Sermons

Lift… Rev. Dee Ledger, November 5th, 2017

Despite its communal emphasis on sharing this past week, Halloween became fodder for Trump Jr. to comment on socialism.  Reportedly, in a tweet combined with a photo of his daughter, Trump Jr. tweeted, “I’m going to take half of Chloe’s candy tonight & give it to some kid who sat at home. It’s never to[sic] early to teach her about socialism.”[1]  Aside from his misspelling of “to,” which I can let slide given my own atrocious spelling at times, I wonder why he felt it necessary turn Halloween into another us vs. “them,” in this case, those kids who sit at home and don’t do the “work” of going door to door to receive what is a generous sharing of sugar.  And implied is a condemnation once again of not just socialism, but of the poor.

Perhaps you, like me, have been increasingly alarmed at how hypocrisy has gotten a foothold on our society.  Given that Halloween emphasizes sharing, what in the world does Trump Jr think Halloween is about?  We are not simply passing down our inheritance of the good candy, the sweet stuff, to our own flesh and blood heirs, but generously distributing it to neighbors and strangers…and all the more to a child that might not be able to go trick-or-treating because he or she became sick, was helping out her parents by working or by watching a younger sibling, or was unable to trick or treat because of some concern or calamity which was not his or her fault.

When I was a child, and even as an adult, the label “hypocrite” was reserved for those whose words and actions didn’t match up.  Instead of being directed towards those whose ignorance contributed towards hypocritical fault-lines, it was reserved especially for those who demonstrated a kind of willful refusal to see what another could perceive or to check one’s own actions in the process of trumpeting about another’s poor behavior.  We were always taught to be careful of one’s own hypocrisy when addressing another’s hypocritical comments or actions.  And so, even as I publicly question Trump Jr’s Halloween tweet, I must also be aware that my own hypocrisy is called into question. And how?  From scripture.  Scripture has been my teacher, my friend, and sometimes a royal pain in the neck when I’d rather skim lightly over its teachings.  For in so many words, Jesus reminds us of our hypocritical judgments, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3)

Likely, Jesus would have agreed with what the lawyer, Alan Dershowitz has said about hypocrisy: “Hypocrisy is not a way of getting back to the moral high ground. Pretending you’re moral, saying you’re moral is not the same as acting morally.” (my stress)  Critically and boldly, Jesus has called the scribes and Pharisees of his day, “hypocrites.” In his time, it was the religious leaders—both the political and moral leaders– who were not practicing what they proclaimed.  They liked to be seated in the best seats, did their good deeds in order to be seen, and displayed a religious piety that didn’t match up with their actions.  In the days of the Reformation, Martin Luther and others were critical of the religious establishment who took the freedom of Christ and put it on sale for the material enrichment and aggrandizement of the church. Similarly, the Reformers believed that the Word of God—scripture– belonged with the people and not with the priests alone.  In our own day, we know hypocrisy comes in all shapes and sizes, and even a cursory glance at our own privilege in this country can bring us to our knees when faced with the poverty and lack of education in other places and times.

Perhaps the most indicting of phrases in our text for today is not the word, “hypocrite,” for that occurs later in the “woes” following this passage, but in this…”The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat…they tie up heavy burdens hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”

Lifting burdens, according to Jesus thru the gospel of Matthew, is part of our moral and political leadership, part of the definition of being a God-follower, part of what the political establishment with its privileges, powers, and potentialities should be about.

So there are two questions in this:  Do we consider ourselves to be leaders?  Do we see this as a shared human responsibility?  And the second question is: How do we lift burdens even when we are beset by our own burdens?

Let’s address the first: Are we leaders?  As the priesthood of all believers, a Reformation idea, we have a shared responsibility to help lead both ourselves and others in the ministry of the church. We may not consider ourselves leaders.  We may not get someone else’s vote or have someone’s else’s unique abilities.  But we have God’s vote of affirmation and our own God-given abilities to use within our own sphere of influence.

Someone sees you as a leader.  Perhaps it is a child. Perhaps it is a neighbor or colleague from long ago.  In some particular way, you have led and are leading.  We lead most often by our example in the world.  When we are in public, we may witness something terrible, or some unjust action, and we lead when we choose to do something or say something, just as we lead when we refrain.  In the privacy of our homes, we lead by example when we interact with our dear ones, our children, or our friends.  To lead is not to lord it over other, Jesus says, but to also to be a learner—“Nor are you to be called instructor, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.” To have one instructor is to say that we are in the role of student.  And as students we must be willing to learn from our mistakes, our vices, received criticism and our own complaints.  As leaders, we strive to be the example that we wish or hope to see.

Many of us are familiar with the solitary Atlas who carries the weight of the world on his shoulders.  Architecturally, the figure who bears weight is called a caryatid (if it is a female figure) and a telamon (if it is a male figure).  One often sees caryatids on Greek temples—they are the women holding up the building, most famously, the south porch of the Erechtheion on the acropolis of Athens.  In later architecture, particularly cathedrals, one might see telamons in the form of the saints or sometimes the disciples.

So, to answer the second question—“How do we lift the burdens of others when we are beset with our own?”—we might consider that we are not asked to carry these burdens alone.  We are not some Atlas with the world solely on our shoulders alone; we are neither so narcissistically self-sufficient, nor so Herculean.  We are, however, in community with others—and being in community means sharing both the pleasures of community and the challenges.  Just as one catyatid does not solely lift up the entire porch on a Greek temple, neither does one person carry the church or its ministries—pastorally, missionally, socially, or economically.

We gather on this Stewardship Sunday in the season of Reformation, in the season of sharing, to consecrate ourselves again to be one of the church’s caryatids or telamons.  We shoulder both the burden and the privilege of Jesus’ mission in the world and we remember that we are blessedly interdependent on each other.  Dag Hammarskjöld has said, “What makes loneliness an anguish is not that I have no one to share my burden, but this: I have only my burden to bear.”

A YouTube video entitled, Lift, poses this powerful question: “What if your neighbor asked you to take 20 minutes one night to help him? Would you do it? Most decent people would. But what if he asked you every night following, with no end in sight? Would you be willing to do it? … When would serving your neighbor feel more like servitude?”  The video is about Kathy who suffers from MS and the 50 church members, neighbors, and friends who have helped her into bed every night for over seven years.  Over seven years.  Every night, 365 nights a year.  The task is unfathomable and burdensome if we only consider ourselves.   The powerful film challenges our notions of what is considered a burden and what is considered a privilege, and a mirror for spiritual questioning.  The change of heart that several people had in the film is both palpable and redemptive.  As a result of his participation, one person says: “When we heal the body, it’s always an inward effort, paying attention to our self. When we heal the soul, turning inward doesn’t work. The triage [medicine] of the soul lies in turning outward to other people. “[2]

Friends, how can you lift what you do not see or cannot carry alone?  How can you stretch beyond what those self-imposed limits that constrict the growth of your soul or the soul of a community?  How do you remember that serving others is a shared ministry and that being in relationship, being the Church, is our classroom?

As we consider what we can and cannot afford to give to the Church, let us also consider how we may lift Christ high in the world, not by lifting only ourselves, but by helping to lift our neighbors in community with each other.

Let us examine the values we espouse and our willingness to fund those values.

And finally, let us consider these words, attributed to John Wesley somewhat apocryphally:

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/nov/01/donald-trump-jr-twitter-daughter-chloe-halloween-socialism-tweet

[2] Life: The Power of Service, May 12, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=3&v=YAuqdPWTGLI