A.J. Jacobs is in many ways very different from us. A self-described secular Jew, he lives in Manhattan, writes for Vanity Fair, has published a handful of successful memoirs. A couple of years ago he set out to explore issues of faith. Inspired by an uncle, he wanted to try and understand the role of law in the bible, of rules, of things the text says, at some point, you HAVE to do to be faithful. He began by making a list of all hard and fast rules, prescribed rituals, or other guidelines made out in the bible as integral to daily living. Then, one by one, he tries to follow: obscure laws on not shaving, wearing white clothes, eating or avoiding certain foods. He immerses himself in the biblical world, does his homework, goes and meets people who can help explain things, from orthodox rabbis to fundamentalist Christians. He is surprised by how the ritual of prayer shapes him, even when he’s not entirely sure to whom he is praying.1 Jacob’s book, while sometimes silly, explores important questions about faith and rules: when do certain structures help the community, and when does legalism make faith little more than a game of checking off the boxes? When does faith become more about avoiding breaking the rules than letting them guide a faithful life?
Because there are times when the rules make sense, when we need them. As Taylor talked about last week – in the text right before this one when Jesus speaks of the great commandment. Our tradition has worked hard to understand the biblical laws not as rigid boundaries imposed in draconian ways, but as a fence line, a way to give shape and form to our living, to our communities as Christians, to help us live together. BUT. There are also times when the rules don’t work. When deadly viruses spread across Africa, a little here in the US, and fear grips us and our institutions. When a teenager commits suicide. When the phone rings, and it’s the doctor, and they’ve seen something, and you need to come back in. When a gunman walks into a school or a county courthouse. As we sit by the bed of someone we love. When the categories we long for, we cling to, that help us make sense of all of this MESS, fall apart.
On the one side, Jesus gives us the example of the religious leaders. The last couple of chapters he has been engaged in rhetorical hardball with different sets of them. They have asked him questions, trying to force him into a gaffe the media will repeat, and he has passed every test. The last verse of chapter 22 tells us that from that day no one dared ask him any more questions. As they depart, Jesus uses this as an opportunity to explore leadership and faithfulness.
He offers a series of ascending criticisms. First, by saying that ‘the scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat’ he acknowledges they do carry important authority. In a world in which many were illiterate, they had access to the words that mattered – the Torah, scripture itself. But, Jesus is also making a distinction between the words preachers preach, and the words of the text that are so much more powerful.2 While our tradition places an important emphasis on preaching, anything I say up here, anything any of us come up with, is only the slightest bit faithful when it leans into the text, illumined by the Holy Spirit. The real authority lies with the text, and the text’s God.
Jesus’ next critique cuts deeply. He reminds the crowds of the leaders’ hypocrisy. The content of what they teach may be fine, but they do not live it. They tie up heavy burdens – referring to the Pharisaic program for daily life under the law3 – but they don’t follow what they call others to do. Jesus points to how their religious vestments (those phylacteries and fringes) were impressive and showy, how they love the honor they receive, hopping in line first at pot-luck suppers. They want to be known for their knowledge, their ministry appreciated, people speaking well of them. In addition to the run of the mill egotism and hypocrisy, we know of churches torn apart, lives damaged, by clergy who have condemned, or who have succumbed to temptation, who have reallocated funds, manipulated relationships. We all know clergy we have thought highly of who disappointed us so much. I don’t know if I like that sometimes us preachers are held to a different standard. But, if we are going to even try to call us all to look for God, to tend carefully to each other, we must invest in that same work ourselves.
After the criticisms, Jesus points the way. Not to power. Not glory. Not well-dressed (or less well-dressed) fancy leadership. It’s about community. About service. "The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted." And it is in these moments that we look way past the preachers, to the people, to the saints, to those we know and love who have made space for all. Who have invested in others, even at their own expense, because they knew the work they were doing mattered.
The good news is, God gives us examples all around us. The saints that lead us still. Some of them are around, like dear Barbara Fletcher who we’ll send off with love today. Like the saints in this community who have died this year, all who taught us something special – Jim, Dennis, Scott, Chuck, Tommy, Shan. In addition to these saints there are countless others who have joined the church triumphant that you know and love and miss so dearly. One of them was my grandfather, Bop, who died in December at 101. Four months after his dear wife of 69 years, my Nanny, died, he was pretty down. A spry 93 at the time, he couldn’t imagine life without her. We talked and talked that summer. When I came back that fall he said, "Chris, I got it. I figured out why I am still here." I sat down and leaned in. "I can’t do much, can’t get out on my own. But," he said, "I can be as kind as I can to everyone I meet. I think that’s it," he said.
May it be so, that when life get hard, and the rules don’t work, that God’s love, our kindness to one another, service, in community, might point the way. All praise be to God. Amen.
1. A.J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007), 6.
2. This idea is drawn from the Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner’s most helpful paper on this text for the 2008 gathering of the Portable Snack in Kansas City.
3. WBC: Matthew, by Tom Long, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1997), p. 259.