How Will Your Shed Your Latch (Matt. 23:1-12)

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and guard it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4They tie up heavy burdens, and lay them on the shoulders of others … but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.

5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the seats of honor in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi.

8But you … you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers and sisters. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.

11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Prayer of Illumination: God who is our parent, our teacher, and our savior: Stretch us with your truth, that we may become more fully human, as you have created us to be.  For the sake of your kingdom. Amen.

This text kind of has me in a pickle…

For anyone who doesn’t know who I am, or why there is a strange man standing in the pulpit, my name is Will Norman.  I grew up here at Eastminster, and after 19 years, went away to college and began working in another Presbyterian church in Atlanta.

A few years after graduating, I decided to pursue ordained ministry in the Presbyterian Church, and so I enrolled in grad school at Columbia Theological Seminary, where I am currently a 2nd year student, and where part of my course work is a supervised ministry internship with a local congregation … You!

And so I’ve come full circle.  I’m back at EPC and am really excited to be here and appreciative to all of you for helping me to walk on my path towards my call, some of you since the day I was baptized in this very spot. [update: while at lunch with my parents after the worship service, I was informed that I was not baptized at EPC, but at a Methodist church in Tucker, GA.  Oops!]

As luck or providence would have it, however, my first sermon text, assigned for today by the Revised Common Lectionary for Christian Worship, is particularly applicable to my current situation, and not in a good, upbuilding way, but rather with a sharp criticism, which frankly, leaves me a bit befuddled.

Let’s look again at verses 7 & 8: They love … to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi …

I’m not really sure how to weasel my way out of this one … Jesus is talking to his followers … Of whom I would count myself as one … And he’s talking about positions and titles denoting religious status and authority … Which is precisely what I am currently in school pursuing!  And as if that weren’t enough, he’s specifically forbidding the title “Rabbi,” which literally means “one who teaches,” and I have to stand at the front of the room and “TEACH” this passage while you all sit out there and listen to me.

Can you feel my tension with this sermon?

We don’t call our religious teachers Rabbi, we call them Reverend in the Presbyterian church.  Matthew didn’t know about that title when he was writing his Gospel story, but I imagine its no better than Rabbi … As a matter of fact, I wonder if it may be worse.

The word Reverend actually derives from a 15th century adjective meaning, “to be worthy of respect, so that logically speaking, we who are Christians may go to school for 7 years, pass some tests, and receive a call from a congregation all on our journey to becoming “worthy of respect” … That is, if we can afford to go to school, and if we are able to read and write … If we are Christians, and if we are called by God into the ministry … Then we can be greeted with respect.

My question is this: what of everyone else?  Are people who haven’t jumped through all these hoops … People who weren’t borne into the “right” family situation … People who with all their heart know that they are called to some other equally important, but less revered work …

Are these people any less worthy of respect than a preacher?

Reverend is a convenient place to start because it actually means respectable, but one could argue that the practice of putting titles in front of our names at all is acknowledging a kind of social hierarchy built on the idea that some people deserve more respect than other people.  We want to know what role a person plays in the world so that we know how or whether to greet them in the marketplace.

Walking around the halls of an institution, for instance, there are always certain professors whose doctor is of the utmost importance, and it would be disrespectful to call them otherwise because they have borne such a heavy burden in pursuit of those letters.

We humans tend to do this thing where we take functioning society, with all of its pieces and its people and its positions, and we start to build a totem pole, carefully placing those deemed to be more respectable or valuable on top, and leaving those less respectable, less valuable people at the bottom … Bearing on their shoulders the heavy burden so familiar to people without a title.

That’s tough, and there are a number of us in this room, and I am often one of them, who would be willing to contest that idea of social hierarchy as I just laid it out.  We don’t like, or dont believe that people are arbitrarily placed on the top or on the bottom of the totem pole, but might suggest, instead that the people who are on top of the totem pole, at least in most cases, are there because they have earned their way to the top … Those people have usually worked harder and longer, bearing the heavy burden of climbing the corporate or the academic ladder.  They have learned to function within our set of social norms and deserve to be given a place of honor and a title that commands respect.

At the same time, not always, but at least in some cases,  people find themselves at the bottom of the totem pole, without a title, and excluded from places of respect because they have “earned” their disrespect; They have acted immaturely, made thoughtless, selfish decisions, failed to learn the standards of self-control necessary to function in our society, or were just plain lazy … And so these people are on the bottom, and their burden is not one that is unfairly placed upon them, but rather is simply the prize for their labor …

There are different ways of talking about our social totem poles that may be called liberal or conservative or progressive or practical; we have the categories that we use.  I would suggest that for the purpose of reading and understanding the words from this gospel, that our political/social categories are actually insufficient, and will only leave us confused.

Matthew has some regular motifs in his writing, and one of them shows up just three chapters earlier, in a familiar parable picturing what the Kingdom of heaven is like.  As you hear this, listen for how Jesus’ words about the Kingdom of heaven challenge our social and our economic categories.

‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.

You know the meat of the story … the owner goes out at 9 and at noon and at 3 and at 5, hiring more workers each time, and then at the end of the day, pays all of them the whole day’s wage. No one gets more and no one gets less than anyone else, though people gave more and people gave less … Its a frustrating parable, isn’t it.  But listen to the way it ends:

Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me, or are you envious because I am generous?

This … According to Matthew’s Jesus is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. Each person is valued equally, regardless of his or her productivity; regardless of what a person may or may not have earned; regardless of who has borne what for how long. What probably feels unfair to some … not be recognized as “more valuable” than other … is actually generosity to the others.  It’s a new way of seeing the world, and it isn’t very effective at building these totem poles that we have grown so fond of … and Jesus has the nerve to call it the Kingdom of Heaven.

We may call it generous, or we may call it unfair, but we cannot in the same breath call Jesus our Lord and say that “no, the kingdom of Heaven is not like that.”

This term, “Kingdom of Heaven” is one of Matthew’s favorites: mentioned 32 times in Matthew’s Gospel, which is 28 chapters long.  17 of those 28 chapters contain at least one reference to the Kingdom of Heaven … So it would be reasonable to suggest that Matthew thinks that this Kingdom of Heaven is important for people to learn about … Jesus seems to really harp on the Kingdom of Heaven as if it is of particular importance to his reason for living, and teaching, and dying.

And though our lectionary text for this morning doesn’t actually contain the phrase, the verse immediately following does, and as is so often the case, the “very next verse” might be the key to the twelve that came before it.

Matthew 23:13 – “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.

The scribes and pharisees, as we remember are the people who are so concerned with their status … They love to be greeted with respect in the grocery store, or in bass pro-shop; love to have the best seats at parties and in church; they demand much from others, but won’t belittle themselves with tasks which could be considered “below” them … And in so doing, they are locking people out of the Kingdom of Heaven …

Because the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who sees all of her workers as equally valuable … equally worthy of respect, even though they didn’t all show up at the same time.  She is unhindered in her generosity by the fact that many of them have been standing around idle all day long, unhindered by fulltime or part time, unhindered by veteran or rookie, unhindered by anything resembling a title or distinguishing mark.

The kingdom of heaven values people, not because they are producers or because they are popular; not because of their position on the totem pole, but because they are people.  This is why Paul can say with such boldness in a hyper-nationalist, status-conscious world that there is no longer Greek or Jew, male or female, circumcised or uncircumcised, slave or free, but that Christ is all, and is in all.  Someone must ahve unlocked the kingdom of heaven for Paul … and he now sees the world as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven … no longer Saul of Tarsus.  That person, upon encountering this Jesus was blinded, you remember, and then given new sight … and a new name … new citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Kingdom of Heaven always acknowledges what is true about a person, regardless of what the totem pole says … And what is true about every person that you will ever meet is that Christ is all and Christ is in all.

Or as Matthew lays it out for us here in our text, contrary to the world of titles and totem poles, “we have one teacher, and we are all brothers and sisters … we are all students”

For this reason … because the kingdom of heaven is radically and scandalously unbiased, and egalitarian, we, who are citizens of the kingdom of Heaven, are not to be called “rabbi” {…walking out of the pulpit…} … or reverend.

We’re not to be called Doctor, or Judge, or Father or Mother.  Because we, all of us have one teacher, and we have one instructor; we have one parent, and we have one judge.  We’re not to be titled in this way, because in addition to misinterpreting our place in God’s world, titles that buy into the totem pole system of social hierarchy too easily become the latch … A latch with which I can and do lock people out of the Kingdom of Heaven.

And what Jesus suggest is that we aren’t just locking those people without titles out, but that whenever we lock anyone out of the kingdom of heaven, for any reason, that we have locked ourselves out as well.

Maybe this is what Jesus means when he says that it is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle … this is not a statement, in the end, about money … but about the easily exploited status and power that so often comes along with money.

And confused, his disciples ask “who then can enter the kingdom of heaven?”

And Jesus’ response is this “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

According the rules of the world that is run by human beings, we must lock the door because certain people are not welcome in our world.  But according to our passage today, when we lock the door for any reason, we have locked ourselves outside.  We have blinded ourselves to the world as God sees it; blinded ourselves to the world that values people because they are people, not because they have earned our respect.

And left to our own devices it would be impossible to escape our blindness, but we are not left to our own devices.  We have a God who has chosen to reveal truth to us in this Jesus.

We have a god who has seen our latch and has raised us a key.  That our scales might fall off and that our latch might be shed, and that we might enter and see as God sees and as Paul began to see…

How will you shed your latch?

People will call me Reverend; People will call you Doctor or Boss, Madam, Sir or Ma’am; Mother and Father …

But just as Jesus’ way doesn’t allow for valuing possessions or paper, over people, neither does it allow our positions to name us or shame us.

If you have a title … you have a latch.  If you have money, you have a latch.  If you have the respect of even one person … you have a latch.

We all have  latch.  How will you shed yours.

I can’t answer this question for any of you, but we can choose to be a community of people that is committed to opening the door to the kingdom of heaven for all who would seek it.  We can be that kind of community.

The Gospel of Matthew flows well together in a number of ways, and I don’t think that it is coincidental that Jesus uses language of keys and gates, when he gives the responsibility for starting the church over to his disciples.

“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven.

We all have a latch … but we have also all been given the key …

… for we have one teacher; one key …  and we are all sisters and brothers in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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~ by Will Norman on December 20, 2011.

One Response to “How Will Your Shed Your Latch (Matt. 23:1-12)”

  1. This is an excellent message. Our “hyper-nationalist, status-conscious world” needs to hear it now, it seems to me, as much as ever.

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