A sermon preached at Metropolitan Community Church of New Haven, CT, August 19, 2012
© 2012 The Rev. Dr. Joan M. Saniuk
Text: Matthew 23:1-4, 13, 23-24
What does it mean to be a Christian?
What does it look like, feel like, sound like? Is it about following the right rules? And, what are the “right” rules, anyway?
In this morning’s reading from Scripture, Jesus charges the religious establishment with forgetting what it means to observe the Torah. He really lets them have it. He curses them for fussing over minutiae, and forgetting the really important parts of God’s Law. In doing so, he reminds his disciples, and us, of what the essentials really are.
The translation that we heard this morning uses a word that we aren’t supposed to use in church, or for some, a word we aren’t supposed to use at all. It comes from the “Scholars Version” of the gospels, the version that was produced by the people in the Jesus Seminar. The translators' goal, in their words, was “to recreate in the American reader an approximation of the experience the first readers (or listeners) had.” So instead of “Woe unto you,” they have Jesus flat-out saying, “Damn you!” which is a more accurate way of expressing, in our vernacular, what he meant. “Woe to you” is a curse, and Jesus is cursing the Pharisees and the Scribes. He is fed up with them, and he doesn’t mince words.
What is wrong with observing the Torah? Nothing. Jesus’ issue is with the way that the people in his religious establishment follow Torah. They are scrupulously careful to observe the dietary laws. For example, we have artifacts from that period of a device that was used to strain wine while pouring it, since they didn’t have good enough lids for their jars to keep the bugs out. Now for us, a bug in our drink would be gross. For the Pharisees, it was not only gross, but unclean – since Leviticus forbids eating any creature that swarms. They didn’t want to risk making themselves unclean, even with something so small as a gnat in the wine. This attention to purity was, in fact, the problem. Jesus calls the Pharisees on being so careful about ritual purity that they refuse to eat with people who aren’t as careful, lest they accidentally become unclean. They look down on people who don’t share their passion for observing Torah, or who don’t have the practical means to observe the law so meticulously – precisely the people whom Jesus hung out with. In their zeal for purity, they forget about the essentials of the Law: the practice of justice, and mercy, and trust.
To follow Jesus is to practice justice, and mercy, and trust, which means that being a Christian is not a spectator sport. We have to put our bodies where our mouths are. Let me unpack this a little bit by sharing my testimony.
It all started when I met my friend Joe.
We met at Daily Mass, at the Catholic center near UC Santa Barbara. It was almost thirty years ago. I was a grad student, working on my Ph.D. dissertation in a half-hearted way. Joe was an activist for social justice. The 5:15 service was a welcome break in my day, and there were only a handful of people there, so I soon became friends with Joe. It wasn’t long before he invited me to join him in a new project of his: to help put on a free breakfast, over at the interfaith center, for hungry people in the neighborhood. I told him that I didn’t do 6 o’clock in the morning; but eventually, I started to visit Joe at breakfast, and I was sucked in.
The value of the free breakfast wasn’t just in the Cheerios, hard-boiled eggs, juice and coffee that we put out. It was in the way we did it. Instead of having “Staff” and “Clients”, everyone was called a “participant.” I eventually learned to have coffee and visit with people whom I had avoided when walking around town: the neighborhood dope dealer; addicts, and drunks (who were welcome in the second hour of breakfast), in addition to working parents and their kids, some of whom were morning latchkey kids grabbing a breakfast before walking to school. It was not just about justice – the human right to eat – but also about mercy, seeing each person as worthy of respect.
At one point, Joe asked me if I would commit to spend a year exploring the formation of an intentional community – a faith-based group of people who would live in voluntary poverty, in service to the poorest of the poor. I received his request as a challenge: to stop complaining about injustices done to people who were poor or otherwise marginalized, but to actually be part of making justice. I will never forget the night that I took it in prayer.
Because I was a choir member, I had a key to the Catholic center. I let myself into the church one evening, took off my shoes, sat on the carpet, and meditated. As I sat there, I asked God, “Should I do this?” In the darkened church, I heard that still small voice clearly say, “Yes.” “OK,” I told God. “I am yours. I will go where you lead me.” I meant it then and I mean it now. It has not always been easy, but I made that pledge and have never looked back.
We never formed that intentional community, but I continued working with Joe for several years, and before long, Joe came out to me. I wasn’t even out to myself at that time. His coming-out got the wheels turning in my head, and I began to confront my own internalized homophobia.
It was the early 80s, and at the time Joe was not in a relationship. Back then, our church’s teaching that it wasn’t a sin to be gay; it was only a sin to be sexually active outside of marriage. As I began to notice how my friend interacted with other men, I began to see that telling someone to be gay, but not sexually active, was like saying that it was okay to be a bird, but not to fly. At the time, I happened to be reading through the Gospels. I had begun to read the Gospel of Matthew from the point of view of the poor, particularly the derelicts who wouldn’t think of coming into the church. When I got to the 23rd chapter, to this passage, it hit me like a splash of ice water in the face. I realized that only now was Jesus letting loose with the fire-and-brimstone; that he saved it up for the religious authorities who were making up burdens that were hard to bear, and laying them on other people’s shoulders, without lifting a finger to help them. What Jesus called for, and what my friend wasn’t getting from our church, was Mercy. From that moment on, I began to lose my trust in the church I was brought up in, and I began my journey out the door.
24 years ago this month, Joe invited me to MCC Santa Barbara. He was re-joining MCC and his lover was being baptized. I was scared – I had never gone to a “gay” place before – but out of friendship, I went. It was a tiny church, not that much bigger than this one. How I eventually came to stay is another story. Let me just say that I have never regretted it.
Two months ago, at the end of June, I spent money that we didn’t have to travel to California. Joe had been ill with cancer for the better part of a year, and in early June, I learned that he was terminally ill. I just barely arrived in time to see him again, and to sit with him for a few afternoons, before he passed away. Ever since then, it has been on my heart to give this testimony – a testimony to what it really means, for me, to be a Christian.
Being a Christian and following Jesus is not a matter of keeping free from worldly pleasures – although there is nothing wrong with that. It is not a matter of praising Jesus for saving us from our sins, though there is nothing wrong with that. I don’t even believe that Jesus wants us to make sure that every human being on the planet accepts him as their Sovereign and Savior, so that they won’t die and be condemned to hellfire. It is about Justice – not simply talking about it, but making Justice. It is about Mercy – not simply thanking God for it, but being Mercy. And it is about Trust – not simply relying on God, but creating Trust by being trust-worthy ourselves. Being a Christian is a way of living in the world, and it is not a spectator sport. This is my testimony, this is my story, and this is my song.
Maybe, today, God is calling you to step out of your comfort zone into a place you do not know. Or maybe, today, you are finding yourself tired and discouraged on the journey that you have already accepted. Whatever your path is, I pray that each of you will leave here today with the sure knowledge of God’s presence and care. I pray that you will find yourselves restored, reassured, and maybe even emboldened. Because following Jesus is not a spectator sport. But it is one heckuva ride, and it will bring you blessings you never imagined.
May it be so. God bless and keep you all.