Matthew 23:1-12 What Should I Do? November 5, 2017
This morning, as we come for our service of remembrance, we come thinking of those who have served in the forces of our country, especially those who paid the supreme sacrifice in order that we might enjoy the peace and freedom that we live in in Canada. We also live in a world where peace seems to be increasingly fragile.
You may have heard of the Doomsday Clock. In 1945, the atomic scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, as they realized the consequences of their work, formed a society to make the world realize the gravity of war. To graphically illustrate this, they used a clock, and you can well imagine what would happen at midnight. The society still exists. In their latest bulletin they said, “The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon. In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent. It is two and a half minutes to midnight, the Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way.”
The scene is common in literature and film: a young soldier is going off to war. The soldier has enlisted thinking that war will be an adventure. Thinking that conflict will not last long. Thinking that victory will come quickly. The events of that last century, and the complex conflicts of our own day, tell us that these situations last far longer than we ever think and a great toll is exacted upon human life. What we remember today is that toll upon human life, whether life paid or life interrupted by war. Don’t we honour today the value and the sacredness of human life?
We are a long way from this morning’s scripture lesson from Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus criticizes the scribes and Pharisees. As this is my first sermon after being away, I want to recap the scripture reading of last week from the book of Matthew. The first thing to remember about Matthew is that he is trying to demonstrate to the Jewish people that Jesus is the Messiah promised in the writing of the Old Testament. He fulfills the prophecies. Last week’s scripture was on the concept of the two central commandments for Jews: to love the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbour as yourself. The ten commandments expand upon these two commandments. How do you love God? How do you love your neighbour? By the time of Jesus, the two commandments had morphed into 629 laws which one was to fulfill if one was to be in right relationship with God. Jesus’ critique is that 629 commandments are a little ridiculous. Jesus says, “I have not come to abolish the law but to fulfill the law.” [Mt. 5:17] In other words, “I have come to put a more sensible interpretation on the law.”
The law, the commandments, are instructions on how we are to live life. As the men and women of the Old Testament began to apply these laws we see that a few things stand out. First and foremost is the sacredness of life. Human beings are created in the image of God. You can’t get much more sacred than that. The second thing is, as this sacredness is lived out, there is to be justice and equality for all. Time and time again in the Old Testament, we have stories of strangers, people outside of the Jewish community, being welcomed and accepted. We also see a tremendous concern for societal justice as those on the margins of society, the widows, the poor, the sick are welcomed into the fold. Of course, dealing with humans, this interpretation of the law doesn’t always get lived out the way it should. This is why Jesus was critiquing the scribes and the Pharisees. It seems as if they lived the law for a show of their piety and for their own gain. They didn’t practise what they preach. They have forgotten the heart of God. Interesting that the Greek word for “hypocrite” is more accurately translated into modern English as “actor”. What an image for hypocrisy: acting. I wonder how often we are actors in life, rather than living genuinely?
It is easy to see this lesson from Matthew as a criticism of the religious system of Jesus’ day, but what does it say to us today, remembering the sacredness of lives given for the peace we so freely enjoy?
Over the past few months, I have had three close brushes with death. I think at one point I was given the choice between live and death. It feels as if I actually pondered the choice and evidently chose life. I am still here. In all of this, I was reminded of the sacredness of life, the sacredness of my own life. Anyone who has had a near-death experience will tell you that you have a sense that your life is not completed. There is still work for you to do upon this earth. I would have you feel today the sacredness of your own life and also seek the sacredness of the lives around you.
There was a book which had a profound influence upon me many years ago when I was in university. It was the record of the lectures of an American psychologist, William James, given in 1902 in Edinburgh. He studied people from different religions all over the world and said that people everywhere have mystical experiences. These are times when we experience that which separates us from the world beyond as being “quite thin”, as the ancient Celts put it, or when we feel as if we touch the presence of God. James said that there are four “marks” of a mystical experience. First, there is ineffability. We cannot adequately describe the experience. Second, and I want to come back to this one, we are given a tremendous amount of knowledge or insight that we can’t explain. James calls this “noetic quality.” The experience has a “curious sense of authority for aftertime.” Wisdom given will last with you for a lifetime. Third, the experience is transient. The experience doesn’t last for long. Finally, the experience is passive. You feel that you are just receiving. There is nothing you can do. You feel as if, using James’ words, “You are grasped and held by a superior power.”
For me, to sum up my experience of noetic wisdom was to make me seriously examine the priorities in my life and to reinforce the fact that I am a participant in bringing sacredness to bear in this world. Somehow or other, the image of God, of the divine, lives within each one of us. We say that God lived in Jesus or that when people looked at Jesus, they saw the presence of the divine unlike they had ever seen in any other human being. We too have God dwelling in us, but being human, we don’t always express the divine as we should.
The Apostle Paul, when he was writing to the new Christians living in Ephesus, which is in modern-day Turkey, put it this way in a prayer for that community: I ask God to strengthen you by his Spirit – not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength – that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all Christians the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God. God can do anything, you know – far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! [Eph. 3:16-20a The Message Bible] I ask that this be our prayer today.
The final thing I have thought about is a question that God was asking of me. When you take into account your faith, your trust in God, your morals as to how you should live life, what is on your bucket list? What do you hope to accomplish in life and with your life? What are your dreams and hopes and how are you going to realize those dreams and hopes?
To close, I want to leave you with a quote from Carter Heyward, an American theologian. She wrote about this scripture passage we read today, “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.” Jesus was able to see each person as deeply valued and worthy of respect, because he “had a strong sense of his place in the larger scheme of things in God’s world.” Jesus, then, keenly knew who, and whose, he was. Jesus knew that all of us belong to God, and as his followers, “we know ourselves as spiritual kin to everyone” (Christian Century 10-21-08). Radical connectedness…genuine humility…deep compassion…this is the vision Jesus has shared throughout the Gospel of Matthew, and as he nears his death on a cross, he remains true to this vision, even in the face of power that has lost its way. That is “living courageously.” [as cited by Kate Hewey, Sermon Seeds, United Church of Christ]
So as we come for our time of remembrance this morning, I hope that our remembering will also encompass a desire to live out our Christian faith in a way in which we are instruments of peace in a world which is in great need of love, justice, reconciliation and healing.