What Really Matters

Sermon preached at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Atlanta, GA
October 30, 2005

When I look back on my spiritual journey, I realize more and more that – above all else – it’s music that has mattered.

The words and melodies of hymns from my childhood are still imprinted on my heart, mind and spirit. They are what formed me.  As the child of a long line of Welshman, we’re best known for our singing. I sang in children’s choirs, in the Eisteddfod competitions, and in Gymanfa Ganu hymn festivals where thousands of us would break into deep, four part harmony for hours on end.

So many feelings live in those hymns, most written in minor keys.  They’re haunting feelings, simultaneously of tragedy and commitment.  For me, there is one hymn that stands out above the rest: Cwm Rhonda, Guide me O Thou Great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land.

It’s number #690, the processional hymn at the 10:30 service today. Written by the Welsh composer William Williams, it was the song of choice for celebrations and funerals all through my formative years.  That song marked each important step of our pilgrim journey on earth.  That song sustained me during my teenage struggles.

It’s the song I cried to when my grandmother died, and the song which reminded me –even when I didn’t believe, even when I was ready to give up – that God was there… here, with me: Bread of Heaven, Strong Deliverer, strength, and shield.

This week, I learned another song, a song I hadn’t heard before.  This fact is surprising, since I thought I knew every church camp or Vacation Bible School song in existence. This song – though kind of funny at first, really disturbed me. Some of the words go like this.

I don’t wanna be a pharisee ‘Cause they’re not fair, you see
I don’t wanna be a hypocrite ‘Cause they’re not hip with it
I don’t wanna be a Sadducee ‘Cause they’re so sad you see

The Pharisees and Saducees have long been the favorite enemies of Christians.

We feel a little guilty pleasure when they get slammed by Jesus in the verbal boxing- match during this 22nd chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. Maybe that’s why the lectionary dwells – here – so – long. They’ve been ganging up on Jesus and his motley crew of disciples, asking trick questions, hoping Jesus would give wrong answers. But here, of course, Jesus is the hero, who stumps them every time.

And in this week’s reading the conflict rises to a new level. “Do as they say and not what they do” Jesus tells the disciples, accusing the Pharisees of their stereotypical sins:  hypocrisy and fake holiness. Similar accusations would get thrown around, over and over during the history of the church: often (wrongly) directed at all Jews; then Protestants and Catholics against each other, sometimes with deadly consequences.

Many people today understandably reject religion because of hypocrisy. There are too many stories of arrogantly self-important religious leaders who tie heavy burdens of moral rules around the necks of those they preach to, as if from the lips of God, only to later be exposed for falling prey to those same temptations, or worse. It seems like a big sham.

So the simple lesson of today’s text, the kind you can put on a bumper sticker is not “The Pharisees are bad,” but rather “Don’t be like the Pharisees (at least not the ones in Matthew’s Gospel).”

We know this lesson is not about them, but about us.

We know that Jesus who complained about broad phylacteries and long fringes could just as easily come after us for broad chasubles and long surplices. The way many Episcopalians (at least the ones in New York, where I went to seminary) seemed to care so much about who wears what color shirt, who stands in what order in the procession, who is called by what title, which feast day it is, when to make the sign of the cross, who gets to read the Gospel or pass out communion, what kind of music is really Anglican …nearly made me crazy to the point of not pursuing ordination.

It seemed so pointless, so unimportant, such a distraction to what the Gospel is really about – good news to the poor and broken, and justice on earth. I worried I would spend my lifetime consumed by distractions, and never get to doing what really mattered.

On this Reformation Sunday, the anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses on the church door, I feel the freedom to expose some of my Anglo-Protestant tendencies. But what I realized, and what I believe Jesus is saying in this text, is that it’s not the phylacteries (small leather boxes with passages of the Torah inside, which Jews strap to their foreheads and left arms during prayer) … it’s not the phylacteries which matter any more than it is the chasubles. It’s not about what we do but why we do it.

Why, that big question. The question we sometimes don’t give ourselves time to ask.

After all, there is so much to do. Busy. Stressed. Worn out. Overwhelmed. These are the answers I usually get, and give, to the question “How are you?” Pulled in so many directions, with so many options, from TV channels to shopping malls, from potential spouses to possible careers. With cell phones and internet, we are ever more connected, ever more in demand. So many demands, in fact, it seems like a lot to just get by. Every day is so full.

But Jesus is not letting us off the hook – why do we do all of these things? What does it say about what really matters? And why are we Christians, anyway?

These are the questions we ask when a loved one is sick, when we’re struck by the beauty of nature or a newborn baby, when a hurricane or earthquake comes, when war seems to be never-ending, when images of poverty and disease from around the world or our own back yard break through our defenses… when we’re up late at night – resting in the peaceful stillness or wrestling, in tears, with God. They are the questions Jesus wants the disciples to ask now, too … to ask and answer with some urgency.

The tension in the Gospel is mounting. This is not a sunny day on a hill in Galilee, but a tense, loud and volatile day in Jerusalem … a day during the week in which Jesus will be killed.

And this is not a gentle, compassionate Jesus, but an angry, impassioned Jesus:

The Jesus that smashed the tables of the money changers who were exploiting the pilgrims in the Temple,

The Jesus who just a few verses later in our story will scream at the religious leaders and call them a brood of vipers, blind guides, whitewashed tombs ….

The Jesus, who will weep over Jerusalem.

The Jesus who wants us to know that the Gospel he preached is truly a matter of life and death … for us, and for the world.

Many of us are not used to this Jesus, full of an energy which seems to explode on those around him.

But in his last days, Jesus wants to make sure that we get it, to make sure we know what really matters. “Call no one father on earth, for you have one Father in heaven. You are not to be called teacher, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted”

We’ve heard these words before. We know in our minds that Jesus is turning the world upside down, smashing the structures of power and oppression with the same energy that he smashed the tables in the temple.

But do we really “get it” with that passion that will keep us going, day by day, week by week, year by year. Do we know where our ultimate loyalty lies? Do we get it, that our mission is nothing less than the redemption of the world, the spread of the reign of God? Do we know, that in the end, nothing really matters but a love for God which overflows in a love for all creation? Do we get it that we are all sisters and brothers, everyone, without exception?

Do we know that our little choices, from where we live to whom we love, to what we eat and with whom we eat it, to how we make our money and what we spend it on … these little choices are where the passion of Jesus meets the brokenness of the world, through us.

For me, this is what keeps me going, this vision and commitment that the world can and must be different. It’s what calls me to be a priest. It’s what makes me choose to be Christian. It’s what sends me over and over to Bosnia, to nurture and be nurtured by children who grew up in war and now seek peace; to laugh, to cry, to struggle with them.

It’s what sent me to the dilapidated housing projects of rural Vermont, to hold, and love, and feed the families whom society had rejected, hidden safely out of view. It’s what sent me to be a chaplain at a hospital in Harlem, to stand in solidarity with victims of injustice.

And it’s what makes me do ministry with young people, who are searching for something worth living for, for commitments that matter, for a love which will last, for connections which are real, for a source of energy which will not run dry.

Because if faith is just another accessory to life, or just another demand on our time … then it’s not worth it.

But what I believe, what I want more than anything, what I’m willing to stake my life on, is that everything can change as we tap into this energy of God, this energy which burns so strong it can’t help but change us, this passionate love that will risk everything to exalt those whom the powers of this world have cast down.

And it’s an energy which comes in a passionate humility that doesn’t need the best places at banquets or the most honorable titles, the fanciest vestments or most eloquent sermons… a humility whose depth is so strong that we don’t even need to make fun of Pharisees …

But this faith is no easy task, and that’s why we’re here today. The church is a place where we practice this new kind of faith, this new way of being … where we show the world, and each other, what life might be like, when we try, with that “little faith” of a mustard seed, to live in partnership with God. Here we practice eating at a table where all are welcome, taking time for quiet in a world that values noise, giving of our money to release its hold on us, being cared for in a world that says you always have to be strong, proclaiming our faith even when we’re afraid.

We need each other here, because the energy which burns in Jesus, and in us, is not of our own making. It’s from God. We don’t create it, but through prayer and practice, through singing and silence, we allow God’s passion to be released through us, and we remember that our mission of redemption and reconciliation, of justice and liberation is first of all God’s mission.

So as we tie on our proverbial phylacteries, Jesus asks us to remember what really matters, why we’re here today, so that our religious words and gestures will not be empty acts, but world-changing ones, overflowing with passionate meaning.

Maybe it’s our day to be humbled, to bow at the name of Jesus and remember who truly is Lord of our lives. Maybe it’s our day to be exalted, to look up to Jesus with his outstretched hand and be healed. Maybe it’s our day to look Jesus in the eye … in the eyes of another, and to realize for the first or thousandth time, just how everything changes when we are all sisters and brothers and students of the one Teacher.

For me, it’s a time to return to my Guide, the Great Jehovah … to feed on the bread of heaven, to bathe in the healing streams, to bid my anxious fears subside, and let the fire and cloudy pillar lead me all my journey through.

Strong deliverer, strong deliverer, be thou still my strength and shield, be thou still my strength and shield.