March 6, 2022

Series: March 2022

Speaker: Rob McClellan


Today's Sermon




Amos 2:6-8
Matthew 23:27-36

          27 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. 28So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

          29 ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, 30and you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” 31Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets.32Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors. 33You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell? 34Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, 35so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation. THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.


            Let’s compare liturgy with…a car wreck.  As my spouse shared last week, we were in a near collision while driving in West Marin. As we rounded a turn on the outside, a cherry picker, was approaching on the inside, but had lost control and had crossed the center line.  By the time we passed, it was up on two wheels.  I saw it land on its side in my side mirror.  I stopped, she called 911, I ran to the men in the truck. Astonishingly, they climbed out of the truck with no visible wounds.

            There’s a lot to unpack about that moment, but the piece that I’ve carried with me is the look on the faces of the two workers who were in the truck.  Now there was a language barrier, and I’ll acknowledge the potential for my own projection here, but what I read on their faces was, “We’re going to be in so much trouble.  We’re going to lose our jobs, maybe more.”  My heart just sank.  They could have merely been in shock, but it seemed there was not even a moment to be grateful for being alive before the worry set in.  Then I got to thinking, not only could this be a significant loss for them, the workers, but somebody owns that truck, and business has not been easy for many.  The whole episode got me thinking about people’s state in life and the challenges they face.

            That’s what good liturgy does.  Liturgy, the manner in which public worship is conducted (that’s where the word comes from, “public working” or “the work of the people”), is meant to facilitate something, an opening of the eyes, the mind, or the heart.  It’s not always on a consciousl level, but on some level it should open us up to connect to something greater.  If our rituals are not doing that, they have lost their purpose. In Matthew, Jesus calls out those who have the ritual observance down—and ritual observance is not the problem—but have lost touch with any depth held within the ritual.  “For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in the shedding the blood of the prophets,’ ” (Mt. 23:29-30), but Jesus implies by their actions their words in the present are hollow.  It is easy, incidentally, to say cavalierly what we would have done if in others’ shoes, much harder to do.  How many of us would have the courage to do what many Ukrainians have had to do in the past 10 days, what many Russians have, either protesting or surrendering, knowing what’s at stake?  It’s pretty easy to march for climate justice through Fairfax, California.  It’s quite another to do so for peace in St. Petersburg. Ritual should ready us for a tougher call.   

            Jesus holds his own people, his own leaders, accountable to what the tradition is supposed to do to the inside, not just what it displays to the outer world. “For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and all kinds of filth.  So you on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (v. 27-28).  Notice, this is not a critique of legalism, an anti-semitic trope; this is a failure to live into the law.

            There’s an image for you.  You’re like whitewashed tombs.  You’re dead on the inside.  It’s all a façade.  This is a crisis of integrity.  Last week, I quoted Paul farmer saying living as if some lives are worth less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.  This week, I’ll say to you failure to live into our stated values is the root of all that’s wrong with so many groups, whether we’re speaking of religions or nations. We act as if we need some new, novel teaching, but the teachings, basic principles and values, are not mysterious. They don’t allude us; we often fail to live up to them.  This is what King knew in the Civil Rights movement, or James Baldwin or many others. You say this, that all men [people] are created equal, but you do that, discriminate.  The prophet Amos makes it plain, in rather graphic terms.  You’re supposed to be just, but you sell out the righteous and the poor for coin, you push the sick out of the way, you exploit the woman.  In the house of God, you drink wine you bought with fines you imposed (Amos 2:8). There’s another image for you. Ask someone why they disavow religion. Most of the time it’s not the founder’s teachings; it’s the failure of adherents to adhere to them.  Who can argue with loving like Jesus? 

            All of what we do is to open us and connect our actions with that, the love of God we see embodied in Christ, and the Spirit that endures.  This goes for our theology as well as liturgy.  Shane Claiborne, who has tried to live out the path of Jesus about as literally as one can says “If your theology does not make you more loving…get rid of your theology.  And choose love.”[1]There is a standard within the standard, not the syrupy sentimental toothless love, but love that empowers and transforms. 

            I suppose you might suspect, then, that we should do away with our tired rituals and liturgy.  Maybe, if they’re truly tired, though we’d have to figure out what to replace them with, for we need practices to hold us, comfort us and challenge us when we need. We can also breathe back into them. Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, when we receive the ashes on our body to remind ourselves of the need to be held to account for what we have done or left undone, not to impose shame or guilt, but to be meaningfully released from those things by committing to our own transformation.  That’s the true work of repentance, and it’s not just an individual act, it’s a corporate act.  Our individual actions our bound up in much greater actions done in our name or with our tacit permission.  We receive ashes reminding us of our mortality, to avoid this death-avoiding culture of ours, and to rest in the one in whom we rest in life and in death.  We receive the ashes to remember we came from the dust, from the ground, from the soil, the earth, and in doing so we accept the invitation to restore or fashion a more whole relationship with her.  A new UN IPCC Climate Report came out this week and it is beckoning us to accept that invitation.  Turning away doesn’t make it go away.  While we will all be affected, the poor will suffer the most, and what would Jesus, what would Amos, say of us if we didn’t accept the invitation of ashes?

            In a moment we take communion, when we say we remember Jesus, and so in remembering the breaking of the bread, we are reminded to rush into the broken places to see if the people who’ve flipped their truck are okay, to ask bigger questions about whether they’ll be okay even if they’re okay.  We distribute enough bread for everyone and in doing so ask how various people do not have access to adequate bread, or access to adequate housing, or medical care, or education.  We remember the sacrifice of Jesus and cultivate a sense of for what or for whom would we be willing to sacrifice.  We pour the cup and acknowledge how we have been poured out, and how graciously God has poured out God’s self in the wonder of creation, which provides for us and provides us beauty.  We toast to the promise of the covenant God has made with us in Christ and we seek to become covenant people, who keep their promise of abiding love for one another and for others.  We get filled at this table, reuniting with the saints, and though full we nourish a hunger and thirst for righteousness, and for a day when all can gather at table in peace, security, and stability. 

            We begin Lent, that sacred pilgrimage, by watching Jesus calling to account those who polished the outside of tombs yet were rotten inside.  We finish by watching him march to the tomb where he would clean it from the inside out forevermore.