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Sermon: Do as I Say, Not as I Do

Preached at St. George’s, U Street, NW Washington D.C. (field ed site) on October 30, 2011. Proper 26, Year A (RCL): Joshua 3:7-17; Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.  Amen.

Growing up as a teenager, I compiled an arsenal of sayings from my parents I swore I would never say to my own children.  You know, things like, “You’re not leaving the house dressed like that!” or “Wipe that expression off your face right now!” or “Just wait until your mother gets home!”  (I heard that one from my older sister while my Navy father was out to sea!)  However, at the top of the list is one saying which reeked of the sort of adult hypocrisy that teenagers love to latch onto.  I don’t recall exact occasions, for I’m sure there were several, if not many, or specific teenage behaviors that elicited these particular words, but I clearly hear my mother saying, “Do as I say, and not as I do!”

“Do as I say.  Not as I do!”

As egocentric and idealistic as only teenagers can be, no one, particularly a teenager wants to hear that!  All these years later, I still feel a sense of indignation and outrage at the notion that my mother, or even my father, wanted to hold me to a standard of behavior they could not manage for themselves!

Of course, what goes around comes around.  Chrissie and I were not blessed with children of our own, therefore I am not a parent.  Yet children have been a large part of my adult life - I am an uncle to thirteen wonderful niblings, godfather for ten others, and have served as a youth group mentor, Journey to Adulthood pilgrimage leader, and an adult working with countless other young people both inside and outside the church.  I know I have heard myself thinking, if not saying aloud, the very things I vowed I would never repeat!  But now I understand so much better the frustrations my parents must have felt, and not just those frustrations, but also their desires and hopes for the kind of people my older sister and brother and I would become.  I know only too well the truth my mother and father hit upon when they pronounced that we should do as they said, not as they did: it is awfully hard to live up to our ideals, and to practice what we preach.

We hear that truth resounding through the tirade Jesus directs at the scribes and Pharisees in today’s gospel lesson.  Jesus tells the crowds and his disciples, “The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses‘ seat; therefore do whatever they teach you, but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”  He then goes on to enumerate all the ways their behavior contradicts their teaching, and condemns their hypocrisy, religious show, and self-exaltation.

This isn’t the first time Jesus has called out the scribes and Pharisees for hypocrisy.  Jesus liked to harp on the scribes and the Pharisees, not because they were inherently evil, or because Jewish law no longer mattered; indeed, Jesus reminded his followers more than once of the importance of the Law.  No, Jesus singled out the scribes and Pharisees because, in all their humanness, they provided him such ripe examples by repeatedly falling so very short of the ideals that they preached.  Follow their guidelines if you must, but by no means are you to follow their example.

That’s enough to make me, you, and all of us wonder that if Jesus were to come back today, right now, whether we might be equally rich fodder for harsh critique from our Lord. 

We who are members of churches with rich liturgical traditions can perhaps identify with the Pharisees’ concern for fringes and phylacteries.  Yes, I had to work in that word ‘phylacteries.’  It’s such a wonderful word.  Say it with me.  Phylacteries!  Phylacteries are small leather boxes containing Hebrew texts which are worn by Jewish men at morning prayer as a reminder to keep the Law.

But whether it be phylacteries or fringes, titles or respect, I can just imagine a group of seminarians newly ordained to the Diaconate, gathering over a vestment catalog, debating the merits of watered silk versus brocade to set the proper atmosphere for worship.  Also, how some of my VTS classmates are thinking about whether they care to be addressed as “Father” or “Mother” or “Reverend” to have their newly received authority recognized and respected, or to just be known and called by their first name.

Even those whose traditions fall into more reformed practices are not immune from such obsessions.  Will we wear preaching gowns or chancel robes or choir vestments, and have a proper font and baptistery?  We are not averse to having our names in the paper either, if we can justify it as good publicity for the church.

See?  Sometimes, we’re not so different from the scribes and Pharisees ...

Of course, the problem really goes much deeper than what we wear or what we’re called.  Phylacteries and fringes, vestments and titles all have their place when kept in perspective.  Jesus’ concern, both then and now, is the way those things get out of perspective, the way our motivations for doing them become distorted so that they become an end in themselves, the way they become substitutes for what we are really about: Glorifying God and living as disciples.

If human nature made it difficult for the scribes and Pharisees to keep their motives pure, to practice what they preached, those of us in the present twenty-first century church are perhaps even more disadvantaged.  We still have the same human nature, and we’re embedded in a culture that values appearances, status, wealth, position, individualism, materialism, and consumerism.  Coupled with the fact that the role of the church in society is greatly diminished, it’s no wonder that our tendency to do things to make ourselves stand out, as individuals and as an institution, can make us forget why we’re Christians, and can lead us away from the kind of discipleship Jesus is calling us to.

Discipleship has nothing to do with standing out, with being self-serving, or putting ourselves first.  Quite the contrary.  All of us are called not to be served, but to serve others.  As we hear in today’s reading, Jesus consistently reminds his followers that “the greatest among you will be your servant” and “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

So we’re caught between what the gospel calls us to, and what our culture upholds, and that’s where we often find ourselves in the same bind the Pharisees were caught up in, the bind my parents understood so well when they demanded, “Do as I say, not as I do.”  We believe one thing, we hold it in our hearts, yet our behavior all too often comes up short when measured up against that belief.

If you think I’m being too hard here on all of us who profess to be Christian, let’s look at Paul in the letter to the Thessalonians.  Paul talks about being devout in behavior toward God, devout toward Thessalonica, and blameless in their conduct of self.  Holiness, justice, and purity all relate to Integrity.  Yet Paul acknowledges that the demands of discipleship are rigorous.  To be a committed follower of Christ Jesus is costly.  Failures, shortcomings, and even sin, is a regular part of the Christian life.  There are no perfect Christians. 

We don’t abandon discipleship on purpose, of course.  It’s just that it can be hard to connect Jesus saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” with the news of undocumented immigrants who are picked to do menial labor for a day’s wage, or with the homeless man sitting on the street, hoping to get enough coin for a hamburger or coffee at McDonalds.  It’s hard to connect Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek” with Congressional requests for more defense spending with the reports of violence throughout the world.  It’s hard to heed Jesus’ injunction not to “worry about what you shall eat or what you shall drink or what you shall wear” when the economy is in such trouble.  It’s hard to live up to our ideals; even Paul succinctly noted in his letter to the Romans: We do those things we hate and we fail to do those things we want to do.  We don’t always practice what we preach.

There’s only one answer to this dilemma, one antidote for what ails us.  That answer is God’s Grace.

God’s grace for us means that no matter how many times we walk out of church leaving our discipleship in the pew, God will give us yet another opportunity to live more fully into it.  Regardless of how often we act in self-serving ways, we will be afforded more chances to serve others.  No matter how badly we fail to live out our discipleship, to practice what we preach, God’s love and God’s grace are abundant and still there for us, to hold us and comfort us and sustain us.  God is always calling us, coming to us, loving us.  We will always have yet one more chance ... one more opportunity to get it right, to embrace Jesus’ call to be servants, to see our neighbors at every turn, to see them and to love them, unselfishly, unreservedly.  That awareness of God’s presence attending to us calls us to be walking in ways worthy of His love for us.  That is what Jesus teaches repeatedly, and Jesus never fails to practice what he preaches.

Today is Consecration Sunday in our month-long Stewardship Cycle.  We are looking forward, believing in tomorrow, and are called to “serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received."  So realizing the many blessings God has bestowed upon us, we continue to discern what gifts we might offer back in thanksgiving to God that represent our Self, Substance and Service.  Jesus said about some of the leaders of his day, ‘They’re all talk and no action.’  My Brothers and Sisters in Christ, Stewardship is not about being all talk.  Rather, it’s about letting our actions speak for us.  

What would your actions say about you?  

Do you make people want to do as you do?

Let us pray:

Ever loving God, who has called us together as servants in your church, grant us wisdom, self-mastery, and pure devotion as we order our life together, that we may live as Christ’s body here on earth, remembering others’ needs before our own, and always seeking your will.  Teach us, O God, to love what is good, to resist what is evil, and to fear only the loss of you, so that we might enter your kingdom where love and mercy reign, through Jesus Christ our Lord.