Sunday, November 5, 2023

HOMILY: "Humbled Love"

A Meditation on Matthew 23:1-12
Sunday, November 5, 2023
The Community Church of Durham, UCC

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 honor 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 Parent—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.


In the Talmud, the rich and complicated record of rabbinic debate in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th centuries, there’s a well-loved story about the great Jewish sage Hillel.  Early on, Hillel was a very poor, but brilliant student, who become a famous Torah scholar and is beloved within Judaism and beyond for his humility and patience.  As a teacher.

In this particular story, there’s a gentile who’s curious about Judaism, more than curious, and indeed determined to convert.  We should note that this was happening a good bit in those early centuries of what we now call “the common era.”  Gentiles, Christians, pagans converting to Judaism; and Jews, pagans and others converting to Christianity; and often the circle turned round and round.  Religion itself, a more fluid and more dynamic and more evolutionary experience than we’ve come to experience it in our own time.  Where too often we get locked in.

Well, this gentile in Jerusalem, he goes first to Shammai, one of Hillel’s colleagues and educational foils.  The two of them often coming at questions from very different angles.  And the gentile tells Shammai that he will indeed accept Judaism and convert if and only if the rabbi can teach him the entire Torah while he, the gentile, is standing on one foot.

So that’s the set up for the story, right?  And Shammai, a rabbi of deep and extensive learning, and profound understanding, is so insulted by the request that he tosses the prospective convert from his home.  “Don’t be a fool!”

But he didn’t give up, this gentile, he was, in fact, serious about his conversion and his faith.  So he goes off to find Hillel, and cautiously makes the very same request.  “Teach me the entirety of the Torah,” he says, “while I stand on one foot before you.”

And unlike his colleague Shammai, Hillel accepts the challenge.  Looking the curious young man in the eye, loving him in the way teachers love their students, he says this: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.  This is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of it.  So go now and study!”
And this story, it’s really a vignette, almost a parable, is passed along, generation to generation; and even debated, generation to generation; and cherished and probed even, generation to generation.  “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.  This is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of it.”  If what we hate is cruelty, if what we hate is injustice, if what we hate is bigotry and violence—how might we build lives and communities disciplined by love and mercy and peace?  If what we hate is callousness and pride—how might we cultivate compassion in our hearts and kindness in our prayers?

And of course, the biggest question of them all—which another prospective convert lobs at another remarkable rabbi in the Gospel according the Luke: “And teacher, good teacher, who is my neighbor?”  You remember?  This is the one who comes to Jesus curious about the gospel, curious about the promises within it, wondering whether he might (the seeker, that is)—whether he might join the circle and walk the path.  “Teacher, good teacher, who is my neighbor?”  In other words, how far do I have to take all this loving, all this caring, all this tenderness and empathy?  How many neighbors will I have to love?  And you can check it out, in Luke, chapter 10, how Jesus handles that particular question.  It’s worth a look.


My friends, there are some who will take in hand the passage from Matthew we’ve read this morning, and use it to promote a dismissive and crude misunderstanding of Judaism itself.  As if Jesus is dismantling his own faith.  The faith that shapes every prayer he speaks, and every sacrifice he makes.  And that misunderstanding is not just silly, not just crude, but terribly dangerous and an ugly misreading of Jesus’ message, Jesus’ heart and indeed Jesus’ life.  If what we take from this passage is a kind of contempt for all things Jewish--a sense that it’s all about selfishness and pride, and we might as well start from scratch--we’ve really missed the point.

In fact, where we are in the story is Jerusalem days before the Passover.  And Jesus has come to Jerusalem because he’s loves the City of Peace, and grieves for all its violence.  Jesus has come to Jerusalem because he cherishes his faith and the traditions of care and kindness he’s learned from elders, from friends and especially from his mother.   And Jesus has come to Jerusalem not as a warrior, not weaponized by his righteousness—but as a simple and nonviolent teacher on a donkey.  Right?  On a donkey!  A believer refusing to fight with guns and spears and drones and  bombs.  A rabbi asking those beside him and behind him simply and only to love one another, and let their little lights shine.  Because that’s what the Passover means to Jesus, to his people; and he needs them now.  He needs the Passover God now.

When he says, then, that he wants his friends to do what the Pharisees teach and follow it, Jesus is reminding us all that Torah is everything to him, and it should be everything to us.  When he says that he wants his friends to consider themselves students of Moses and the prophets, disciples of the One Holy God—who is one and holy among all peoples—Jesus is reminding us all that faith is love, and faithfulness is attentive to the needs and hopes of all our neighbors, and surrendering to God means humbling ourselves, serving one another and trusting in God’s guidance through seasons of darkness and light.

If the scribes and Pharisees have wandered off that path, they remind us that we too can wander off that path.  Whatever our faith tradition.  Whatever our political party.  Whatever our vocation.  We too can wander off that path.  When we insist on titles like Father and Reverend and Pastor—and miss the larger point, the more urgent call to kindness, compassion and justice.  When we take our own seats in the halls of power and privilege and lose sight of all the neighbors who live in bombed out neighborhoods in Gaza, or blighted tenements in American cities, or food deserts where there is so little hope and nourishment.  The titles are like a great temptation.  The front row seats are like a great temptation.  Do as they say, Jesus says, and not as they do.  Do as they say and not as they do.

So I think that’s the point of Jesus’ teaching this morning.  For all of us.  “The greatest among you will be your servant,” he says to us.  “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  In other words, and I really think this is true…in other words…“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”  Any neighbor, every neighbor, the seen and the unseen neighbor, the Israeli neighbor and the Palestinian neighbor, the Trump-voting neighbor and the Rainbow-flag-waving neighbor.  “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”  Serve that neighbor with kindness.  Serve that neighbor humbly with love.  Serve that neighbor through your daily prayers and little notes.  Serve that neighbor with sacrificial courage and advocacy.  Serve that neighbor in communities of care, churches of unbounded loving-kindness, and synagogues of defiant passion and urgent peacefulness.  The greatest among you will be your servant.  Whether you’re Christian or Jewish or Muslim, whether your agnostic or Buddhist or atheist, whether your Palestinian or Israeli—the greatest among you will be your servant. 


I want to finish with a word or two about antisemitism and Islamophobia—which are real, obviously, and a threat to so many of the neighbors we love and cherish.  With all that’s happening now in Israel-Palestine, and the grotesque violence inflicted on Gaza every day, and the haunting memory of Hamas’ October 7th attack—the possibility of violence in our own communities, in our own state, in our own country is very real and disturbing to us all.  This kind of cruelty and war so often incites meanness, bigotry and violence among us.
I’d ask that you join me in keeping watch, in opening your heart to the experiences and fears of our Jewish and Muslim friends in particular.  I’ve been to services recently at the synagogue in Portsmouth, for example, and the new mosque just around the corner from our new home.  I want our friends in those communities to see me, to see us, and to know they can call on us and count on our compassion, protection and presence.  Where you work or study, where you shop or volunteer, be aware of your faith and your kindness and your capacity for empathy in times just like this.  And by all means, if you see something that doesn’t seem right, if someone asks for your help and you’re not quite sure how to respond, reach out to me.  We’ll respond together.  We’ll serve together.  Because that’s what we do.  Because that’s what we do.

If you were with us two weeks ago, you heard me mention to my friend Sheikh Ghassan a verse that’s found in both the Qur’an and the Talmud.  It’s a verse that says: When you save or protect the life of one small child, it’s as if you are saving the entire planet.  And when you mistreat the dreams of one small child, it’s a if you are destroying the same entire planet.  Isn’t that something?  And isn’t it remarkable, and noteworthy, that it’s found in both the Qur’an and the Jewish rabbinical tradition.  This is the humbling faith to which we are called, in each and every corner of the Abrahamic tradition.  

And for the Sheikh, if you can remember fourteen days ago, for the Sheikh that verse is not simply a moralism, not just a stiff one-liner—but an invitation to reflection and prayer.  How is it that every one of us is a manifestation of divine presence?  Wow.  How is it that every single one of us embodies the wonders, the hopes, the complexities of the whole?  Again, wow.  And how is it that I—as a person of faith, as a believer—can look at you and see you for the mystery you are, and for the sibling you are, and for the opportunity you bring to me.  The opportunity to love.  The opportunity to serve.  The opportunity to praise not simply the God of Judaism, or the God of Jesus, or the God of Mohammed—but to praise the God of All There Every Was and All There Ever Will Be.

That’s who we are to one another.  So let us not do what is hateful to our neighbors.  And let us learn from God the gentle ways of the servant Christ.  And let us love, love, love our neighbors as we love our selves.

Amen and Ashe.