It is good to be here – to worship together, surrounded in this sanctuary – this sacred space, the beautiful music, friendly voices – there is a holy peacefulness that would keep us here except that, like most if our mountaintop experiences, we must come down into the valleys of daily living…into our challenging and sometimes uncomfortable work places, maybe into stressful family living where difficult decisions have to be made or children push us outside our comfort zones. Some of us during the week will be part of church meetings and circles that may be difficult, taxing our energy and our patience, demanding more from us than we are willing to give or have left to give.
It is this seeming contradiction between what is holy and what is the nitty-gritty of daily living that our scripture reading in Matthew addresses. We wish sometimes, that we had to deal only with God and could avoid the pressure of living in the ambiguous human community, where, as one theologian (Brueggeman) describes it, “relationships and decisions are often morally confusing and power struggles are unavoidable”. Unfortunately for those of us who like easy life answers, the text in no way solves so many of the particulars of daily life that our questions raise about life’s meaning and what is truly important. No simplistic answers to how we can live life well.
Except one…that we hear throughout scriptures and is so well expressed in the Psalmist invitation:
O give thanks for YHWH’s goodness;
God’s love endures forever!
It is God’s grace/love that sustains life and is the foundation the rest of this meditation is built upon. God’s grace is reflected in Josh 3 as the Israelites cross the Red Sea; in a seemingly negative way, God’s grace is reflected in the Matthew 23 story of the scribes and Pharisees who fail to see that the empowerment of Jesus as teacher rests in the authority given him from his father – the one in heaven.
The Pharisees have a bad rap in scriptures; tossed in with the scribes, they often came under scrutiny and criticism from Jesus. But notice…
Despite the repeated confrontations with them in recent Matthew stories, Jesus says: “therefore, perform every observation they tell you to” or do what they teach you, but not what they do! The Pharisees were an earnest lay movement that sought to be reformers of Israel in their time; they cared deeply for the Torah, the law and it’s implications and spent their life studying its wisdom and meaning. Matthew too showed profound respect for the authority of the Hebrew Scriptures and the riches of the Jewish tradition. I sense this passion and love for scriptures in the circle that meets regularly Tuesday mornings for Bible study. Lively discussions on spiritual topics, on moral issues and life’s big questions can be very motivating, clarifying the issues and challenging us in our daily lives. It is my love of scriptures from my youth that keeps me reflecting, reading, and conversing, writing sermons! What Jesus seems troubled with here in this confrontation with the Pharisees, and what you and I must address as a Christian community is the true nature of holy living/discipleship. It has something to do with Jesus’ statement” don’t follow their example; even they don’t’ do what they say. They tie up heavy loads and lay them on others’ shoulders, while they themselves will not lift a finger to help alleviate the burden”.
Jesus honours and even endorses the teaching concerns of the Pharisees – they seemed to have it partly right. The teaching, the meditating, the delighting/rejoicing in God’s word is central to who we are as God’s people. Like the Pharisees we too do not always get it right/ do what we say. The problem is our humanity gets in the way…we fail to see what is most important in Jesus’ life and teaching…we contradict the very teachings we lift up…we seek to orientate our entire lives toward God, and we too often, in our ‘feel good’ activities within our churches, draw attention to ourselves instead, and in the process, overlook the needs of others, even placing a greater burden on them than they are able to carry.
True faithfulness, true discipleship, true holiness, Jesus says, is found not in word but in deed – in our actions –in the orientation of our hearts! As the orientation of our hearts moves towards God (in our worship, in our study and conversations, in our community service) it must always be visualized/ lived out as an orientation towards others! Our gifts and abilities as individuals that we are blessed with, that we as whole communities are blessed with, must always be known and seen as resources/endowments for the sake of the entire community.
I share a STORY that illustrates the coming together of word and witness, portraying true discipleship that Jesus lived and taught, that Matthew seeks to pass on to future generations. Welcome to the Wisdom of the World – Universal spiritual insights from five religious traditions – by Joan Chittister, a Benedictine monk, spiritual teacher and prolific author. The context she is addressing acknowledges that every spiritual tradition is concerned with identifying the criteria by which a human lives not only the most ethical of human lives, nor the most moral of human lives, but the most holy. What is it that makes for a most holy life? This particular story comes from out of Jewish community and spirituality and illustrates the relationship between being one thing, good enough in itself (as our Pharisees and their study of the law) and becoming another that is even better (the Christ way), becoming even more of what we all say we are, whatever the circumstances of our lives, but find difficult to live out. That which is truly holy is identified in that which transcends what is normally expected of us –in that which surpasses what can rightly be expected of the average human being, you might say:
Another rabbi, Moshe Leib, put it this way: “If someone comes to you and asks your help, you shall not turn him off with pious words, saying “Have faith and take your troubles to God.” You shall act as if there were no God, as if there were only one person in all the world who could help this person – only yourself.
In our Matthew story, true holiness, true discipleship is identified, characterized as the one who serves – the servant of all. “The greatest among you will be the one who serves the rest. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Put another way: Those of us who walk confidently do so by the grace of God. Those of us who are weak and oppressed, who assume we have nothing to offer, are challenged to embrace our gifts and take our place among and with God’s children. Each and every one of us has a gift and role to contribute in God’s kingdom.
In summary, Matthew’s wisdom for us today invites us to:
Go into each day, each week, knowing the God who loves us, learning in daily life from our teacher Jesus, living out his teaching. Let go of all our entitlements and go as servant toward all you meet, discovering the belovedness in each person. Go, humbled, go confident, go rooted in the One who parts the waters of our lives and calls us into loving service for the sake of the whole community. Go and do that which is still left undone to do.