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MATTHEW 23:1-12 | “APPEALING TO OUR BETTER ANGELS”

“APPEALING TO OUR BETTER ANGELS”

MATTHEW 23:1-12

NOVEMBER 5, 2017

 

 

THEY ARE THE VERY LAST WORDS OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S FIRST INAUGURAL ADDRESS – HIS FIRST WORDS TO THE NATION AS PRESIDENT – AND HE IS BEGGING AMERICA, NORTH AND SOUTH, NOT TO DIVIDE AND ENTER INTO WAR.

 

“WE ARE NOT ENEMIES, BUT FRIENDS. WE MUST NOT BE ENEMIES. THOUGH PASSION MAY HAVE STRAINED, IT MUST NOT BREAK OUR BONDS OF AFFECTION.

 

THE MYSTIC CHORDS OF MEMORY, STRETCHING FROM EVERY BATTLEFIELD AND PATRIOT GRAVE TO EVERY LIVING HEART AND HEARTHSTONE ALL OVER THIS BROAD LAND, WILL YET SWELL THE CHORUS OF THE UNION, WHEN AGAIN TOUCHED, AS SURELY THEY WILL BE, BY THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE.”

 

SADLY, THAT’S NOT WHAT HAPPENED, OF COURSE, AND AMERICA WAS PLUNGED INTO THE CIVIL WAR.

 

“THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE…”  HE WAS NOT THE FIRST TO USE THOSE WORDS – SHAKESPEARE SAID THEM; AS DID NATHANIEL LEE, WILLIAM GUTHRIE, AND ANNE-MARSH-CALDWELL, AMONG OTHERS.

 

THE CONCEPT, IF NOT THOSE EXACT WORDS, HAS BEEN AROUND AS LONG AS HUMANS HAVE BEEN AROUND – FROM ADAM AND EVE, TO CAIN KILLING HIS BROTHER ABEL, TO JACOB AND ESAU, AND KING DAVID, AND EVERY HUMAN BEING, BIBLICAL OR NOT.

 

IT IS WHAT WE KNOW OF OTHERS, AND WHAT WE KNOW OF SELF: THAT WE ARE OF TWO NATURES – OUR BETTER ANGELS AND OUR LESSER SELVES.

 

LIGHT AND DARKNESS; GOOD AND EVIL; OUR BEST AND WORST SELVES; AND THE GREAT STRUGGLE BETWEEN THE TWO.

 

OF COURSE, THERE’S ALWAYS BEEN OUR PENCHANT TO BLAME SOMETHING OUTSIDE OURSELVES: “THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT;” EVIL FORCES; BLAMING OTHERS;

 

AND WHILE THERE CAN BE SOME TRUTH TO THAT, IF WE’RE HONEST, MUCH OF THE “WRONG THAT IS OFT SO STRONG” IS SELF-INFLICTED; FROM WITHIN; AND IT IS THAT ON WHICH I WANT US TO FOCUS THIS MORNING.

 

IN AN EPISODE OF THE FORMER TELEVISION SERIES TREME, ABOUT POST-KATRINA NEW ORLEANS, ONE OF THE CHARACTERS, AT ONE POINT SAYS:

 

“PEOPLE ARE JUST PEOPLE.  SOMETIMES, WE’RE BETTER THAN OURSELVES; SOMETIMES WE’RE WORSE.  SOMETIMES WE DISAPPOINT; SOMETIMES WE AMAZE.”  IT IS THE NATURE OF OUR TWO SELVES.

 

THIS IS WHAT JESUS IS POINTING OUT ABOUT THE PHARISEES TO THE CROWD TO WHOM HE’S SPEAKING IN THIS MORNING’S PASSAGE – WHICH IS, BY THE WAY, ALWAYS EASIER TO DO THAN ADMITTING IT ABOUT OURSELVES.

 

IT’S MUCH EASIER TO LOOK AT THE LIVES OF OTHERS AND POINT OUT THE INCONSISTENCIES, THE HYPOCRISIES, THE PLACES WHERE THEIR WORDS AND ACTIONS DON’T ADD UP; WHERE THEY TALK THE TALK, BUT DON’T WALK THE WALK;

 

THAN IT IS TO ADMIT IT ABOUT OURSELVES.

 

AND THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT JESUS IS POINTING OUT TO THE CROWD – THAT THEY SHOULD HEED THE WORDS OF THE PHARISEES – THEY SHOULD DO WHAT THEY SAY, NOT WHAT THEY DO; AND JESUS IS RIGHT.

 

HE IS RIGHT TO CHALLENGE THE HYPOCRISY OF THE PHARISEES, WHILE AT THE SAME TIME TELLING THE PEOPLE TO DO THE GOOD THINGS THEY ARE BEING TOLD TO DO; ABOUT HOW TO LIVE.

 

TRUTH IS: WE HARDLY EVER HAVE A HARD TIME POINTING OUT THE FAILURES OF OTHERS; THEIR INCONSISTENCIES; THEIR LESSER SELVES; THE TIMES THEY ARE WORSE THAN THEMSELVES; AND WHEN THEY DISAPPOINT;

 

BUT TO ADMIT IT ABOUT OURSELVES COMES HARDER.

 

IN THIS INSTANCE, IT MAY BE THE APOSTLE PAUL WHO IS MORE HELPFUL TO US, THAN EVEN JESUS HIMSELF.  REMEMBER PAUL’S SELF-ADMISSION IN ROMANS 7?

 

“I DO NOT UNDERSTAND MY OWN ACTIONS.  FOR I DO NOT DO WHAT I WANT, BUT I DO THE VERY THING I HATE.  I CAN WILL WHAT IS RIGHT, BUT I CANNOT DO IT.  FOR I DO NOT DO THE GOOD I WANT, BUT THE EVIL I DO NOT WANT IS WHAT I DO.”

 

PAUL GETS IT.  PAUL UNDERSTANDS WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE US.

 

HE GETS OUR BETTER ANGELS, AND OUR LESSER SELVES; WHEN WE ARE MORE THAN OURSELVES AND AMAZE, AND WHEN WE ARE LESS THAN OURSELVES, AND DISAPPOINT.

 

AND THE FIRST PERSON WE DISAPPOINT IS OURSELVES.

 

HAVE YOU EVER BEEN IN THE HEAT OF BATTLE WITH SOMEONE, RANTING AND RAVING, FUSSING AND FIGHTING, ONLY TO MOMENTARILY HAVE AN OUT-OF-BODY MOMENT – SEEING YOURSELF FROM THE OUTSIDE, AND THINKING:

 

WHO IS THAT RAGING MANIAC?!  I DON’T EVEN KNOW THAT PERSON.  BUT WE DO KNOW THEM; IT’S US!  “WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY, AND HE IS US.”

 

ONCE MORE, IT’S EASIER TO SEE THIS ABOUT OTHERS, THAN IT IS TO SEE IT ABOUT OURSELVES, SO, LET ME BACK OFF FROM US FOR A MOMENT, AND TALK ABOUT ALL OF THIS LESS SUBJECTIVELY.

 

HOW MANY TIMES HAVE WE KNOWN SOMEONE, OR SOMEONE WHO IS KNOWN TO US AS A HIGHLY PUBLICIZED FIGURE, WHO HAS A TOTAL MORAL FAILURE; A COMPLETE BREAKDOWN; AND WE ARE SURPRISED, AND OH, SO DISAPPOINTED.

 

I LOVED BILL COSBY WHEN I WAS LITTLE.  I LOVED THAT HE PLAYED ONE OF THE FEW BLACK CHARACTERS ON TELEVISION, EARLY, IN I SPY. 

 

MY PARENTS OWNED A COUPLE OF HIS COMEDIC ALBUMS.  I STILL DO, PACKED AWAY SOMEWHERE.  BEING IN CHURCH – I LOVED HIS RENDITION OF NOAH AND THE ARK.  HE MADE ME LAUGH.

 

I THOUGHT THE FAT ALBERT CARTOON WAS FUNNY; AND THE BILL COSBY SHOW ENTERTAINING, EDUCATIONAL, AND A POSITIVE IMAGE FOR FAMILIES OF ALL TYPES AND RACES.  HE WAS THE FACE OF JELL-O PUDDING!

 

BUT I DID NOT KNOW THE MAN;

 

AND WHEN HIS LIFE CAME CRASHING DOWN, DESERVEDLY SO, BECAUSE OF THE REPEATED ALLEGATIONS OF SEXUAL PREDATION, HE, AND MY IMAGE OF HIM, CRUMBLED.

 

WE COULD REPEAT THAT EXAMPLE MANY TIMES OVER BY SIMPLY REPLACING THE NAME OF BILL COSBY, WITH THE NAME OF ANY OTHER CELEBRITY OR NON-CELEBRITY WE’VE EVER KNOWN WHO DISAPPOINTED US BY NOT BEING WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE.

 

AND NOW THE REVELATIONS ABOUT ONE OF MY FAVORITE ACTORS – KEVIN SPACEY?!

 

OR WHAT ABOUT THOSE TIMES WHEN THE NEWS IS INTERVIEWING NEIGHBORS AFTER SOME HORRIFIC EVENT INVOLVING ONE OF THEIR OTHER NEIGHBORS AND THE PERSON IS AT A COMPLETE LOSS OF WORDS TO EXPLAIN:

 

“WE HAD NO IDEA!  HE WAS NEVER ANYTHING BUT NICE TO US!  THINGS LIKE THIS JUST DON’T HAPPEN IN NEIGHBORHOODS LIKE OURS.”

OR WHEN SERIAL KILLERS OR MASS MURDERERS ARE RESEARCHED AFTER THE FACT – AND AT FIRST, EVERYTHING THAT IS SAID ABOUT THEM, FOUND OUT ABOUT THEM, ETC. SEEMS SO NORMAL…

 

UNTIL IT’S NOT; AND UPON FURTHER INVESTIGATION, THEIR LIFE BEGINS TO UNRAVEL INTO A DARKER IMAGE OF THEMSELVES THAT FEW EVER SAW, SUSPECTED, OR KNEW.

 

LESS NEFARIOUS THAN THESE EXAMPLES ARE THOSE BEHIND-THE-SCENES STORIES ABOUT OUR FAVORITE TELEVISION SHOWS, OR MOVIES, WHEN YOU FIND OUT THE BELOVED CHARACTERS OF THE SHOWS OF OUR LIVES,

ON THE SET, AND IN REAL LIFE, ARE NOTHING LIKE THE CHARACTERS THEY PLAYED.

 

THE SWEETEST AND MOST ENDEARING OF THEM, ABSOLUTE TERRORS ON THE SET; THE WORST TO WORK WITH!  HATING ON, AND HATED BY, THEIR FELLOW ACTORS.

 

WE’VE STOPPED READING AND WATCHING THOSE BEHIND-THE-SCENES PRESENTATIONS – I’D RATHER REMEMBER THE BELOVED CHARACTERS OF MY CHILDHOOD SHOWS AS THEY WERE.

 

THAT’S ENOUGH – BUT YOU SEE WHAT I’M GETTING AT – PEOPLE’S TRUE SELVES ARE OFTEN DIFFERENT, OR AT LEAST MORE COMPLICATED, THAN THE PERSONA THEY PRESENT.

 

AND IT IS SO NAÏVE TO THINK OTHERWISE; OUR INNOCENCE DIES HARD.

 

BUT WHAT WE’VE BEEN DESCRIBING HERE, IS TRUE OF US – THANKFULLY, HOPEFULLY, NOT TO THE EXTREMES OF THOSE I’VE JUST EXAMPLED, BUT IT’S THERE; IN ALL OF US; OUR BETTER ANGELS AND OUR LESSER SELVES.

 

FOR EVERY HEAVENLY VIRTUE, THERE IS A DEADLY SIN.  EVEN THE CHURCH HAS RECOGNIZED THIS OVER THE YEARS:

 

THE SEVEN DEADLY SINS: LUST, GLUTTONY, GREED, SLOTH, ANGER, ENVY, PRIDE; AND THEIR EXACT COUNTERPARTS, THE SEVEN HEAVENLY VIRTUES: CHASTITY, TEMPERANCE, CHARITY, DILIGENCE, PATIENCE, KINDNESS, HUMILITY.

 

SET THEM SIDE-BY-SIDE AND YOU’LL SEE OUR TWO SIDES; YOU’LL SEE US; THE VIRTUES TO WHICH WE ASPIRE, AND THE SINS FROM WHICH WE TRY TO ABSTAIN.

 

IT IS THE BATTLE BETWEEN OUR TWO SELVES; THE DAILY BATTLE FOR WHICH OF OUR-SELVES WILL REIGN.

AN OLD FARMER WAS TRYING TO EXPLAIN THIS TO HIS PREACHER:

 

“PREACHER,” HE SAID, “IT’S LIKE I GOT TWO OLD HOUND DOGS A’WRESTLIN AND A’FIGHTIN INSIDE OF ME.”

 

“WHICH ONE’S WINNING?” ASKED THE PREACHER.  “WHICHEVER ONE I SAY ‘SIC ‘EM’ TO,” SAID THE FARMER.

 

WE’VE SEEN IT FROM TIME IN MEMORIAM – THE ANGEL AND THE DEVIL, ONE SITTING ON EACH SHOULDER;

 

ADAM AND EVE WATCHING FOR GOD WHILE LISTENING TO THE SERPENT’S LIES; CAIN TRYING TO EXPLAIN THE KILLING OF HIS BROTHER ABEL;

 

KING DAVID INDICTING HIMSELF WITH HIS OWN WORDS WITH THE PROPHET NATHAN, OVER HIS ILLICIT AFFAIR WITH BATHSHEBA, AND THE MURDER OF HER HUSBAND, URIAH.

 

OUR BETTER ANGELS WRESTLING WITH OUR LESSER SELVES, AND WHOEVER WE SAY “SIC ‘EM” TO, THE EVENTUAL WINNER; BUT THE BATTLE CONTINUES, WITHIN EACH OF US; WITHIN OTHERS;

 

AND THEY WILL CONTINUE TO DISAPPOINT US, AND WE THEM, AND OURSELVES.

 

IT IS ONE OF THE THINGS THAT UNITES US AS HUMAN BEINGS; MAKES US THE SAME AS OTHERS.

 

“THE ROAD TO PERDITION IS PAVED WITH GOOD INTENTIONS.”

“DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DO.”

 

“FOR I DO NOT UNDERSTAND MY OWN ACTIONS.  FOR I DO NOT DO WHAT I WANT, BUT I DO THE VERY THING I HATE.”

 

AND LATER IN THAT SAME CHAPTER PAUL SAYS, “SO I FIND THAT EVEN WHEN I WANT TO DO GOOD, EVIL LIES CLOSE AT HAND.

 

AND THE REASON?  BECAUSE MUCH OF THAT EVIL LIES WITHIN.

 

THAT’S THE MONSTER SELF, THE MANIAC, WE STEP BACK TO SEE FIGHTING WITH ANOTHER, ONLY TO BE AGHAST, THAT WHO WE ARE SEEING, IS US.

 

IT’S WHY WE CAN HURT THE VERY PEOPLE WE LOVE MOST.

 

WE ARE DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, AND IT’S NOT SOME POTION, OR FULL MOON, OR BLACK OF THE NIGHT THAT BRINGS IT OUT IN US;

 

IT IS OUR SEVEN DEADLY SINS, AND THE COUNTLESS OTHERS, AND OUR LESSER SELVES, THAT OVERTAKE US.

 

JESUS UNDERSTOOD, AND SOUGHT TO BRING GOD’S GRACE, HIS GRACE, TO OUR LIVES AND TO OUR STRUGGLE.

 

PAUL UNDERSTOOD, AND SAID, THAT GOD’S GRACE, MERCY, AND FORGIVENESS WAS OUR ONLY WAY OUT OF THIS CONSTANT BATTLE FOR OUR SOULS; FOR OUR TRUE SELVES.

 

WE SPEND SO MUCH TIME WORRIED ABOUT WHAT OTHERS ARE DOING; WHAT THE WORLD IS DOING; WHAT “THEY” WHOEVER “THEY” ARE, ARE DOING;

 

AND FOR THE MOST PART, BLAMING THEM FOR ALL THE WORLD’S ILLS, AND OUR OWN; THAT WE FAIL TO SEE THAT “WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY, AND IT IS US.”

 

IT IS OUR OWN-DEADLIES, AND THEIRS, COMBINED, THAT KEEP THAT OLD HOUND DOG ON THE ATTACK.

 

BUT – “DO AS I SAY, AND AS I DO,” JESUS TEACHES; BEGS; CAJOLES; INVITES; COMMANDS; DIRECTS; AND LOVES US INTO BEING AND INTO DOING.

 

PERHAPS THE LAST OF THOSE IS THE BEST.  BECAUSE WE ARE LOATHE TO ADMIT TO OUR LESSER SELVES;

 

AND BECAUSE WE ARE MORE APT TO SPEND OUR TIME AND ENERGY ON POINTING OUT WHERE OTHERS ARE WRONG, AND WHAT THEY DO IS WRONG, AND WHO THEY ARE IS WRONG, AND WHAT THEY’VE DONE TO US IS WRONG…

 

WE ARE A LITTLE LEARY OF TAKING OURSELVES HEAD-ON WHEN IT COMES TO FACING OUR OWN LESSER SELVES;

 

AND JESUS KNEW THIS, AND HE KNEW THE ONLY WAY, THE ONLY WAY, WE CAN EVER GET THERE, IS TO BELIEVE IN LOVE.

 

LOVE GOD, LOVE NEIGHBOR, LOVE OURSELVES.  LOVE WINS!

 

“FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD… THAT WHOSOEVER BELIEVES… SHOULD NOT DIE… BUT HAVE ETERNAL LIFE…”

 

LOVE IS OUR TRUE SELF.  LOVE IS THE ONLY WAY WE GET BACK TO OUR TRUE SELVES.

 

IT IS OUR PATH.  OUR ROADWAY.  OUR INNER JOURNEY.  OUR OUTWARD DESTINY.

OR AS I READ IT SOMEWHERE THIS PAST WEEK:

 

IT IS “THOSE MOMENTS WHEN I SAID MORE THAN I KNOW, AND WHEN I DID BETTER THAN I AM…”

 

OUR BETTER ANGELS.  OUR LOVING SELVES.

 

WHO WE TRULY ARE, AS GOD HAS CREATED, AND INTENDS, US TO BE.

 

 

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Pastor Daniel writes and posts a weekly newsletter that keeps members and friends of the congregation up-to-date. His earlier newsletters are also online, so if you missed something, check those past editions.

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