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The Gospel for this day from the 23rd chapter of Matthew puts Jesus in the midst of a crowd where he dismisses the scribes and Pharisees as fakes. He says, "The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 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."
That's a pretty harsh judgment. These religious leaders, apparently, like to strut their stuff and be up in the front to be admired.
Did you ever hear of the country music song "Nobody Wants to Play Rhythm Guitar behind Jesus; Everyone Wants to Be Leader of the Band"? OK, it's funny, but after we get through laughing, we may start to think about the accuracy of that sentiment. Many don't want to play rhythm guitar behind Jesus, in other words, to see themselves as part of the supporting cast of helpers, putting Christ first. Most of us do want to be the leader of the band, to be even more important than Christ. How well this humorously phrased statement fits today's Gospel, which goes to the heart of a lack of proportion in our lives.
It's no accident that in today's Gospel Jesus speaks about humility. All too many of those who opposed Jesus liked the place of honor, and if the polemics against them in the Gospels are even somewhat accurate, they were always jockeying for position. Jesus told them and us that we must have a sense of proportion in our lives-that the love of God must be in us, giving us a sense of humility.
Let me tell you a story about humility. It seems that because of his great devotion and faithfulness to his king, a shepherd was promoted to the position of prime minister. The other ministers were angry that someone of such lowly origin should be so highly honored, and they tried to find some way to bring him into disfavor. But they couldn't find anything objectionable about him, except one curious thing: Once a week he'd enter a little room he kept locked and stay for about an hour. The nobles told the monarch about this and said they were certain he must be sneaking some of the wealth of the kingdom into that room. The king doubted it, but gave permission to break into the room and make a search. What they found was a small bundle containing a dilapidated pair of shoes and an old robe. The prime minister was brought before the king and asked about this curious bundle in the locked room. And he said, "I wore these things when I was a shepherd. I look at them regularly so that I won't forget what I once was and how unworthy I am of all the kindness and honor you've given to me."
Humility-the word comes from the word for ground, humus. Now work with me on this-being humble doesn't need to mean treating yourself like dirt. It can mean being fertile, filled with possibility, open to the planting of the seeds of hope and the watering of baptism.
One of the best stories of humility I know is that of a man who arrived in 1953 at the Chicago railroad station to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. He stepped off the train, a tall man with bushy hair and a big mustache. As the cameras flashed and city officials approached with hands outstretched to meet him, he thanked them politely. Then he asked to be excused for a minute. He walked through the crowd to the side of an elderly black woman struggling with two large suitcases. He picked them up, smiled, and escorted her to the bus, helped her get on, and wished her a safe journey. Then Albert Schweitzer turned to the crowd and apologized for keeping them waiting. It is reported that one member of the reception committee told a reporter, "That's the first time I ever saw a sermon walking."
We've been given a great task-to live in harmony, to weep with the mournful, to laugh with the joyful, to not be conceited. Especially, we are called to be righteous, but not self-righteous. We are to be humble.
The church has a lot of people who are religious but not Christian.
In our Gospel today, Jesus Christ paints a pointed picture of a barren religious life featuring all the outward signs but none of the inward reality. The religious leaders looked good; they were always prepared to set down the rules and regulations, but the force of God's love wasn't behind it. They didn't practice what they preached.
What if we were forced to really be accountable-in other words, to preach what we practice, not the other way around-but to put in front of God and everyone what we really do? How would we like that? Would you or I really be prepared to do that? Probably we wouldn't.
Jesus is showing us that there needs to be a connection between the professions of faith we make each week and the kinds of lives we lead. We can't be prideful. We must be humble.
The brilliant behavioral scientist Gordon Allport spoke at Appleton Chapel at Harvard University about how a code of ethics, however highly approved, can be a hollow thing without something to back it up. Following the RULES of faith-as if that was all that was required-was likened by Dr. Allport to living on the perfume of an empty vase. It's possible to live, perhaps for a long time, on the perfume of an empty vase, but sooner or later one is thrust into a situation where there had better be some real flowers, not just the aroma, or one is lost.
In our Gospel we see the tragedy of being religious without being the real deal, of placing primary emphasis on outer conduct rather than on inner character. Those to whom Jesus speaks did not recognize their need to be changed. These people may talk a good fight of faith, but when they are forced to fall back upon their inner resources of faith, they discover that the tank is empty. Jesus says, "Don't imitate them for they don't practice what they teach." All perfume, no flowers.
The religious leaders in our Gospel today used piety as a front for their hypocrisy. Their pretended charity was a lie. Here are Jesus' words: "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."
If you and I treat others with contempt, as inferior, our religious exercises become sounding brass and clanging cymbals.
There's the story of someone who fell into a pit and was stuck. The cry was, "Help me. I'm sinking!" Two who were on their way to a prayer meeting said, "We can't help you now or we will be late. We'll help you though. We will pray for you."
They offered no real help. They showed a complete lack of priorities. Jesus, on the other hand, would break the usual rule of not working on the Sabbath just so he could save another person.
Such religion specializes in self-made people. It is Joseph Parker who said to someone who boasted of being self-made: "Well, that relieves the Lord of a great responsibility."
Self-made religionists lack love and character. They love the spotlight. They love places of high visibility. They love themselves, not God. Something is missing.
What is missing is Jesus Christ. He makes us humble, grateful, receptive. If Jesus Christ is Lord of our lives, we will get rid of the hypocrisy and false religion. We don't have to pretend with Christ. He relieves us of the burden of keeping up pretenses, of playing charades. There's a place for us in the band of Jesus. Our job is to play rhythm guitar behind Jesus. Christ is the focus, not us. His is the tune to sing, not ours.
If we point to the Lord and not ourselves, if we are humble, fertile humus, with God's help we can be faithful, good, earthy people for Jesus.
Let us pray.
O righteous and gracious God, because you sent your Son in the form of a humble servant, create in us the mind of Christ that we may be your servants. Destroy in us false humility that is really pride, false pride that is really fear, and false hopes that will not face reality. Expose the shabbiness, phoniness and emptiness of our pretenses and dreams. In Christ, accept us as we are and give to us the blessing of Christ's innocence. By his dying and rising again, permit us to rise out of the death of pride to new life in humility. So will we be blessed through him whom you exalted to be our Lord. Amen.
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