Matthew 23: 1-12
23Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4They 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. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
Several years ago, I read a book by A. J. Jacobs called “The Year of Living Biblically”.
It chronicled a year in his life where he tried to follow all the rules of the Bible, both Testaments.
Listen to this part of his introduction:
As I read [the Bible], I type into my [computer] every rule, every guideline, every suggestion, every nugget of advice I find …When I finish, I have a very long list. It runs 72 pages. More than 700 rules. The scope is astounding. All aspects of my life will be affected – the way I talk, walk, eat, bathe, dress and hug my wife.
He points out that some rules are incomprehensible, others seemingly random, and many would be crimes today.
Like killing magicians and sacrificing oxen.
And on his first day, he realized that he is not allowed to wear clothing with mixed fabric.
He also had trouble with the admonition that unruly children be stoned … because he sort of likes his often unruly son.
So as Jacobs proceeded through the year, he found it virtually impossible to do all the things he was called to do.
You get the picture.
Following the rules is basically impossible.
We can’t be perfect.
So, are we called to be perfect?
Only if we require it from others, according to Jesus.
Let’s look at today’s scripture.
Jesus is in Jerusalem.
It’s Tuesday of what we call Holy Week.
He is in the Temple preaching.
Scribes, the Temple law interpreters, and Pharisees, the Temple morality interpreters, are looking on and listening.
Jesus points to the scribes and the Pharisees and tells the people that these are the folks who occupy “Moses’ seat”.
They are the teaching and administrative authority over the people.
Then Jesus describes a problem with them.
These scribes and Pharisees impose virtually impossible rules and requirements for holiness.
Not because they think anyone can follow them, but because they say they, themselves, follow them, but don’t.
What they do is give the appearance that they do.
They walk around literally wearing their faith with scripture boxes on their arms and foreheads, long prayer shawls with really long tassels to show off their religiosity.
Oh … but they were pious sounding and looking!
Why did they do these things?
Because they were devout?
Not according to Jesus.
Jesus said they did these things because they wanted folks to notice them and respond accordingly.
They were to be given the best seat at the table.
They wanted to be called Rabbi or Father or Teacher.
Their goal was not Godliness, but adulation and acclimation.
But then Jesus says something we have all heard or said at one time or another.
Do what they say, not what they do.
Because they don’t practice what they preach.
Jesus says they are hypocrites.
They impose rules, clothe themselves with their religiosity, and demand undue respect for one purpose.
That is what makes them hypocrites.
As the politicians of today say:
They were all hat and no cattle.
And so, we disciples of Jesus must not be hypocrites.
But we get smacked over the head with accusations of hypocrisy, too, right?
Brennan Manning was a former Franciscan priest who became an itinerant preacher and speaker and wrote the book “The Ragamuffin Gospel”.
His fans, those who have heard him speak or read his book include U2, Eugene Peterson and … well … me.
Something he said came to mind when I read this week’s scripture.
The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today
Is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips
Then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle.
That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.
We proclaim rules to live by, then we don’t – or can’t.
But we don’t do this because of piety, but to claim we are better than those who don’t follow those rules.
Such folks act like scribes and Pharisees.
Jesus says, don’t do that.
So, what do we do?
Well, Jesus does describe ways his disciples should live.
But the Jesus way is more an attitude than a list of do’s and don’ts.
He says this:
11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
We can understand what this looks like in other parts of Matthews’ Gospel.
This passage is it is part of Jesus’ last sermon to the people.
The criticism of self-adulation contrasts to Jesus’ first sermon, the Sermon on the Mount where he describes the actions of the folks God exalts.
3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Not a lot of personal exaltation there.
Just a bunch of humility and kindness and hope.
It foreshadows Jesus’ final description of the exaltation of people who care for others and so care for him.
Jesus says be servants.
For such these people enter God’s Kingdom.
But all this is hard, too.
- J. Jacobs found that out!
We want to follow Jesus all the time, right?
We try to follow Jesus, right?
But we don’t.
But does that make us hypocrites?
Does that make us scribes and Pharisees?
I don’t think so.
It just makes us human.
Broken folks who need a savior.
And are humble enough to realize it.
Listen to Quaker writer Brent Bill:
“When someone asks me what kind of Christian I am, I say I’m a bad one … I see myself as a pilgrim – traveling the faith path to the destination of being a good Christian – and into the eternal presence of God.”
But that does not mean that we stop trying.
Which is why we need to practice what we preach!
What does that look like?
It looks like Jacob’s book in a way.
We read the Bible, consult each other, and do the best we can.
That is what the disciples of Jesus did.
They walked with him, listened to him, learned from him.
They made many mistakes, admitting their shortcomings, but continued the journey.
They relied on God’s grace and mercy – trusting Jesus – for the rest.
That gives me comfort.
And that is what Jesus asks of us.
Over the journey of our lifetimes, to try.
To listen to Jesus and learn from him things others might not and to realize there are always new things to learn.
To make our own mistakes, and learn our own lessons from them.
To admit our own shortcomings and that we ourselves don’t deserve more acclaim than any other of God’s image bearers.
To look for God’s grace and mercy in our own life experiences along the way.
Krista Tippet in her book Becoming Wise says this:
Faith is evolutionary, in every culture, and in any life. Even a person who could proclaim “I believe in God” or “I trust in prayer” would fill those words with endlessly transforming memories, experiences, connotations. … Mystery lands in us as a humbling fullness of reality we cannot sum up or pin down. Such moments change us from the inside, if we let them.
That is practicing to be a disciple of Jesus.
That is practicing what we preach.
But now I need to digress.
This past week we encountered, again, a moment in time that sends us reeling.
I left me shaken.
Sad beyond words.
Twenty-six people killed while worshiping God.
Another in a long line of mass murders of innocent people.
How do we respond to that?
What would Jesus have us do?
What do we practice what we preach in this particular instant?
This, I think.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
What does that look like?
To Jesus, mourning is something one does at a time of death, great loss or great injustice.
When there was a death, the relatives of the dead would tear their clothing and put dirt or ashes on their head.
They would then sit Shiva a week-long period of mourning.
They would experience their mourning.
They would be mindful of it.
As painful as that was.
Jesus says there is a blessing in this.
That blessing is our community as the Body of Christ in the world.
Standing beside those mourning.
Simply being present.
Entering into the pain voluntarily as an act of solidarity.
It is humble, kind and hopeful.
That is how we should respond to the grief of the surviving members of First Baptist Church.
But when Jesus says that those who mourn are blessed because they will be comforted, he means more than the comfort of neighbors.
He means comfort from God.
God’s presence in the midst of our pain.
That is the blessing and the comfort.
Listen to Psalm 30:
1 I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up,
and did not let my foes rejoice over me.
2 O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
and you have healed me.
3 O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.*
4 Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones,
and give thanks to his holy name.
5 For his anger is but for a moment;
his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.
11 You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth
and clothed me with joy,
12 so that my soul* may praise you and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
Jill Duffield, editor of The Presbyterian Outlook offered a prayer for Sutherland, Texas this week and I want to offer this as our prayer.
But before we pray, I know that many think this insufficient – mere thoughts and prayers.
Is that enough?
For today, as we sit Shiva with them, it is all we can do.
For today, it is enough.
Come next week and we will talk about what we as disciples of Jesus should do next.
But for now, let’s pray.
How long, O, Lord? How long will we keep killing each other? How long until sanctuaries are truly sanctuaries? How long until shootings stop and peace prevails? God of grace, as we rend our hearts in grief, dismay and despair, hear our cries, comfort those who mourn, galvanize us to do whatever needs to be done to bring healing, reconciliation and a loving way of life together.
Our groans mingle with those of our brothers and sisters in Sutherland Springs. We hurt with the part of the body devastated in south Texas. We reel with the reality that those who went to worship this morning were met with violence. As the congregation of First Baptist and the people of Sutherland Springs huddle in prayer, may they know that whole communion of the saints embraces them and will not leave them alone in the days, the months, the years ahead.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers.