Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Standing out by stepping down

Matthew 23: 1-12
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE 
November 2, 2014 – All Saints’ Day


Last week the Pharisees were trying to teach Jesus a lesson, but as usual, Jesus turned it around and gave them something to think about. Of course, this didn’t happen in a vacuum; there was a crowd gathered to hear this debate, as well as Jesus’ disciples. They’ve heard every word. They’ve been following Jesus but what about the leaders of their faith? Don’t they have any authority?

Jesus doesn’t knock the important role that the Pharisees play in the Jewish faith. After all, Jesus is a teacher and rabbi as well. He turns toward the crowd of onlookers and tells them to do whatever the Pharisees teach them and follow it. The Pharisees were experts when it came to the Law of Moses. They knew their stuff and Jesus respects that, or at least the office they hold. But the Law was not intended to be taught and preached with only words. It was a way of life. The Law was to be written on human hearts, that with every pulse, every pump of blood, God’s law would be visible, palpable in human lives. God’s law was supposed to have skin on it, with muscle and heart and brains.

This is where the teaching of the Pharisees falls apart. Jesus tells the crowd that the Pharisees do not practice what they teach; that they are missing the heart of the Law in that it is not visible in how they live their lives. They heap heavy burdens on the shoulders of others but are unwilling to lift a finger to help move those burdens. They wear the Law on their arms and foreheads in leather boxes called phylacteries containing verses from the Torah, as reminder to keep or obey the Law of Moses. The larger the phylactery, the more costly it was and the higher authority and respect one garnered. But as with many status symbols, the bigger the phylactery, the more one was probably overcompensating for a lack of something else.

To remedy this sickness of the ego, Jesus levels the playing field. No one is greater than anyone else. We are all students and have one teacher. We have no father or mother save for the One who created the heavens and earth. None of us is to be called an instructor for we have one instructor, the Messiah or the Christ: the Anointed One. But Jesus does not even name himself as messiah. Instead he says that the greatest among us will be our servant. Jesus steps down from any kind of pedestal we might put him on and humbles himself as a servant: one who removes burdens and carries them for another.

Click on image to enlarge

 How might we in the church be placing burdens not only on one another but on those who need community like this? Yes, we are Open and Affirming, but what if we had a rainbow flag out front, signifying exactly who we are? What if instead of expecting people to come to where we are, we would go where people are? Yes, we are welcoming to everyone no matter where they are on their faith journey, but how would we welcome and expand our hearts for people of no faith? Yes, we would love to welcome more worshipers into our midst, yet we sometimes have difficulty welcoming the ones we have when folks arrive late or do not always attend or only do so when they can or have gotten out of the habit.

Sometimes an expectation can feel like a burden heaped upon shoulders that are already carrying other burdens. Certainly a church, a faith community has expectations of participation: giving, learning, serving, showing up. But these spiritual practices are intended to set us free, not to chain us to a never-ending to-do list.

The other day I was having tea at a friend’s house and in her home she had displayed “The Real To-do List”: Sing. Smile at strangers. Keep learning. Laugh. Notice kindness. Eat ice cream. Hope. Count your blessings. Love. Love some more.


None of us are perfect. Being a part of a church won’t make it so either. We expect certain behaviors of each other, but truthfully at some point we will all disappoint someone. When expectations fail, what we the church are called to excel at is being accepting, loving, and forgiving. And isn’t it the being and doing of these that makes a sinner into a saint?

Think of the saints of this church. I only knew one of them: Wally. He was a procrastinator, par excellence. He harped and browbeated until he got folks to sign up and volunteer for Community Day. He instigated the solar panel project and rode his bike everywhere. He played the trumpet but never blew his own horn. He wasn’t too crazy about religion or Jesus, but he loved this church and he loved all of you. He was himself, no more, no less, and we loved him for it. We all want this for ourselves, but first we have to give it away. This is the gift we have to give to each other and to the world. This is the good news that we find at this table. This is the gospel that Jesus taught and lived. 

Wally McCurdy

There are days we might not do something well, but at least we’re doing it together, which is what really counts. Let’s keep doing that. Amen.

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