10-30-11 Tests of Faith: Humility

Psalm 43

In our reading this morning, Jesus is fed up with the tests of the Pharisees and beings to teach about Living the Story, living out what we believe, practicing what we preach.  He uses the Pharisees as an example, not because they were the worst around at practicing what they preach, but because they were some of the ones who tried the hardest.  They were the United Methodists of the day – pious and self-righteous, wanting to be good, but lost in the details rather than connected through the relationships.  Listen for the word of God. 

Matthew 23:1-12  Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.  8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father–the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Oct. 30, 2011                                   

Tests of Faith: Humility 

“Soul, a-soul, a-soul-cake, please good mistress, a soul-cake, one for Peter, one for Paul, one for He who made us all.” I remember Peter, Paul, and Mary singing that song as part of a medley of children’s songs, on an album I loved when I was young. Do you remember it? The words sing of an ancient custom called “Souling,” a per-cursor to our tradition of Halloween.

Halloween is often thought to have pagan origins, and some have detected its origins in the Celtic festival Samhain (pronounced sow-in), a celebration at the end of summer. It beckoned to winter and the dark nights ahead, But Halloween mostly has Christian origins, and is connected to All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day which we will celebrate next Sunday.

Souling was a tradition in England, in which people would go door to door asking for food in return for a prayer for the dead. The would sometimes carry turnip lanterns, hollowed out with a candle in it to represent a soul trapped in purgatory. They sang other songs that said, “My clothes are very ragged/My shoes are very thin/I’ve got a little pocket/To put three halfpence in/ And I’ll never come a souling/Till another year.” They were less interested, you may gather, in the souls of the dead and more interested in the soul cakes and the change they could receive.

Halloween has always been about the death of summer and remembering the dead; it’s about a world turned upside down for those who need it turned upside down. Today, it’s mostly about candy and funny little costumes.  It is personally one of my least favorite holidays, the least redeemable. Of course, I remember as a kid hating the people who tried to redeem it by giving out raisins or apples instead of candy, so that’s what I get. Halloween is not a holiday for Pharisees and self-righteous religious people like me who want to reclaim everything. It’s  a holiday for the people, for people who want to revel a bit and really change the way things are.

Maybe it does have it’s good side. At least as a sermon example. And for the cute kids. And for the way it exposes the masks we wear and the masks we wish we could wear.

In our reading this morning. Jesus takes the mask-wearers to task, chiding the Pharisees for the ways they want to look good more than do good or be good, who want to put on their religion for show rather than for authentic love of God. He particularly points to them as rabbis, as the religious leaders, so as I read this passage, I have to take stock of my own hypocrisy.

I get a little tired of how often scripture reminds me of my hypocrisy, to tell you the truth. I’d rather point the finger at someone else. I don’t think you want me to confess my sins in my sermons, but as a way of taking the lead in recognize our collective need for humility, I want to at least acknowledge the fact that as a leader of the church, I would like it if everybody else would just do everything the way I would do it.  Folks let me know they know that too, this week, as they reminded me that if we are going to change anything about the music program at St. Luke, it can’t be changed just they way I would do it.  There has to be involvement from every part of the congregation, and a concerted effort to keep different parts of our musical offerings from clashing up against each other.

Oh yes, I heard from folks this week. And that’s not the only humbling message I received and took in. It’s just the only one I’m going to talk about this morning.  You don’t need me to confess all my hypocrisy. I just want you to know that I recognize some of it, because we all need to move out of the precarious seat of judges and into the robust prospect of being healed. [p. 265, Allen Hilton in Feasting on the Word]

We all need to move toward healing – beginning with confessing our insatiable desire for approval, our insatiable need for human approval. We trade God’s quiet approval in a minute for the more obvious praise of other people. We do not have confidence in the divine “yes,” so we hypocrites are constantly making masks, broadcasting our goodness or our coolness or our smartness or our helpfulness in order to win a human “yes.”

The antidote for hypocrisy is divine grace, accepting the unearned favor and love of God. This is what Matthew is trying to tell us even while he insists over and over that God’s demands and expectations of us are quite high. God expects us to feed the hungry – the people coming to our door asking for soul-cake – not just those little goblins asking for candy. God expects us to care for the homeless and people in need. God expects us to turn things upside down now and again, to press a reset button for a jubilee year when property is returned and the earth is allowed to restore itself.

We live out these expectations of God’s love not in order to gain favor from other people, but because we have the favor of God, God’s grace. Acknowledging the masks we wear, we give of ourselves not to prove ourselves worthy, but to live out God’s grace that we receive no matter what kind of mask we have on. God loves us right past the masks.  God loves us as we are, as we really are, not as we wish we could be, not as we pretend to be, not as we think other people should be.  God loves us as we are.

This is God’s very good news.



Responsive Hymn             2175  Together We Serve