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  • Writer's pictureSt. Luke's

You May Be the Only Bible People Read

Updated: Nov 7, 2023

The Rev. Linda Potter

Scripture: Matthew 23:1-12

Good morning to you all. It is delightful to be back with you to sing, and pray and hear scripture and to share in the meal of thanksgiving.

Sara sent me the bulletin before she left and I read through it discovering that we would be singing one of my Father’s favorite hymns – O Master, let me walk with thee. This old, old hymn was written in 1879 by a man named Washington Gladden who was a Congregational pastor – and his great grandfather had been George Washington’s bodyguard during the Revolutionary War.

Gladden served in New York, Massachusetts, and Ohio during the post-civil war industrial era when racial and economic injustice was rampant. People at that time were looking for a new American ethic and Washington provided for them what became known as the Social Gospel – as an activist he crusaded tirelessly for political and moral reform in industry, commerce, and politics.

His liberal leaning critique of the biblical scriptures got him into a heap of trouble with the conservative theologians. It is said that he was more concerned about applied Christianity than with biblical Christianity. It was during one of the lowest times in his life that he sat in his church and wrote that poem that we’ll sing at the end of our service.

One caveat to the song – Dr. Charles H Richards saw the poem in a magazine and loved it except for the 2 second verse: O Master, let me walk with thee/Before the taunting Pharisee; Help me to bear the sting of spite/The hate of men who hide thy light; the sore distrust of souls sincere/Who cannot read thy judgements clear; The dullness of the multitude/who dimly guess that Thou art good.

Dr Richards discarded the 2nd verse and included the remaining stanzas in his book Christian Praise:

O Master, let me walk with thee/Before the taunting Pharisee; Help me to bear the sting of spite/The hate of men who hide thy light

I think of these words as I ponder today’s gospel – as Jesus addresses the leadership of the faith. For the past number of weeks, we have been hearing and experiencing Jesus’ difficult encounters with the Pharisees and the Sadducees. As I think about it, it’s kind of surprising that people are still showing up to observe these confrontations…..maybe just curiosity, maybe need to see who will win the fight, maybe seeking something more.

Our reading today finds us sitting with Jesus and the crowd that he is addressing – these are not the religious leaders but people seeking – people who perhaps knew the religious history and looking for new insights. Little did they know how Jesus would present God’s kingdom.

He begins by affirming the scribes and Pharisees by referring to how they “sit” on Moses’ seat – how they know and observe the Law – that is good – and Jesus encourages that knowledge and teaching. Unfortunately, they do not practice what they teach.

I can imagine that this scripture has produced sayings like: Actions speak louder than words or walk the talk or practice what you preach.

Eugene Petersen put it this way: “They talk a good line but they don’t live it….Instead of giving you God’s Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles or rules, loading you down like pack animals.” And there is no intention to help.

It’s all about being seen and applauded - In obedience to the law, the scribes and Pharisees wear phylacteries on their forehead and their arm, serving as a constant reminder of God’s law. They were meant as private prayer tools if you will, not intend to be show pieces of piety to the rest of the world.

Jesus says that they are intent on being NUMBER ONE – having special honor at their banquets and marketplaces being given extraordinary names and titles. They have been corrupted by self-interest and the desire to look good and gain prestige.

To the crowd he reminds them that God is their ultimate teacher and Father. No one can take that place. It will be the Messiah who will instruct them in God’s way.

“The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted”

Writer and theologian Carter Heyward once wrote: “Humility eludes us to the extent that we are afraid to notice how utterly common all humans are in the need for love, justice, compassion, health and dignity. If we are afraid of one another, afraid of finding ourselves in relation to others in the world—all others, not just those most like us—then our humility cannot be genuine. Such false humility is a pretense which masks contempt for others. Just as Jesus takes the scribes and Pharisees to task for their false humility—doing good deeds to be seen by others—”

She goes on: Genuine humility is a gift from God which has nothing to do with downcast eyes, a misty voice and noble stories of sacrifice. Humility is, rather, living courageously in a spirit of radical connectedness with others, which enables us to see ourselves as God sees us: sisters and brothers, each as deeply valued and worthy of respect as every other.”

It is as God’s spirit working within us that enables us to not only speak of what’s right but to do what is right. To walk our talk we make God real in the world around us.

A story to share:

His name is Bill. He has wild hair, wears a T-shirt with holes in it, jeans and no shoes. This was literally his wardrobe for his entire four years of college. He is brilliant. Kind of esoteric and very, very bright. He became a Christian while attending college. Across the street from the campus is a well-dressed, very conservative church. They want to develop a ministry to the students but are not sure how to go about it. One day Bill decides to go there. He walks in with no shoes, jeans, his T-shirt, and wild hair. The service has already started and so Bill starts down the aisle looking for a seat. The church is completely packed, and no seats are available.

By now people are looking a bit uncomfortable, but no one says anything. Bill gets closer and closer to the pulpit and, when he realizes there are no seats, he just squats down right on the floor. Although perfectly acceptable behavior at a college fellowship, trust me, this had never happened in this church before.

By now the people are really uptight, and the tension in the air is thick. About this time, the minister realizes that from way in the back of the church, a deacon is slowly making his way toward Bill. Now the deacon is in his eighties, has silver-gray hair, and a three-piece suit. A godly man, very elegant, very dignified, very courtly. He walks with a cane, and as he starts walking toward this boy, everyone thinks you can't blame him for what he's going to do. How can you expect a man of his age and background to understand some college kid on the floor?

It takes a long time for the man to reach the boy. The church is utterly silent except for the clicking of the man's cane. All eyes are focused on him. You can't even hear anyone breathing. The minister can't even preach his sermon until the deacon does what he has to do. And now they see this elderly man drop his cane on the floor. With great difficulty he lowers himself and sits down next to Bill and worships with him so he won't be alone.

Choking with emotion, the minister says, "What you have seen you will never forget. Be careful how you live. You may be the only Bible some people will ever read."

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