Pharisee, Pharido

Garden of Grace United Church of Christ, Columbia, S.C.

Readings: Isaiah 49:1-7, Matthew 23:1-7, 23-34

Please rise as you are able and do as I do. Stand on one leg. Touch your nose. Pat your head. Now jump up and down. Turn to your neighbors and shake their hand, give them a hug, tell them you’re glad they’re here. Say, “Amen!” Say it again. Sit down!

Why did you just do all of that? Because I told you to? Do you always do what other people ask you to do, even if it seems silly to you? Of course you do. We all do. We live in a monkey see, monkey do society. We don’t want to be seen as odd for not doing what everyone else is doing. We don’t want to be singled out as the one that won’t follow along. We don’t want to rock the boat so we go along to get along. Monkey see, monkey do.

If there’s a trend out there, we must follow it. We’ve got to watch the most popular TV programs so we can be up to date on who won American Idol or Survivor. We have to have the latest clothes, the latest technology, the newest gadgets. People stood in line for days to get the new iPhone! They didn’t want to miss out on the latest thing. Monkey see, monkey do.

This isn’t a new development. The Pharisees were the same way. The Scripture tells us that everything they did was for others to see and do. They wore ornate robes. They loved the place of honor at banquets. They loved to be greeted in the marketplace and called “Rabbi.” They love to make everyone else obey the law while they get away with everything.

Matthew 23 is one of my favorite passages of Scripture. The whole chapter makes me feel smug and superior. Those ridiculous Pharisees, strutting around like they’re better than everyone else, lording their power over others. I’m not like that. I’m humble and full of humility – outdoing anyone in the room in goodness.

Well, I thought I was anyway until I heard a preacher read Matthew 23 recently. As I heard this passage with fresh ears I began to feel convicted by it. I realized this passage talks about me just as surely as it talks about anyone else I might feel superior to. I realized that on most days, I’m a whitewashed tomb. I’ve put on my best clothes, my best smile, my best technology – but I’m full of dead bones. I spend my day griping at people. They’re everywhere! In my way in traffic, in my way at lunch, in my way going back home. I spend my day being irritated with the people around me. Or, I spend my day standing around with others gossiping about someone else, putting someone down because they believe differently or look different – saying mean things and feeling smug and superior to someone else. Pharisee, Pharido.

The outside of my cup is clean – you can’t tell by looking at me that I’m full of greed and self-indulgence – but I’ll pass right by someone who needs help. All of us Pharisees do it. We get so wrapped up in our own lives we never take a moment to consider the lives of those around us. It’s all about our beliefs being right and someone else’s beliefs being wrong. It’s all about us and we don’t have time to go out of our way for anyone else. It’s all about our country and who cares what happens in anyone else’s country. We’re worried about getting all we can for ourselves and we’ll step over anyone else – or ignore anyone else’s needs – to get it. Pharisee, Pharido.

The proper lectionary reading for this week is John 1:29-42 that recounts the events just after Jesus is baptized by John. John declares that Jesus is the son of God. The next day, two of John’s disciples pursue Jesus wanting to know more about him. Jesus invites them to, “Come and see.”

Jesus continues to invite us today to come and see. Instead of staying Pharisees, Jesus invites us to be “come and sees.” But, we’re so used to Pharisee, Pharido that being a “come and see” is hard for us. Often we come, but we don’t see. We sit in church Sunday after Sunday, but we never get to know anyone around us. We don’t see the people here, even though we come. Often we see but we don’t come. We see the people here and we don’t want to get involved. We don’t want to have to care about the person next to us, so we see, but we won’t come.

Jesus invites us to do both – to come and see. But we are Pharisees, blind guides who are more concerned with our outside than our inside. We resist the call to come and see, because coming and seeing means we have to be here and we have to care. That’s a big deal. Being a “come and see” means we have to care about the world. Being a “come and see” means we have to be involved in the world and that means being involved in the lives of those around us.

Being a “come and see” is dangerous. It got Jesus killed by those Pharisees who killed all the prophets before him. We’re like those Pharisees though – we think that if we had been alive in Jesus’ time we would have recognized him. We think we would be like John declaring that truly this is the son of God. But, we kid ourselves. We can’t even see the prophets around us today – how can we even think we’d know that Jesus was the Messiah if we actually saw him.

Tomorrow, we celebrate the life of a modern day “come and see” – a man who understood that to shed that life of Pharisee, Pharido meant that he had to live in the world in a way that was dangerous. Martin Luther King Jr. knew he had to both come and see to bring justice into the world.

King urged us to return to the spirit of the early church. He wrote: “Wherever the early Christians went, they made a triumphant witness for Christ. Whether on the village streets or in the city jails, they daringly proclaimed the good news of the gospel. Their reward for this audacious witness was often the excruciating agony of a lion’s den or the poignant pain of a chopping block, but they continued in the faith that they had discovered a cause so great and had been transformed by a Savior so divine that even death was not too great a sacrifice.” (Strength to Love p. 105)

King asked then and we must ask now, “Where is that kind of fervor today?” Being a “come and see” is dangerous – being transformed into a “come and see” can get you killed. Is there any wonder we avoid it with such fervor? We all love King’s words, but we’re hesitant to follow his footsteps, just as we are hesitant to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. Why? Because, just like them, you might die trying. So we continue in our Pharisee, Pharido ways. We’re safer that way.

I had to wonder why the message of Jesus had lost its motivating power when I read a recent article about J.K. Rowling, the creator of the Harry Potter books. A group of Potter fans have founded the Harry Potter Alliance. Their rallying cry is “The weapon we have is love.” This group was so motivated by Potter’s idealism in the books that they organized house parties around the world to raise awareness of the genocide in Darfur.

Andrew Slack, the founder of the group told members, “We can be like Dumbledore’s army, who woke the world up to Voldemort’s return, and wake our ministries and our world to ending the genocide in Darfur.”

According to Time Magazine, after that statement and the parties, “the student anti-genocide organization STAND saw a 40% increase in sign-ups for high school chapters and a 52% increase in calls to its hotline, 1-800-GENOCIDE. (Dec. 31, 2007/Jan. 7, 2008, “Person of the Year Runner Up: J.K. Rowling,” by Nancy Gibbs, p. 102)

Let me ask you, if Harry Potter can motivate people to work to end genocide in Darfur, why can’t Jesus? These are people who have been transformed from Pharisees to “come and sees” – not because of Jesus but because of Harry Potter.

So, do we have to rally for Darfur or start a civil rights movement to transform ourselves from Pharisee to “come and see”? No. But, we must take the first step and dedicate ourselves to both come and see. We don’t have to look to Darfur to find hurting, dying people who have been affected by discrimination and violence in their lives. All we have to do is look around the room.

Each person in this room has a story. Each person in this room has been affected in some way by discrimination, by violence, by indifference, by hatred and fear. Jesus invites us to “come and see” – see the person next to you. Earlier I told you to hug them and speak to them. Being a “come and see” means you don’t have to be told to do that. You have come to this place, and you have seen the person beside you. You’ve really seen them – you want to know more about them. You want get to know their pain. You want to get to know their joy.

Oriah Mountain Dreamer in her poem the Invitation says:

It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up, after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone, and do what needs to be done to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you, from the inside, when all else falls away.

I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.

What do you know about the people around you in this room? Do you know what sustains them, what they ache for, what their dreams are? I have to admit there are people in this room whose names I do not know. To be a “come and see” I have to rectify that problem. I want to know everyone’s name, but more than that I want to know what sustains you, what you ache for, what your dreams are. I want to know YOU.

This is what it means to be a “come and see.” We actually come and we actually see one another. We don’t just play Pharisee, Pharido, going off with our cliques to lunch. We lunch with someone new. We get to hear a new story. We get to make a new friend and we get to care about someone, no matter who they are.

It’s dangerous to become a “come and see.” When we really see other people we tend to get inconvenienced. We may have to give up some of our time for them. We may have to go out of our way to do something for someone else. We may have to get out of our comfort zone and spend time with someone we may not like very much. But, if we are a “come and see” we understand that time spent helping others is never time wasted.

There is enough pain in this room – there is enough suffering in this room – to keep us busy for the rest of our lives. Let us take a cue from those Harry Potter fans and regain our fervor for Christ’s message of love. Let us proclaim it to everyone who has ears to hear – even if our actions produce nothing but pain and suffering for ourselves. But, I guarantee that if we create community here, we can create a better world.

Jesus calls us to stop playing it safe – to stop going through the motions of Pharisee, Pharido. Instead, we are invited, every moment of every day, to “come and see,” “come and do,” “come and be.”