Radical Preaching

Can preaching again have something to say?
This blog marks the attempt to bring the theological vision of Radical Orthodoxy into the worship and preaching of the local church.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Staring in the Mirror

When I attended West Point, there were many arrogant people, but there was one who took the cake. His name was Pete, and Pete was convinced just how smart and beautiful he was. Every story featured him as the great hero who slayed dragons, saved wenches, and restored good and justice to the world. He was a classic “topper.” You tell a story, and he tops it. He loved to look at himself in the mirror. Anytime he passed a mirror, he just could not help himself. He had to stop and take a look. He had to gaze at his hair and remind himself just how handsome he was.

Have you ever heard the story of Narcissus? Narcissus was a similar man, celebrated in Greek mythology for his great beauty. He was so handsome that the nymphs all fell in love with him, but he rejected all of their efforts. As a curse, Narcissus was made to fall in love with his own image. Narcissus fell so deeply in love with himself, that he sat by the riverbank and gazed at his own reflection longingly. Many came and begged him to leave, begged him to eat and to drink, to remember all the good things of life, but Narcissus sat there and stared at his reflection until he died. Psychologists tell us that narcissism is a condition where we fall in love with our own beauty until we are paralyzed gazing in the mirror at ourselves.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus accuses the Pharisees of a narcissism of sorts. If you remember last week, I told you how the Pharisees sought, above all else, to protect their identity as Jews, to remain faithful in a world gone mad. They desperately sought to form a people who would live by the Law in every aspect of their life. To some degree, they were successful. Their piety and hard work allowed them a certain degree of financial security. Their devotion to the faith won them prestige in local communities. If not powerful, they were at least respected. As time passed, they began to lose sight of their purpose. They began to fall in love with their own works. Their goal began to be the maintenance of the structures they built and keeping up the traditions they began. They lost sight of their true end: the worship of God. Instead, they fell in love with the creation of their own hands. They began to look in the mirror and admire their own reflection.

Jesus, of course, comes to town and smashes their mirror to little pieces. After they fail in their attempts to trap him, they withdraw to conspire how best to kill him. As they leave, Jesus begins to speak to his disciples and to the gathered crowd. He says, “The scribes and Pharisees sit on the seat of Moses, so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice” (Mt. 23:2-3, ESV). He goes on to describe that the Pharisees love to lay burdens on people’s shoulders, but move not even one finger to help lift the burden. They love to dress the part, making their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. However, they do not attend to the meatier aspects of the Law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. Not only do they love to be seen, they also love to be exalted- in the synagogues and at the feasts. They love to be exalted by others, to be called “Master” and “Teacher.” In this sermon, Jesus excoriates them for losing sight of the end of the Law, for falling in love with their own works. He condemns them for their narcissism and calls for his followers and the crowd to turn away from the mirror and to look at the world differently.

The question I have today is whether we are significantly different from the Pharisees. Clearly, we Nazarenes believe ourselves to be different. We have cut loose from dead rituals and symbols such as phylacteries and fringes. We deny the place of any sort of salvation from mere appearance. But I wonder if we are not gazing at the other side of the same mirror. I wonder if we peeked around the corner, if we might find that the Pharisee who stares back reflects us. As I prepared for this sermon, I was shocked to find that most of the commentaries and sermons that I read reproduced the very thing that Jesus condemns in this passage. Jesus tells his disciples and the crowd to obey the teachings of the Pharisees and Scribes because they sit on the seat of Moses. They are the rightful proclaimers of the Law. He tells them only not to do as the Pharisees do because they do not practice what they preach. He then lays this out with specific charges: They bind up people with heavy burdens but do not help to lift that burden; they love to dress the part of a holiness people but do not perform justice, mercy, and faithfulness in their daily lives; they love to be exalted in the synagogues and at feasts but have lost all sight of humbly coming before God. Most sermons and commentaries read Jesus as placing binding up sin in opposition to loosing the burdens of sin, as placing the appearance of holiness in opposition to the performance of holiness, as placing exaltation in opposition to humility. This reading causes them to read Jesus’ judgment on the Pharisees and scribes back the other way. Jesus does not place these in tension and opposition with each other. He does not call for an either/or but a both/and. He calls for his disciples to both bind and loose, to appear and perform holiness, to be both humble and exalted. To miss this point is to run the great risk of standing on one side of the mirror or the other, and finding some type of Pharisee on either side.

In order to avoid this powerful temptation, we must really hear what it is that Jesus calls for us to be and do.

First, we must remember the work that has been given us to do. We are created in Christ’s image, and we are given good work to do. We are called to participate in God’s work of saving and restoring fallen creation. In Matthew’s Gospel, this is known as the ministry of the keys. In Matthew 16, Jesus gives the keys to the kingdom to Peter and tells him that he has the authority to both bind and loose. The church is to go forth and to bind up the world in its sins, to live and proclaim faithfully that to not worship the God revealed in Jesus Christ is to sin and will lead to all forms of death and despair. However, to proclaim judgment is not enough. We are also called, as Christ’s body, to loose sinners from the burden of sin. The key works both ways, not only to bind up in chains, but also to loose us from our sins.

Second, we must remember out baptism. Jesus calls for us to have the same appearance of holiness portrayed by the Pharisees and scribes with their broad phylacteries and long fringes. He also calls for us to attend to the meat of the Gospel: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. As Jeremiah tells us, we are to have the law written on our hearts and not on stone. As Paul tells us, we are to put on Christ. In baptism, we die to self to be raised in the glorious beauty of Jesus Christ. We literally put on his image and bear it to the world. Thus, our phylacteries and fringe appear as we remember that in baptism all men and women are our brothers and sisters, that in baptism there is no slave or free, Jew or Gentile, male or female, but that we are all one in Christ Jesus.

When I began teaching, my mentor teacher told me one day when she discovered I was a preacher also that she was glad she took her children to Sunday School every week. I told her I thought that was great, to which she responded, “Yes, everyone should go to church as kids because it teaches them basic morality for their lives.” We so often forget that the church is more than a place for moral formation, an add-on to our lives. The church is the baptized community, a people who have put on Christ and now carry Christ to a sin-sickened and dying world.

Third, we must remember the Eucharist. Jesus condemns the Pharisees for their desire to be exalted, to sit in the best seats and to be called Master in public. In the Eucharist, we remember that Christ was exalted in his humility. He, who is the King of all Glory, gave up his throne to come to earth. In the Eucharistic feast, we remember that Christ was humble in his life and practices and in the way that he faced death on the Cross. However, he was exalted in his humility. In the Eucharistic feast, we remember that we are not humble for humility’s sake. We are not called to be masochists. Instead, we are called to be His Body, the Church. To remember our identity in Him and to give thanks, rejoicing in what is to come when the last will be first and the first will be last.

We live in a day and age when the individual is celebrated, elevated, and exalted. We live in age of cultural narcissism. It is very easy to fall into this sin, to gaze at ourselves in the mirror. We live in dangerous times, and it is much easier to build fences and put up walls than it is to go out into the world and risk everything. It is much easier to ignore what is going on “out there” and remain in the comfort of the world we create for ourselves. However, baptism reminds us that our life is not our own; we have now put on Christ. The Eucharist reminds us that God is remaking the world, and invites us as his body to participate in that glorious work. The ministry of the keys reminds us that there is good and risky work to do in the world. We must go out and name sin, bind up sinners by speaking the truth in love, and then set them free in the name of Jesus Christ.

The powerful temptation we face today is to be narcissistic, to believe that we are pretty and perfect, just as we are. When we do this, we seek only to glorify ourselves. We begin to believe that we are the center of the world. We will build all kinds of things: programs, buildings, and ministries. But these will all be to celebrate our own power and glory.

During the Civil War, George McClellan took a faltering Union Army and built it into the most powerful army in the world. He painstakingly trained and disciplined his army until it worked like a machine. In his mind it was both perfect and beautiful. In his worship of his creation, he forgot that armies are created for one purpose: to fight wars. Finally, Abraham Lincoln, exasperated by McClellan’s delays wrote the general and asked him, “General McClellan, if you are not doing anything, may I borrow your army, I have a war to fight.”

All around us today, the world is mired in the depths and despair of sin and evil. All around us people are perishing outside the saving love of our Lord. Will we be a people that remember that the Church has one end: to be the Body of Christ, His flesh and blood presence in a world gone mad. Can we begin to move out and tear down the walls and gates that we have erected in a vain attempt to protect ourselves? Will we journey out, in His name, to do the glorious work he has given us?