Year A — The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost (Nov. 2, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Joshua 3:7-17
Several “quick hitters” that I note in this passage:

  • Joshua had a pretty bad case of nerves about taking over for Moses; after all, who wants to bat clean-up after Babe Ruth? Who wants to coach football at Alabama after Bear Bryant? (I know I’m dating myself with these analogies…but, what the heck…it’s my blog!)
  • But, it was God who “exalted” him; we never will really succeed at pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps. That’s just a misconception in popular American culture.
  • Speaking of bootstraps, have you ever noticed that the waters of the Jordan River — at flood stage, no less — did not part until the soles of the priests’ feet hit the waves? God is the original “just in time” delivery system!
  • I wonder how heavy that ark got while the whole nation of Israel took their time crossing the river?

Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37
Verse 2 is a great reminder: “let the redeemed of the Lord say so.” Don’t make God’s work in your lives a secret! It’s okay actually to talk about it. A pastor I met once referred to evangelism as “saying something good about God.” 

I like it.

Micah 3:5-12
Don’t lean on God to cover your own behind. God never owes it to any of us to clean up our mess. 

Psalm 43
There are certainly hope-challenged and soul-disquieting days that come our way. How powerful to pray for the light and truth of God — which is sometimes just knowing that you are not alone, and that God has not given (and will not give) up on you.

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
Those of us who had uplifting, encouraging parents received a true blessing from God. Not everyone is so fortunate. Whatever our draw in the parental lottery, we are encouraged by this passage to “live lives worthy of God.”

Matthew 23:1-12
I saw this week where Mike Judge, the creator of the infamous comic duo Bevis and Butthead, is working on an upcoming theatrical release of the boys’ new adventures. I can just hear Bevis snorting now, “Heh-heh-heh…you said ‘phylactery!’”

What is a phylactery, exactly? According to the omnipresent Wikipedia (which is actually pretty good on their Jewish minutiae): Phylactery is the English name forTefillin, a pair of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah, which are worn by observant Jews during weekday morning prayers.

Anyhow, the Pharisees are ripped by Jesus basically for being all show (BIG phylacteries, those guys!) and no go when it comes to what counts in the kingdom of God. There really is no better way to say it than v. 12.

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Tom Wright tells a funny story about a trip to the “camping store’ to buy all the right equipment for a two week hiking and camping trip.  The salesman was an expert on everything Wright needed; tents, maps, socks shoes, waterproof clothing, cooking utensils, water purifier, sleeping bag, and finally, the backpack. Wright paid for everything, put it all in the pack (again under the careful instruction of the salesman), then struggled to get the pack on his back.  After he finally got the whole kit up and headed for the door, he asked the salesman where he liked to go hiking and camping.  The man shrugged and said that he had a bad back and preferred going to the beach. (Matthew for Everyone, p.96)

What was it Jesus said, “. . . do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” (verse 3)

Now, this is not an unfamiliar story.  With apologies to my sister and my nephew and to the teachers in this congregation, all of whom are fine teachers; we all know the old joke about how, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”  It’s not really true about most teachers, but we laugh anyway.

And in many ways, this business of “do as I say, not as I do,” isn’t as bad as we make it out to be.  Lots of coaches of sports teams are much too old and out of shape to do the things they teach their players to do. My Daddy was able to coach my brother on the running of the farm long after he was no longer able to do the work himself.

But the hypocrisy Jesus is referring to here does matter; it matters a lot. This is not a matter of age and physical limitations; rather this is a matter of duplicity.  The problem with the “scribes and Pharisees,” is that in their teaching they imply that they are good examples of the principles they teach, when in fact they are anything but.

Like the salesman at the camping store, the scribes and Pharisees loaded the common people with heavy burdens, “backpacks” full of things they insisted the people needed for the spiritual journey through life. They had come up with 613 “commandments” and interpretations of those commandments, that, they said, must to be obeyed; and yet, they themselves, found loopholes, ways around, the very rules they made.

Not only that, Jesus said it was all for show, a false front to make themselves look good. Phylacteries were leather boxes with little bits of scripture in them that one wore tied across one’s forehead to obey the command to “keep God’s word ever before you.”  It is said that some were so large and ornate that they blocked the view of the person wearing it and they had to hold it aside to walk down the street. The “fringes” were tassels on the corner of prayer shawls and were traditionally small and discreet, whereas the people Jesus is talking about made them large and showy. It was religious “bling.”  And these same folks wanted to walk the equivalent of the religious red carpet and to sit in the big chair at the head of the table at all community banquets.  Jesus is taking on an important issue here: the love of place and preference among the servants of God.

We’re all smart enough to know that Jesus is not talking about all the scribes and Pharisees, just some.  And because this text was written by the church for the church; it’s not just about scribes and Pharisees then and there, it’s also about us, here and now.

Now, I have to tell you that as a person who wears a variety of colorful “prayer shawls” on Sundays and who gets to sit almost anywhere he pleases up front here, this is a difficult text to hear.  “Ouch,” is my initial reaction.  Is this me and folk like me that Jesus is talking about?  What was Jesus getting at in saying this and what was Matthew trying to say in telling about it years later?

This is about what Fred Craddock calls “the love of place and preference among the servants of God.” (Preaching through the Christian Year, p. 498)  It is not about attire; it’s about attitude.  It’s not about titles; it’s about a sense of entitlement.  It is not only about the ordained; it is also about any of the ordinary folk whom God choses for leadership who begin to think they must have been extraordinary for God to have chosen them.

This text is a call for all religious leaders to walk the talk, to do their humble best to live their lives in harmony with the things they ask of others.  There is an intriguing story about Gandhi that shows the standard we are all invited to follow.

A mother came to Gandhi and asked him to have a talk with her son, whom she said was addicted to sugar.  Gandhi thought for a minute and asked her to come back the next week.  When she did, he put her off for another week, and then another, and then another.  Finally she protested, “Why do you keep putting me off?”  Gandhi hung his head and said.  “I had no idea how hard it would be for me to give up sugar.”

“People who make themselves great will be humbled; and people who humble themselves will become great.” (N.T. Wright translation.)

Amen and amen.

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