Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

Year A

Matthew 23:1-12

The Rev. Denise Vaughn

The Magnificent Actions of Love

There is a song I’ve sung especially when I was involved in Cursillo, a three day Christian retreat, and you may have sung this song, “They will know we are Christians by our Love…yes, they will know we are Christians by our love.” They will know we are Christians by our actions of love, and necessarily by our words. When my daughter was growing up because of experiences I had in my life, I would often say to her remember actions speak louder than words. We can say anything but if our actions don’t match what we say we just might be like the ones Jesus is speaking to today in our reading from the gospel of Matthew.

“They preach but do not practice!” “They do all their deeds to be seen by others.” These are Jesus’ indictments against the religious leaders where he chastises those whom he had just spent a full chapter in Matthew arguing with about taxes, the life to come, the commandments, and the Messiah. He had met every challenge and silenced every examiner. These religious experts with their inflated self-importance had been deflated by the rabbi from Galilee. They were wise and learned pillars of the community and guardians of the traditions, but they did not follow their own advice. They were talkers and not doers. They would tell people what to do and they enjoyed the privilege and pride, but when it came down to the basics, as a whole, they wouldn’t get down on their knees for anyone. They were doing in order to receive praise.

Jesus points out that the problem was not the religious leader’s traditions or teachings because he commands them to everyone; “therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it.” And Matthew, throughout his gospel, makes it clear that the law or Torah was good and God given. The problem was not the law it was that they misused their authority. They behaved in ways that were counter to the truth they know and teach. In these actions, the leaders were not unusual or unique. It was not Judaism that provoked this sort of hypocrisy and pride, but human nature. According to Augustine, great late theologian of the church, “Pride is a perverted imitation of God. For pride hates a fellowship of equality under God, and seeks to impose its own rule on fellow persons in the place of God’s rule.”  It is easy for us humans to confuse our interests with God’s purposes, our power with God’s power because we have a strong tendency to create our own hierarchies that are not necessarily the ones of God.

What really matters and the key to what Jesus is saying is; pious words and religious convictions alone do not make a person faithful, the true measure of faithfulness is found in the orientation of one’s heart. Do we love God with all our heart, mind and soul…do we put God first in our heart and life or are these aimed at something else. When we give of ourselves totally to God and seek God’s purposes of justice, mercy, love of neighbor and faithfulness, it lends itself to an understanding of God’s rules and equality under God, as St. Augustine points out. Though we humans are unequal by many measures, from intelligence to physical strength, from social standing to material wealth, we are all equal before God.

As Jesus reminds us when he says, “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” God is to be the center for us and when God is the center in our lives we come to understand that the gifts and abilities we have been individually given must be seen as resources for the sake of the entire community not just to exalt ourselves individually. Not everyone has been given the same gifts by the Spirit of God nor do we fulfill the same role in the community of the church but, we are all God’s children and each of us has been given so we can give back to God’s kingdom.

Jake Owensby Bishop of Western Louisiana writes in the Journey to Generosity bulletin insert today, that “God invests in each of us the power to transform the world. When we devote our time, our spiritual gifts, and our financial resources to God’s dream of a just and peaceful creation, our energies feed the hungry, heal the sick, mend fractured relationships, and restore shattered lives, In other words, God works through our generosity to restore the world. On All Saint’s Day he says we remember that saints are not weak. The creator and redeemer of all things flows though us. We can exercise a generous power.” A power that all boils down to this, God is not concerned with how much money we have or how important we think we are; God is concerned about us his people.

Jesus was talking to all who would listen and follow him so they would be aware that human nature is manipulative and self-serving and that we have to watch out for this. It is easy for us to confuse our beliefs and interests as God’s and our power with God’s. It is easy for us to be talkers and not doers. Several years ago I read an article written by Michael Frost, author of 49 books, vice principal of Morling College in Sydney, Australia and a leading voice in the international missional church movement. He was speaking at a conference that was aimed at helping pastors and other Christian leaders to better understand what it means to be sent into the world to proclaim the gospel; to be does and talkers of the word of God. It is by far the best understanding I have read clarifying the mission of the church.

Here is the core of what he said: “The mission of the church is not to grow the church….the mission of the church is to alert all people to the universal reign of God through Christ. There are two broad ways you can do that. On the one hand, you can speak about it. You can tell people... On the other hand, you can demonstrate or show people what the universal reign of God through Christ looks like. And what will that look like? That would look like hospitality and generosity and peace and justice and love and truth and freedom. Your job, my friends, he says is to show people what the reign of God looks like. The reign of God looks like freedom, joy, peace and love. It’s meant to look magnificent. Now understand Michael wrote “that most Christians get the fact they cannot create the kingdom of God on Earth in our lifetimes or ever. Rather, the best we can do is to demonstrate what that reign will be like and hope others will want to join us in that.” This is what Jesus wanted the religious leaders and his followers to hear and understand. They will know us by our love and it’s meant to look magnificent!