Scripture: MATTHEW 23:1-12
All Saints Sunday
Sometimes the Bible is riveting and inviting reading. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho . . .” (Luke 10:30): the story of the Good Samaritan begins. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus” (Luke 2:1): the story of Jesus’ birth unfolds. “God so loved the world” (John 3:16): God’s core promise is arrestingly and succinctly put. “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:6): and we may be brought to instant peace. Sometimes the Bible grabs you and you lean in to hear more. It holds its own even centuries after it was written.
Today’s reading, though—maybe not so much. If your concentration wandered as we were reading this passage a moment ago, you could hardly be blamed. How relevant, really, is it? Phylacteries—meaning leather boxes worn on the forehead and containing scripture—broad and fringes—meaning the tassels hanging from a prayer shawl—long? Who exactly would care about this? These words are relics of a bygone era, apparently a million miles from the grief and tension and anxiety of COVID-19 and racial injustice and identity theft and rampant loneliness and investment worries and child-rearing and all the countless things that occupy our minds and hearts all day long. So maybe I shouldn’t waste your time today. I’ll just sit down and we’ll come back next week to see if there’s something better. Sound OK?
But before we go, maybe just one thing. While they may seem like words from a distant world, I wonder if there might possibly be a gift in these words that could give us a little something to chew on even these many centuries later. All these sentences about scribes and Pharisees talking the talk but not walking the walk; putting a load on the backs of others but not sharing the load themselves; living life as a perpetual fashion show, always looking to impress others; preening in the flattery they expect to be heaped on them—all right, maybe there is just a hint of light for us today (cf. The Message, Matthew 23:1-12).
Because that shirking of responsibility can creep into all our lives, can’t it. That search for adulation can infect every one of us, isn’t that right. That desire to be recognized and lifted onto a pedestal—it’s a seductive temptation, isn’t it, one that whispers its siren song into many of our ears. We want to be acknowledged as special. We want to shine brightly in a galaxy of lesser lights. It’s not just scribes and Pharisees who fall victim to such instincts. It’s us, as well. We too want to shine. We too want to be employee of the month, athlete of the year, star of the pageant, preacher at the pinnacle. And Jesus warns us: not in my world.
One of the ways we see this yearning to stand out is in our desire to win all our arguments and convert others to our way of seeing things. Who doesn’t want to confront the apparently dim relative or neighbor who isn’t voting the way we are, and bring them around to our way of thinking? Who of us doesn’t want to persuade lesser-evolved creatures to finally see the light? Almost everyone we know is convinced they’re right in their presidential vote and on any number of issues, with condemnations of “the other side” so often running hot and passionate.
It’s tricky, this whole matter, because, especially as people of faith, the fact is we do have strong convictions. Not any opinion goes. If you and I back a particular candidate or issue, it’s because we’re convinced that that candidate or issue in some way embodies what we hold dear. It wouldn’t be fair or accurate to say that all opinions have equal value. Convictions matter.
At the same time, though, there’s something underneath all the posturing and rancor and bitterness that binds us together as people, no matter what opinions each of us holds. I may feel as though your opinions come straight from Attila the Hun. But the deep truth remains that you and I are created by God as sisters and brothers. These are two truths that sometimes run headlong into each other: my convictions matter because I believe they have been inspired by God; and no matter how devilish I may believe your opinions to be, we are all still made of one blood. Convictions matter. And so too does the richness of our intertwining. And those two truths may sometimes batter each other.
Some of the saints of my life have been people who have stood resolutely on principle. “Here I stand,” said the great church reformer Martin Luther; “I can do no other.” In the 1950s, Senator Margaret Chase Smith, from my home state of Maine, when confronted by the demagoguery of Senator Joseph McCarthy, issued her famous Declaration of Conscience opposing McCarthy’s insidious witch hunt. Her courage in staring down McCarthy’s reckless smear tactics was saintly. Saints may stand out for their daring truth-telling.
Saints, though, may also stand out for their devotion to that other pole in this tension, the one that declares how vital it is that we are all knit together of the same fabric; that whatever affects me affects you; that we are all, as Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently put it, “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” (“Letter from Birmingham Jail”).
Commitment to principle is crucial. So, too, though, is seeing our irrevocable interdependence. The day after Democratic President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963, Republican Senator Smith went in early to the Senate chamber and laid a rose at the desk Kennedy had sat in as a senator. “Do you know when it is that the night turns to day?” asked the sage of the student. “It’s when you can look into the eyes of your enemy and see there a sister or brother.” That’s the moment when the night becomes the day: seeing the enemy as the sibling. Not easy in these, or any, times.
And yet it does happen. Teri McDowell Ott is the chaplain at Illinois’ Monmouth College. “In a recent phone conversation,” she says, “I proudly told my dad about my first book contract, which followed three years of hard work. ‘That’s great!’ he said. ‘What’s it about?’
“Sheepishly,” says Ott, “I responded, ‘Well, it’s called Ten Risks Privileged People Should Take.’
“‘Just so you know,’ he said, ‘I would not buy a book with that title.’ He launched into an explanation of why, in his view, privilege doesn’t exist.
“As usual, I cut him off. ‘Well, the book’s not for you. It’s not for [backward people]! It’s for people who actually want to do some good in the world!’ We ended the call in a huff.”
When her eight-year-old daughter started crying during another one of these exchanges, Ott says she resolved to avoid such tough conversations altogether. But that decision didn’t sit well with her because, as she says, “our nation’s problems have been exacerbated because people of differing views simply can’t talk to each other. Conversations quickly devolve into shouting matches.”
And here we come to some latter-day echoes of this morning’s passage from Matthew’s gospel. Ott quotes the great teacher bell hooks who, she says, “highlights the dangers of what she calls our dominator culture. We are socialized to assume there must always be a superior and an inferior party.” In most such arguments, “we’re just fighting to win.” Hearing that, remember the words of Jesus criticizing the scribes and Pharisees for wanting to be seen as special. People, says Jesus, shouldn’t be put on such “pedestals” (23:8, The Message), because no one person is any more deserving of position and honor than any other. Life is not a competition we’re supposed to win. No. On communion Sunday, what we are reminded is that life is a family dinner we’re supposed to share.
With this long history of tension looming over them, Teri Ott told her father she’d really like to be able to talk to him about these matters, that she wanted to “have a real conversation with him about White privilege.” So they set a time to video chat.
As they talked, Ott’s father said he thought the notion of White privilege was way off the mark. “‘Privilege exists,’ he said, surprising me. ‘It’s just not connected to race.’” Ott herself “defined privilege as an unearned advantage. He liked that and said he preferred the word advantage over privilege.” He went on to expand on that.
Ott herself countered that she believes “privilege is connected to race,” because she’s acutely aware of the advantages her “Whiteness affords: immunity from being racially profiled by police or followed like a suspect while shopping in a store.”
I can’t do justice here to the depth of their conversation. Here’s the deeper point, though: frustrated as they continued to get with each other, as Ott says, “we kept talking, because we kept surprising each other. I was finally listening, rather than cutting him off when he offended me.
“. . . After we ended our call, I felt good. Dad and I hadn’t screamed at each other. We didn’t hang up in a huff. I was left feeling like I’d actually try talking politics with him again.
“. . . My dad and I share an ethic of love. I am a minister because he and my mom raised me in a church that taught me that loving God meant loving my neighbor. . .. As much as my dad and I disagree, we love each other. When we ground ourselves in this ethic and commit to it, seeking to listen, respect, and come to understand, we ward off the temptation to dominate, to become hard and uncompromising.
“The next day I called my dad again, just to check in. . .. ‘Oh good!’ Dad said, ‘it’s you. I was afraid you’d be mad at me after our conversation yesterday.’
“‘No, Dad. I thought it was a great conversation.’
“‘Me too. I really appreciated it.’
“Being able to talk politics with my dad isn’t going to solve our nation’s problems. But we all need spaces, relationships, and communities where we can express ourselves and our ideas, knowing that we won’t be rejected if disagreements arise. Family can be such a place [and I would add churches can be such places, too]—if we don’t seek to dominate, don’t divide ourselves into winners and losers, superior and inferior” (Christian Century, Nov. 4, 2020, pp. 14-15).
Saints are people who stand on principle. AND they are people who, as children of God, know that we are nothing without each other. Jesus says we’re to serve and care for one another. The meal he gave us is the meal in which we live that out. As we vote in Tuesday’s election, as we hold differing perspectives about all manner of things, may the faith of Jesus Christ shape our values. And may we remember always that we are one people, blessed, across all differences, to be agents of unity and reconciliation. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled,” says Jesus, “and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (23:12). May it always be so.