Sunday, April 14, 2002

Jesus and Religious Leadership

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Matthew 23: 23-27

One of the cable channels carried in March two hours of documentary footage of Malcolm X speaking in the last years of his life. Through much of the film he is standing under a makeshift tent, in a Harlem park north of 125th Street. He speaks directly, rhythmically, nodding his shaved head and peering out from his spectacles. He accuses his immediate audience of enjoying their chains, like house pets. He excoriates his wider white audience, naming them "those pale old things". He holds the audience for hours.

Fear not, the sermon today keeps the classic form and rule, "No souls saved after 22 minutes". It is hard for us to hear the prophetic speech of the Bible, and to connect it with our own experience. We have few benchmarks. Matthew has stylized what clearly is traceable, through Q, and through its softer parallel in Luke 11, to the apocalyptic preaching of Jesus. It is this kind of statement that caused his crucifixion.

Life is full of inevitable collisions. In a way, you can chart your course on the roadway of life from collision to collision, day by day. They are inevitable, given the differences in life. Young/old, rich/poor, liberal/conservative, male/female, religious/secular, strong/weak, Republican/Democrat, urban/suburban. Collisions are sure to come.

It is the ethic grace, empowered in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, however, to live to soften the inevitable collisions of life. We buried a man this week who, especially in later life, did so live.

Word of Judgement

Today's sermon arises from a collision of a passage we passed by in Lent, Matthew 23:27, and promised to revisit, with news from this month about clerical crimes. Has there ever been a time when religious leadership was viewed with more suspicion? Has there been a time in our churches when religious leadership has had more stress, less authority, more publicized troubles, less communal influence and less support than today?

To some degree, by participation in the church of Christ, you are involved in this issue. It is not a Catholic issue only, not a celibacy issue only, not a clergy issue only. It is yours and mine too. It is our issue as American Christians in a time of clerical scandal, religious reformation, and cultural decay.

The angriest picture of Jesus in all the Bible is found in Matthew 23, a little ice patch from an older document called Q, in which are frozen forever a few choice words about lay and clergy leadership. Jesus reserved his harshest criticism for religious leadership (Matthew 23:27): "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for you are like whited sepulchres, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness". Luke's version, perhaps truer to Jesus, calls them unmarked graves, over which men walk, ignorant of the horror beneath their feet (Luke 11:42). As George Buttrick said, "was hypocrisy ever pilloried in a more stinging simile?"

Like most of Scripture, this verse cannot be served up raw, but needs some cooking for comprehension. Jesus here makes the hardest possible attack on the scribes (clergy) and the Pharisees (laity) of his time. The stylized refrain "scribes and Pharisees", not found in Luke nor at all in Mark, is probably Matthew's contribution, as are other bits and pieces of these wore oracles. Still, the very virulence of this sentence makes it almost certainly authentic, otherwise the clergy and laity of the emerging church would have erased it. It is the kind of speaking that brought crucifixion.

In Jesus' time the central religious issue involved keeping clean, ritual cleanliness. For the ancient Jewish community, the primary concern, the concern for salvation, what life is all about, was articulated in a discussion of cleanliness. The Bible repeatedly reports this. How could a good man stay clean, stay honest, when the Romans put their eagles in the temple and their stamp on culture? Who was safe from uncleanliness, with sickness and foreigners and women and gentiles and especially dead men's bones all about? To eat with hands defiled, to live with the wrong company, brought damnation, the worst possible fate. Of all the sources of uncleanness, which the ancient Jews feared, none was more shocking, harrowing, and chilling than encounter with a dead body. All the passion stories about cross and empty tomb only make sense in this light. The least clean point in the already befouled circle of life for these folks was the entombed corpse.

Now the thrust of this innocuous verse perhaps becomes clear. Jesus stands and looks at the religious leadership of his day and says: "You fear what is unclean. Fine. Let me tell you what is unclean. Not the Romans, not the foreigners, not women, not the Gentiles. What is unclean? You. You are unclean, in the extreme. What most befouls life is not Roman athletes, not foreign legions, not menstrual blood, not Greeks nor Egyptians. You are what most befouls life. You are like graves, like tombs, full of death, of bones, unclean, unclean."

There should be little doubt about why Jesus was crucified. He said something deeply offensive to the laity and clergy of his day, who then had civic power. In fact, he said the unsayable. Whited sepulchres, unmarked graves, full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. To some degree, we simply lack the capacity to feel the power, the harsh and raw and savage force of this one verse.

Any of us who lead, now or later, need to beware of this stinging judgement. Nor do we have any trouble following out its consequences: "You lock up the kingdom of God, excluding by what you say others have to say and do, by requiring a certain viewpoint, a certain way of using words, a certain experience. Your converts are prone to bigotry, too many answers and too few questions; they speak with charm and ease and venom. You are addicted to religion not refreshed by it. You spend too much time in church. You emphasize the tiny, the trivial. Trifles take center stage".

Jesus judges religious leadership for not living life, not wondering, not strolling, not kicking up leaves, not hurting over real injustices. Jesus judges us too, for too little simplicity, too much activity. The abused become the greatest abusers. Somehow, religious leadership is particularly prone to this form of death. Somehow, religious striving and service warp, crush, kill the soul. It is hard to stay spiritually alive in the ministry. It is hard to stay spiritually alive as a leading lay person. Harlots, harlots, enter the kingdom more easily.

This is a hard saying! But those who may have been harmed by lay or clergy misdeeds will not hear it as too hard at all. For those who may have suffered so, wherever or however, the pastoral ministry of this church continues to be available for you, including the powerfully healing service of Holy Communion offered each Sunday at 10:00 A. M.

But Jesus would not speak so harshly if there were no grace and no health to be had. He cares enough not only to save the damned but also to save the saved. He loves the soul. Not our politics, not our religious perspective, nor our worthy deeds, not our devotions, nor our churches. Not the outside of the cup, but the soul. He enters the heart, where he finds a stuffy little room with shades drawn and lights low and no air moving, a dank, dead space that time forgot, and he barges in like a bull in a china shop and throws on the lights and casts apart the curtains and jimmies the windows open and decrees, "a clean wind will blow through this soul".

Word of Grace

In grace Jesus meets us to clean the inside of the cup, and to open a window so some air can get in, and to prop us up in the face of a difficult future. It is not easy today to enter ministry, and it is not easy today gracefully to bear lay leadership. But Jeremiah bought his land when prices were down. Jesus spoke of light and salt on the way to the cross. I have to believe we are headed for a sea change sometime soon, a sea change in religious leadership. The religious leadership of the future, if it starts with the inside of the cup, has always the grace of Jesus to count on.

Religious leadership, lay and clergy, has only one primary responsibility, to cleanse the inside of the cup. Your own….there are various words…your own…inner life, soul, spirit, health, wellbeing, integrity, posture, voice, example, faith…before anything else, this is your responsibility. There is so much amid the collisions of life that we cannot influence or control. But our own person, here we can invest some attention. It is not selfish, far from it, to attend to the salvus, the health and salvation of your own being. It is not self-centered, far from it, to look for the ways you can get yourself out of the way. It is not greedy or myopic, far from it, to spend some time and energy and money listening to your own heart. What good is it to live as somebody else's best version of you? That is not the divine image. You are given life. You. Not somebody else's idea of you. Everyone you meet will have a version, ready to edit and print, of who you might best become according to their perspective. Some of this matters, but none of it counts like baptism counts. Baptism is the divine imprimatur, protecting the integrity and uniqueness of what is made in creation and restored in new creation. There is only one John Smith. What a tragedy to sculpt that unique John Smith into somebody's version of John Smith. From such tragic sculpture comes much misery.

But to wash the inside of the cup means several decidedly difficult experiences. It means looking inside. Most of us opt out right there. It means noticing the less than fully cleansed features inside, those clinging cloying versions of you, abusively even if accidentally administered by well meaning or not so well meaning fellow humans, against which baptism battles and battles. It means rubbing off the dust and film which has inevitably accrued, through the collisions of life. It means having the time and leisure and courage to attend to the above. It means realizing that every day we will be some part saint and some part sinner, some part forgiver and some part forgiven. We are not perfect, because we are not perfectible. We are human.

The great grandfather of the little girl we baptize this morning grew up along the St. Lawrence, the son of a border guard. In his long and faithful life he became an engineer, he became a husband and father, he became a noted leader and ran the water system for a large nearby city, he became a churchman and a Christian, he became who he was meant to become, himself. We met him just before Jan gave birth to Christopher. From his five feet of height, he looked up and said, "Can I just call you Bob?" He became something like salt and something like light, not perfect but healthy. May she too.

When the cup is close to clean something else can happen. You may find your vessel filled with a clear calling, a definite mission. I am too veteran now to say much about this. It happens when it happens and it only happens now and then. Why I do not know. But when a person has found their calling, you can see it a mile away. I can point to many examples in this church. You can see it as she stacks the slacks. You can see it as he cooks the cakes. You can see it as she sings the songs. You can see it as he teaches the teenaged.

I never knew Margaret Wilcox. But she had been found by her ministry, her calling. She and Clint visited our visitors in their homes every Sunday afternoon. Many of you are here today because you answered the door, when you might have stayed in bed, or watching the ballgame. She had a calling to do calling. You could see it a mile away and I who never knew her can see it from this side of resurrection. If every one of us cleansed the inside of the cup, and were filled with a distinctive mission, the city of Rochester could not handle the spiritual blaze.


I heard the new Pulitzer prize winner from Buffalo recite one of his more atheistic poems.

It reminded me of Robert Frost:

Yield who will to their separation
My object in living is to unite
My vocation with my avocation
As my two eyes make one in sight
Only where love and need are one
And the work is play for mortal stakes
Is the deed ever really done
For heaven and the future's sakes.

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