.  Jesus, however, never intended to do away with the Law as a standard for living life and loving God, neighbor, and self.   As He told His disciples in this morning’s gospel, “Do whatever (the scribes and Pharisees) teach you and follow it.”  Though the word, heresy, has become antiquated, one of the heresies found in the early church was the belief that the Law no longer applied, known as antinomianism, where one could do as one pleased, especially in respect to sex.  Sound familiar?


Added to the scribes’ and Pharisees’ offense of hypocrisy was their desire for public attention, accolade, and title. “They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.” Yes, the scribes and Pharisees were vain just like the rest of us.  We all like attention; we all like praise; we wouldn’t mind having a title like doctor, teacher, boss, CEO, and some misguidedly (no reference to any particular person) would even like the title of president, despite it being such obvious difficult, demanding, and insane job.


So, it would seem from this morning’s gospel that Jesus objects to titles being appropriated to anyone.  We heard Him say, “But you are not to be called rabbi, father, or instructor for respectively, there is one teacher, one Father, and one instructor, the Messiah.” While this might sound egalitarian and wonderfully democratic, are we not a little puzzled if not confused by His words, even a little lost.  Would Jesus have us delete the word, father, from the Fifth Commandment: Honor your father and mother?  And, if the word, father is deleted, then surely the word, mother would be deleted as well, leaving us with the mere words of “Honor your.”  Who is your, indeed who?  We are also talking about identity here. Wouldn’t we parents be grieved to longer be called mother, father, mom or dad?  Within this context, we might wonder what vanity has got to do with it.


Many mornings when sitting in my office during the week I hear the preschool children lining up in the hallway. Often it is the voice of Cindy Colon, the four year olds’ teacher, who calls out, “Girls line-up behind the boys.”  One of the first daily and necessary routines for the preschool students, ages 2-4, is for all of them to go to the restroom.  They are still at that age where so-called accidents may happen.  The teachers obviously would prefer not to deal with that kind of situation.  Anyway, on one particular morning, as I again heard Cindy call out, “Girls, line up behind the boys,” I could not help but wonder whether the day would come when some teacher somewhere might call out, “Those of you who think you are girls, line up behind those of you who think you are boys.”  Sound farfetched?


We all have seen the news, a former gold medal Olympic decathlon winner, being somewhat of a harbinger and poster child.  In the NYT this past week I came across this article.  “At the age of 15, Sofia Martin made an announcement to the students at Puget Sound Community School. ‘I’ve been thinking a lot about who I am.  I’ve come to the decision that I’m non-binary, which means that I’m not a boy or a girl.” Sofia asked the teachers and the students, who are in grades six through 12, to use the pronouns they or them, which they promised to do.


Over the course of the next year, Sofia, who is now 18, pushed for a gender-neutral bathroom and encouraged fellow students to name their pronouns when they introduced themselves. Today Puget Sound, a small, unconventional private school in Seattle, has converted a former men’s room into an all-gender restroom and four more students have made similar announcements in front of the whole school.”  (Zoe Greenberg. 10-24-17)


Titles or if you prefer the word, labels, do more than just signify some kind of rank or privilege.  They also define function or even job description.  Titles or labels can remind us who we are or should be.  In the Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises,” Batman, played by Christian Bale, says to Cat woman, Anne Hathaway, who is solely self-centered and self-serving, “There’s more to you than that.”  It is powerful scene, and she lives into that more. Then again, labels or titles can also be used maliciously against us—you idiot.  We all carry the wounds and consequent negative self-talk imposed upon us by misguided parenting and teaching.


Frankly, titles or labels accrue their own meaning; isn’t it really the meaning underneath the word that matters?  Even if we no longer called the male (If I might use the term) gender of our parentage “father” would the meaning be any less?  For the sake of communication, what word would we use to simply capture that parenting role?  It could be any word or sound.  What is a word, but a sound?


In my car I have Sirius satellite radio.  My favorite station is the Beatle station.  On several occasions I have heard the same brief interview with Ringo and John.  The question is asked of Ringo, “What does the word, beatle, mean?  Ringo turns to look at John, and John says, “It means beatle.”  Ringo, in his droll base voice then says, “It is just a word. It could have been shoe.  We could have been called the Shoes.”  Words do accrue their own meaning.  The word, shoe, would have meant something altogether different if the Beatles had instead called themselves the Shoes, and  the word, shoes, would subsequently come to mean the best rock and roll band ever.


Surely, Jesus knew this about words and their meaning.  Yes, the words, teacher, instructor, or father might be laudatory on one hand, but they might also mean something bad.  My priest friend, Brad Wilson, tells of a time some years ago when he was riding a train in Europe.  Hoping to evangelize this young woman sitting across from him, he said to her, “Think of God as a loving father.”  Stone- faced she blurted, “My father sexually abused me.”  Yes, those very words that Jesus objected to may not be words of honor at all, but quite the contrary.  Certainly, He and those who were listening to Him knew this when He spoke of the hypocrisy and vanity of the scribes and Pharisees. Indeed, the word, Pharisee, once spoke well of a person, but has now become a pejorative in our time.


As amusing aside in the same vein, perhaps we have noticed that the word for a female horse, mare, sounds a lot like the French word, mere, for mother.  This is no accident.  The Anglo-Saxons having been once occupied by the Franks or French decided a fitting slander in retaliation would be to call French mothers, horses.  In other words, your mother is a horse—certainly not a flattering appellation at all.


What then is the message that Jesus really wants us to get out of today’s gospel? One observer, Owen Bourgaize  (Dec 10, 2000) makes this observation.  “Some lowly task performed by an ordinary person would be passed by unnoticed but the same act done by, say, royalty, would attract attention. In fact, it would hit the headlines. The late Diana, Princess of Wales is remembered with affection for her visits to hospitals late at night to see and even hold AIDS patients and her work in drawing attention to the terrible injuries caused by landmines.”  As commendable as Diana’s work was, was it any more than someone of lesser stature might have done; that you or I might have done?


Again referencing our British brethren, the story is told how     during WWII, Winston Churchill was in conference with officials in Downing Street when an air raid occurred. They heard a bomb drop and explode nearby. It had clearly fallen in one of the poorer sections of London. At once, Churchill ordered his car to take him to the scene. When they arrived, the sight was heartbreaking; desolation everywhere; homes destroyed, people injured and killed. The people crowded around Churchill’s car and began to cheer. Overcome by this reception, Churchill openly wept. After a bit, a voice from the crowd was heard: “See! He’s crying. He really cares about us” (Bruce Howell on Mar 30, 2001).


Isn’t this what Jesus is getting at in today’s gospel;—caring about others, when He said, “The greatest among you will be your servant.”  Truthfully, when we think about it being able to serve others, to care about them requires humility.   Because of that it may come as no surprise that Jesus says, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  It is just reality.  Pride precedes a fall, right? The following are some cogent observations I came across in that respect.


What kills a skunk is the publicity it gives itself. –Abraham Lincoln. The graveyards are full of indispensable men. –Charles de Gaulle. It’s discouraging to make a mistake, but it’s humiliating when you find out you’re so unimportant that nobody noticed it. –Chuck Daly.  A modest man is usually admired, if people ever hear of him. –Edgar Watson Howe. Too much humility is pride. –German proverb. Don’t be humble; you’re not that great. –Golda Meir.Nothing is more humiliating than to see idiots succeed in enterprises we have failed in. –Gustave Flaubert.  Humility is like underwear; essential, but indecent if it shows. –Helen Nielsen. When you’re as great as I am, it’s hard to be humble. –Muhammad Ali. What the world needs is more geniuses with humility; there are so few of us left. –Oscar Levant. You know what keeps me humble? Mirrors! –Phyllis Diller. If I only had a little humility, I would be perfect. –Ted Turner.(Thanks to Rev. Deborah Tinsley Taylor, Fourth Street UMC, Aurora, Illinois, for compiling this list.)


Humility and serving others go hand in hand.  Jesus so clearly illustrated this when on the night before His crucifixion He knelt to wash His disciples’ feet—something that not even a slave was required to do.

So, it would seem we again have come to that destination—stewardship.  Stewardship is about serving—God, the church, and others. We can do that with our time, our money, and our talent, never knowing, perhaps, the value or consequences of us having given to someone beyond ourselves.  That, however, does not make our giving any less valuable and essential.  In fact, it may make our giving even more valuable.

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Yes, giving to others could very well mean we are giving to ourselves.


In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.