November 12, By all appearances

 By all appearances

Matthew 23:1-12


In the scripture for today, it is not hard to take sides. And as we get ready to take sides, the obvious question is this: Are we for Jesus and his call to humility, his identification with those on the margins, his criticism of hypocrisy, or are we for the Pharisees, the religious hypocrites, the people who are hard on other people, the people who push to the front and take the best seats, the people who are greedy for honor and accolades? Which side are we on?

And put that way, it’s not a hard choice, really. If we are invited to take a side or urged to take a side, we want to be on the Jesus-side of things. We don’t want to be counted among those Pharisee-hypocrites; people who say one thing and act in an altogether different way, people who are neither generous nor compassionate nor consistent.

And the thing is, Jesus isn’t just leveling a few criticisms at his opponents in this rant about and against the Pharisees – it’s not just a critique of those who burden others and burnish their own image and push to the front and demand respect without giving it. Jesus has much more to say about who is right and who is wrong! It’s not just the first twelve verses of Matthew 23; it’s thirty-six verses worth of warning, of accusation, of judgement.

“Woe to you,” is what Jesus says to the religious teachers – the Pharisees – again and again. Woe to you…for you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you…for you tithe mint, dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith…woe to you…for you strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

He just out and out lets them have it.  It’s not the gentle Jesus. It’s not the Jesus who smiles back at his critics and with a few clever words turns the tables on them. It’s not even the Jesus who turns the other cheek and goes the extra mile. Rather, it’s the Jesus who tells it like it is. It’s the Jesus who seems not to care about the potential consequences of such inflammatory accusations. It’s the Jesus who seems very clearly to be inviting his own crucifixion.

Oh my, oh my! What are we to do with this – this in-your-face, tell-it-like-it-is Jesus?

Boy, I read a scripture like this and I am reminded that  I do not like confrontation. If I am forced into it, I’ll stand up straight and use all my size and all my intensity to communicate my seriousness; I’m not a “back down” kind of person if it comes to that. But I don’t like confrontation. I don’t go looking for a fight. I’m careful (I think) to avoid being inflammatory.

I suspect that part of it is because in my “Brethrenness,” I tend to think of non-confrontation as having something to do with being “non-violent” – this avoidance of direct conflict, this caution with words. More often than not I am careful to use words like “I think” and “maybe” to try to soften my language when things start getting too intense. I try to avoid name-calling. I can’t remember the last time I called someone a hypocrite (especially to their face!) and I don’t ever think I’ve called anyone a “blind fool” or a “whitewashed tomb” (as Jesus does in the second half of this chapter.

So, when it comes to this Jesus of Matthew 23 --- I don’t stand easily or even comfortably alongside him. It’s not my nature. It’s not the way I was spiritually shaped and formed in the church. I’m not a coward, mind you. I just don’t like controversy.  

Or maybe, if I dig a little deeper, it’s some of this: I’m not inclined to step out with criticism because I’m not quite ready to deal with that moment when someone will turn the tables on me; call me the hypocrite, call me the blind fool, call me the whitewashed tomb.

Because it could happen. I’m not immune (and neither are you) to being hypocritical. I say one thing and do another. I like to be greeted with respect, offered the best seat. I like to think that I am important (and even better, I like to be told so.) I may self-identify with the humble Brethren, but I can be dazzled in the presence of power; tempted away from humility.  

How do I know? I had a very stunning, visceral experience of this rather recently.

My family was in Washington DC over the fall break from school, visiting with my brother and his family (they live in DC) and while we were there, Loyce had arranged with Senator Joe Donnelly’s office to get tickets for a capitol building tour. The way it works is that you call your US Senator’s office in advance and they arrange to have a staffer take you on a private tour. So, she made the arrangement.

We arrived at Senator Donnelly’s office in the Hart Building and we sat down in the reception area. We were a bit early and there were others going on the tour who hadn’t arrived yet and so we waited. We looked at the pictures on the walls – pictures of the Senator in various poses with various people, we listened to the two receptionists taking calls from constituents. We watched as a delegation of six Asian business people arrived and waited for their appointment with the Senator, and then a staffer came out and ushered them through a door into the back recesses of the office. We watched CNN with the sound muted on the television on the wall. It was all very mundane.

And then suddenly, there was the Senator, Joe Donnelly, standing in front of us. Just like he came out of nowhere and we stood up and he pumped our hands. “On my way to a briefing,” he declared, “but just wanted to stop and say hello.” And then we had this kind of bizarre conversation where he pointed to the credenza under the flat screen television and said something about how there used to be a bowl of Cliff Bars there for people to take (because of course they are made in Indiana, he said), but they couldn’t keep up with the demand, so now they just have small bags of potato chips. “Help yourself before you leave!” he said, going for another round of handshaking. “Feel free to stop by again if you need anything else!” And then just as suddenly as he had appeared, he was gone.

And I have to tell you: It wasn’t until he was gone, that I realized how ridiculous the conversation had been. Because while he was standing there talking to us, I had felt kind of puffed up, kind of important. He stopped to talk to us! I met one of the US Senators from Indiana! Wow!

And I realized that I am just as prone to fits of importance as anyone is. I wished I had been ready to meet him – maybe I could have asked something somewhat intelligent or made a point about what matters to me in relation to what decisions he is facing in the Senate. But no. I wasn’t ready and I ended up just nodding and smiling as he talked about Cliff bars and potato chips. It was as if because he is “important” and he was talking to me, that somehow that made me important, and even what we were talking about important. But it wasn’t! And he isn’t! And I’m not!

And yet…it’s in me; it’s in us – this puffed up part of us; this pride and importance instinct; this tendency to want to be in the room, at the table, in the presence of those who our society says “matter.”

Meanwhile, who stands with those at the margins. If not us, then who? Who tells it like it is? Who asks the questions that matter? Who demands answers and accountability? Who confronts the powers that be? Who calls out our and their hypocrisy when they see it? And who does all of that not from a place of pride, but with a posture of humility?

Who is willing to stand up and be counted, to count the cost, to journey toward the cross? Who is less worried about being respected than giving respect? Who is ready to sacrifice appearance for the sake of integrity? Who is ready to speak up for justice? Who is willing to carry more of the load rather than dumping it on those whose lives are already too heavy? Who is going to worry less about protecting the gates of heaven, than throwing them open? Who?

I accidentally did a little Facebook experiment on us this week. I posted two things to the church Facebook page. The first was the Call to Decency statement written by Carol Wise, the director of BMC – the Brethren Mennonite Council for LGBT Interests. The statement, in response to presentations by a conservative Brethren group to the Mission and Ministry Board a couple of weeks ago, had this headline: “We seek a path that respects the dignity of all persons, rejects malicious attacks, and remains committed to our mutual wellbeing.” It’s really a heartfelt, well-written statement about right behavior in the church and about standing with those on the margins. That was the first thing I posted on the church Facebook page.

The second thing I posted, almost right after it, was a picture of the junior high youth who led worship last week – all thirteen of them standing here on the chancel after the worship service.

Now, I don’t know how things get seen by people on Facebook – what algorithm pushes one post to the top of the list versus another, but of my two posts, the one about the BMC statement and the other about the Junior High youth, my Facebook information told me that the BMC post reached 714 people, and of those it reached, no one commented and one person pushed the “like” button. Lots of people saw it, but almost no one engaged it publically.

The post with the Junior High picture reached about twice as many people: 1,518. No one commented on it, but 32 people “liked” or “loved” it and four people shared it to their own Facebook page, where dozens more “liked” it and commented on it.

Now there’s nothing scientific about my accidental experiment and I’m not complaining or criticizing. I’m just observing. People choose where to stand in public places. It’s easy and safe and pleasant to stand with the junior high youth. They are wonderful, lovely, inspiring young people. We are grateful for them and we are proud of them.  Is it less easy, less important, less safe, are we less inclined to align ourselves with BMC’s Call to Decency?

When I put it on the church page, I also posted the same BMC “Call to Decency” on my own personal Facebook page. I have no idea how many people saw it, but no one commented. Six people liked it. That’s fine, but again it says something to me: and what I think it says it that people are cautious about committing themselves. If I post something about the soccer team, or my family, or something interesting I’ve seen out in the world, I’ll get many, many likes and comments. But for this one? Not so much. 

Jesus lets the Pharisees “have it” for their unwillingness to stand with those at the margins; we’re a little more careful about putting ourselves out there. I have to wonder whether it’s because there’s still a bit of that “we don’t want to offend anybody” concern at the core of the ‘careful Brethren’ (of which I am admittedly one).

But what does that mean? What does that say about us?

I don’t believe in stirring things up just to stir them up – but then again, I don’t think that’s the way Jesus generally operated either. For the most part it doesn’t seem to me that he went around just generally looking for trouble, on the “war path.” But he also didn’t back down. He didn’t turn away from the hard confrontation. He didn’t turn his back either on those in need or on the possibility of getting in trouble with those whose position was that of power and whose tool and trade was protection of self and dehumanization of others 

We are living in a time when people are doing and saying things that we know are damaging to the well-being of the human family, doing and saying things that deny fairness and inclusion and respect. And I can’t help but wonder: When is enough enough? When is it time to tell it like it is, and let the chips fall where they may? Not yelling to get attention or to deflect blame from ourselves or to distract people from the real issues of the day in order to get a few gratifying licks in, but speaking clearly and directly to those who “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others,” those who love the place of honor but do not accord anyone else the same respect, those who (as Jesus puts it) “lock people out of the kingdom of heaven”? When does the time come to speak clearly and directly and say, “Enough. Stop. Don’t do that.”

I spoke at the Timbercrest Pastors’ luncheon this past week about my experience at the Bridgewater Church of the Brethren a couple of weekends ago at the “Power, Privilege and Justice” conference sponsored by BMC and On Earth Peace, and I put that alongside the reports about the Mission and Ministry Board meetings in Elgin that happened that same weekend and the presentations to the Board by the conservative Moorefield delegation. And when I came the end of my talk, I said this:

Tolerance is not a bad thing. It’s a good thing, especially when it opens up some space for us to even see “the other,” but tolerance is not enough. And tolerance of bigotry and deliberate disrespect or dehumanizing rhetoric is absolutely wrong. So-called “neutrality” in such spaces and such circumstances is not leadership. It is an abdication of leadership. Leadership is not tolerance or neutrality. Leadership is engagement and clarity and the seeking of the humanizing not the dehumanizing of the neighbor.

And if the elected leaders (whether those are leaders in the church or in the country) won’t do it, then we have to do it. (We have to stand in that space of humanizing engagement and clarity, because) we have a particular understanding of the gospel that I think is truly good news: the good news of forgiveness and freedom, of care and respect -- for the imprisoned, the naked, the hungry, the rejected; good news of God’s love and God’s grace, good news of the new community, the beloved community. We understand the gospel as something that calls us out of tribalism into the ever-expanding family of God. And we have to be willing to make sacrifices for such truth and hope.

So, having said that, I would say also this – this piece of what the Jesus-story for today offers us: Do not back down. Do not back down from saying and from doing what is right. Do not make it your aim to have “broader phylacteries and longer fringes”, or the seat of honor, or the title of Rabbi – or anything that is the present-day equivalent of those long-ago images of self-rewarding influence. Do not try to make yourself ‘more’ by trying to make others less. Do not put a burden on the already burdened. Do not seek to lock out others from the kingdom of heaven. Do not do those things. But do not allow others to do those things either. And let us be prepared and willing to make the sacrifices necessary in the cause of truth and hope.

As Carol Wise often says at the end of a note or a letter: Courage… strength.




Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

November 12, 2017