In Bible study on Monday, someone mentioned visiting a church where the priest entered wearing very fancy robes and jewelry, and with several young attendants to carry the train of the robe. This visitor’s friend said the priest was dressed this way because he represented Christ. So I just want to let you know that when we get back to our building we’re going to augment the budget to buy me some fancy robes and jewelry, and I’d like a few of you to volunteer each week to carry my train as we process up the center aisle. Everybody bow: here comes Jesus.
Or think of some of these televangelists with their fancy sets and makeup and whole get-up. Which reminds me of the Ray Stevens song title, “Would Jesus Wear a Rolex on His Television Show.” Kind of says it all right there.
But I don’t actually remember Jesus dressing in fancy robes and fine jewelry. In fact, here he is attacking the Pharisees for their fine clothes and their equivalent of a Rolex: fancy fringes, and phylacteries, which are these little boxes affixed to their foreheads or their hands with scripture tucked inside them. Most likely the scripture verses come from Deuteronomy 6:4-5:
Hear, O Israel: Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone. You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
These verses are called the shema, which is the Hebrew word for “Hear,” the word that starts off this quote: “Hear, O Israel….”
And the passage goes on with special instructions that explain the whole concept of phylacteries:
Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates (Deuteronomy 6:6-9).
So some Jews who took these instructions literally bound these words on their hands and foreheads in little boxes called phylacteries. And what Jesus is pointing out is that the Pharisees have followed the instructions literally, but they have missed the intent. The reason to keep these words ever present is to remember your close, loving relationship with God, and to let that abundant love overflow into every aspect of your life. “You shall love God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your might.” It’s not all about rules; it’s all about love. Start with love.
So Jesus says sure, listen to what the Pharisees teach. Moses gave us the laws, straight from God. The Pharisees sit on the Moses seat. They are steeped in the law of the Hebrew scriptures. The laws were written to be life-giving, to help your relationship with God thrive, to center your life in God’s abundant love. If you want to know about Mosaic law, go ask a Pharisee. Listen to those laws. But don’t take the Pharisees as prime examples of how to live them. They make a big show of knowing the rules. But they don’t follow them with their hearts.
And if you think this is a bit harsh, Jesus is just getting warmed up. He spends the rest of chapter 23 berating the Pharisees. Each paragraph starts, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” He says, “For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24).
Justice, mercy, and faith. Faith. The Pharisees follow the rules but miss what they’re even there for. They do not practice justice, mercy, or faith. In which case, what’s the point?
Jesus says the Pharisees love privilege and status: the seat of honor at the banquet, people calling them “rabbi,” or “teacher.” They get all full of themselves and forget to be humble.
Have you ever done that? Allowed a little fame or honor to go to your head? Believed that you were better than others? We have probably all done that at some point. It’s very human. Jesus says, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (23:12).
Jesus says none of us is to be called by these honorific titles: rabbi, teacher, master, and so on. We are all children of God. We are to love God and each other, share, learn from each other, take care of each other.
In two days our nation will hold its election. Show of hands: how many of you have already voted? Hooray! And we’ve been hearing in recent weeks from people in this congregation who have been working to turn out the vote around the country. When we hear that voters are voting early in record numbers, maybe some of them were inspired by people right here—you never know.
When we vote, we elect members of city council, mayors, state and national senators and representatives, judges, and the president. These are the people who are then treated with privilege because of their position. They get the seat of honor at the banquet. They are called “Mayor” or “Senator” or “Governor” or “President.” Because the truth is, regardless of what Jesus says about not having hierarchies, when a country gets to be this big, you need some people in charge to make sure it runs well. You need leaders.
But those leaders need a certain humility, and I think that was actually Jesus’ point. They can’t let their positions go to their heads. They can’t be in it for the Rolex and the television show. They are there to serve. They are there to carry out justice and mercy. Not to wear fancy clothes and jewelry. Not to make themselves rich. Not to gain power. Not to oppress. They are there to serve.
For the past four years we have heard the slogan, “Make America Great Again.” I don’t know what era is meant to be the model of American greatness. Maybe the 1950s? World War II was over, the GI Bill had sent a whole lot of returning soldiers to college, business was booming because of all the innovations brought about during the war.
Except the GI Bill didn’t include People of Color who served in the military. Redlining kept People of Color from owning homes in the nicer neighborhoods. Joe McCarthy conducted witch hunts, making people paranoid about Reds under their beds. We found ourselves fighting in Korea. Maybe that wasn’t such a great America.
Any decade that we hold up for scrutiny includes its share of horrors: depression, drought, pandemic, upheaval, war, and so on. “Make America Great Again” appears to harken back to some imagined time when the world was secure and at peace, when opportunities for good jobs abounded for all, when we didn’t have to examine our own racism, when we weren’t so aware of oppressive regimes that sent people flooding to our borders for asylum. I suspect that “Make America Great Again” really means “Make America White and Ignorant and Racist Again,” as if there was ever a time when we didn’t rely on people of all colors to grow the food and drive the trucks and teach the students and build the houses and care for the sick and manufacture the cars and write the poems and make the music and, and, and.
Jesus says none of us is better than the rest. We are all beloved children of God. That’s all that matters. No matter our race or gender or orientation or education or physical or mental ability or wealth—we are all beloved children of God. We need to take care of each other.
So as we vote, we can look for the candidates who seem to be in this race in order to serve the people, in order to bring about justice and mercy. As we vote, we can look for the candidates who are all about power, greed, and privilege—and vote them out. As we vote, we can look for people who speak truth, who rely on science instead of superstition, who cherish facts and realities, who serve with compassion.
Forget about “Make America Great Again.” What would it take to make America great? Not necessarily doing better than anyone else—it’s not a contest. Just making America as great as it can be now.
But wait—there’s more.
It’s overwhelming. We can’t do it all.
So we start by voting for people who want to work on these issues. Because not voting isn’t neutral. When we don’t vote, then the candidates we like have fewer votes in their favor, and the candidates we oppose have an easier time winning. Not voting is like voting for all the candidates you don’t like. We do them a big favor when we don’t vote. So we vote. And a number of you have been working hard for weeks to get out the vote, to make sure people know where and how and when they can vote. And we support those in office who are doing great work. We hit the streets as peacefully as possible when we need to in order to speak prophetic truth. We work in our own communities to make America great in this place. We do our humble best to see that people have food to eat, someplace safe to sleep, access to health care, education, jobs, and all the rest.
We make America great by serving with love and compassion. We love God, and we remember this love as if it were written on our hearts, on our foreheads, on our hands. It is in our every breath. This life-giving love is not about power or greed. It is about serving with justice, mercy, and faith. And it’s come-as-you-are: no fancy robes or jewelry required.
Whichever candidates win this election will have a lot on their plate. We will be here, regardless, doing our best to make America great. Amen.