A Sermon on the 17th Sunday after Trinity, October 10. 2019
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
The Epistle, Ephesians 4:1-6 – The Gospel, St. Luke 14:1-11
- The Pharisees.
The Pharisees appear often in our gospels, but seldom are they portrayed in a favorable light. In today’s gospel, Jesus has been invited to dinner by a Pharisee on the Sabbath Day. The religious leaders in charge of this feast are said to “watch” Jesus, looking for a reason to criticize him. Jesus, for his part, tells a parable that attacks the behavior of these leaders and their invited guests. It doesn’t sound like a very restful Sabbath meal.
Ironically, of all the New Testament Jewish groups, the Pharisees were theologically closest to Jesus. They believed the right things, but they did not always do them. As Jesus said in Matthew 23, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore, whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do” (Matt. 23:2-3).
Who are the Pharisees? They arose a distinct religious group in the time between the Old and New Testaments (between 450 BC and the first century AD). The legalistic attitude associated with the Pharisees is often connected with the Old Testament. However, the were no Old Testament Pharisees. The main religious problem in the Old Testament was to ignore the Torah and mix the worship of the Lord with various pagan practices.
The Old Testament prophets warned Israel about laxity, pagan practices, and also about the nation’s tendency to trust in the military protection of other nations rather than trusting the living God of Israel. Ultimately, Old Testament Israel’s unfaithfulness led to a national catastrophe; the Jerusalem temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC., and Israel went into exile in to Babylon.
The attitude that come to characterize the Pharisees arose as Israel returned from exile to rebuild the temple. As religious leaders reflected on the causes of God’s judgment, they were determined that would never happen again. They become known for their zeal for the Torah and for the tradition that developed around the Torah.
The tradition was developed to guard the Torah. It defined Torah observance more precisely. For example, the Torah says, “Keep holy the Sabbath Day.” The tradition listed the specific things you could and could not do on the Sabbath. The Torah does not forbid healing on the Sabbath, but the tradition came to define Sabbath healing as “work.” Jesus never criticizes the Pharisee’s Torah observance. Rather, he criticizes the way their practice of the tradition served to miss the main point of the Torah—like refusing to help a sick person.
The Pharisees believed that if Israel was zealous to observe the Torah, God would vindicate Israel and restore Israel to prominence among the nations. This belief was understandable but erroneous. St. Paul, the converted Pharisee, highlights the error. After his conversion on the Damascus Road—after his encounter with Jesus—he realized that human zeal for the Torah was insufficient to fulfill the intent of the Torah. As he said, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). No amount of zeal can overcome the reality of sin. St. Paul explains that the Son of God became man to fulfill the Torah for Israel—and for everyone. The Torah highlights our sin and leads us to Jesus Christ., who saves us.
- The Error in the Gospel and its lesson for us
The Pharisees’ zeal for the Torah blinded them to the presence of Jesus, the Messiah. They argued about the Torah with the very Messiah the Torah points to and they claimed to be looking for. The legalism of the Pharisees reflects a tendency of human nature that is present even in non-religious people. It can be seen, for example, in situations where people insist on enforcing the rules of the club or organization when such enforcement unnecessary harms people and does not really further the goals of the organization.
Traditionalist Christians are tempted to fall into some of the errors of the Pharisees. The pattern is the same. In response to false belief and practice that has led to judgment on the church, we become zealous for the faith once delivered to the saints; then we develop various traditions that guard and enshrine that faith; then the traditions gain such a heightened importance that they actually come to work against the foundational principles of the gospel. Being caught up in doing things the “right way” we miss the presence of Jesus and call to love.
The message of the Risen Christ in Revelation to the first century church in Ephesus is letter traditionalists need to hear again and again. The Risen Christ says:
I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary. Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. (Rev. 2:2-4).
The first love of the church is always a two-fold expression of love. Love for the Christ and love for others, especially for the members of the Body of Christ. As St. John says, “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also (1 Jn. 4:20-1).
III. Seeing Jesus in worship and in others
The most striking features of today gospel is that the Pharisees care more about their opposition to Jesus than about a man who is suffering from a disease. They are practicing a faith that actually forbids a man to be healed! The invited guests are so concerned about where they are going to sit to gain honor that they miss presence of the Son of God and the Messiah of Israel—they try to sit in higher places than him!
Like the Pharisees, we have a tradition. Our tradition is a good thing. It teaches how to approach the altar and reverence the presence of Christ. It teaches us how to confess our Trinitarian faith. It teaches us when to make the sign of the cross and when to bow and genuflect. It teaches us how to receive the sacrament at the altar. But we must never confuse the means with the end; we must never focus so much on the details that miss the presence of Jesus.
Thus, as we gather for our holy meal on the Lord’s Day, as we follow both the teaching of the Bible and the teaching of our tradition, let us never lose sight of the main guest as the feast, or of the people for whom he died that we are called to serve. Let us never leave our first love.
Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Trinity, 2019 (July 14th)
The Epistle Romans viii. 18. – The Gospel St. Luke vi. 36.
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Sin is always easier to recognize in others than in ourselves. We carry our sins around as if in an invisible backpack, each new one tossed in with the others, the weight of them hunching our backs and ruining our ability to move forward. We look down at ourselves and see nothing amiss yet quickly spot other people struggling with theirs. Our instinct is to see their bent backs, their slow, laborious steps, and define them as that shambling creature. It takes a lot of work to not conflate the sin with the sinner, it takes a lot of work to see them as they really are, without the weight of sin, without the despair, without the suffering, and to imagine them upright and reborn into new life.
Often, the hardest person to see it in is in ourselves.
That means there are times we may need to rely on the judgment of others, and sometimes others may need ours. But how does that work if we’re not supposed to judge? Now the dangers of isolating a fragment of Scripture and treating it as the whole of Jesus’s message would seem obvious, yet, many Christians have taken the admonition to ‘judge not’ in a such a way as to excuse and affirm human wants and desires until what the Church preaches is virtually indistinguishable from the promises of the World.
But why get up early on a Sunday morning, just so you can hear the exact same message that you hear the rest of the week? Why listen to someone preach the same message that anything on Netflix does so much better, and you can pause to go to the bathroom? But if we fear recognizing sin for what it is with the excuse, ‘who am I to judge?’ then we do others a disservice, and belittle the sacrifice of Jesus, for we rob them of the chance at forgiveness.
Here’s the thing, the word, ‘JUDGE’ has multiple connotations. Obviously, the man or woman in a black robe banging a gavel is one kind of judge, just as Samson mowing down Philistines with a donkey’s jawbone is another. But what we’re talking about is the difference between concluding and condemning
judging… as in forming an opinion,
and judging… as in the issuing of a verdict.
When the low fuel indicator, lights up on my dashboard and I judge whether or not I can make it home without stopping for gas is entirely different from judging someone guilty of a crime.
But that doesn’t mean we get to leave here today and go around saying we’re ‘not judging’ in the same way my sister and I used to say ‘I’m not touching you’ while sticking our fingers as close to one another after our mom yelled at us to stop bothering each other.
Our ability to navigate the distinction and ‘hate the sin, not the sinner’ is suspect…at best.
Our call is neither to condone nor condemn, because neither of which is required to love them. As Brigid Hermen wrote, “As in human love and friendship, it is not moral perfection that is required. The most broken soul may enter that magic realm: who ever loved or was loved on account of mere moral excellence?”
We love them so that we might come to understand them as they are in reality, so that they might become who they are in potential. We can’t unloose someone else from their sins, only Jesus is strong enough to lift the sin off anyone, but He won’t act against our will, the sinner still has to let go of the death grip they have on the straps. But those who have already dropped their burden and begun to walk upright as men and women and no longer drag their knuckles does have a part to play. We can help.
We help by being icons, images of what a life in Christ looks like.
As Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard said, “To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.”
As Christians, we have taken an evolutionary leap, our very being has been radically transformed (an ontological difference, as someone trying to justify the usefulness of a Masters in Philosophy might put it). We have been reborn into a new life, the very nature of reality has been changed in and through us.
In a few moments, each of us will once again participate in a miracle greater than the parting of the Red Sea or Elijah being taken up into heaven. We will partake of His body and blood and He will be in us and we in Him. Each of us will be filled with His grace, the person to your left and to your right, each of us together, forming a community that transforms and overcomes our individual brokenness and failures, because it is such a community where real relationships are possible. The reality is that relationships only become life giving in Jesus Christ. We no longer need to search for meaning from the things of this world. Instead, we can allow them to be as they are, enjoyed for their own sake and not for our own. Only then will our offer of forgiveness have any meaning, becoming a foretaste of the forgiveness of God, and point to the power of Jesus’s sacrifice.
Sin separates us from God and from others. And as we free ourselves from it, we manifest the Kingdom of God. All that the world can ever offer is a temporary distraction from the inevitable– death. But through us and our relationships we transform the world, not through programs or initiatives, but by the growth of the Body of Christ.
Instead of hypocrites, we become living sacraments, outward signs of the invisible grace that works in and through us. People will only reject sin if they see it, not giving up something but getting something better. As Mother Teresa wrote, “Joy is a net by which we catch souls.”
And in the end, the only thing that brings true joy isn’t one’s possessions, achievements, or legacy, but meaningful relationships founded in love. Beginning with our relationship with God, but then expanding, encompassing our relationships with others.
Love is the one thing that the more you give, the more you have to give. It is then, in love, when we can use our judgment and tell someone our relationship is at an impasse. It is in love when we can identify sin as the obstacle, and righteousness becomes an affirmation rather than a denial. It is in love that we can tell someone that we cannot join them on the path they have chosen but instead, invite them on this better path. A path that is an end of all judgement, all hypocrisy. A path that begins with conquering our own sin but doesn’t end there. As Jesus said;
Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye.
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.