“The G.O.A.T.”

“The G.O.A.T.”

Matthew 23:1-12; 23-24

From my earliest memories until now I
have loved watching and playing football.
Where I grew up it was just something in your blood.                                                     It was woven into the very fabric of our DNA.

In the central time zone
kickoff was usually at noon on Sunday
and so during the football season
nearly every pastor and priest made sure their services let out early enough for people to get home for kickoff.

I am nearly convinced that the Catholic Church I grew up in
started holding a 9:15am service on Sunday morning
to give us a little more time to tailgate before the game started.

Now, have you ever noticed that sometimes when you are young
there are things that you just don’t understand.
Like some of the more mature jokes worked into kids cartoons so that parents can get a laugh too. Or how about the listening to a song you haven’t heard since high school and being shocked to finally understand what it was you’d been singing about in the shower.

When it came to football, the biggest mystery for me, my greatest misunderstanding
was “The G.O.A.T.”

For instance,
When Joe Montana was the quarterback
for the San Francisco 49er’s
I remember people referring to him as
“The G.O.A.T.” I figured it was a nickname.

I thought maybe he had a weird goatee in college
and his teammates stuck him with the name.
Babe Ruth was the Great Bambino, Montana was The G.O.A.T.

But then I heard the same name applied to John Elway,
and eventually, Packer fan that I am,
I heard Brett Favre being called “The G.O.A.T.”

As far as Montana and Elway were concerned
I could sell myself on the idea
that the people who gave them their nicknames
were not terribly creative.
But when Favre came into the mix,
I knew I was missing something.

Come to find out, it wasn’t a reference to GOAT the animal
but G.O.A.T. was an acronym for
Greatest Of All Time.
The clouds parted and it started to make a bit of sense to me.

But there was something else about it that wasn’t; quite right.
Favre was being hailed as the Greatest of All Time
but then so were other quarterbacks.
Drew Brees, (He who shall not be named – Tom Brady)
and Aaron Rodgers.

It began to think that those applying the G.O.A.T. acronym
maybe didn’t understand the meaning of “of ALL TIME!”

The whole thing is a big misnomer
because the only time we can actually experience is now and then.
Present and past. We do not know the future.

Which is why Montana gets the label of
Greatest of All Time and then a little while later, Elway,
and Favre, and Rodgers.

At best we can call a quarter back the Greatest of Right Now,
but who wants to be called the G.O.R.N?
Or maybe the Greatest of The Moment: The “Got’m”?
But there truly is only one G.O.A.T.
and we just read a bit of his offensive playbook.

Up until this point Jesus has been getting hounded by the Pharisees.
Question after question.
Trap after, Wyle E. Coyote super genius inspired, trap.

And Jesus has the best defense around.
He stops the Pharisees at the line of scrimmage every time
they don’t gain a foot of ground.
Now though, now Jesus gets to go on the offensive.
Jesus is quarterbacking the show
and not simply responding to what the Pharisees are doing.

The Pharisees had just gone for it on 4th and forever
when they asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was.
And his answer shut them down
and so now it was Jesus turn to ask a question. And he did.

A simple yet complicated question about the lineage of the Messiah
that tied the scribes and Pharisees little brains into knots.
They couldn’t answer and so Jesus turns to address the crowd
and, essentially,
exposes the blatant hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees.

He tells the people
that they have to listen to the teachings
of the scribes and the Pharisees
because they occupy Moses’ seat in their religious structure.
But Jesus cautions them,
do what they tell you to do,
but for the love of ME don’t do what they do.

And then Jesus goes on to tell us all,
the crowd then and us today,
Along with all the saints throughout the centuries,
what these paragons of the Jewish religious establishment DO,
that we should all work to avoid.

So this is something we need to pay attention to because,
if you take a look around you will realize that                                                                       we are the religious establishment now.
We are the ones who metaphorically “occupy the seat of Moses”.
We are the Church.
Commissioned to be salt and light in the world.
Called to proclaim the good news of God’s love.
Sent to make disciples of Jesus Christ
for the transformation of the world.

The scribes and the Pharisees had a job to do. We have a job to do.                         We do well to read this section of Jesus teaching
and pay attention to how we stack up against the Pharisees.
Because if there is one type of character we don’t want to be in the New Testament it’s the Pharisees.
Those who have the truth,
who are supposed to know better,
yet become the worst transgressors of that truth.

There is a lot here in this chapter.
I was tempted to have us read the whole thing
but then I would have felt compelled to preach the whole thing
and we don’t have time for that
because I leave for Israel on Tuesday
and that sermon would run us into Wednesday easily.

The first thing Jesus tells the crowds,
And remember we are part of the crowds,
he tells them that the Pharisees like packing up heavy,
hard to bear, burdens, for others to carry
but they don’t lift a finger to help.
In other words they take the law and the prophets that they teach
and they make it a burden, hard and heavy to live under.
And they do so from a seat of authority.
They teach the beliefs but they do not follow them themselves.

They create expectations for behavior
and expect others to follow those expectations
but the Pharisees live as though
they are exempt from all of the expectations themselves.

When the Pharisees do something good, it’s only a show,
to make others “Ohhhhhhh and Ahhhhhh”
over how holy they are.

I love the line about phylacteries and fringes.
Phylacteries is just a fun word to say. Essentially they are little boxes that contain little pieces of paper with scripture passages written on them that get tied to the forehead and hands. They did this, and some Jews still do today, in order to show their devotion to God and the prominence of God’s word in their lives.
The idea of tying little boxes to our forehead
and our hands as a sign of ones religious devotion
seems a bit silly to us.
But we too have our phylacteries and fringes.
Our t-shirts with their super spiritual messages.
Our bumper stickers with little fish on them or claiming that “Incase of rapture this car will be without a driver”. Or even the jewelry we wear.
Heck this giant ring with a gold cross on my finger
could be considered a phylactery.

But Jesus was not taking issue with the phylacteries themselves
but rather the use of them as a status symbol.
As a sign of devotion and faith, they are perfectly fine.
As a symbol of hierarchy and superiority and pride, they are not.

And this is where Jesus really starts to get into the heart of the matter. In the course of this chapter Jesus says
“woe” to the scribes and the Pharisees seven times.

This is not “whoa” as in an expression of shock or discovery
but rather but “woe” as in
“you better watch out if you are doing these things.”

The “woe” that we read this morning,
the one about straining the gnat and swallowing the camel
is a fantastic picture of what Jesus is driving at
with his offensive strategy against the Pharisees and scribes.

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!
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!

The Pharisees, in fact most of the Hebrew faith,
Can seem like an exercise in legalism.
In holding to strict codes of conduct.
The law, as we read it now,
contains 633 commandments, 10 of which we can usually remember,
from keeping the sabbath holy
to stoning disobedient children
to how to treat a foreigner.

Today in the Church we talk about the tithe
as our pledges or the money that we give to the church. Traditionally, and in particular for the Pharisees and scribes
in this passage, a tithe is 10% of the first fruits of your labor.
That is, before any other debt is paid with your crop or wages,
the tithe is set aside or paid.

The Pharisees,
the guys who make todays legalists look like libertarians,
were not content with just making a simple offering.
They demonstrated their devotion and piety
by tithing down to their spices. The mint and dill and cumin.

Think about this for a second.
Think about getting ready to go to church and to worship God
and give your tithe
and you grab your checkbook
and then you head to the kitchen,
and open the fridge and pull out the roast and the cheese
and the butter and you measure out 10% of each
and add them to your pile to bring to church.

And then you count your canned goods and add a tenth of those,
and then just before you leave you grab your spice rack,
and begin to measure out 10% of each spice
and lump them in with this piled up offering to bring to church.
You would probably get more than a few sideways looks.

But this is the kind of thing the Pharisees did.
They took that simple idea,
the idea of offering a tenth of our earnings back to God
for the building of the kingdom and made it a spectacle.
It became about who could tithe the most minuscule thing.

The spirituality of the scribes and Pharisees
boiled down to how big their phylacteries were
and how they focused their tithes
down to the tiniest parts of their lives.

It was all about appearance,
how they looked to everyone else.
The point of their faith was to be thought of as holy by others without any real concern for God.

Jesus looks at this,
the Pharisees tithing their 11 herbs and spices,
and said “you are missing the entire point.” Jesus seems to say that a lot.
“you focus on the wrong things.
You focus on your spices and phylacteries
and neglect the truly important parts of the law,
justice and mercy and faith.”

Straining the gnat and swallowing the camel
is a great way to put it.
The Pharisees took care to run their wine
through a strainer before they drank it
to make sure they didn’t defile themselves, or make themselves ritualistically unclean, by drinking a gnat
but couldn’t see
that they were swallowing a (metaphorical) camel,
they were missing the big picture
which Jesus tells us is justice and mercy and faith.

And we have to ask ourselves: are we missing the point?
Are we, in any way, focusing on the wrong things?
Are we focusing so much on some little piece of our faith
that we forget the bigger and more important pieces?

In verse 25.
Jesus tells the scribes and Pharisees
that they are good at cleaning the outside of the cup
but on the inside the cup is still filthy, full of greed and self indulgence.

I love this image because it makes very clear what Jesus has been talking about all along.
Yes it is important to clean the outside.
To walk in holiness,
but that holiness is ultimately meaningless
if the inside is not also clean, or holy.

It is the inside that holds onto things.
It is the inside where the build up becomes a problem.
It is the inside that is going to be the most in need of cleaning. When we take care of that the rest follows naturally.

So how do we stack up?
Do we wash both the inside and outside of the cup
or are we whitewashed tombs?

Nice on the outside but full of filth and corruption inside.
Do we see to our inner spiritual needs
and the needs of others
or are we overly focused on our own minutia?

The religious establishment of Jesus day had that problem.
As we talked about last week the Catholic Church
in the 13th and 14th centuries had that problem.
The Church of England in the 1700’s had that problem.
It is not far fetched to imagine that we have that problem as well.

That we have the ability to scrutinize and systematize our faith
to the point that it ceases to be faith
and becomes something else entirely.

For us perhaps inviting people to church
gradually switches from something we do as our mission
to something we do
because we hope those people will stay
and help pay the bills.
It brings us to a point where our beliefs
become a commodity and are about status
instead of justice and mercy and faith.

I had a conversation with a friend this week
who pointed out that for a lot of people
the idea of sharing their faith, proclaiming the gospel,
is about having the right sales pitch.
The right angle,
the correct words that will cause the one we are sharing with
to “buy in” to the faith we are selling.

And friends, he wasn’t wrong.

Many years ago, as a way to make ends meet in school,
I took a job as one of those people
who call you during dinner
and try to sell you something.
It wasn’t as horrible as it could have been.
It was fundraising for a good cause.
But it was still selling something to someone.

We had a script that we had to memorize
and the bulk of that script
was what they called the “No response”.

It was a script of words
designed to convince the person on the other end of the phone
to change their “no” to a “yes”.

Folks, there were three or four separate “no” responses
and we were supposed to use them all
until they said “yes” or hung up on us.

Sometimes I think we look at bringing the good news of God’s love
to others in the same light.
We think that we are trying to sell them something
they don’t want and that we need the right responses
for when people say “no”.

But our faith, our belief in Christ,
our commission to preach the gospel
to every creature
and to make disciples of all nations
has nothing, absolutely nothing,
to do with selling people anything.
It has nothing to do with convincing people with our words.

Sharing our faith
is about the life we live because of that faith.

It is the reality that
between the paths the world offers people to walk on
and our own there is a difference,
a difference that can be seen.
They will know we are Christians by our love friends, by our love.
By how we live.
By how we treat the poor and the outcast.
By how we respond to adversity.
By how we handle heartache.

It is not about the right words.
It is not about having a slick and snazzy gospel presentation ready. It is not about the bumper stickers
or the t-shirts or the gold cross necklaces.

What Jesus is telling the scribes and the Pharisees,
what Jesus is telling us, begging us, to remember
is that it is about the heart. What is your intention?

Wanting to have more people in church is a great thing.
But your intention, your motive behind that desire matters.

Do you want people in church to help pay the bills
or do you want people in church to learn how to follow Christ better, how to be better disciples,
to find a place where they can feel safe exploring their beliefs
and learning how to walk in a life of faith.

There is a big difference.
And it isn’t in the words that we use,
but in the life that we live.
In one we care about the people
in the other we care about the money.

And friends, I promise you,
there is no scripture in our bible
that tells us to preach the gospel
to every gold coin or dollar bill.

It’s always about other people. It always has been.
But like the religious establishments of the past have done,
we have forgotten it.

Its not about words or programs or fringes or phylacteries.
It is about our neighbor. It is about the stranger.
And how we serve them.

The G.O.A.T., the Greatest Of All Time,
undisputedly for me is Jesus.

But Jesus tells us how to be in the running.
How to be great.
To be great, to be of important,
to be prominent in God’s kingdom,
we must be the servant of all.

We need to forget about the minutia of it all.
We need to forget about making sure
that we look the part
and just start living the gospel in our everyday lives.

When we do that…
when we start making the choice to live Jesus everyday,
to hang up the fringe and the phylactery,
and to truly work on living what we believe,
when that happens, the pews will take care of themselves.
The budget will not be an issue.
Because the inside of the cup will be as clean as the outside.
Because we will see the bigger picture of God’s love for the world
and avoid swallowing the camel.

May we open our eyes
to see the truth that Jesus is showing us.
May we open our hearts
to the change that Christ brings to our lives.
And in our service and humility
may we strive to live up to the one and only,
to Jesus Christ, to the Greatest of all time, Amen? Amen.


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