[I had the opportunity to preach at St. George's Episcopal Church, Bismarck, this past Sunday, after having attended North Dakota's Diocesan Convention where I gave the convention workshop on Appreciative Inquiry: A Tool for Mission. This is my sermon.]
The Gospel: Matthew 23:1-12
Me Ke Aloha Pumehana. Aloha Kakou. Mahalo E Ke Akua No Keia La. Amen’e ~ I greet you with the warmth of my love. May there be love between us. Thanks be to God for this day. Amen.
I found it ironic on Thursday morning when I left rural Boulder County where I live in Colorado, that I left the remnants of 15 inches of cold, wet, heavy snow and many fallen tree branches and rolling blackouts, to arrive here in bright, sunny Bismarck, North Dakota. Bishop Michael had advised me to leave a day early to get here to your diocesan convention, in case of weather. Little did either he or I think that the weather would be in Colorado and not in North Dakota!
The very dense Gospel reading of this morning is a little bit like that unexpected weather picture between Colorado and North Dakota. Things are often not what they appear to be on the surface. The scribes and Pharisees of whom Jesus is talking in the Gospel paid great attention to appearances. The Pharisees were a religious sect who paid particular attention to being pious, observing the religious laws of the times including making up some rules of their own, along the way.
The Pharisees made sure they had the nicest looking phylacteries or tefillin – a pair of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Jewish bible, the Torah, that they wore around their necks while saying morning prayers, and that the fringes of their prayer shawls, which they wore tied around their waists, were long enough to show under their coats – all for show, so that others might see them and their phylacteries and shawl fringes and see that they were pious. Jesus said, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others… 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 marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.”
I’d like to take you back with me almost sixty years, to my childhood experience of church, as a little girl growing up in Detroit, Michigan. The story of how I ended up in a beautiful, huge, gothic, cathedral-like church in downtown Detroit begins in China. My mother married my father in an arranged marriage in China and came to the United States a year after their marriage, when her number finally rose to the top of the quota list that allowed her, a pregnant 19-year old, and her Chinese-American husband, my father, a 24-year old cook from New York’s Chinatown, to come to New York City. Five years later, my family was living in Detroit, Michigan, where the unskilled labor jobs on the automobile factory assembly lines drew my father.
My mother, whose family had been evangelized a couple of generations earlier by Christian missionaries, took me and my two younger brothers to church, so that she could be comforted by being in the presence of God, because it was very lonely being in a foreign country where she didn’t speak the language and had no family or friends. My memory of church as a child was of being dressed up in “Sunday best” and being on good behavior – back in the days of “Children should be seen and not heard.” Women and girls wore hats and white gloves and covered our shoulders. No tank tops or sleeveless dresses and no jeans or flip-flops for us. The unintended lesson that I learned about going to church was that it was important to look the part of a church-goer. How else would anyone back in the poor, inner city neighborhood where we lived know that I was a good Christian girl from a good Christian family, even if we were Chinese and my mother wasn’t American, if I didn’t look the part in my Sunday best, getting off the street car every Sunday afternoon?
Fast forward to today, in Bismarck, North Dakota, and in Boulder County, Colorado, and we won’t see everyone in church dressed up in “Sunday best.” Church now-a-days is a “Come as you are” affair, and I think we are better for it. Jesus welcomes everyone into the membership of his Body and Blood, into his Beloved Community, and two thousand years later, we have learned the lesson that he taught in today’s Gospel.
Jesus said, in regard to those scribes and Pharisees, who cared so much about appearances, “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; 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.”
It is significant to note that Jesus did not say, “don’t listen to the Pharisees,” and “don’t do what they teach,” because Jesus knows that we humans have feet of clay. We humans, including the Pharisees of long ago, have many weaknesses and character flaws. That doesn’t mean that we don’t also know some good lessons and some truths that we can teach.
How many of you are parents? How many of you still have living parents with whom you have conversations? Sometimes, we have to do what our parents teach, even when we know that we shouldn’t do what our parents do, because they aren’t perfect.
Jesus goes on in this Gospel passage to tell us to call no one rabbi or teacher, because we have only one teacher and only one instructor – Jesus himself.
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As we enter into this season of the church year when we begin to talk about stewardship, a lot of thoughts enter into our minds about what it means to be good stewards as members of the Body of Christ, as members of Christ’s Church. Traditionally, we talk about stewardship in terms of the stewardship of time, talent, and treasure. We talk about giving generously, because much has been given to us. John 3:16 says: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” We talk about giving joyfully, because 2 Corinthians 9:7 says: “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
I would like to suggest to you, in the context of the Gospel reading for today, that you consider Jesus as your one and only instructor, and the fact that Jesus gave a new commandment in John 13:34-35: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’”
I think this new commandment given in the Gospel of John holds us to a higher standard than the Golden Rule found in the Summary of the Law, to “love your neighbor as yourself.” In fact, I think that if we were to hold ourselves to the standard that Jesus sets, to “love one another,” “Just as I have loved you,” we would be spending ourselves and our treasure, our talent, and our time – very, very differently from the way that we have done it up until now.
I want to broaden talking about stewardship to the concept of “stewardship of mission.” I want to challenge you to think about stewardship in terms of how you and I, individually, personally, become involved in participating in what God is doing in the world.
God has a mission for his church that he wants us to be intimately, personally, deeply, passionately involved in. In theological language, we say that there is missio dei, the mission of God. God is doing something wonderful and wondrous in the world, and God is inviting us into that wonderful and wondrous thing that he is doing. God is inviting us, and all we have to do is say, “Yes, Lord, it is I. Yes, Lord, send me.” In many ways, we said “Yes, Lord,” when we were first baptized into the holy body of Christ, into his church. We said, “Yes, Lord,” again, when we became confirmed as mature teens or adults, making a public affirmation of our response to God, the “Yes, Lord,” that we said, or that was said for us, when we were first baptized as adults or as infants and young children.
In our stewardship relationship to God’s mission, we are being invited in – in to the reconciling work that God is doing in the world. We are being invited in – to the work that restores and mends relationships in God’s creation so that the persecuted are victimized no more, so that the peacemakers are lifted up and blessed for their efforts. We are being invited to share in God’s mission in the world, so that the ones who love God, see their love of God reflected in the hearts of those with whom they share the good news of God’s redeeming love, so that the merciful see their acts of mercy multiplied by others who are touched by those acts of mercy. Our participation in God’s mission in the world, to restore our sisters and brothers to unity with one another through Christ’s sacrifice of love, means that we will be the hands that feed the hungry, and the arms that comfort those who mourn and are heavy-hearted. Stewardship of mission – our active, vibrant, joyful participation in the good work that God is doing in the world – means that we will stand in solidarity with all those who suffer from broken relationships, and we will love them as Jesus loves us. Jesus calls us to our better selves, to love others as he loves us.
Let me give you some specific examples of the kind of transforming love that I am talking about, that changes the way that we love one another, and that changes the way that we participate in God’s mission.
Bishop Nedi Rivera, the provisional bishop of the Diocese of Eastern Oregon, and I were traveling together in Taiwan a few years ago. We had an afternoon off and went to visit Taipei 101, which used to be the tallest building in the world at 101 stories tall. We ended up in the gift shop at the top of Taipei 101, and we saw a beautiful carved coral necklace, that was only $199, which was a very good price. I encouraged Nedi to try the necklace on, and we both admired it. The sales clerk told Nedi how great the necklace looked on her, and Nedi agreed. But Nedi did not buy the necklace, because she said something that I will never forget. She said, “I could never spend that much money on myself.” What Nedi said changed the way that I shop. I no longer spend money on myself and my own wants and needs the way that I used to.
We were talking about stewardship in an Education for Ministry class more than ten years ago, and the associate rector told a story about a seminary classmate of hers. She and her classmate were engaged in a conversation about the biblical tithe of 10% - the concept of giving 10% of your income to the work of the church before you begin spending the other 90% on yourself. The conversation went something like this. Most people aren’t able to bring themselves to give a 10% tithe, for whatever reason, but it’s important to try to get into the discipline of giving a set percentage to the work of the church, instead of just giving a set dollar amount. It’s the discipline of getting into a regular habit – a holy habit, if you will, that’s important – of giving a set percentage. My associate rector said that her classmate talked about how he and his wife were engaging tithing – giving the full 10% off the top before addressing their own wants and needs, and that the act of tithing changed the way that he and his wife ate. . . Think about that – the act of tithing changed the way that they ate.
I had the opportunity to listen to an Islamic imam, a Muslim cleric, give a lecture about the five pillars of Islam, which are the five basic principles on which faithful Muslims base their lives. (There are three major religions that all trace their heritage back to Father Abraham. We are often called the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Islam and Christianity.) The imam talked about the Islamic tradition of giving, which is a percentage based on not just income, but also on wealth – that is, based on everything that you own, not just on what you earned this year – and that it is given personally, face-to-face, to the needy in your community. It is an idea that is based on relationship with those you are helping. Imagine that – giving that is based on relationship and not just on writing a check. It is a fact that growing, healthy congregations have at least 25% of their members engaged in hands-on, up close and personal mission and ministry where relationships are being formed and nurtured.
A lot of the thinking around Asset Based Community Development revolves around building and strengthening relationships. Asset Based Community Development involves focusing on the gifts that every community and everyone in a community has, as compared to focusing merely on the needs that communities and individuals in those communities have. Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America refers to an accompaniment model of mission where we get involved in the lives of the people with whom and for whom we are doing mission. Because getting involved in people’s lives, building relationships, is an active way of entering into God’s mission of restoring humanity to unity with God through Jesus’ example of sacrificial love. Because accompanying people in their life’s journey not only changes them, but it changes us. It transforms us into the carriers of Jesus’ redeeming love into the world.
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So, dear brothers and sisters, what are the lessons in today’s Gospel? It’s really rather simple. Follow Jesus as our one and only true teacher. Don’t be fooled by appearances, and don’t be seduced into caring overly much about how you look. Pay attention to Jesus’ new commandment, to love others as Jesus loves you, because that’s how everyone will know that you follow Jesus. Practice radical generosity, giving out of the depths of your love for others, because you will be transformed, by living into the grace with which God has blessed you. Amen.