Sermon from January 31: So Our Life Will Count for Plenty

So Our Life Will Count for Plenty
Epiphany IV; January 31, 2021
Matthew 23 (The Message)

If Max, Katie, and I had read this from the New Revised Standard Version, as we usually do, then it would be easy to pretend that Jesus’ words are about somebody else. At verses 6 & 7 the NRSV says, “They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.” That is a more literal translation of the original. And that isn’t about me, right? Then hear it from The Message: “They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called ‘Doctor’ and ‘Reverend.’” Ouch.

But the Bible wouldn’t be worth reading if it were just about “them” and never about “us.” Eugene Peterson, the Presbyterian pastor who created the translation/paraphrase The Message, was a “Reverend” and “Doctor” and received honorary degrees. So he knew that this was about him, not just about the religious leaders of Jesus’ day.

My plan for this message is to reflect a little bit more on that in terms of the relationship between pastor and people, and finish by focusing on the line Max finished with: “But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.”

You have probably heard the saying, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.” Apparently Jesus never heard that one. Or he knew what bad advice it is. One reason tyrants get away with their tyranny is people are afraid to call them out for what they are. Those who get ahead by sexual harassment or emotional abuse get away with it because no one is willing to say to them, “You’re not allowed to do that.” One of the most wonderful church stories I ever heard was at a Men’s Bible Study, when one of the guys remembered serving on the Session when one of the elders yelled at the Pastor; another elder spoke up and said to him, “You’re not allowed to treat our Pastor that way.” Usually we’re too nice to call out the abuser.

Not Jesus. He said to the religious leaders, “You’re hopeless! Frauds!” and then proceeded to detail the nature of their fraud. It was the other side of what that elder said: Pastors, you’re not allowed to treat the people like that. We have a duty to care for the sheep, not fleece them for all we can get. If we’re going to call upon the people to do something, we had best be willing to do it ourselves. And it’s all very well to care about the niceties of what color the hangings should be and whether the Lord’s Table is properly set, so long as those don’t substitute for holding the hand of a dying person, praying for someone suffering heartbreak, and being gentle with those who struggle to believe. Otherwise, we are liable to the label Jesus gives: “frauds.”

I saw a friend use that word a few days ago: he is from one of the social media platforms I attend to regularly and was writing that he sometimes feels like a fraud, because he writes about things that go well while also quietly screwing up more often than he wants to admit. And when he reads posts by those who seem to do it perfectly and they admit their own failings and struggles, he feels as though he can make it too. I replied by writing – and if I’m wrong about this, I trust that you will tell me – that I think that one reason my congregation trusts me is that I don’t pretend to have it all figured out. As a pastor, I listen to Jesus’ words and I don’t hear him saying, “Stop calling upon the people to aim higher. Don’t proclaim biblical reality.” What I hear him saying is, “Don’t tell the people to do what you are unwilling to do. And be honest with your own struggle.”

In other words, Jesus is saying to us pastors and teachers of the Faith: Be real. Wear the robe, by all means, but wear it to remind everyone that you’re doing your job, not as a place to hide. Pursue higher education, but not so that you can impress people with your degrees, but so that you understand better the Faith you are trying to teach. And when someone honors you, accept it gratefully, not because you deserve to be honored, but because that person is being so gracious.

I think the hard thing for you folks who listen to pastors is to discern whom you should listen to. When people belong to a church, you do of course default to your own pastor. And others may listen to a particular pastor because of friendship or appreciation of style or because they say what you want or need to hear. But when Jesus says to you, “The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers in God’s Law. You won’t go wrong in following their teachings on Moses,” how are you to know which religion scholars to listen to? We have so many different voices saying so many different things about the same subjects, how are you to know which teacher you should learn from?

I’m afraid that anything I suggest would simply boil down to, “You should listen to me and to people like me.” Probably the wisest course for me is to leave the question out there, to acknowledge that it is a real question, one that you may struggle with. Just know that for my part I will continue to try to be a competent teacher in God’s Law, to use Peterson’s phrase, while not pretending to be anything more than I am: another sinner struggling to live in the love and grace of God.

I would like to suggest that you try that on, too. Take the phrase: “another sinner struggling to live in the love and grace of God.” Can you wear that? Or something like it? Yes, we church people sometimes pretend we’re not sinners. How’s that going for you? Is it working out to pretend you’re better than the people around you, that everyone should be just like you? Maybe you do have some things figured out and you can help with that, but something else is probably weighing you down. Are you getting tired of wearing the mask of perfection? Then take it off. If you’re a good elder, but your feelings are easily hurt, then by all means do the work of an elder and see what you can do about the hurt feelings issue, but don’t pretend you’re perfect. Or don’t refuse to serve because you’re not perfect.

In a more literal translation, Jesus’ words read, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (NRSV). In The Message the same line is “If you puff yourself up, you’ll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty” (verse 12). I personally have struggled with this, and I hope it encourages you to know that. I am not everything people want me to be. I could pretend that I am, which Jesus accuses the religious leaders of doing. Or because I’m not I could decide not to try at all. And I fear that is what some of you may do. You may look down on other people or nitpick with other people because you are pretending to be better than you really are. Or you may refuse to try: you won’t accept a call to serve, for example, because you’re not perfect.

I need to use the example of my weight-management community. In WW, we call that “all or nothing thinking.” If I can’t do it perfectly, I won’t do it at all. Here’s an example. One evening I’m sad, and so I self-medicate with peanut butter. I take the jar and a spoon and eat half a jar of peanut butter. I screwed up. With all-or-nothing thinking, I can very easily say, “Well, I screwed up, so the whole week is screwed up. I’m just going to binge all week.” Does that make sense? We compare to getting a flat tire: one tire is flat, so I might as well slash the other three so they’re all flat. If I’m not going to be perfect, then I’m not going to do it at all. So we counsel people who screw up (I used the example of peanut butter because that is one of my weaknesses): you screwed up this evening, but you didn’t screw up your life. Try again, not next week, but right now.

The two alternatives in all-or-nothing thinking are: I screwed up, therefore I’m a screwup, and so I’m not going to do this at all. Or: I screwed up, and I need to pretend I didn’t screw up, because I’m supposed to be perfect. Jesus warns against one extreme, but not the other, because of the frauds he saw in front of him. I want to warn you against both: pretending to be perfect, or failing to try because you aren’t perfect.

If you’re content to simply be yourself, doing what you can and being honest about your failings, your life will count for plenty, says Jesus. I hope that you and I will continue to try to do better, to strive for perfection, and maybe have a good laugh when we fail to reach it. Or a good cry, whichever is called for. And then our Church will count for plenty. We don’t need to pretend to be more than we are, and we need not let fear of failure become an excuse not to be what we can. If we’re content to be ourselves, our life will count for plenty.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska