Since the current flare-up in violence between Israel and Hamas, there has been an increase in both anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim violence across the world—even here in the United States. This is why we have blessed a thousand peace cranes each for both a temple and a mosque—to show that we pray not only for a peaceful resolution of the current conflict, but to show our opposition to scapegoating in our own nation. We are Christians, but we respect other religions and want to protect the rights of everyone to worship as their hearts speak to them.
I am particularly sensitive this morning to what we call antisemitism. When we say that, we are specifically referring to anti-Jewish attitudes and activities (despite the fact that Arabic is also a semitic language and Arabs are also semitic people). I say this, because there are many passages in the Christian Bible that have been used throughout our history to excuse discrimination and even violence against Jewish people. And while today’s reading from Matthew 23 isn’t one of the worst offenders, it can easily be understood in a way that makes Jews look bad.
That’s why I want to start off this sermon by reminding you (and myself) of something that should be obvious. Jesus was a first-century Jew speaking to other first-century Jews. We can listen in on (and even learn from) what’s being said. But it’s not our place to judge.
So let’s take a look at what Jesus says. First of all, he endorses authority and tradition. “Listen to what the teachers and the Pharisees tell you,” he says; “they know what they’re talking about. Do as they say, but don’t necessarily do as they do, for they don’t always practice what they preach.”
He points to some examples, implying that they teach people the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the law. And he also points out their love for honors and the trappings of their office. And so if we’re quick to criticize the Scribes and the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, we should probably avoid mirrors. Because Christian religious leaders also vie for influence with political leaders. And while there’s one group of Christian leaders that dresses in fancy religious garb that costs thousands of dollars, there’s another group that avoids such trappings, but spends just as much on designer clothing.
And just about every name that Jesus says not to call other people because it’s a name we should reserve for God or Messiah, we have come to use to refer to Christian leaders. So it’s up to us to listen to Jesus, not to judge those Jesus is talking to. Remember the line from the old song, “The buyers and the sellers are no different fellows than what I profess to be”? That means us.
It’s not until the very last verse of today’s scripture reading that we get the real message that Jesus is trying to share: The greatest among you must be a servant. But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Unless we embody servanthood, then we’re in no place to criticize anybody else’s leaders or church or religion.
Sometimes when Jesus says something, we have to think about what he really means. For example, there are many places in the Sermon on the Mount where he uses hyperbole, or exaggeration—such as when he says to remove your eye if it looks at the wrong thing. If this removing-your-eye saying was constant, however—if we found it over and over again throughout the gospels—then we might have to take it more literally. Fortunately, he only says it once, so we don’t need to make it a sacrament, or a central part of our belief system.
But this servanthood stuff, that’s a different thing. It’s something he says repeatedly. And just about every time he talks about it, he talks about it in pretty radical terms. The first will become last. The greatest should be servants. The somebodies should become nobodies so that the nobodies can become somebodies. It’s not just an important part of our faith, it is at the very center of our faith.
Here's where I want to open up a can of worms. I want to talk about a pet peeve of mine, because I think it’s relevant here. There’s an expression that I hear quite a bit. Perhaps you hear it, too. But probably not as much as me. You probably don’t talk about faith as much as I do. And your ears may not be as sensitive as mine are to the things people say about faith. But more than anything else, people probably aren’t as likely to say this to you, because they’re probably not afraid that you’re going to try to convert them to your way of thinking (something I don’t actually do, but a lot of people aren’t used to dealing with these things called pastors).
The saying is, “I’m spiritual, not religious.” The thought behind this saying is easy to sort out. “My faith is personal; I don’t need to practice it with others.” Or “I carry my faith on the inside; I don’t need to make a show of it.” Or simply, “I’m not an atheist, but I don’t approve of organized religion.”
And certainly, I understand. In many ways, organized religion truly has made a mess of things… as has the need to make a public show of what this person or that group believes. Wouldn’t we all be better off if everybody was “spiritual, not religious”?
Maybe. But I’m not 100% convinced. Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to brag that I’m “religious, not spiritual.” Spirituality is a wonderful thing, after all. We should all strive for it. Humans are spiritual beings, after all. But humans are also physical beings, and we cannot be lost in our own spirituality all the time. I don’t even think that that’s what God wants for us. Think about it: The Son of God could have come among us as a Spirit and penetrated the shell of everyone on earth. But God loved the world in this way: That the Son of God came among us as a flesh-and-blood human being—a man that everyone had to relate to as they would other people. Of course, he was spiritual. But he was also physical.
And so are we. We have spirits, but we’re not consumed by our spirituality all the time—few people can even say most of the time. And so if we claim to be “spiritual, but not religious,” where does that leave us? Religion is what ties everything together. Literally. Think of the middle part of that word, the l-i-g part. It’s the same l-i-g that we hear in ligament—the part of the body that connects bone to bone. Religion is how we connect our physical nature to our spiritual nature. And it’s also how I connect my spirituality with your spirituality, and how you connect your spirituality with my spirituality.
And when we’re tied together through our beliefs, we’re empowered to put our spirituality into action. That’s how we serve God in the world—not by each of us doing our own thing as our spirits lead us, but by serving together with the same purpose.
We’re inspired by our spirituality to serve others. But it’s our religion—the practice of our faith—that makes coördinated service possible. Most of us would love to be more spiritual than we are. But there are so many things we have to do. Or sometimes the world weighs heavy upon us in other ways: we are sick, we are in pain, we grieve. Spirituality helps us through all these things. But these things also make it more difficult to be spiritual.
So perhaps we’re not quite ready to run around saying, “I’m religious, not spiritual.” But by the same token, don’t fear your religion; don’t be ashamed of it. It strengthens our spirituality. And if organized religion organizes people to feed the hungry or find homes for refugees, work for justice or make peace, then it would be foolish to condemn all organized religion.
Jesus told us to be humble and to serve. His body, the church, does this, not only as individual members, but as a group. If you would learn to serve, start by serving together as a group. Your spirits inspire my spirit, and our bodies strengthen one another to serve together in ways that we cannot serve alone.
—©2023 Sam Greening