Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
The Greatest Among You
“Yes… And…” a four-week Stewardship sermon series from the book of Matthew
Week 4 of 4, preached October 25, 2020 for the 9:30am Worship
“Yes… And…” In Improv, improvisational comedy, that’s the first rule as actors and comedians step on stage. No matter what the other person offers, say yes to it, meaning accept it, AND add something to it that takes you both forward.
This October, for our Stewardship season, we have been looking at lessons of Jesus from Matthew where we are invited to say YES to God, then to say AND, to add extra.
Three weeks ago, Caitlan showed us how saying YES to God with our beliefs, our personal spirituality is good, then add the AND. Yes believe in God, AND show up together to the feast, to worship, study, and serve as a faith community.
Two weeks, Jesus was asked, “Is it lawful to pay Caesar the census tax?” Jesus replied, “Yes, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, AND give to God what is God’s.” We heard YES, pay our taxes, support our families, enjoy our lives with the monies we’ve earned by God’s grace, AND faithfully regularly give tithes and offerings to support God’s community, the church.
Last week, Jesus was asked “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus replied, “Yes, love the Lord our God with all we have, all we are, all we do… AND love our neighbor and ourselves with the same effort and integrity.” Loving God is a start, then add loving neighbors, strangers, and all people with the same love.
Today is our fourth and final Yes And lesson, from Matthew 23. Let’s pray and listen carefully for the word of the Lord that never changes yet always inspires change…
Scripture Matthew 23:1-12
23:1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 therefore, learn whatever they teach you and honor it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they preach.
4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.
5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.
8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called guides, for you have one guide, the Messiah.
11 The greatest among you will be the one who serves. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
(This is the word of the Lord… Thanks be to God!)
Did you catch the Yes And this week? It’s a little more hidden than the previous weeks. The first three weeks were more obvious… Yes, personally believe in God AND participate in God’s faith community. Yes give to Caesar, AND give to God some of our monies. Yes, love God, AND love neighbor and self. But this week, the Yes And is hiding.
After those three big lessons we heard over the last three weeks, Jesus stops responding to his critics and challengers directly and turns to address the crowds and his disciples about those who’ve been critiquing and challenging him.
“They sit on Moses’ seat, and teach you the scriptures, so Yes, listen and learn from them what the Scriptures SAY, BUT do not learn from them what the Scriptures MEAN. The Pharisees and Scribes like to put themselves up in front of others. Yes, they expect sacrifices from others and service of others, BUT they themselves don’t lift a finger. Yes, they like people coming to them for guidance and counsel, the nice clothes, the nice pay, the seats of honor, and to be recognized in public places as important, BUT that’s not what the Scriptures say for them to DO. Yes, they make themselves your Rabbis, your Masters, your Guides, BUT the Scriptures want leaders who point people to God as their one and only teacher, lord, and guide.”
We are getting lots of Yes Buts from Jesus. Where is the Yes And hiding?
This last Yes And does hide a bit, and that’s kind of the point.
Here in this church, there’s this little crew of folk who show up Monday to Thursday 830am to 200pm and host 8 local elementary students who don’t have great internet at home, or have parents who need to work, or have guardians who need some help with these precious children. Ms. Terri and her handfuls of regular volunteers didn’t really know what they were saying YES to back in September when the schools and a local parent group asked for churches to be Remote Learning Hubs. This church said yes. Ms. Terri nervously said Yes. Volunteers from inside and beyond this congregation said YES, and as the kids showed up, Ms. Terri and our volunteers have been learning about computers and software, Schoology and Google and Zoom. They’ve navigated missing lunches, drops in internet service, and kids having bad days. For whatever reason, this church and these folk said YES, AND have done so mostly behind the scenes, faithfully, regularly, without demanding attention and without regret.
As I’ve moved through this church over the last six months, even under a pandemic, I’ve seen other places today’s Yes And hides. I might go visit someone on our prayer list, and find a flower arrangement sitting on the table by the bed from the deacons, a stack of note cards from folks in the church, and hear a story about a meal that was just delivered last night from someone else in the church. I stop in on someone else to deliver a prayer shawl the Knitters crafted and chose for someone after surgery, and while I am there, two more from the church stop by with balloons, a card, dinner and dessert.
I’ve seen today’s Yes And lesson at play in this church when the Nominating Committee sat together to begin their discernments for new Elders and Deacons. I imagined with them the possibility of getting folks nominated and elected a bit earlier, so they could get comfortable and trained into their role before their time of official service started. The Nominating committee said yes, and went about their discernment carefully and quickly. As they called folk to invite them to serve, they also said yes, and have already stepped into their first meeting in October.
I see today’s Yes And lesson at play in this church when the Youth Group wanders out into the community to make some corner of it better. I see it when Lainie and Christina ask this church to do an intentional in-depth study of systemic Racism over the summer, and the Session says Yes, and people say Yes by coming and talking honestly. I see it when your finance team and your volunteer treasurers faithfully show up behind the scenes to count and categorize every penny, and to craft reports that help the Session see where we have been and where we are headed financially. I see it in the AV booth this morning, when a retired couple hears the call for some volunteers to help on the computer and behind the camera, and they aren’t really sure what they are saying yes to, but they say yes, and show up, and begin learning how to be a part of making our Livestream happen every Sunday. We could still use a few more yes-es to that one if you are feeling so inclined.
See, the lesson Jesus wanted to teach the people and to reteach the religious leaders was to say YES to opportunities to serve. If someone invites you onto a board, or into a classroom, behind the desk, or out into the community, find a way to say YES to that opportunity to serve. AND do so humbly, meaning go into it in order to serve, not for personal gain or benefit. Say yes to serving meekly, gently, modestly, without desire for acknowledgment or gain for yourselves, and not to have some control or power.
In our political world, it sometimes seems people do want to say yes to becoming a public servant. But, I hear in their words and see in their actions the desire to have control. I hear them complain about not being recognized enough for all they think they have done. I hear them bluster and fight and argue to make things happen the way they want. The Yes to serving is ruined if it doesn’t have the AND of humility.
Yes, say Yes to opportunities to serve… this church, one of our mission partners, or some other need or opportunity in your family, in the community, in the broader church. Say Yes. If God shows you the need and nudges your mind to wonder what might help, and tickles your heart to feel what they must be feeling as a pull on you to serve, say yes.
And go into that time of service humbly. Don’t assume to know what they need. Don’t assume you have the skills or the answers. Don’t assume if they would just do it your way, things would get better. Go into that moment of service humbly, listening, observing, asking questions, learning. That’s the AND that gives service its true power.
Yes, Serve, AND do so humbly.
To this God be any and all glory and honor, now and forevermore. Amen.
Now, Blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God, who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you, this day, this night, this moment and forevermore.
Rev. Joel L. Tolbert
Pastor, Presbyterian Church of Chestertown