Sunday, October 30, 2011

"You're So Vain..."

I drew, as usual, from many sources for help in writing this sermon. First, my thanks to Rev. Barbara Vaughan for inspiration, to Kathryn Matthews Huey, the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton, Lindy Black, "Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary," and Robert Hamerton-Kelly for their research and writing. I am always humbled and honored to be able to draw upon the wisdom of so many in writing these sermons.

Joshua 3:7-17
The LORD said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses. You are the one who shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, ‘When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.’” Joshua then said to the Israelites, “Draw near and hear the words of the LORD your God.” Joshua said, “By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites: the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan. So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe. When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the LORD, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap.”
When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people. Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing toward the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho. While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.

Matthew 23:1-12
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 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. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Back in 1972, Carly Simon released a song called, “You’re So Vain.” The chorus began, “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.” I bring this up because I think, all too often, we Christians tend to be so vain, we think this Gospel reading is not about us…

Oh, sure, Jesus is taking the Scribes and the Pharisees to task; in fact, this whole twenty-third chapter of Matthew is about the Scribes and Pharisees. And there was plenty to criticize, after all. The Pharisees had a reputation for being well-educated in the Law, and scrupulous about adhering to its letter. In Jesus’ day, synagogues had stone seats for the rabbi that was responsible for teaching and interpreting the Law. It is no accident that the person most often filling the seat was a Pharisee. Called “the chair of Moses,” it represented the lineage and authority of the most beloved prophet in Judaism.

And it’s interesting that Jesus does not dispute that authority; in fact, he encourages his Jewish listeners to “do whatever they teach you and follow it.” The problem he points out is that the Pharisees aren’t simply guilty of not practicing what they preach, they are guilty of practicing the things they do for the wrong reasons.

“…They make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long...” – these were the symbols of a devout Jew: The phylacteries were little boxes containing passages of the Law that were to be tied to the arm or the forehead. The fringe Jesus referred to was actually a requirement of the Law, from Numbers 15:37-39: “Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a ribbon of blue. And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the LORD and do them…”

Their authority in the synagogue and the community meant that they could count on having a place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the worship services, deferential greetings in public places, and important titles. And this power, this recognition, this public honor became the center of their attention.

Now, I do not deny that it’s fun to pile on the Pharisees. They give us plenty of ammunition, after all, and there’s no doubt that they deserve every word Jesus fires off at them in this chapter. But it is a sad-but-true fact that, while Scripture can be, and often is, entertaining, the value of the Word of God is not in enjoying the narrative, but in finding the life-changing truth it contains.

With this in mind, the challenge becomes resisting the temptation to place ourselves in the text where we are naturally inclined to – right behind Jesus, cheering him on against those corrupt and evil Pharisees, those hypocrites! But, in the words of Huck Finn, “They been dead a considerable long time. . . .(and) I don’t take no stock in dead people.”

In other words, there’s little or no value in just being the Jesus Cheering Section here. As Robert Hamerton-Kelly suggests, we make a morally and spiritually fatal mistake by joining Jesus in excoriating the hypocrites, his fellow Jewish hypocrites, when we should be joining the hypocrites and listening to Jesus with fear and trembling, excoriating us. Jesus is speaking to us, to me and to you, in our own, present day, alive and well hypocrisy.

Think of it – we spend far too much time arguing over which essentially interchangeable political figure from whatever political party would be the best leader for the country while fifteen million children, in America, live in poverty. Famous religious leaders pontificate about moral issues affecting people other than themselves, while on the horn of Africa, millions of people face starvation due to drought and famine the likes of which haven’t been seen in a quarter century. Denominations argue publicly and privately over points of doctrine, often becoming so acrimonious that people who may have been curious about this God fellow are in the end repulsed, and never hear the Good News of Jesus Christ.

I don’t know which is harder to talk about in church, money or pride. This is Reformation Sunday, and it remembers the time when Martin Luther, fed up with the excesses of pride found in the Church, posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg, Germany, in hopes that his words would encourage self-reflection and change in the leadership.

The reaction he got from the church leadership, of course, wasn’t self-reflection but condemnation and eventually excommunication. And while I would like to say that the Protestant movement which resulted from the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses learned its lesson, and proceeded to develop in humility, always careful to provide leaders who were first and foremost servants, we all know that this has not been the case.

The arguments over which doctrine is purest, which theology is most flawless, what kind of piano to have in the sanctuary, what color the hymnbooks should be, whose preacher is better, who can and cannot serve in leadership capacities in congregations, all of these points of pride and contention have caused the Protestant Reformation to splinter, shatter, schism, and splinter yet again, until something more than thirty thousand denominations exist within that movement.

But with all of that, we must hold in tension the fact that the word “pride” is not always a bad word. That sense of worth we may find in our identity can be a source of strength without making us “too big for our britches.” The idea of “self-esteem” may have become overblown, to the point where we feel we are so special and unique and gifted, it’s hard to see where the needs and intrinsic value of others fit in. Yet at its most basic, self-esteem is not a bad thing, either.

There are many people in the Christian community who are at long last claiming their rightful place after being kept down as individuals or as a community. Feminist Theology and Liberation Theology are just two examples of ways that Christianity is seeking insight into the experience of people who have been traditionally excluded and minimized, especially in communities of faith, offering women in the first instance, and the poor in the second instance, an opportunity to recover their own sense of self, their own dignity.

And that's not what Jesus is criticizing in this passage. In fact, we might read this text as a kind of release from the pressures of our own Western culture, which too often encourages us into that vicious cycle of chasing after higher and higher positions, more and more recognition, bigger and better and newer stuff. This is an opportunity to break free from the tedium of “me first,” where the only reason to go to church is to “get something out of the service,” where the primary reason to follow Christ is to avoid going to Hell.

Molly Ivins once described people who wanted to be Texans, but aren’t, as “all hat and no cattle.” And that phrase would describe a Christian who does not take time to carefully examine the log in their own eye before pointing out the speck in another’s. Oh, make no mistake, we may admire people who “walk the walk and talk the talk,” but the fact is that our walk won’t ever match our talk, not when we are talking about the Kingdom of God. But that’s OK, you see… as long as we both know this fact, are uncomfortable enough with it to want to change it, and don’t exhaust ourselves spiritually by trying to hide it.

The fact that our talk will never match out walk doesn’t make us all hypocrites. The root of the word “hypocrite” actually comes from the Greek theater, and it’s a technical term used for someone who performs a dramatic text – someone who acts, pretends to be something they are not. But, as the eighteenth-century author and lexicographer Samuel Johnson pointed out, hypocrisy is not simply failing to practice those virtues that one preaches. He wrote, “Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.” True hypocrisy, like that practiced by the Pharisees, is found in pretending to have arrived at the end of that voyage without ever having actually set foot on the boat in the first place.

We are always traveling, and we are forever students, forever learning to live in this outrageous, egregiously extravagant grace of God. That’s why we call this a faith journey – both living in, and constantly traveling toward that now-and-coming Kingdom. And we do not undertake this glorious voyage alone. We are part of a community of saints, none better than another, but all called to serve one another in love, and in the humility which not only does not think of ourselves as better than another, but doesn’t think less of ourselves than we ought.

We are, all of us, children of the Most High God, each of us chosen vessels of the Holy Spirit, called and variously equipped on our journey to serve God, one another, and this world that Jesus died for.

Jesus says to us (and this is from today’s reading, in Eugene Peterson’s “The Message” translation, “Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant...if you're content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.”

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