Thompson’s Sermon from October 30, 2011

October 31, 2011

Profane Piety
Matthew 23:1-12

1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “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. 5 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. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father–the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

There’s really nothing mysterious about this passage of scripture. While we don’t have an insider’s view of what the scribes and pharisees were doing that upset Jesus, it’s not hard to understand the nature of the problem. You don’t have to know what the long fringe and the large phylacteries were all about in order to know that these people were full of themselves. It’s interesting to know about the fringes and phylacteries. It’s always good to understand the ways that previous generations of religious people turned sound teachings into foolish traditions, and this deal with the phylacteries and fringes was classic.

A phylactery was a small pouch that contained a small parchment with a few key verses from the Torah written upon it. Devout Jews would wear these pouches on their foreheads and on their wrists because there is this instruction in several places within the Torah to keep these key teachings as a mark on their hand and as a frontlet before their eyes. It’s not clear within the Old Testament verses whether or not this was to be taken literally or figuratively, but the Pharisees took it very literally and they wore extra-large versions. Their vision was sometimes impaired by the size of their phylacteries, which seems like perfect irony. Instead of practicing their faith in such a manner that their sense of understanding and vision expanded, they were actually blinded by their religiosity.

We would say that the Pharisees were familiar with the letter of the law but not the spirit. They were tragically misguided in the implementation of their faith. They were confused as to who the tradition was to glorify – which is a problem that seems to get recreated by each generation and religious tradition. You can never overestimate the ability of human beings to distort the spirit of a good thing, or the nature of an honorable tradition.

(At this point the sermon was interrupted by an ensemble that sang a parody of some praise songs – watch “wrong worship” on youtube)

I don’t know who those people were, but I’m so happy they were willing to show us who we don’t want to be. Thankfully we don’t have anyone around here who embodies such profane piety, but Jesus had to deal with some powerful people who were like this. Jesus was profoundly offended by the way in which the leaders of Judaism had come to love the prominence that their positions provided them more than they loved the truth that was contained within their tradition. Religious prestige is a seductive thing, and it’s an easy thing to become blinded it. I guess one of the benefits of being the pastor of a struggling church is that it’s not that hard to keep my sense of self-importance under control.

Of course there are no automatic ways of keeping focused on the truth. You would think that it would be impossible to be a professed follower of Jesus Christ and engage in any form of petty self-centered greedy violence, but it happens. Like the Pharisees who considered themselves to be serving God when they placed heavy burdens on those who were already weak, we all have the capability of living in contradiction to that which we profess, and there are no guaranteed ways of keeping our attitudes in conformity with the God we claim to serve. We can twist the greatest spiritual opportunities into the worst cases of selfish vanity.

I guess there’s often some contradiction between who it is we claim to serve and who it is we actually serve. This is an old problem that we’re examining today, but it’s a current problem as well. Jesus understood our desire to obtain greatness, and he told us what to do if we wish to be great we need to become the servant of all.

It’s hard to get around the fact that Jesus pointed to servanthood as the avenue to greatness in the Kingdom of God. We can’t erase this word servant from Jesus’ vocabulary, so what we’ve done is to turn the role of a servant into a more attractive vocation. I mean some of the most honored and prestigious individuals in our society call themselves public servants. You would think that the people who clean the bathrooms at city parks would be given their spiritual due and be called public servants, but this title has been co-opted by people who hold powerful offices and get interviewed on the Evening News.

Certainly not everyone who falls into this broad category of being a public service appears regularly in the High Profile section of the Democrat Gazette, but being a public servant can be a very lucrative thing within our society, and I don’t think this is what Jesus was talking about when he said that we must be the servant if we wish to be great.

You can’t fault politicians for twisting language to suit their purposes. This seems to be the primary job skill required, but it is unfortunate the way we’ve twisted Jesus’ words in the church. Maybe the most obvious manipulation of the language is in the way in which we pastors speak of serving churches. To be such a servant in the United Methodist Church is to be guaranteed a decent salary, comfortable housing, health insurance, a pension, and a reasonable amount of time off. Some such servants are bringing down six figures, but it’s not a shabby deal for any of us who serve as full-time elders. I don’t regret that we have a system that provides jobs for people like me, but I don’t think we’re using Jesus’ words accurately. It’s a nice image, but it’s not the truth — pastors are much too highly regarded by parishoners to be considered servants.

I say this because I’ve known a servant, and he didn’t get treated with the kind of respect that I experience. The servant I knew didn’t have the title of servant. He didn’t have a title at all. His name was Robert Anderson Jr., but everyone called him Jr.

Jr. went to work for my grandparents a few years before I was born. My mother said Jr. was around when she married my father, and Jr. seemed to do whatever my grandparents wanted him to do. He cooked, shopped, cut grass, paddled the boat when my grandmother wanted to go fishing. He cleaned the fish that she caught, and he put on a white jacket when company was coming.

Jr’s job changed a little bit right before I was born because my grandmother was in a car accident that left her as a quadreplegic, and at that point he became one of her nurses as well. Rehabilitation was pretty primitive in the late 1950s, and life span was often short for people in her condition, but my grandmother lived another twenty years, and this is probably due to the fact that she had many good caregivers, but in particular she had Jr.

Jr. did most of the cooking at my grandparents house, and it was in their kitchen that I had a lot of exposure to Jr. He was a person who liked to laugh, so it was always worthwhile to step into the kitchen and have a word with Jr. He was consistently the most entertaining person I was in contact with when I was a child, but he didn’t have an easy life.

Jr. lived in poverty. Jr. wasn’t a great manager of his limited resources, but he didn’t have that many resources to manage. I don’t know what kind of financial arrangement existed between Jr. and my grandparents, but my grandfather didn’t achieve his success in business by being overly generous. It was essential that Jr. have transportation so he could do what my grandfather wanted him to do, so my grandfather made sure his truck kept running, but he didn’t have a nice truck.

When the telephone company cut the service off to Jr.’s house for not paying his bill, my grandfather was frustrated by his inability to get in touch with Jr. when he wanted, so he made arrangements for a pay phone to be installed in Jr.’s house – which isn’t something I’ve ever known to happen anywhere else.

My grandfather and Jr. had a powerful relationship. My grandfather generally stayed irritated with Jr. and occasionally he would fire him, but the breaches never lasted long because my grandparents couldn’t function without him.

For over thirty years Jr. served my grandparents. After my grandmother died and my grandfather’s health failed it was Jr. who got him out of bed, made sure he had food, took him where he needed to go, and who put him back in bed. Just how dependant my grandfather was on Jr. became clear when Jr. was shot and killed by the deranged father of his girlfriend. Two weeks after Jr. was killed my grandfather died as well.

Jr. never had any authority, he was not well respected, and he was not one to spend much time in church. Of course he was generally working at my grandparent’s house most Sunday mornings, but the man who preached Jr.s funeral didn’t take this into account when he began preaching at Jr.’s funeral. The preacher was sure that Jr.’s ways weren’t right, and he made it clear that we aught to do better than Jr.

I was upset by the way that the preacher spoke of Jr., and I’m proud to say that as we gathered at the graveside I asked if I could say something and I choked out the words, Robert Anderson Jr. was a good man. I think Jesus might have said he was a great man.

All I know is that because I knew Jr. I know what it looks like to be a servant, and it’s not an easy job. Because I knew Jr. I know that there is a big difference between being served and being the server. We preachers give a lot of lip service to the language of servanthood, but the truth is that a servant has no voice. The servant is the person who has no authority, and this is the status we must be willing to embrace if we wish to be great in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus redefined the nature of successful living, and it’s a struggle for us to embrace this uncommon wisdom. It is a struggle, but I like to think that it’s possible for us all to live great lives – even if they are saying nice things about you in the marketplace. The truth of the matter is that it just doesn’t matter what they’re saying. The only thing that matters is that we come to see, and hear, and respond to the call of Christ to live with more compassion for our neighbors who are hurting than desire for status in this world. We all have the opportunity to be great in the eyes of God, and thanks be to God for this. Amen.


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