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The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
October 30, 2011
The Gospel: Matthew 23:1-12
Sermon: "How Can You Tell?"

The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
The Gospel:

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 honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 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."

Matthew 23:1-12

How Can You Tell?

An old legend tells of two sisters who encountered a wizard. He cast a spell on them that whatever they said would show what was in their hearts. One sister, who was pure of heart and sincere, thereafter had flowers fall from her mouth as she would speak. The other sister, double-tongued and hard-hearted would have toads fall from her mouth when speaking. Putting aside how difficult it would be to speak in either case, (remember, it’s just a legend), wouldn’t It be helpful if whatever was in person's heart was actually revealed in a visible way in their speech? Then when true-hearted people speak, good signs would tell us of their good intent, and when not so true-hearted folks speak we would see their not so good intent too. If only we had some way to tell the sincere from the insincere, then we wouldn't be fooled. We wouldn't have to be knee deep in toads before we found some people out. 

Particularly is this a problem when it comes to religion. There are people who impress us with their seeming sincerity. They know all the pious phrases. They give every appearance of being followers of God, but toads are in their hearts. 

This is an especially appropriate thought this morning, as this is Reformation Sunday; that day in the Church year when we remember and celebrate the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation of the Church nearly 500 years ago. The church had fallen on hard times; not economically mind you; it was monetarily richer than ever. No, the church had become poverty stricken in soul, even as it had become ever more drunk with power and corruption. It had become a problem in that day to tell the sincerely faithful from the truly hateful. Church reformers such as Martin Luther, and John Calvin, protested that the church's corruption needed to be cleaned out; hence, at least in part, the name of the time; the Protestant Reformation. 

So, then, how can we tell the sincere from the insincere? Our Gospel lesson from Matthew this morning deals directly with this very problem. Jesus is again confronted by the leading religious authorities, the Pharisees. These were the people who set the religious standards of the day for everyone else. And they had the authority to make life very hard on anyone who didn't see those standards their way. But, as in the Reformation, and as today, it wasn't always easy to tell the sincere from the hypocrite. In response Jesus offers us three visible tests for determining the sincerity of people's faith. 

The first visible test of how we can know is this: DO THEY PRACTICE WHAT THEY PREACH? Verse 3; "...therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach." That is always the first test. Many of the religious authorities of Jesus' day were excellent teachers. Unfortunately, many of them did not live up to their own teaching. This was the first thing Jesus was challenging in the Pharisees. Of course, all of us can use some challenging when we talk a better line than we walk. 

Like the man, returning from a business trip. He was met at the airport gate by his wife. They walked from the gate together and were standing waiting for the baggage to be unloaded. Just then, an exceptionally attractive flight attendant walked by. Suddenly, the man came to life. Beaming, he said to the attendant, "I hope we can fly together again, Miss Jones." 
"How come you know her name?" his wife asked suspiciously. 
Not missing a beat the man replied smoothly, "You see, my dear, her name was posted at the front of the cabin, just under the names of the pilot and co pilot. I was merely being observant!" 
"Okay, mister," replied the wife, "now give me the names of the pilot and co pilot." 

Jesus challenged the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day, and we are to let his words challenge our own hypocrisy as well. Our lives are to reflect what we teach. If our lives don't reflect what we teach then it's time to ask God to help us clean up our act. Jesus warned his followers to not be taken in by those whose lives did not reflect what they were teaching. That's the first visible test for sincerity. 

Here's the second test: DO THEY EXPECT OTHERS TO MEASURE UP TO A STANDARD THAT THEY DO NOT KEEP THEMSELVES? Verse 4: "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." The scribes and Pharisees toward whom Jesus' criticisms were directed had hundreds upon hundreds of rules and regulations. How they loved to debate the fine points of the law for hours on end. As Bill Horsely pointed out last week in the Adult Formation Class, what had started off as Ten Commandments had become some six hundred and forty two laws by Jesus' day. And, by the way, each of these also had interpretive commentary. These laws were too much for the average person. In fact they had become an intolerable burden. Meanwhile these same religious figures were failing to keep the second great commandment; to love their neighbor as they loved themselves. 

Sad but true, there are people who really believe that they are good Christians while they literally hate anyone who does not live or look or think exactly as they do. That is the second visible test. Do they expect others to measure up to a standard that they do not keep themselves? 

This brings us to the final visible test that Jesus offers to us this morning: IS THEIR FAITH CENTERED IN SUCCESS AND CELEBRITY, OR SERVICE? Concerning these religious mis leaders Jesus says, in verse 6; "They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have people call them rabbi." It was the practice of many good religious people to wear headbands with scripture verses written on them. Such headbands were relatively small and could be concealed under a cloak or hood. These, they felt, would remind them of God's will throughout each day. The officials Jesus was talking about, however, had extra large headbands with great boxes to hold Scripture scrolls and long tassels which could not be concealed, so that no matter where they went people would recognize them and honor them for their presumed piety. Like many people today, both inside and outside the church, they were more interested in success and celebrity than service. 

A pastor tells of one man who got it right. The pastor was invited to participate in a "Career Day on Campus" at a Southwestern college. He was asked to be part of a panel discussion. Panelists were to discuss, "How Faith Influences Your Choice of a Career." First, panelists were asked to introduce themselves and mention their particular vocations. It was all fairly uneventful. One woman gave her name and said, "I'm an attorney." A man gave his name and said, "I'm in business. I own a computer company." Another woman gave her name and said, "I'm in real estate." When it was the pastor's turn he said, "I'm a minister." The person seated next to him was a doctor. The doctor's statement changed that mundane situation into a special and sacred moment. 

The doctor addressed the students, "We are here today to talk about vocation." He told them that the word vocation actually meant "calling." "Well," the doctor told them, "my calling is to be a Christian...and one of the ways to do that is through the practice of medicine." 

The pastor reflected afterwards, "That doctor wasn't being pompous or arrogant. He was a humble man who had a strong sense of partnership with God. His life was a success, and he was celebrated for it, but his first priority was service. Jesus said, "All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted." 

How can we tell a sincere faith? Perhaps, a more important question is: how can we live a sincere faith? Practice what we preach. Live up to the standards we expect of others. Center our faith upon service. These are good tests for anyone. Even more important, these are good tests for our own hearts. 

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