In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is a rhetorical genius. Do you see what he does there... right at the start of his conversation with the scribes and Pharisees? He starts off praisingthem. It’s easy to lose sight of that by the time he’s done. Jesus softens things up, and then, he goes in for the rhetorical kill... “Oh,” Jesus says, “Oh, those scribes and Pharisees, they sit on the seat of Moses, so by all means, listen to what they teach you. Listen to what they teach you. Just don’t do what they do.” Ouch. That would be like saying after worship today, “Oh, that Scott, yes, yes, listen to what he says. Just don’t do what he does.” It’s almost like Jesus is from the South: “Why those Scribes and Pharisees – bless their hearts – yes, listen to what they say, but – God love ‘em – do not do what they do.”
Jesus lifts up the scribes and Pharisees as examples, models, paragons – of what not to do. The scribes and the Pharisees like to do all their good deeds so that people can see them so that they can get the credit. Don’t do that. They load up heavy burdens on people, and don’t lift a finger to help. Don’t do that. They love to have the best seat in the house, the place of honor. Don’t do that. They want people to call them by impressive titles, so that folks know who is the most important person in the room. Don’t do that. They love to be exalted, while everyone else is kept... well, in their place. Don’t do that. The scribes and the Pharisees – they sit on the seat of Moses – so listen to what they teach. Just don’t do what they do. For they do not practice what they teach.
The heart of Jesus’s rhetorical critique is... hypocrisy – a lack of integrity. It’s not that these teachers don’t know the right way to live in the world. They know. Or they should. They are the ones charged with knowing. They sit on the seat of Moses. It’s just that they don’t doit. They don’t live it out.
There is a substantive critique there too. It’s not just any old thing that they are failing to do. What they are doing – in all the ways they live and move through the world – is supporting the existing order of things – the hierarchical, top-down, “someone gets to win, while everybody else has to lose” order of things.
This is no small thing. Remember, we are in the Gospel of Matthew – we’ve been traveling through Matthew all year now. So we know that, in Matthew – Jesus is proclaiming – in his teaching and healing – in his life, death, and resurrection – the birthing of an entirely new order – a brave new world. The old order – the one the Pharisees are playing out here – is one of power-over and hierarchy – where the powerful keep their seats of power and feast, while the poor and the meek – while everyone else – barely scrapes by as the violence of empire and corrupt religious authority grind away. That’s the crumbling old order – so different from the reign of God breaking into the midst of us even now. Jesus has told us: That’s a world where: Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are the meek; blessed are the peacemakers; blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.
It’s not that the foundation upon which we have built our lives is faulty – God’s faithful love generation after generation – it’s here right in front of you – alive and breaking into the world. It’s that the scribes and Pharisees don’t practice what they preach. Or maybe, an even better translation of the Greek is: “They say, but they don’t do.” The things that matter most don’t show up in the life they live.
Now, because Jesus is speaking against leaders of a synagogue in his day, it’s important to note that this is not a text where Jesus is speaking against what we think of today as Judaism or against Jewish people. Jesus was a Jew, as was almost everyone in this story. This is an in-house controversy – folks interpreting (or not) a reality they were all living – interpreting it in different ways. And within that bigger community, the Matthew community disagrees profoundly with the Pharisee community.
The Jesus of Matthew is speaking to his kindred out of this profound disagreement: These leaders walk around in all our sacred spaces, flaunting power and privilege and so-called virtue, so that they will be exalted. But, no! No! Blessed are the meek and the merciful and those who hunger and thirst for justice.
Look at them: Does the life they live reflect those words that are true? These leaders say, but they don’t do.
If we translated it fully into our modern, Christian context, the question might sound like this: We see everything you do on Sunday – all the things we profess and proclaim on Sunday – but what does the life you live on Tuesday look like?
Well, that question set my mind spinning this week, and it got me thinking – and we’ll bring it back to this Scripture – but, I got to thinking, what does our life, here, look like on Tuesday? Here in this place – in these spaces. We thought about that a bit when we first started out thinking about what it means to profess: A Place for You Here. We know what happens here on Sunday mornings... but on Tuesdays...
Tuesdays here start in quiet. As the first light of day dawns, you might hear Tom Lannert finishing his cleaning. The Preschool teachers start to arrive, preparing for the day – and then the preschoolers come – and the place gets lively. Off and on throughout the morning there’s singing, and chattering, sometimes a little crying. There is lively learning.
I’m so glad that Kathy Newman is here with this morning to share what’s going on in the life of the Preschool. Did you know that the Preschool has been a part of First Pres San Anselmo since 1968. Think of all the kids and families who have learned and been nurtured here over the years.
Back to our Tuesday thinking: On a Tuesday, if you then walk through the Preschool courtyard – as one of the teachers is looking at fall leaves with their kids, and head up the stairs – you might run into participants in the Cedars program – programs for adults with developmental disabilities. You’d get a friendly hello.
As you walk into this building, by the Patio Room and the Fireside Room, you’d keep a respectful distance – as 12-step programs gathered to support each other – Alanon, AA, NA.
There’d be music – someone practicing the organ – late afternoon, a youth theatre troupe rehearsing a musical.
Back in the office, someone is stopping by to get a Safeway gift-card from Amber to help with groceries this month. (That’s one of the things your Deacons Fund contributions support.) While across the church campus, some folks are getting their groceries from the community fridge – maybe as they pass by folks bringing groceries to fill it back up.
And on Tuesday evenings, as the Preschool and Cedars folks head home, each week, one of our committees meets – in-person or online. This coming week, it will be Church & Society – they meet to plan things like a climate- crisis event, or to envision that refugee housing we’re working on, or to engage our anti-racism work.
This past Tuesday, the Deacons gathered for their monthly meeting. They checked in on their flocks – the needs in the community and beyond – who needs a meal or a ride to the doctor, or a call or a visit. Which of them will help folks at the door next Sunday. They plan memorial service receptions to care for our families when we grieve.
The life lived here on Tuesday has a quiet – well, maybe not totally quiet – but a lively, steady pulse.
Now, I’ve got to be careful here – we’ve got to be careful – do you see why? “The scribes and Pharisees do all their deeds to be seen by others.” So – even naming these things so that we can see them together – well, I’m not doing it to pat ourselves on the back.
But I am wondering: What if, in our life together, we centered the life we live on Tuesday?
What if we put at the center of our community, the love and care and well-being of children – nurtured at the Preschool, fed through the Community Fridge, empowered in our family ministries? What if we centered children like that as we thought even more broadly about how to live locally and globally? How might that transform how we think and act for Palestinian children caught up in the violence of war, for so long, in systems that deny them basic human rights? How we think of Jewish children killed in the October 7 terrorist attack and those still held hostage? What if, in our life of community, we centered the children and youth of Marin City – going to schools in Marin County where other students use racial epithets with no consequence? The life we live on Tuesdays – where we center the care of children – what if we centered that in the whole of our life?
What if we centered making the world more inclusive for folks over a bright spectrum of different abilities? What would that mean for us making this a space where folks could move with more ease? For the way we do Sunday things so that everyone can participate fully?
What if we centered the deacon things – caring for those who are sick, making sure they have meals, transporting folks to places of healing, seeing the deep needs of the world and acting to help. What if we centered serving the world like a deacon?
And that’s where we come back to this morning’s Scripture. For most of the Scripture this morning, Jesus is offering a list of things NOT to do. (You’ve heard of a to-do list. I read someone this week talking about a to-don’t list.) The scribes and Pharisees do this. Don’t do that. The scribes and Pharisees do that. Don’t do that. But there is in there – among all the “Don’t dos” – a subtle, but no-less imperative – “Do. This.” It’s right at the end. At the end of the list. Jesus sums it all up: You see, the greatest among you will be your servant. I might translate it: But the great ones among you will be your serving ones.
Now, do you remember what that Greek serving word is? It’s not a quiz – but I have actually put that Greek word up on the screen before. The Greek serving word is.... deacon... diakonos. The great ones among you will be your deaconing ones. Jesus says, put at the center of all you do... what deacons do... serving the needs of others and working to ease the suffering in the world. Live like that. I almost titled this sermon: Live Like a Deacon.
I love the question in that first hymn we sang: What is this place? I mean really what is it? Is just walls, roof, and floor? Or is it a place where we shelter and feed – where as the song says – “we receive what we need to increase, God’s justice and God’s peace.” What is this place? It’s a place where we deacon. Where together we serve.
So here is our something-to-do for the week – two parts:
· First, let’s think together. What would our life together look like if we centered the life we live on Tuesday? What if those we centered those things – the well-being of children, an expansive welcome, and the tender care of those in need – even more broadly, more deeply, more expansively, more intentionally?
· And then, something each of us can do on our own – maybe this Tuesday – think some of what can we do – what can I do – what can you do to make all this so? What’s one bit of Deaconing, serving, loving that you can do in this life we live on Tuesday.
The words we say and sing here on Sunday are important. I wouldn’t do what I do week in and week out if I didn’t think that were so. It’s important to say and sing them, and to work faithfully to get them right – so that what we profess looks like the brave new world – the new creation – that God is calling us into in Jesus Christ. And... and... the whole point – the whole point of these words we say and sing on Sunday – the true things; the loving things; the real things; the non-hierarchical, God-loves-everybody, set-the-whole-world-free things – the whole point of the words we say and sing on Sunday is that we go and live them out on Tuesday (and Monday and Wednesday...)
If we center the life we live on Tuesday, our hope in the place we find here in this Body – is that Tuesday by Tuesday, day by day, tender mercy by tender mercy, the world will look more and more like this:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are you, blessed are we, blessed is the world,
when together we serve.
© 2023 Scott Clark
 For general background on this text and the Gospel of Matthew see, M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew, New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. viii (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), pp. 430-33; Herman C. Waetjen, The Origin and Destiny of Humanness (San Rafael, CA: Crystal Press, 1976); Aimee Moiso, Commentary in Connections, Year A, vol. 3 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2020), pp. 456-57.  The issue in this text is not just hypocrisy. It is that the scribes and Pharisees are not substantively living out and embodying the distinct new word embodied in Jesus Christ and proclaimed in Matthew’s gospel. For an even stronger statement of this, see Waetjen, pp.216-20.  See Aimee Moiso, pp.456-57.