Where You Lead, I Will Follow: A Sermon from Matthew 23:1-12

Matthew 23:1-12  Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples,  “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 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. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 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.  But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

I’ve thought a lot about differentiation lately. Having a one-year-old, I’m aware of just how un-differentiated she is. I am her source, her identity, her world. This connection we share is so rich and so profound that it goes beyond mere cognition, past my ability even to understand it, landing somewhere in the most guttural, primal space of my and her existence. It is real and it is stunning. And yet, I know this connection will not remain. Having a one-year-old, I’m aware of just how differentiated she already is becoming. I know the look in her eyes when she has determined her course and, despite my very clear directions otherwise, she summons all determination and splashes into the dogs’ water bowl anyways. I know that with each clumsy step she is learning to take, she is developing further into her own, unique self, connected to but separate from me. This is a necessary process. It is good. It is difficult. It is essential.

I’ve thought a lot about differentiation lately. Having spent much of my life in an evangelical Christian subculture, I think often about the ways I was formed among this people group. To be sure, I was loved. I was loved really well. I was made to believe that I had worth, that I could pursue the dreams that surged within, that God would guide me as I took each clumsy step. I was nurtured into the Christian faith from the womb, loved and cared on by my community, educated in their schools, formed in their churches. I attended their youth groups and summer camps, wore their t-shirts and sang their songs. These people invested in me, gave of their time and resources to help me grow into the woman I now am. For all of this and for more, I am grateful.

And because I was so loved by these people, when they taught me about God, I listened. They taught me about the Creator, who brought all things into existence. They told me about Jesus, the one through whom redemption comes. They taught me about the Holy Spirit, moving within and among us. They told me about God’s love for me and for the world, and I listened. They told me to follow Jesus, and so I did.

But when I did, when I followed this Jesus they told me about, he took me to places and people and ideas and movements that my church did not go and moreover, warned me against. When I asked questions seeking to discern truth, I was met with—at best—unsatisfying answers—and—at worst—disapproval and shaming. But the waters already had been stirred by the very Jesus they taught me about and so I chose to dive deeper in, eyes wide open to what I might discover. And what I discovered was confusion, and disconnection, and dissonance.

They told me about the God who created all things, who spoke life into existence and fashioned worlds with words, who formed rivers and rocks and called them good. But when I learned to love this creation and began to ask about what we might do to preserve it, when I critiqued companies who exploited the land and its resources, they told me this was part of a liberal agenda and dismissed me.

They told me about Jesus and read to me from the Gospels about his life and ministry. And so I followed this story and observed that Jesus seemed to care an awful lot about the poor and marginalized, giving them food and dignity, binding their wounds and healing their bodies. But when I named the gross inequities between the rich and poor in our country and asked what we might do to overcome this, they called me a socialist.

They told me about the Spirit who empowers us, who grants each of us gifts and abilities that we are called to bring into the community of God. So I followed the Spirit’s guiding and received the gifts God granted, gifts of preaching and teaching, but I was told these gifts are only acceptable to use in certain circumstances in certain spaces in front of certain people on certain days if indeed they are acceptable at all.

They told me about the cross of Christ, and insisted this was a central feature of our faith. So I spent time reflecting on the cross and observed it as the culmination of Jesus’ consistent refusal to employ violent means. I took to heart his teachings that the swords we live by surely are the ones by which we will die, that we are to love our enemies and perhaps this might mean to not kill them. I wondered how I could follow this Christ with any integrity in my heart if I also carried a gun in my hand or on my hip. But when I asked my church about these things, they told me this was unrealistic, that Jesus’ teachings are for individuals but have nothing to say to nation states, and that I should fear the nation state taking from me the very weapons Jesus warned against.

They took me to the baptismal font and buried me with Christ beneath the waters, calling on me to live into the newness of life in Christ, proclaiming that my identity is found therein, and I swore my allegiance to Christ. But when I began asking about all of the myriad allegiances we seem to hold that conflict with the lordship of Christ, that perhaps nationalism is the most dangerous kind of idolatry, they told me I was not a good patriot.

They told me about Paul, a man who tortured Christians and sought their death, and how his encounter with Christ opened his eyes to see the world anew, committing his life to serving the very ones he once hunted. So I began to wonder how this story of a terrorist’s conversion might inform the way we respond to ones bent on hate and destruction, how perhaps Jesus may even want to remove scales from our eyes that we might see things differently, but they assured me we are on the right team, that we are the ones with just motives, even though bombs all look the exact same no matter who is dropping them.

They taught me about the early church, a marginalized sect seeking to live into the kingdom in the midst of empire. They told me stories of the church’s courage, even in the face of persecution and death, and of their commitment to the way of Christ. But when I began wondering about how the empire in which we find ourselves dehumanizes black and brown bodies, they told me I don’t show enough respect for the flag and for country and for every other symbol that bears Caesar’s image even while the body count for image bearers of God keeps climbing.

They told me that God values life, that God formed us intimately and uniquely, and that the life of the unborn is worth protecting. And in taking this message to heart I wondered aloud how capital punishment and torture and mass incarceration devalue life and are less-than-human responses that do not promote justice but disrupt it, but they seemed to have a different definition of justice.

They taught me from the scriptures and helped me memorize texts, teaching me to love God’s word and encounter God within it. They said it would be a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. So I followed that path, and found that these scriptures contained countless commands for the people of God, themselves once enslaved in a foreign land, to remember their desperation and thus treat the foreigner in their midst with dignity. I wondered how this theme from the scriptures might inform the way we respond to an overwhelming refugee crisis, both at our borders and across the world, but my church couldn’t hear me above their fevered cries to “build that wall!”

I’ve thought a lot about differentiation lately. When my daughter was only a few weeks old, I wrote her a letter to say that I will try my best to raise her well and to nurture her in the way of Christ, but that like the community that raised me I will fail, that I am neither different from nor better than the ones who taught me to follow Christ but dismissed the places he took me. Like them, I will say one thing and do another, unaware of the ones who suffer because of my ignorance. I told her to follow Jesus no matter where he takes her, even and especially when it’s a path I reject or dismiss. I told her that she will have to differentiate between the heart of God and the ways I do or do not reflect this God. I told her to follow Christ, wherever he may lead. May we have the courage to follow him too.