The Presbyterian Pulpit

A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 11/2/08
Text: Matthew 23:1-12
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

"I'm John McCain and I approved this message." "I'm Barack Obama, and I approved this message." "I'm Henry Brown, and I approved this message." Have you heard enough of that line yet this year? Well, don't fret, we still have two more days to hear it again...and again and again.

I will admit that I am a bit tired of it, especially when it is attached to one more attack ad. I personally prefer hearing the candidates say, "This is what I HAVE done and this is what I WILL do; if you can support that, I would appreciate your vote." Forget this stuff about what a bum the opponent is; tell me about YOU!!! Gracious!

Beyond that, I am relatively amazed at some of the ads to which the candidates have allowed their names to voice approval. Several weeks ago, Saturday Night Live did a spoof of John McCain meeting with his advertising people, listening to one commercial after another saying what a horrid fellow Barack Obama was with McCain being asked to provide the "I approved this message" tag line. The SNL version of McCain seemed reluctant, but the ad gurus insisted that this was the only way he could win, so..."I'm John McCain, and I approved this message." I suspect there was more than a little truth being told there because I doubt that many candidates, who are basically good and decent people (otherwise they would never have risen to their current heights), do not like much of what they are asked to approve.

What brings that stuff to mind is this text we have in Matthew's gospel. For 21st century Americans, what we read sounds painfully like a political attack ad. We are used to hearing Jesus say things like, "Love one another, as I have loved you," (1) or "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly; I am the good shepherd," (2) or "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs." (3) That is the Jesus we know and love. But now we hear him say, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat" [the place of religious authority]. Then he goes on to add, "[OK], do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach." In other words, they talk the talk but don't walk the walk - they're a bunch of hypocrites! "I'm Jesus Christ, and I approved this message." Really?

Actually, he is just getting started. "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." Lots of nit-picky rules and regulations, some which came from scripture, but many which had grown only from tradition. Burdens.

They are show-offs, he says - "They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long." Phylacteries are little boxes, one of which is attached by a leather strap to the forehead and another to the forearm, which contain verses from the Hebrew scriptures; they are in literal response to God's commandment in Deuteronomy saying, "You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead." (4) The long fringes of which Jesus spoke are also a literal response to an instruction in Leviticus where, "The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes." (5) These folks wanted to make sure everyone could readily see by their fashion statements how religious they were.

Jesus continues. "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." Head table. Synagogue seats right down front so everyone can see them as they enter. And R-E-S-P-E-C-T!

Jesus is criticizing what has been called "the reserved parking space mentality," and, truth be told, it is around today just as much as 2,000 years ago. We all know folks who are absolutely convinced of their own spiritual worth, and they will be more than happy to let us all know it, and in the process, tell us all exactly how to live. They have even found political support for their positions and politicians who will sing their particular social song in exchange for votes. Whether the church should be involved in partisan politics is a subject for another time, but, at the moment, it is, and that can be confusing to a watching, wondering world.

So saying, I trust that, if you are registered, you either have voted or will vote come Tuesday. We all remember how close things were in 2000 between George Bush and Al Gore, and the fact that it took weeks to find out who would be President because the election was so close. Not very many votes would have changed that outcome, and one can only imagine how the world would be different today had that result been reversed. This Tuesday we come to another electoral fork in the road, and the vote we cast will move us in a direction that will effect issues of war and peace, the economic crisis, our health care delivery system, and so on and so on and so on. No matter who is elected, the issues are monumental. On Wednesday morning, either Barack Obama or John McCain will be greeted by someone saying, "I have good news and bad news, Senator - the good news is that you have been elected President of the United States; the bad news is that you have been elected President of the United States." May God guide us in the decisions we make and those who are elected as they take up the tasks before them.

In the context of the America of 2008, and the political landscape that currently exists, let us be finally clear about the business of the church of Jesus Christ. We are not the heirs of those whom Jesus criticized so long ago for their peacock piety. We are not here to lay "heavy burdens" on anyone nor are we unwilling to "lift a finger" to help. We have other work. As one commentator wisely has it,
The church is not in the morals business. The world is in the morals business, quite rightfully; and it has done a fine job of it, all things considered. The history of the world's moral codes is a monument to the labors of many philosophers, and it is a monument of striking unity and beauty. As C. S. Lewis said, anyone who thinks the moral codes of mankind are all different should be locked up in a library and be made to read three days' worth of them. He would be bored silly by the sheer sameness. What the world cannot get right, however, is the forgiveness business -- and that, of course, is the church's real job...She is not in the business of telling the world what's right and wrong so that it can do good and avoid evil. She is in the business of offering [the world] forgiveness for its chronic unwillingness to take its own advice. But the minute she even hints that morals, and not forgiveness, is the name of her game, she instantly corrupts the Gospel and runs headlong into blatant nonsense. (6)
Amen to that. So be careful as you make your way to the polls this week, and as you make your way to the Table in a moment, because, if you listen carefully, you are liable to hear, "I'm Jesus Christ, and I approved this message."


1. John 13:34

2. John 10:10-11

3. Mark 10:14

4. 11:18

5. 15:37-39

6. Robert Farrar Capon, Hunting the Divine Fox: images and mystery in Christian faith, (New York: Seabury Press, 1974), pp. 132-133

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