Sunday, October 30, 2011

Show v. Service

Sermon preached 10/30/11.

Jesus is in a mood this morning.  That’s all I can think of.  He’s come to Jerusalem and he’s not holding back.  Makes me think of the Cardinals’ pitcher who let loose a couple of choice words after inducing a long fly ball out to end the inning in game 5 of the series.  What a series.  No sound, of course, but you didn’t need it.  Lips were easy to read.  Was that really called for? Bek asked.  And we have the same reaction of Jesus, maybe.  Relax, Jesus, they’re on your side; they’re the religious establishment, it’s all good.  But it’s not all good.  It’s not all good at all.  Jesus is calling out the Pharisees and scribes for behavior he sees as nothing less than destructive to the souls of those who would inherit the Kingdom of God.

What’s going on?

It is especially confusing to see Jesus reacting so strongly because I have grown up in an age that preaches tolerance as the ultimate expression of love.  Tolerance: live and let live.  Not rocking the boat.   The opposite of Jesus in the gospel this morning.  By confronting the Pharisees so harshly, Jesus challenges what I thought I knew about love.  Says one theologian:

“It is often assumed that Jesus’s judgmental tone and his unforgiving judgments are incompatible with the great commandment (love the Lord your God, love your neighbor as yourself), (and) even more at odds with his admonition that we should love our enemies.  Yet...the love that Jesus preaches is not incompatible with judgment and, in particular, judgment on hypocrisy.  Faithful love, if faithful, is judgment” (Hauerwas 2006, p195)

Specifically, and plainly, Jesus makes clear that the love of Jesus has not erased the Law, God’s standard for God’s people.  And this should not surprise us.  Jesus himself said that he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.  That for all its direction, order, and structure, there are things that the Law couldn’t reach, like the inmost motivations of the human heart. 

It is possible, after all, Jesus says, to simply go through the motions or, worse, to attempt to turn relationship with God into a position of power over others.  The attempt to turn relationship with God into a position of power over others is what has Jesus so upset this morning.

His frustration is that love of God and love of neighbor are being commandeered for personal gain.  By crying out against this, Jesus is intentionally locating himself in Israel’s long tradition of prophets: prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah (whom we hear this morning) who called the people again and again to worship of sincerity and truth: justice, and compassion for the least, last, and lost in the People of God.

So Jesus starts talking today, and his original hearers have the bells and whistles of the prophets going off in their heads.  We might be less familiar with some of these prophets, but no worries, I have us covered.  Jon Foreman, of Switchfoot fame, has written a song, Instead of a Show, which aside from being a pretty good song, is also a pretty good paraphrase of Isaiah 1:11-18.  In it, we see something of the beginning of the complaint Jesus picks up for God in the 23rd chapter of Matthew’s gospel.

[Play music]

Instead Of A Show, by Jon Foreman 

I hate all your show and pretense
The hypocrisy of your praise
The hypocrisy of your festivals
I hate all your show
Away with your noisy worship
Away with your noisy hymns
I stomp on my ears when you're singing 'em
I hate all your show

Instead let there be a flood of justice
An endless procession of righteous living, living
Instead let there be a flood of justice
Instead of a show

Your eyes are closed when you're praying
You sing right along with the band
You shine up your shoes for services
There's blood on your hands
You turned your back on the homeless
And the ones that don't fit in your plan
Quit playing religion games
There's blood on your hands

Instead let there be a flood of justice
An endless procession of righteous living, living
Instead let there be a flood of justice
Instead of a show
I hate all your show

Let's argue this out
If your sins are blood red
Let's argue this out
You'll be one of the clouds
Let's argue this out
Quit fooling around
Give love to the ones who can't love at all
Give hope to the ones who got no hope at all
Stand up for the ones who can't stand at all, all
I hate all your show
I hate all your show
I hate all your show
I hate all your show

Instead let there be a flood of justice
An endless procession of righteous living, living
Instead let there be a flood of justice
Instead of a show
I hate all your show

I want to suggest this morning that the prophetic tradition of Isaiah, and Jesus, too, puts before us the question of Show versus Service.  Show, the putting on of a religious costume for the sake of respect.  Service, the endless procession of righteous living, seeking and serving Christ in all persons.  The question of Show versus Service has the potential to be uncomfortable for us as Episcopalians because we wear vestments similar to the ones the Pharisees get called out for wearing.  Because some of us call priests and parents “Father,” even though Jesus thinks this confuses some people as to who their true Father is.  Even so, I think we should be encouraged when we remember that what we do here on the Lord’s Day is not called “The Show,” but the “service.”  After all, as one author says, “The externals are not the problem, but they become a problem when they no longer shape the life of prayer.”  The life of prayer.  This may be an obvious point, but here, our life of prayer is called the Sunday service because, in our Sunday services, we Christians learn what it means to serve.  Not a show, but our service.

Here, in the Eucharist, we learn the proper place of power in our lives because we worship a king who climbed on a cross for his people.  We learn what it means to serve when Jesus washes our feet. 

This understanding of power’s proper place in our lives orders our worship.  So, for example, the one we call the priest, the presider over the Assembly shows off his power by what?  Bussing the table.  By service.  And the ones with great wealth, great monetary power, come here and...share their plenty with those people in need.  And the ones who have been wronged, and so find themselves in positions of power over others, come here to pour out forgiveness, exchange God’s peace, even with one-time enemies.  It is here, at this Table, that we learn to serve one another.  Here, that we learn that power is not for privileging ourselves, but for raising up the powerless.  That love is not first for the lovely, but for the loveless and unloving.  That hope is not first for the hopeful, but for the hopeless and despairing.  We learn this here, and only here, because while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Here that we learn that there is no gift under heaven but those that might make us servants one to another.  Because he came as our servant.

If this moment and this encounter with God mean to teach you anything for Monday through Saturday, it is how to serve.  Go in peace, we say, to love and serve the Lord.

An obvious thing, maybe.  But that’s why we’re here.  You know, instead of a show.

Amen.

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