Emmanuel Baptist Church
275 State St. Albany, NY 12210
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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation
Minister: Rev. Kathy J. Donley
Rev. Kathy Donley
Scripture Lesson:Micah 3:5-12; Matthew 23:1-12
I have a pet peeve about the game of Charades. You know this game, right? The idea of Charades is that one person tries to communicate the title of a book or movie or TV show or song to his or her team without speaking. The joy of the game, in my opinion, is in acting out each word or idea until the team is able to accurately guess the right title. The people with whom I end up playing this game, do not seem to understand the plot of this game. I say that because of what happens almost every time we play Charades. We start out trying to act out the individual words or the general sense of the movie. We use the traditional gestures like “sounds like” or small word, which I’m OK with, but then it degenerates into what amounts to making the shapes of the letters with our bodies. So, instead acting out the meaning of the words, we are just trying to get people to figure out the letters and spell the words. This is a whole different game, if you can call it a game, and completely misses the point as far as I’m concerned. It’s not Charades; it’s some weird family version of “guess what I’m signing even though I don’t actually know sign language”. The creativity and imagination of playing the game is gone; it is all reduced to getting the team to say the words of the target phrase.
In today’s scripture passage, Jesus is displeased with religious and political leaders who seem to be playing their own version of Charades. They are very focused on getting other people to do the right things, to say the right words, perhaps even to spelling things out like my ridiculous Charades partners, but they have lost the big picture. Those behaviors are intended to be the natural outcome of living within God’s rules. Instead of focusing on the creativity and joy of a life centered around God’s love, the focus has become on the letter of the law, the spelling out of every word and missing the plot altogether.
And not only that, Jesus is angry with these religious and political leaders because they know the right things, but they do not do them. He says that they sit on Moses’ seat, which means that they exercise leadership authority. Jesus acknowledges that they read scripture accurately. The content of their teaching is correct, but they do not practice what they preach. They occupy powerful social and religious positions in a world where most people are illiterate. They abuse their power by quoting scripture and using it to legitimate their agendas.
Sometimes it seems that we live in a world very far from the Biblical world. On those weeks, I might have to search to find a way to connect with the scripture. And then, other times, the connections are clear. This was a week when the illustrations could not be more obvious.
First, you will remember that it was just last Sunday when 45 people were shot inside a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. In what is becoming all too common conversation afterwards, there were the usual sending of thoughts and prayers to the victims and families and the usual questioning of whether gun reform legislation might not be more effective. A Lutheran pastor entered that conversation to chastise those who suggested that prayers were not enough. In his blog post, he said that God was actually answering the people’s prayers by letting them die. God was using the gunman’s violence to deliver them from the evil of this world and into the peace of heaven. That is such a miserable understanding of God and interpretation of Jesus’ prayer that he should be charged with theological malpractice, in my opinion.
And then later in the week, four women made allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated by Roy Moore, a candidate for the U.S. Senate from Alabama. The incidents are said to have occurred when Moore was in his 30’s and the women were teenagers. Moore is known for putting up a monument of the 10 Commandments in the Alabama Judicial Building and for founding an organization called the Foundation for Moral Law. In other words, Moore is exercising authority as a moral leader. These allegations suggest that he might not always have practiced what he preached.
But even more troubling to me are the ways other political leaders are defending him with appeals to scripture. You probably have heard the quote from the state auditor who said, “Take the Bible – Zachariah and Elizabeth, for instance. Zachariah was extremely old to marry Elizabeth and they became the parents of John the Baptist.” And he said, “Also take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus. There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here, Maybe just a little bit unusual.”
Let us pause for a minute to point out just the most obvious problems with this – first Zachariah and Elizabeth were both old by the time John was born; there’s no evidence that Zach was significantly older than Elizabeth. Secondly, the Bible does not tell us about Joseph and Mary’s ages, but even if it did, one of the major points about Mary is that she was a virgin. Third, the allegations have nothing to do with marriage, but with molestation. It seems to me that this person is just throwing out almost random references to Scripture to try to legitimate his own agenda.
Ed Stetzer is the executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Illinois. He said this, “Bringing Joseph and Mary into [this] is simultaneously ridiculous and blasphemous. . . As Christians, this should provoke anger.
Stetzer is not the only conservative leader to speak out. Writing in The National Review, David French said, “I’m beginning to realize that countless older Christians misled their kids and grandkids. They said that moral character matters in politicians. They said they were building a movement based around ideas and principles, not power and party. . . Now, they’re willing to sell out for a lousy Alabama Senate seat.”
It is easy, maybe even a bit entertaining to talk about what those people out there are doing wrong, but that is not really the point of these verses. In these verses, Jesus is not addressing the hypocritical leaders; he is talking to the crowds and the disciples. These are some of his final teachings, and his focus is on the role of power and authority within the community that has formed around him, the community he will leave behind after his resurrection.
That community, of course, includes us. The community that Jesus describes understands power and privilege differently, or at least Jesus wants us to. He wants to turn upside down all our notions about who matters and what matters and how we honor others and what the role of service is.
Some years ago, there was a psychological study about power, which came to be called the cookie experiment. In the cookie experiment, participants were assigned to groups of three people of the same gender. In those groups, their task was to discuss various political issues and make policy recommendations. One of the three was assigned the role of “judge”. The judge had to rate the quality of the recommendations made by the other two participants. This put the judge in a high-power position relative to the other two.
About thirty minutes into the discussion the experimenter brought in five cookies on a plate. And the number of cookies was carefully chosen. Five cookies. Three people. Someone isn’t getting a second cookie. Who would that be?
What the researchers observed was that the person in the high-power position was significantly more likely to take a second cookie compared to the other two participants. Also, the person in the high-power position was more likely to eat with their mouth open and to leave more crumbs on the table.
The conclusion is that power affects us. Even when it is arbitrarily assigned, temporary, power. Power tempts us to take more cookies for ourselves. And power tempts us to leave messes for others to clean up.
Jesus’s harshest words were always for religious leaders. As a pastor, I have to take that seriously. I have to look at myself honestly in light of Jesus’ criticism of clergy. And then the cookie experiment makes that even more imperative. Because the cookie experiment reminds me that even when I don’t think I’m seeking the best places at banquets or enjoying any special clergy perks, I probably am. It’s not just me; it seems to be a thing that we humans unconsciously do with power and privilege. Which is why Jesus’ instructions about being humble are the most important part of this passage.
Every one of us exercises power in some way. We need humility to do that. And everyone of us can help someone else who is exercising power to do so appropriately. In the community of faith that Jesus describes, there is a humility of spirit where every disciple looks to Jesus as our primary teacher.
In community, we offer correctives. We hold ourselves and each other accountable. We value individual conscience and the priesthood of every believer. Unlike those in Jesus’ day, we can read the Bible for ourselves. This means that we are responsible for our own faith development. We are responsible to know the Scriptures well enough to challenge those who would use it for their own agendas, even, or perhaps especially to question pastors, who are as susceptible to bias as anyone else.
In community, we seek to serve God by serving each other. We are thrown together with a bunch of people who we might not always like. We came here to get to know God, but we don’t necessarily always want to get to know each other. Humility means recognizing that we might actually meet God in others.
Humility might mean listening to someone tell her whole story at length, even though you think you have heard it all before, because she needs to tell it, and because if you listen, you might still learn something new.
Humility might mean being willing to work behind the scenes to get the job done without receiving any credit. Humility might also mean allowing people to celebrate you or show their gratitude.
Humility mean might passionately holding onto a core conviction with all our hearts, but still being able to say, “I might be wrong.”
Humility might mean remembering that we live in the forgiving love of God, and so we are free from the weight of having to justify ourselves all the time.
The Rev. Carter Heyward describes it this way, “Genuine humility is a gift from God which has nothing to do with downcast eyes, a misty voice and noble stories of sacrifice. Humility is, rather, living courageously in a spirit of radical connectedness with others, which enables us to see ourselves as God sees us: sisters and brothers, each as deeply valued and worthy of respect as every other."
Instead of the charade of pretending we are something we are not, instead of the game of manipulating others to enhance our power, Jesus invites us to an alternative community where we serve one another, where we live courageously with a sense of radical connection, deep value and worth. May it be so for you and for me. Amen.
 Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading, (Maryknoll, NY: Obis Books, 2000), p. 452
 Carter Heyward, “An Elusive Virtue: Matthew 23:1-12, I Thessalonians 2:9-13,”
The Christian Century, October 21, 2008