November 5, 2017 - The Separation of Church and Faith

Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, "The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.  Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example.  For they preach but they do not practice.  They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people's shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them.  All their works are performed to be seen.  They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.  They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation 'Rabbi.' As for you, do not be called 'Rabbi.' You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. 

Matthew 23:1-12

We should not expect those we hire, elect or ordain to be our prophets. There is no model for the hired, elected or ordained prophet in Scripture.  

The striking thing about the relationship between Moses and Aaron is that one played the role of prophet while the other played the very distinct role of priest.  When Moses was worn out from leading the people, God anointed dozens of helpers simply by having them stand around the Tabernacle Tent.  Shortly thereafter, two men who were not part of that brief consecration were observed prophesying in the camp.  Far from being angry, Moses encouraged everyone to strive to become a prophet.  Prophecy doesn’t require any credentials. On the other hand, Aaron’s ordination was a long elaborate affair which included ornate clothing, ritual sacrifice, etc.  Aaron was the liturgist of the camp – if you read carefully, you’ll note he does not really have a speaking role at all!  Our expectation today is that our ministers and priests will perform both the role of Moses and that of Aaron, when really their role is only the latter.   

This Sunday’s reading can certainly be read as a criticism of some clergy, and it was probably intended that way.  But it can also be read to highlight the difference between priest and prophet.  Jesus was happy to have the Pharisees fulfill the role of liturgist, but wanted spiritual and moral teachers to arise organically.  It is the separation of church and faith.

Prophets cannot be deliberately formed by a predictable process.  Moses had what Martin Buber called an "I/Thou" encounter with God and was able to express some of its content to the people he led. St. Paul famously had an I/Thou encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus.  The Buddha had an I/Thou encounter under the Bodhi Tree. There was no classroom component or ordination. The weakness of religious education programs and seminaries across all denominations is that they expect to re-create Moses through a linear process when they should be focused on re-creating Aaron.  The I/Thou encounter cannot be conjured or taught.

Lacking an authentic Moses we tend to look for our prophets and moral guides among celebrities, politicians, and worse.  Lacking an authentic Moses we abandon even Aaron and embrace the secular.