The Rev. Robert P. Travis
20th Sunday After Pentecost Sermon – 8:00 and 10:30am
Church of the Ascension, Knoxville TN
RCL Proper 26 Year A 10/30/2011
Text: Micah 3:5-12, Psalm 43, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 6:24-34
When I read this gospel passage,
knowing I’d have to preach on it,
I have to admit I felt apprehensive.
Not only have I never preached on this before,
but over the years I’ve received strong criticism
citing exactly these words from Jesus.
Pointing to this passage, I have, on several occasions
had devout protestants ask me
“Why do people call you “father” in your church,
don’t you know Jesus said “call no one ‘father’ on earth?”
As if to point out how they are more Christian than we are.
I often thought they were somehow missing the point,
but could never quite put my finger on what they were missing.
Maybe some of you teachers and instructors,
were concerned when you heard Jesus tell us
not to be called teacher, or instructor either?
So I began this week, not sure of what to say about this myself
and feeling the weight of indictment
from brothers and sisters in Christ.
I brought uncertainty to the Women’s Bible Study on Wednesday, and while they reassured me,
thanks to the NIV Study Bible Commentary, that
“obviously we are not to take this passage literally,”
I left rather unsettled.
However some of the discussion there,
followed by some other conversations did, in fact, help me
to find a message that is particularly relevant to us today.
It’s important to note that Jesus makes an indictment:
of the religious leaders his own time, who, he said,
loved to receive praise and honor for their deeds and positions, and who made sure everyone knew what they had done
so they could receive their praise.
This was not new though.
The prophet Micah, hundreds of years earlier,
was also criticizing leaders, in his case other prophets
who were practicing religion
in a similiarly false way.
They were proclaiming “peace” when they had something to eat,
in other words, as long as people filled their pockets
they would prophesy good things for them,
claiming that God would blessing them with prosperity,
as long as the cash kept coming.
It’s shocking to me how similar that sounds to me,
to the message of the mega-church pastors,
and televangelists these days who actually teach,
a gospel called, the prosperity gospel.
But Jesus is going beyond Micah’s message,
Jesus is criticizing the way leaders in his time,
did things to receive praise from others,
while hardly lifting a finger to help
those around them who were oppressed
by the way of life those leaders set up.
But people don’t do that today do they?
Do people do good deeds just to be seen by others?
Do you know anyone who does that?
One person I talked to about this passage this week,
said it reminded her of those who sit on prominent boards,
so that their name will be seen on the list of that organization,
but many of them don’t do anything significant to help.
When you think about it, charities today
are fairly well set up to offer us what Jesus is saying is wrong.
The more I thought about this, the more guilty I began to feel.
After all, just last Friday, I remember driving in the car,
listening intently to the radio,
waiting with anxious excitement,
hoping to hear them announce my name
on WOUT for the $10 pledge I made during their fund drive,
and when it came, I was fairly well beaming.
All for $10!
And they make these announcements
for as many people as possible
because so many are just like me,
loving to hear their names called,
even when their gifts alone make little difference.
Organizations all over the world
are counting on this particular flaw in human pride
year in and year out to help them grow.
For those of you who don’t know,
my wife, Jackie, spent many years as a fundraiser
and she told me a story about a particular gift
to Harvard Medical School that came in when she first got there.
A couple had given a very large sum of money to the school,
and as a result had a very prominent building named for them.
As often is the case with gifts of this magnitude,
they had a gift contract with the school
which said that should this building ever cease to exist,
a building of equal prominence and importance
would bear their name in perpetuity.
But the truly remarkable thing about all of this
was that the building they were naming was about 150 years old,
and for those of you who don’t know,
Harvard Medical School was built with the marble
rejected by the New York Public Library.
So here was a couple giving millions of dollars
to put their name on an old building made of 2nd rate materials,
but demanding that their name remain there forever!
So that is what the world offers us.
But Jesus is calling us to something very different.
He calls us to lead as servants,
to contribute from a place of humility rather than pride
to give generously and to sacrifice,
but to do so in an altogether different way.
But when the world is set up to honor us
in the ways we are told we should not seek to be honored,
how are we to live out Jesus’ teaching?
I’ll tell you, there is one place in this world
where you can live out both Jesus’ call to serve others
with gifts of time and money
without having to worry about violating this teaching.
Where you can lead and therefore give
in a way that humbles yourself,
and lifts others up.
There is one place in which all who give
of what they have are completely equal,
no matter how much they have to give.
That place is right here, in the Church.
It seems many haven’t learned,
though we have had these lessons for thousands of years.
They think that leadership is about standing out
as an individual above other people,
and having influence with prestige attached.
Jesus tells us that serving others is the way to greatness,
and that can be done best,
by putting our best efforts,
our time, our talents, and our treasure,
into a group effort where no one person gets the credit,
but many see the results.
The good news is we have a way
to do good things, very good things,
to make a difference, without worrying about
receiving your own glory or praise for your contribution.
We pledge to make a difference,
we give to make a difference,
in the lives of those around us,
to make difference in our community.
But the key is,
when we pledge and give to this church,
then we are a part of the difference being made,
without falling into the trap of receiving credit
or needing to receive credit
for the amount of good that our gift has done.
When we give together as a community of faith,
not only can our gifts together make a bigger difference,
than they could do separately,
but we help our hearts be in the right place,
we can be proud that we are a part of a great church.
But by being humble and giving our gifts
as part of one another,
in community we give glory to the body of Christ,
and avoid exalting ourselves in the process.
The greatest among you will be your servant,
You don’t support the church to be praised,
But so the name of the Lord will be praised
by those whom you have served.
Ascension is a place of leadership in this community.
Let’s make it a place where Christ is exalted
for our servant leadership.