As usual our most recent Sunday 10 AM service was filled good spirit and amazing members of the Calvary community — as well as guests.
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
A COUPLE OF YEARS AFTER HURRICAN KATRINA, I was with a group of volunteers about 100 miles outside of New Orleans in Bayou country. We heard that one of the local churches was going to host a dinner for our group. After a long day of work putting a new roof on a house, we were excited to enjoy the food and hospitality.
Entering the church’s Fellowship Hall, the anticipation built as our group could smell homemade jambalaya and cornbread. There were also two long tables covered with various casseroles, greens, pies, cobblers, and other dishes I didn’t recognize, but was excited to try. When I go to the South, I always wear my eatin’ pants.
After the local pastor greeted us and blessed the food, I began to realize that this was more than a potluck.
A group of ladies from the church gathered behind the buffet. As my fellow volunteers came through the line with their Chinet® paper platters—yes platters, not plates—I could see many eyes judging as they navigated the feast.
Some of them became very self-conscious. If they took two scoops of jambalaya, but only one scoop of mystery yellow casserole, who would they be offending? This nice little dinner was actually a full blown cooking competition. As each volunteer passed through, the cooks were keeping score of whose dish was the most popular.
Just as my turn to go through the buffet line of judgment was about to arrive, I realized that one of the cooks was taking a different approach to steer people toward her food. I felt a hand on my gluteus maximus. Startled, I turned to my left and then looked down to see a little lady with a nametag that said Mrs. Beaver.
Yes, that was her real name. “I do that to all of the pastors who come here. They seem to appreciate it. I hope you enjoy your dinner,” said Mrs. Beaver with a wink as she motioned to the dish she had made.
Rattled, I made my way through the buffet—taking equal portions of each dish for my heaping platter to avoid playing favorites—before having the honor of meeting Mr. Beaver at the end of the line. While I won’t spend too much time psychoanalyzing Mrs. Beaver, the dynamic of the cooks at the church dinner was all too common. What had perhaps started out as a true act of hospitality, had become a competition.
Rather than simply sharing a dish as a way of serving God, these good church folk were seeking validation and status. This was not the first time people of faith had fallen into this trap. When we serve and give, why are we really doing it?
In our Scripture lesson today from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is chastising the faith community leaders. “From the beginning, Jesus has told his followers that what they teach and who they are cannot be separated. He is the sworn enemy of hypocrisy,” explains Stanley Hauerwas, Professor Emeritus of Duke Divinity School. 1
Rather than serving the people, they have been using their position for personal gain. They seem to care more about their titles and seats of honor than the congregation. These leaders are literally wearing their faith on the sleeves, with “phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” The phylactery was a small box containing some scripture verses one would wear as a reminder of dedication to God, and the robes were being treated more as a sign of prestige than a reminder to humble oneself before God.
This text is the source of “practicing what you preach.” How many people have you seen wearing church robes, or gold crosses, or carrying Bibles around, so seem to have missed the message? When we cook, sing, or work, why are we really doing it? When we come to church, what is going on?
Soren Kierkegaard is one of the most influential and oft-quoted thinkers on this subject. The Danish philosopher and theologian is considered the father of existentialism. If you are new to church, theology is how we seek to understand God. In Purity of Heart, Kierkegaard challenged the understanding of what happens in a worship service with a comparison to theatre. In theatre, we have the “speaker as an actor, and the listeners as theatergoers who are to pass judgment upon the artist.”2
Church attenders come in conditioned by our culture in the same way, looking to the pastors, choir and musicians as actors, with the congregation as the audience. Kierkegaard challenged this understanding: “In the theater, the play is staged before an audience who are called theatergoers; At the devotional address, God himself is present. In the most earnest sense, God is the critical theatergoer, who looks on to see how the lines are spoken and how they are listened to: hence here the customary audience is wanting. The speaker is then the prompter, and the listener stands openly before God. The listener … is the actor, who in all truth acts before God.”3
According the Kierkegaard, the purpose of our time in worship is to listen for what God has to say to us, and then speak that word with our very lives to the world. If I speak primarily so you will say something nice after the sermon, I am falling into a trap of worldly pride. Whether you sing, bake cookies, or serve on 12 church committees, you will end up unfulfilled if you are primarily seeking a pat on the back. If you go to work each day primarily seeking the validation of your boss and this world, you will end up numb.
I know a person who has achieved incredible worldly success. He has travelled everywhere he wanted and been able to buy any toy. Though he could do anything he pleases, the former senior executive is most fulfilled at a local food pantry where they only know him as Tom. He gives anonymously and humbly prepares food in the back room, far away from giant cardboard checks and publicity photos. Tom is an actor, speaking his lines in silence for God. He understands who he is really giving to and serving.
I have had numerous conversations people who love baseball and those who don’t give a rip, who have been inspired by the extraordinary World Series run of the San Francisco Giants. While it is true that they would not have won without a certain tall pitcher named Madison Bumgarner from the backwoods of North Carolina, the spirit of this team as a collective unit was inspiring. Former standouts such as Tim Lincecum didn’t pout about not getting to be stars. They even have a preacher named Hunter Pence.
Rookies and veterans considered too young or too old to have an impact banded together to defy the experts. Yes, these are millionaires playing a game, but they behaved in a way that was countercultural, checking egos to something amazing together. Tim Hudson, with more experience and wins than any other pitcher on the team, didn’t have a great outing on the biggest stage in game seven.
When he had to step aside watch Jeremy Affeldt, and then Bumgarner, win the 1 Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 195-98. 2 Søren Kierkegaard, Parables of Kierkegaard (Kierkegaard’s Writings), Reprint ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 180-81. 3 Ibid. game. Many athletes would have pouted and withdrawn as their colleagues got the glory. Not Hudson. He embraced the situation. Not only did he embrace it, he and his wife Kim, just down the street from here, hosted Madison Bumgarner and his wife because their lease had run out. After the journey home from Kansas City, Kim Hudson wrote the following on Twitter: “LOVE that the Bumgarners stayed with us this postseason. This just happened: Tim: Goodnight man, I love you. Madison: Love you too, man.”
No sulking. No MVP gloating. Just two dudes ending a very long season of work. As we prepare to come to the communion table, we remember that worldly status does define us.
We remember the reason that we cook, sing, play, work and give. As we come to this table, Jesus says, “I love you” and we model that love to each other. God applauds as we humble ourselves and work together.