Sermon for November 2, 2014, Pentecost +21 A on Matthew 23:1-12
Then 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; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 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. They 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. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
I grew up in the American North where autumn is a dramatic season of change. Nearly all of the trees loose their leaves, and, after a brief flourish of beauty, remain with bare branches for the next six months. The fields are harvested for the last time of the year; they are a lifeless-looking brown until snow covers them.
It is easy to understand why so many of the world’s nature and fertility religions thought of this annual cycle as a kind of dying of the earth.
“There is a time to be born, and a time to die,” as Ecclesiastes reminds us.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”
Here in the south, the changing of the seasons is far less dramatic with so many evergreen pines and the multiple growing seasons for crops. Right now, fields that would be barren if they were in Ohio are instead, covered with big white cotton blossoms.
But though there are fewer colorful signs of the changing season, right outside my kitchen window is a Japanese Maple tree which marks the changing season as its leaves become a deep magenta before they finally fall away.
From sunset on October 31 to sunset on November 1, the ancient Celts celebrated the gathering of the harvest, the end of summer, and the approaching “dark half of the year” as they called it, with the Samhain (pronounced “sow-hen”) festival.
It was considered a liminal time when the spirits of the dead had easier access to the world of the living. Spirits could be harmful, and therefore, needed to be propitiated with rituals to ensure that people and livestock would survive the coming winter.
The church had a history of honoring martyrs who died in persecutions, and eventually moved the day of that celebration from spring to coincide with the first day of Samhain. It became the feast of all saints, or as they used to say, hallowed ones, which gives us our word Halloween: all hallows eve.
It is fitting, therefore, that in this season, as winter approaches, we set apart time to honor the memory of those who have died. Christians do not fear death. We do not feel threatened by malevolent spirits.
We are in the hands of a God who is good, a God who is for us, a God who, in fact, loves each of us, and knows us by name.
As we honor those who have gone on before us, perhaps this is a good time to reflect on the subject of honor itself. What does it mean to live such a life that, at our death, people will be able to say, from a full heart: “she/he lived an honorable life; he was an honorable man; she was an honorable woman”?
To know what something is, often it helps to know what it is not, and this is especially true of “honor.”
This is where Jesus starts, in the text we read. He observed that there were many who were greatly concerned with honor, but who had a warped, twisted understanding of what honor meant.
He found the religious leaders of his day guilty of being, what younger people today would call “posers.” Like people putting on fancy clothes and a fake smile to pose for a picture, posers are all about image. Their concern is how they look compared with others. Jesus said,
“They do all their deeds to be seen by others”
So, they want the honorable seats at the banquet, next to the people with power and influence. They want to be seen to be religious. They like titles and expect to be addressed accordingly. It is theater for public consumption, all in the quest for honor.
These scribes and Pharisees are such easy targets, it is almost unfair. I have to look in the mirror. I have to ask myself how much of what I do is calculated to make me look good in the eyes of others?
Socrates supposedly said:
“The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be.”
Apparently this is an old and widespread human problem.
Jesus’ Alternative Vision of Honor
Jesus has an alternative vision of what is honorable. He calls his followers to be different. After describing what honor is not, by using the scribes and Pharisees as foils, he looks at his disciples and says,
But you are different. But you have a higher calling. But you know things and believe in a different value system.
But you know that there is one God, Source of all life, Creator of every man, woman and child. You know, therefore, that all of these external markers of status and importance are merely that: external, not essential.
You know that no amount of money can make a person of greater value than another. You know that skin pigmentation has nothing to do with how God values humans, nor does the language they speak, nor the word they use to name God.
You know that power can just as easily serve dishonorable purposes as honorable, so that the powerful people may or may not be held in honor.
You know that to be honorable is not about what you do when people are looking; in fact it is the opposite. Honor is about what we do when no one is looking, no one notices, when there will be no one to give us credit. Honor is about doing the right thing, not out of the lowest moral level reasoning of fear and punishment, but out of a morality that knows goodness is its own reward.
And you know that honor is not about protecting a fragile little ego from all insults and threats. In fact, honor is not about self-interest at all. To be a person of honor is to be an other-oriented person, seeking the welfare of others, finding ways to make a difference on behalf of the community.
This is why Jesus can sum up the subject of honor with these words:
“The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
From the one who was not ashamed to take up the towel and foot-washing basin, we learn that it is an honor to serve.
It is honorable to be a generous person; to be generous with our time, with our energy, with our talents, and yes, with our money. It is honorable to be one of those who makes a difference on behalf of those who need us.
So it is honorable to tutor children. It is honorable to provide worship opportunities for the elderly and to bless our services with music. It is honorable to take time to make sandwiches for memorial services and it is honorable to clean the kitchen afterwards.
It is honorable to go out of our way and accept inconvenience for the sake of the planet – to recycle, to protect turtles, and to fight for policies that benefit our planet, even if it means paying a price for them. We are called to higher standards than the standard of short term self-interest.
For us, it is an honor to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to fight for justice for the widow, the orphan and the stranger. It is an honor to stand up for those who are discriminated against. It is an honor even to imitate our Lord who was willing to suffer for doing the right thing.
It is an honor to be the lone voice in the room who will remind everyone that not all Muslims are terrorists. To be the one who insists that the radicals of Isis, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban do not speak authoritatively for Islam, any more that the Hillsborough hate-mongers or the Florida Koran-burners speak for Christianity.
It is honorable to point out that seeing a sign in Spanish or hearing it spoken actually does not do anything harmful to anyone in the world. In the words of Jesus himself: “ for you have one Father—the one in heaven.”
The Call of this Season
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”
This is the season to honor those who have gone on before us, and to observe the ways in which they lived honorably.
None of us lives with any guarantees for tomorrow. And all of us are mortal. There will be a time when people gather to remember us, and to speak of our lives. What will they say?
We are given only one moment to live: the present moment. So, today is the day to live honorably. This is the high calling we have been called to.
We do not respond out of self-interest. Nevertheless, it is a a wonderful blessing that goodness is indeed its own reward. A life of service is actually a happier life than a life of apathy or selfishness.
In the end, what St. Francis prayed is completely true:
“It is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”