“Walk the Walk” Colchester Federated Church, November 5, 2017, (Matthew 23:1-12) Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

While in India, I once had an interesting conversation with one of the Roman Catholic Sisters with whom we work.  Sr. Divia casually mentioned that she was going to be transferred soon to a new convent.  Of course I asked where.  She didn’t know.  I asked when.  She didn’t know.  I said, “Well how are you supposed to prepare for the transfer if you don’t know where or when you’re going?”  She explained that the head of her Order would call and tell her where to go.  Sr. Divia then would have one day—just one day—to pack up, say her goodbyes, and hop on a train or bus to leave for her new convent for the next couple of years.  She did admit that she’d love to get transferred up north because it snows in the mountains and she loves snow.  Sr. Divia smiled as she asked, “Have you ever seen snow?  Does it ever snow where you live?”  I didn’t want to talk about snow!  I was still hung up on this transferring to a new home in one day and asked, “But how can you get yourself organized to leave the convent in just one day?”  To which she laughed and said, “It’s actually simple to move when you don’t own many things, my dear.”

What an answer to a probably misguided question.  Of course she doesn’t have many things to move—we’re talking about someone who literally took a vow of poverty.  It’s almost the opposite situation of what Jesus described in our Gospel passage about other religious leaders this morning.  Jesus denounced the scribes and Pharisees who unlike Sr. Divia (that humble Indian nun) weren’t practicing what they taught and were not living lives of servanthood to say the least.  Jesus called out their hypocrisy because it ended up that they were doing all these religious acts because they wanted to be seen and praised by others.  It was about recognition and status, not being sincere before God.  They wore fancy religious garments and loved to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seat at synagogues.  They loved to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and for people to refer to them as rabbis at all times.  They loved to tie up heavy burdens that were hard to bear and lay those burdens on the shoulders of others.  But they weren’t willing to lift even a finger to remove those burdens.  Jesus reminded everyone listening that all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

It’s the kind of passage that can make us sit up straight and pay attention.  Because this isn’t just about the Pharisees and the scribes in Jesus’ day.  It would be easy to just pass this story off as bad religious leaders who were a pain for Jesus getting a lecture back in the day.  Yes, Jesus sometimes had his issues with those religious leaders.  Though this story is about anytime religious people become self-righteous and forget what our faith is actually all about.  This is about us and our priorities, it’s about being humble followers of Jesus Christ.

It’s a reminder that when we come together to worship God, it’s actually not about any of us individually being happy all the time.  Because we focus on worshiping God first and foremost with humility in our hearts.  Rev. James Forbes of Riverside Church in New York City once said that in a truly vital church, you’re only happy with what’s going on 75% of the time, because you’re giving up the other 25% for someone down the pew who’s different from you—and who really needs what you may not even want.[1]

When we gather for Sunday morning worship, we focus on God and remember that it’s not just about us as individuals being happy.  We look around and know one another or take the time to begin getting to know one another since we don’t worship in isolation, we worship in community.  We realize that humility in churches is thinking about the needs of people down the pew from us.  You didn’t like that last hymn?  Okay, well Tommy over there loved it.  Did you notice the way he was singing his heart out?  You didn’t like that last sermon?  Okay, well did you notice that Julia was moved to tears as the pastor was preaching that sermon?  You didn’t know anyone we were praying for and that didn’t feel good.  Okay, well did you notice how Becky’s voice trembled when she finally named that prayer request out loud?  Jesus is reminding the Pharisees and the scribes and us that when we worship God we must do so with compassion for one another.  We must pay attention and notice the needs of others because it’s never all about us.

Now this is the scheduled Stewardship Sermon because next Sunday is Consecration Sunday.  All of us are asked to bring in our pledge forms.  We’ll come forward and put our forms and our offerings on the altar, consecrating our gifts and celebrating our wonderful church.  It’s fitting that my parents are with us today because they’re used to me asking for money!  Not anymore—I work full-time and they’re both retired.  Though growing up was a different story.  If I forgot lunch money or just wanted to supplement whatever I had packed with a better snack my dad was famous for putting his hands up in the air in the middle of the cafeteria at Central Middle School and dramatically saying, “I am the money tree.  Come and pick money off my branches.”  Thanks, dad.

But what you may or may not know as we are in the midst of our CFC Pledge Campaign is that most pastors pledge to the churches we serve.  Sometimes we pastors talk to one another about how much to pledge because even though our giving is anonymous, most of us don’t want to ask our congregations to give if we’re not.  Or ask people to increase if we can’t and so on.  We sometimes agonize over these financial decisions because we didn’t go into ministry to become millionaires and we’re not.  Though we want to give as generously as we are able because it’s about literally practicing what we preach.  It’s about walking the walk and not just talking the talk.

I will be pledging to our church knowing that our collective donations help pay for our staff, our programs, our facilities, our mission work, and so much more.  Giving enables us to be a positive, welcoming, inclusive presence in Colchester and beyond.  I will be pledging because I believe in what we’re doing here.  I believe in the people in these pews and believe that we have a bright future with hope.  And honestly it would make me feel like a big huge hypocrite up here in my robe and stole as a mark of my office asking for all of you to give as you are able if I wasn’t giving alongside you.

Because our personal finances can be an expression of our faith.  What we choose to give to, to financially support—churches, non-profits, businesses, etc.—can be a reflection of our values.  Though we hopefully give not to be seen and praised by others, but because we know that we can’t serve God and wealth.  We can’t prioritize things and not prioritize God and people.  God loves a cheerful giver and it’s a privilege to be able to give in the first place.  Giving helps us to remember our priorities as people of faith.

It’s important to consider our priorities.  And it’s worth exploring an extreme but not uncommon example we’ve probably seen in the news of late.  When we observe how people behave in the face of natural disasters, whether it’s a flood, forest fire, tornado, earthquake, or a hurricane, we may notice that most people are pretty quick to abandon their stuff to save themselves and their families.  It’s a no-brainer, right?  Stuff you may eventually replace.  Big house, small house, condo, apartment it doesn’t ultimately matter as much as the lives of those you love.  People are irreplaceable.

It was striking this week to see pictures of people in Houston watching the World Series.  People were sitting in homes with hardly any walls or floors because all of it had to be removed after Hurricane Harvey to prevent dangerous mold.  Yet neighbors, friends, and families were huddled around working TVs in flooded out homes to watch their home team (the Houston Astros) win the World Series.  A community coming together to celebrate a momentous moment in sports—the first ever World Series win for the Astros, that’s incredible and community building and brought some joy to people who needed a win.  It also says something about priorities.

When we may watch interviews of victims of natural disasters it’s easy to observe that when people do save stuff, it’s often the nostalgic family mementos that might not be worth much money but are priceless to that family.  You observe that people saved a photo album or a small picture of their great grandpa or dog tags from a family member who served in the military or some old piece of costume jewelry from your great aunt or that box of love letters Grandpa sent Grandma during the war.  The point is that even when people may have a choice to make, a choice of what stuff to save in the face of the unthinkable; it’s easy to observe people choosing those few nostalgic items as opposed to the most expensive objects in their home or even their home itself.

This is the kind of thing that Jesus was talking about with the scribes and Pharisees having seemingly mixed up priorities.  If we prioritize our stuff, our privileged status, our wealth of knowledge (or otherwise) over the more important things in our lives, this mentality takes us further from God and one another.  Life is not about having the best place at banquets or the best seats in houses of worship.  It’s not about being called by fancy titles all the time or making sure that people observe us being holy and righteous.  This behavior defeats the purpose of us living the lives God intends for us.

It ends up that in God’s kingdom the first will be last and the last will be first.  It ends up that in a truly vital church, we’re never just thinking about our own needs—we’re thinking about the person down the pew from us and what they may need at church.  It ends up that sometimes the more you give away, the more you actually get in return.  It ends up that people matter way more than possessions.  And it ends up that Jesus wasn’t just talking about the Pharisees and the scribes in warning about self-righteousness in religious people.  Jesus was talking about you and me needing to walk the walk.  For “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”[2]  Thanks be to God, and may it be so with us.  Amen.

[1] Rev. James Forbes as quoted by Molly Phinney Baskette, Real Good Church: How our Church came back from the Dead, and yours can, too, 149.
[2] Matthew 23:12, NRSV.