Harrowing Of Hell
November 5, 2014

All Saints’ Day

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch

Woe to you, hypocrites! You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of God. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them! Woe to you!

We follow the Revised Common Lectionary, a schedule of scripture readings compiled in the early ’90s by representatives of 19 different Christian denominations. They carefully constructed a 3-year cycle which does expose us to a wide range of scripture, but conveniently leaves out some of the messier, uncomfortable texts like the Book of Judges or the rest of Matthew chapter 23. Why is it that “the powers that be” always edit out the juicy, tantalizing bits from scripture instead of having us read them on Sundays?

Woe to you, hypocrites! You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! Why do I keep saying this? It’s in Matthew chapter 23, verse 24, and it’s just fun to say. You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! It’s like lecturing your children on the evils of refined sugar, then bingeing on their Halloween candy after they go to bed. Not that I would ever do that myself of course. I strained out a gnat by allowing my daughter only a few pieces of candy, but swallowed the Almond Joy camel whole when no one was looking. Good thing she’s in Sunday School right now.

Jesus is really attacking the leaders of Israel here. He calls out the scribes and Pharisees, naming their hypocrisy, condemning their strutting around like peacocks, phylacteries broad and fringes long, while they say one thing and do another.

I’m guessing at least a few of you are curious to know more about broad phylacteries and long fringes. Have you ever seen a conservative or orthodox Jewish man with long braided strings hanging out from under his shirt? Those are fringes, called tzizit in Hebrew. The tradition comes from Numbers 15 when God told Moses to have his people wear fringes on the corners of their garments to remember God’s commandments—a kind of theological string around your finger so you don’t forget something.

If you’ve been on Pilgrimage and visited the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, then you’ve seen phylacteries. Those are the little black boxes that Jewish men tie around their foreheads and their arms, binding the two small boxes to their bodies with straps while they pray as an outward and visible sign of their faith and devotion and a reminder of God’s law. They are called tefillin in Hebrew.

I have great respect for the faithful Jews who don these reminders and symbols of their faith. Some of us wear a cross necklace, or some other piece of jewelry as a personal reminder of our faith. Others may even get a tattoo, something intimate that reminds you of God wherever you may go. But what Jesus is condemning here is the, “Hey! Look at me!” attitude, the arrogant leaders in his day who very publicly strapped big black boxes to themselves and wore elaborate fringes draping to the ground in an effort to be seen as more holy than the next.

These were the same guys who loved receiving awards and being invited to fancy dinners. Out of insecurity or hubris, they needed their egos stroked on a routine basis and facilitated that process. How ridiculous! Easy for us to say, from the outside looking in.

But, what is the point? Is the point to be noticed? Praised? Affirmed? Yes. That is exactly the point. We are noticed, praised, adored, and affirmed each and every day by the Lord who created us. Our affirmation doesn’t need to come from other people because it comes from, God, the Creator.

So, if we don’t wear big black boxes on our heads or long fancy strings under our clothing, how do we get God to notice us? You don’t need to do anything at all because you already have God’s attention. As I tell my kids all the time, “You are a Beloved Child of God,” made in God’s image, wonderful and holy. Every single one of us is a child of God.

Today is extra special because this morning we get to formally welcome two more children of God. They already belong to God, we know that. But this morning as they are baptized, as Tyler and Theo are washed in the holy water of God, they will be claimed by this community and called into covenantal relationship with a God who deeply loves them.

We are called into intimate relationship with God and expected to be authentic, faithful people of integrity, but not too showy or flashy, lest we forget the strutting Pharisees and scribes, chastised for their hypocrisy.

Paul has something to say about all of this as well. In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul reminds the community, “as you know” he says, “we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into God’s own kingdom and glory” (1 Thess 2:12). While we are here on this earth, we are called to lead lives worthy of God, which we can only do if our attention is focused on God and not on people. By running after approval or appreciation from people, we forget that we already have it.

Today is All Saints’ Day, a day set aside to remember those who have died. Why do we do that? Because there is something beautiful about people dying. It opens up the opportunity for us to look beyond the created to the creator. It gives us space to look beyond the created to the creator. When our friend or loved one is no longer in front of us, we have to stop looking at them and look to God.

It’s the same as what Jesus is telling us about looking beyond the Pharisees and the scribes with their fancy attention-seeking behavior. Look past all of that to God. The Thessalonians must look past Paul, look past their evangelists and teachers, and join us in focusing our gaze on the one Teacher, the one Father in Heaven, our one instructor, The Messiah.

Just before The Great Thanksgiving, Doyt and I will read the Necrology. We will read the names of those who have died in the past year. That is our time to pause, to breathe deeply and remember loved ones who have died. Then we move on to the Liturgy of the Table, and we turn our gaze to God—to the God who created us, loves us, and calls us good. We praise the God who affirms us, notices us, lifts us up, and loves us.

And we put aside our camels. We forget about the gnats. We let life be what it will be and with great purpose and intentionality, we turn our gaze to God, to God’s kingdom and glory.