Greetings from unseasonably cool Alexandria Virginia! Yesterday I traveled to Gettysburg, PA for the Lutherbowl Flag Football Tournament that was sadly canceled after a single game due to snow, mud, and freezing players. It was still a good break from my work. Today was “back to the grind” as it were, preaching 3 services at field education.
This is the sermon I preached this morning at St. Anne’s in Reston. It was a tough passage to wrestle with, but a good challenge overall. My sermon text is rough because I rarely read exactly what is on the page. I hope you enjoy.
Scripture reference: Matthew 23:1-12
We are a people who live by labels. Take me for instance: I am a seminarian, a daughter, a singer, an aunt, a candidate for Holy Orders, a terrible knitter… I could go on and on. When I meet a new person and they ask me about myself I tell them that I am a graduate student. I label myself. // We identify ourselves with labels because we are a people who have been socialized to identify ourselves, our neighbors, and the world around us with labels. // So what happens when those labels are taken away? What happens when Jesus comes and strips us of the labels we are accustomed to employing? What do we do then?
In the Gospel lesson from Matthew, Jesus admonishes the Pharisees for a failure to “practice what they preach;” this is nothing new, Jesus speaks against the Pharisees quite frequently. After reminding us that we are supposed to give glory to God and structure our lives in such a way that they make this a reality, he goes further to tell us that we cannot call our earthly fathers, “father;” // furthermore, we must not call anyone on earth “teacher” or “instructor” because the Messiah was our one teacher and instructor. // I’ve heard many people try to interpret this message so that Jesus isn’t really saying we can’t call our Dads “father.” Jesus wouldn’t want us to disrespect our parents, that goes against the 10 commandments… “Honor your mother and father…” // So Jesus must mean something else, right? //
No, Jesus is quite clear: “And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father– the one in heaven.” // He has said something like this before… Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus is on the road some disciples tell Jesus they want to follow him. One says, “Let me bury my father and then I will follow you.” But Jesus responds, “Let the dead bury the dead.” // Jesus instructs the man to stop making excuses and to follow Him. // It isn’t an instruction that we should disrespect our parents; rather, Jesus is instructing us to stop letting labels get in the way of following Him.
If we follow the commandment to honor our Mother and Father by respecting and caring for our parents, but then we look past the anguish of a homeless person in the park – have we truly followed the commandment? // You see, what is hidden in the midst of Jesus’ cry against the Pharisees and His call against the labels of teacher, father, and instructor is actually a cry against all of us who say one thing and then do another. // Likewise, it is a cry against those of us who do “the right thing” in order to obtain praise from others.//
This passage does not simply admonish the Pharisees for their inability to live up to the standard they set for others; this passage admonishes all of us who live in the hypocrisy that exists when we call one person father, neighbor, or brother and then pass by a fellow human being who is in need. // It is calling out all of us who work for justice when part of the motivation that drives us is how we will be applauded by our neighbors when they hear about our efforts. // We all fail to fully live into God’s commandment to love as we have been loved because we allow the labels we create to get in our way.
Often when we read the Gospels it is so easy to read what Jesus has to say against the Pharisees, Sadducees, Tax Collectors, and sinners because we forget that he is actually talking to us. // We are not the righteous ones who are being told that we will fit through the eye of the needle with ease because we have left behind the trappings of this world. We are the wealthy and the privileged, we are the sinners who are stumbling along the pathway, we are the Pharisees who make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. // We are the ones who are praying out on the street corner while being instructed to pray in quiet. // Today, we are the Pharisees. //
Does that mean that we have no hope? // Of course not! But the hope that is offered might be difficult for us to receive. // The hope, and the healing, that is being offered to us today is to strip away our labels. // The hope we have is to accept the Grace offered; // but to make room for that Grace we need to unload a lot of the things that are cluttering up our lives making it difficult for us to feel at home with Grace. // It sounds simple on the surface: opening ourselves to God’s Grace, but let’s really consider what that would mean in the context of today’s Gospel:
When I labeled myself at the beginning of this sermon I said I was a seminarian, a daughter, a singer, an aunt… and so on… for me to stand up and accept the Grace that Jesus is offering it would require that I identify solely as “a child of God” and your “sister in Christ.” // The rest of the labels hold no meaning from a heavenly perspective. When I die I will no longer be a singer or a seminarian, I will be what I have always been: “a child of God.” // And what is more than that… I am a BELOVED child of God. //
And while that feels tremendously freeing when I close my eyes and breathe it in, the thought of loosing track of my labels in the real world of 2011 Northern Virginia is terrifying. // I am currently searching for a job, can you imagine what folks would say if under the special skills section of my resume I put “Being a Beloved Child of God.” What would that even mean? // And I am going into church ministry… what about you? What if the next time you were applying for a position in retail or IT you put “Child of God” or “Brother in Christ” as your descriptor? // // // Is that what Jesus is asking us to do.
Again, no. // It helps if we look back to the Gospel lesson from 2 weeks ago when Jesus was confronted in the synagogue about paying taxes to the state. In that passage Jesus told the people that they should give back to the government the money, and to give to God what is God’s. // What we learned from that is that our bodies, our souls, and our minds belong to God while our earthly possessions belong to this world. // This is the same idea: We are being called to a place where we don’t let our earthly labels distract us from the divine purpose God has for us. // It is the line between pride and glory that we must walk. //
God has blessed us with the skills we have and when we lose track of the fact that it is God who has provided the skills and abilities, that is when we fall into the trapping of Pride. // Jesus is teaching us to be disciples, and to be a disciple we must learn to leave everything behind when we follow Him.
Stanley Hauerwas, professor of Theological Ethics at Duke and author of numerous books, has just released a new book entitled, “Working with Words: On Learning to Speak Christian.” In it he has included a commencement address he gave at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, in it he describes the job of a minister as a teacher of the language of Christianity. Hauerwas says that seminary is an exercise in learning to read Christian texts working toward an end of learning to “speak Christian” so that graduates may enter the ministry and become teachers of the “Christian language.” He focuses his work on the risks and challenges associated with using words to talk about God. // Those same challenges are inherent as we venture out into the world trying to live a Christian life when we are not fluent in the Christian language and when Christian culture is not the prevalent culture in which we live. // One of the most important things for us to learn as we become teachers of the Christian Language, Hauerwas claims, is when to be quiet. He tells us that there is a blessing inherent in learning from the Spirit when we are supposed to speak, and when we are supposed to let the silence speak. //
It is in that silence, I believe, that we are living into our status as always, already, Beloved Children of God. // It is in the silence that we let go of the labels. // It is when we make room for the Holy Spirit to speak through us sometimes with, but often without words, that we live up to that label and allow others to find their “Child of God label” as well.
Jesus isn’t telling us to put “child of God” on our resume in place of the other labels that represent our experience; He isn’t telling us to stop being the creative and fabulous individuals that we are in this world; // // He is telling us that in the great scheme of things, our resume doesn’t matter. // Jesus isn’t telling us to disrespect our parents because our earthly parents are’t as important as our Heavenly parent; He is telling us to respect all of our fellow human beings because we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. // Jesus isn’t telling us that we should condemn the modern day Pharisees who wear their prayers like a cloak while acting in ways contrary to their preaching; He is reminding us that we are the Pharisees who must learn to match our activities to our faith without expectation of accolades or rewards. //
We are a people who live by our labels, if we truly want to follow Christ we don’t need to change our nature … because our nature is having been created in the image of God!… -we can still be people who live by our labels- but we must adjust which labels we use.
My name is Audrey; I am a Christian, a child of God, and your sister in sister in Christ. My current vocation is as a graduate student working towards Holy Orders. I enjoy singing and knitting, though my creations are made with love and very little skill. I have a large family whom I love very much. // It’s a pleasure to meet you. Now please, tell me about yourself…