5Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry "Peace" when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths.
6Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation. The sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them;
7the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame; they shall all cover their lips, for there is no answer from God.
8But as for me, I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin.
9Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity,
10who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong!
11Its rulers give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the Lord and say, "Surely the Lord is with us! No harm shall come upon us."
12Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
1Then 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 market-places, 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.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.
We’ve spent a good deal of time this past month looking back. October 15 was our 70th celebration, and a hundred people worshipped in a newly-painted worship space. Dr. Batts shared a story of when, years ago, giving the sanctuary a new look caused some conflict. Last Sunday, we threw ourselves into our Presbyterian Heritage, and the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
Then today, the first Sunday in November, we observe All Saints Sunday. Another opportunity to look back at all the saints who from their labors rest, to remember their ministry.
God has done marvelous things through those saints. This congregation is built on the generosity and struggles of generations past, and the larger church of which we are a member is filled with uncountable saints who contributed their gifts in their time.
But it’s also Stewardship season. We’re taking stock of the gifts God has given us, and prayerfully considering how we can use those gifts to the glory of God. There is an element of looking back, but we’re using our 20/20 hindsight to focus our vision for what the LORD is going to do through us in the days to come.
If we forget that balance, we get to sit with the Pharisees: so lost in the past they missed what God was doing around them.
At first glance, the Pharisees look like the “bad guys” of the gospels. They’re constantly trying to trap Jesus, they plot against him, and here in Matthew 23 Jesus lays into them with a harshness we don’t see from him very often. One of our lunch-bunchers compared them to the Red-Shirts on Star Trek, always the first to fall so that we know the stakes are high.
A closer look, however, gives a more complex picture. Jesus’s judgment on the actions of the Pharisees begins with respect for their teachings. “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.’” The scribes and Pharisees are not wrong, says Jesus. Listen to what they have to teach us, even though they have come after Jesus his entire ministry. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead, only a theory at the time. They also didn’t see Rome as the ultimate seat of authority in this world, the way the Sadducees and Herodians seemed to. When Luke writes his gospel, some of his stories even indicate that some of Jesus’s early followers are Pharisees. They’re not the “bad guys.” The world very rarely breaks down that simply. “Do whatever they teach you and follow it.”
The problem is not their teaching, it’s their action. “...Dr not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” They’re not the villains of the gospel, but they’re also not “good.” “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.” These are the folks who take the gift of history and tradition and corrupt that resource until it is a burden. Then they refuse to take responsibility for their part in it, and the burden of the whole system lays on the shoulders of others while the benefits, namely social standing, float back to the Pharisees.
The Pharisees have the Law and the Prophets, and they understand it enough that Jesus shows respect for their teaching. But they’ve gotten to where the trust their position in society more than they trust God. I don’t think any of us are innocent of that sin. “Lacking confidence in the divine ‘yes’ we hypocrites make masks or broadcast our piety in order to win a human ‘yes.’” We either set ourselves in judgment over others, so that no one will pay attention to our own faults, or we make sure we do our good deeds in ways that people will see us.
I get asked to do devotionals at various meetings, either for our Session or for one of the Presbytery Committees on which I serve. The one I’ve been working through most recently is inspired by a line in T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. It comes after the main character has been tempted, and before he goes to his climactic showdown with fate. In a long speech, he announces “The last temptation is the greatest treason, to do the right deed, but for the wrong reason.” That line has stuck with me since I first read it in my 11th grade Literature class.
When Jesus offers this challenging correction to the Pharisees, he condemns right belief that doesn’t accompany action, and he condemns action that is not done for the right reason. “[The scribes and Pharisees] 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 market-places, and to have people call them rabbi.”
Boy does that one get me.
I love when people call me “Reverend.” I love to be greeted with respect when I’m out shopping. I love to have “the good chair” when I’m at a dinner party or an event. I’m not one for phylacteries or long fringes, but I do wear a clergy collar, and I carry a physical bible even though my table already has five or six digital copies.
A couple of years ago, here in this congregation, I gave one of the best sermons of my career to that point. It felt good, folks were fired up about it, they quoted me on bulletin boards around the church and even posted about it on Facebook. The very next Sunday, eager to follow that performance with another great one, I got up here and preached one of the worst sermons of my career to that point.
Now I know that I’m likely my own harshest critic, but one didn’t need a degree in literature or preaching to know that this one was lousy. It was just bad, and I was shaken up. How could I drop the ball like that, and lose all the momentum of the previous week!
I called a friend of mine, who is consistently one the best preachers I know, and asked her about it. She pointed out that the first sermon was for God. The number two sermon was for myself. I wanted to look good. I wanted to be seen as a good preacher. I wanted to be seen as a leader of an inspired congregation. And so, like the prophets who get targeted like Micah, the Holy Spirit stopped talking through me just long enough for me to fall flat on my face. “Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation. The sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them; the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame; they shall all cover their lips, for there is no answer from God.” I got my act together, remembered that my gifts in writing and public speaking are an offering to God, and God is the one who preachers through me, and have not often preached a sermon that bad since.
The work we do as disciples ought to be for the glory of God, not for our own. “It is easy to confuse our interests with God’s purposes, our power with God’s sovereignty, our standing with God’s glory.” So as followers of Jesus Christ, we have to be aware that it is so easy for all sinners to slide into the kind of self-serving “service” that infected the Pharisees of Jesus day and the prophets of Micah’s.
Today is All Saints day, when we look back at the great cloud of witnesses who surround us. But as we look at their history of gifts, given to the glory of God, it ought to remind us that God has given us talents and abilities as well. Gifts that God expects us to return to God
“The gifts and abilities of particular people must be seen as resources for the sake of the entire community rather than as individual endowments that distinguish people from one another.”