Sermon for Sunday, October 30, 2011 || Proper 26A || Matthew 23:1-12
Amy Whitcomb Slemmer
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and Mother and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
Do we all know what tomorrow is? Halloween is one of my very favorite holidays! Partially because of the childhood associations that I have with it – dressing up in costumes, going to the school parade and seeing what your friends’ parents made them wear. Partially because it provides a license to be silly and light hearted, but mostly because it is a total kid holiday. Tomorrow night most children around here will put on a costume, perhaps makeup – some for the first time ever – and go door to door being given the best treats ever – free candy!
I know that some young people have been planning their costumes for weeks, and may request the extended wearing warrantee arrangements with their parents. In our household, there was a particularly sparkly princess dress that doubled as pjs for more than a year after its debut Halloween.
It is the unmitigated and unfettered joy that children express at Halloween that I find infectious. If you have been in stores recently, you have seen that retail outlets are not necessarily only focused on Halloween, but have put out Christmas merchandise already as well. At first, these displays provoked real annoyance, but when I saw a five year old boy walking around Bed, Bath & Beyond in his Batman costume, I used it as an opportunity to envision him opening presents at Christmas with the same eagerness with which he will undoubtedly be collecting candy tomorrow night as the Caped Crusader.
It was also a reminder that, in the right frame of mind, and following the joyful example of children, these holidays – all of them between now and the end of the year – are built in mile markers to see how we are doing trying to live into the most important commandments and living into the requirements of our faith which were further detailed in today’s Gospel according to Matthew.
Last week, the Gospel found Jesus talking with some of the Pharisees, one of whom (and we are explicitly told that this gentleman was a lawyer) was trying to test Jesus by quizzing him on which was the most important commandment.
Jesus responded with words that I hope are familiar, challenging and comforting: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Watching and listening to children on Halloween is one of my favorite examples of what it looks like to love anything with all your heart, and all of your soul and all of your mind.
Today’s Gospel reading provides some additional clarification beyond His favorite commandment about what we are called to do in order to live the lives that Jesus would have us live. He tells the gathered crowd and his disciples that we are to do what the scribes and Pharisees teach, but not to behave as they do, because their behavior does not track with the teaching. In other words, do as they say, but not as they do.
This morning Jesus explains that the scribes and Pharisees practice their religious observances with great flourish so that their actions will be noticed, not out of the appropriate motivation of loving God or their neighbors, but so that they themselves will be exalted. The scribes and Pharisees were the acknowledged religious leaders of their time. Jesus even validates their importance by saying that they sit in Moses’s seat, meaning that they were the religious rock stars of their era.
The long fringes and the phylacteries that Jesus references are in fact items that were supposed to help connect people to worship, bring them closer to God, allow them to love God with all their hearts, minds and spirits. But Jesus’ point this morning is that by supersizing them, these religious objects take on a life of their own. Rather than directing the wearer into deeper relationship with God, they actually become barriers or impediments to God’s love.
Because the wearers were more focused on the attention and praise that these items would attract rather than the devotion or religious discipline that they were designed to encourage, they lost their meaning, and in fact drew the scribes and Pharisees further from God. The wearers, we are told, enjoyed prominent seating, at banquets and synagogues. These religious leaders enjoyed the social status that these public, prominent displays engendered, but Jesus points out the complete hypocrisy of their showing up to be seen, but not being present to love and worship God.
So how are we to live into the call of the great commandment, while not calling such attention to ourselves and our actions that we have overstepped the bounds of devotion and wandered into self-aggrandizement territory? We know that we are called to take action, or to do SOMETHING, but what? And how do we know that our chosen activities are those that will please God, or move us forward in this holy love affair that we are invited to discover?
I have a wonderful friend who asserts that God finds bodies in motion. His point is that sitting around by ourselves, chewing our nails, wringing our hands or keeping our own counsel is probably not the best way to deepen our understanding of God’s desire for us, to feel God’s loving embrace, or to suss out what it is that we are called to be doing as faithful members of our community and our world. His suggestion is that we get moving – do something – and then evaluate. I have found this to nearly always be true. I can get caught up in my own thinking, or rote prayers whose words have lost some of their power simply by being said in the same way, in the same setting, at the same time day after day with missing intention or a lack of enthusiasm. But, say those same words while commuting, or while walking down the produce aisle of the grocery store, sitting with a friend, or running up a flight of stairs, and both experiences tend to be transformed for the better.
The inverse is true as well. Too many activities, done without intention deliver little evidence of loving God with all our heart, mind and bodies. We may be talented multi-taskers, efficient or incredibly productive at working through To Do lists, but without being mindful or spiritually intentional, those experiences are missing something, and are certainly not as rich or divinely connected as they might otherwise be.
Recently I finished up my work week having participated in, run or convened more than 36 meetings and it was a struggle to be present at each, and in fact, upon my Friday night reflection, the most that I could say was that I had kept to my schedule and been late only once, which was beyond my control. Truly, this was the most significant accomplishment of the week that I could point to, given the 168 hours that we are given to live in each week, 36 meetings was all I could say for the last 5 days. This made me wonder whether I had pleased God. My conclusion was, probably not really. I don’t think that I was in smiting danger, but what an anemic contribution that consumed an incredible amount of time and effort.
This sad commentary lead me to wonder what I had missed, as I watched the clock, chimed in when I could find a space, and moved efficiently to the next meeting or conversation. And given my complete dissatisfaction at the end of the week, what might I be called to do differently? What story did someone want to share with me? What was another person trying to convey using a particular tone of voice or phrase that I missed the nuances of because I was there in body, perhaps mind, but not fully present in spirit, thus violating a part of the first commandment?
Had I been fully present for those moments who knows what meaning and value would have been added in to each of these encounters, or how I might have conveyed God’s love of the speaker in a way that would have been pleasing and in keeping with Jesus’ charge to us? Surely, actively listening, being prayerfully present, and responding in respectful and measured ways would have been loving God while not making a particularly big show of it.
This week, I was on the receiving end of a not-mindful or spiritual professional encounter. It was one of the final meetings of another marathon week, and this conversation had taken a couple of months to schedule. I was incredibly prepared, and at this point, was ready to be prayerful and mindful and fully present as we navigated some dicey waters and areas of professional disagreement. But the meeting convener just went through the motions. It was clear that the expected response to “how’s it going?” was supposed to be, “great, how about with you,” which did little to deepen our relationship or our understanding of one another’s points of view. It certainly did not provide any insights into the depth or breadth of God’s love. Afterwards, it left me unsatisfied and hungry for a more meaningful spiritual connection.
What a remarkable contrast for me then, to be part of this community, where I can check what was definitely my professional autopilot, at the door. Here I am blessed to work intentionally on my vocation. Rote answers or rote prayers are discouraged. We are driven to do many things together, and provided with boundless opportunities to hear, act out and understand God’s love for us in very different ways.
Whole groups of people in this church are organized to do things together based on our shared understanding of loving our neighbors as ourselves, and because this is New England, and we are who we are, we are singularly adept at not making too big a show of it.
Members of this congregation have been generously praying for me and my discernment process since the beginning of Spring, and it feels like both a privilege and an important responsibility to be joined with you in this intimate way. When I hear your prayers echo in this sanctuary, I can not explain the effect that the sensation of hearing an individual voice at the lectern joined into the chorus of your responses has on me.
It is profound – and as I have been accepted into the next phase of the Diocesan process, your prayers will mean even more. As your neighbor I am grateful. As an aspiring Christian and perhaps priest, this shared prayerful activity is exactly what we are taught to do, and consistent with Jesus’ teachings about doing as He says.
Fortunately, there is great news for any of you who have shared a sense of disconnect between your personal, professional and parish life. The good news is that we have the opportunity to do this differently and better when we gather as a community, or you have a meeting, or are interrupted by a child or loved one. Each provides the opportunity to encounter the other person without pretense, defense or agenda. We have the opportunity to see who God has sent our way, and to perhaps more fully understand why.
Coming to church – hearing the gospel – praying for one another — we have the opportunity to do it differently each time we arrive, because we can strive to be more fully present as we listen or greet one another. This morning’s sung service provides us with new and beautiful ways of reflecting on and conveying familiar words and sentiments.
Think of the gift we have right here in this building to be seated next to a beloved child of God. And in knowing that, what a remarkable, loving witness to understand that each of us is a beloved child of God deserving to be loved with whole hearts, minds and spirits. Outside this building, as we meet new people, or cross paths with people who may not appear to be like us, we have the opportunity to show up unarmed, defenseless and without pretense, but rather with childlike wonder and availability.
For many of us, Halloween will provide a wonderful opportunity to meet lots of new people who will be happy to see us, show off their costumes and make out with some sweet treats. Let’s learn from them and enjoy their exuberance. As we are admiring their outfits, trying to guess their age, and helping them out with their candy, my prayer for us tomorrow night is that in keeping the first two commandments and not making too big a show of it, we connect with the children’s unfettered joy. Because THAT is how we are supposed to love God and each other. Amen