As I tried to understand what Jesus was saying in this passage, I found myself struck by two words: Solid and Fluid. A solid is weighty. A fluid is malleable. Do you want to be solid or fluid? If you are building a house, you want to build on something solid. If you are talking about dealing with the problems in our world, being fluid might be a better approach. And does it need to be one or the other? Or can it be both/and?
1) Last week we celebrated the beginning of the Protestant Reformation—Luther saying, “there are things the church is doing that we should question.” (We certainly can see Luther following in Jesus’ footsteps in the passage from Matthew we read today!) Luther wasn’t trying to start a new thing. He knew that the church, the body of Christ, the vessel for God’s action in the world, had many good qualities, solid qualities, we could say. But the church had become too blind to its own faults, too rigid in its thinking, not fluid enough to speak to people where they were. Luther wanted both the solidity of Christian life, and the fluidity of keeping up with changing times. Reformed and always reforming.
2) In the Bible Study over the last week we talked about God’s covenant with God’s people. The prophet Jeremiah wailed that God’s people just couldn’t seem to follow God’s laws, just couldn’t seem to keep their part of the bargain of the covenant. He heard God saying, that there would be a new covenant—God would write God’s law upon our hearts, and we wouldn’t need to be taught any more. Was Jesus this new covenant? What was new? Could we count on anything old?
I think we came to the conclusion, that although there might be a new way of having a relationship with God (being fluid), there was still a constant, a solid rock on which we stand—God’s love for us, and God’s insistence that we are God’s people.
Solid. Fluid. These are helpful images when we approach the passage from Matthew. Jesus is going on a rant about the Pharisees. But notice that he doesn’t say, “Walk away and don’t listen to them.” No, he says, “They sit on Moses’ seat; do whatever they teach you, and follow it.” Now I didn’t know that Moses’ seat was an actual THING. It seems that in the synagogue there was a chair it seems of stone (which would make it very solid), and the person who was reading and interpreting Scripture would sit in that seat. Obviously it was a position of honor and responsibility.
Jesus is saying that the Scripture, and even the interpretation of it, is something we need to respect. But, that doesn’t mean that the people doing the interpreting are always correct. In fact, he creates a 1st century tweet storm—these interpreters, these Pharisees, are not doing what the Scripture says. They are putting themselves before other people. And they seem more interested in their own prestige and position than they are in being God’s emissaries. Bad Pharisees.
We want to interpret this passage as someone else’s problem. THEY did it wrong. Tsk, tsk. Can we imagine that Jesus might have a rant that would include us? It is hard thing to ask, “What are We called to do? Where might we be not solid but rigid? Or where might we be not fluid but wishy-washy?”
In this week where we honor the memory of the great cloud of witnesses, our ancestors and beloveds in the faith, I would like to lift up some people who have had to struggle with what we are to do in light of Scripture and the world in which they lived.
Think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who tried to stand up against the Nazi regime, when many in the church allied themselves with it. He eventually felt he had to try to assassinate Hitler, who he saw as evil incarnate, even though he knew it went against Scripture, but he felt how else could he faithfully live out the gospel?
Think of Martin Luther King, Jr., who now is almost synonymous with the Civil Rights Movement, a man of great courage and incredible oratory. During the movement itself, he was often criticized, even by other preachers, as being too inflammatory and divisive, and garnering too much attention. How else was he to faithfully live out the gospel?
Think of Betsey Stockton (who I just found out about at the women’s conference at Princeton Theological Seminary last week). She was born a slave in 1798 in Princeton, NJ but she wanted to be a teacher and a missionary. After her owners set her free in 1817, she applied to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions to go to Hawaii with the Stewarts and her contract said that she went “neither as an equal, nor as a servant, but as a humble Christian friend.” Betsey Stockton was the first single American woman sent overseas as a missionary. How else was she to faithfully live out the gospel?
I lift up these examples of people who tried to figure out how to be firmly rooted in what they knew—listening to those sitting on Moses’ seat—and yet able to dream of paths others might never have considered. I lift them up, not to exult them, but to marvel in the myriad ways that servants of God, students of Jesus, have found to live out their faith in the times that they lived.
We too find ourselves in a world where there are hate groups that feel emboldened and try to be the loudest voices in the room. Our world has become a place where differences become divisions become sides. We pray as we struggle like Dietrich Bonhoeffer to know what to do in response.
We too find ourselves in a world where people are judged based on the color of their skin, or the name of the God they worship, or the language they speak, or who they choose to love. We pray as we seek to speak out like Martin King to know what to say.
We too find ourselves in a world where women are used and abused, from the sexual harassment scandals of the USA, to the kidnapping and rape of girls by Boca Haram, to the sexual slavery around the world. We pray to have strength and fortitude like Betsey Stockton to know how to live lives in service to God no matter what obstacles we face.
And through it all, we can be sure, that God’s love holds us up, and God’s covenant beckons us to make a better world. What are we to do? Be Solid and Fluid and God’s own.
May it be so. Alleluia, Amen.