Sermons That Work

Jesus Said to the Crowds…, Proper 26 (A) – 1996

November 03, 1996

“Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.'”

Or, in the more familiar version of this, “Practice what you preach.” In contemporary terms, we say, “If you talk the talk, you’d better walk the walk.” Or we say, “Put your money where your mouth is.” Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, “Suit the action to the word.” Maybe Nike has it right: “Just do it.”

Whatever version of this timeworn saying you use, it means basically the same thing: What you say must be reflected in what you do. Otherwise, you have to fall back on that other old saw, the desperate recourse of embarrassed parents everywhere: “Do as I say, not as I do.” Yeah, right.

A great deal of the public conversation in America this fall has been about just this issue: does what we say match what we do? And does what we do embody the values we pronounce?

A few weeks ago, the pundits were talking a lot about the problems that parents who belong to the Baby Boomer generation have in talking to their kids about drugs. So many Baby Boomers at least experimented with drugs in college or high school that it requires choosing our words carefully to caution our kids against drugs without being hypocrites. The experts advise parents to tell the truth, to confess that yes, we did experiment, and came to learn in that way just how bad drugs can be. Does it work? Maybe. Only maybe. Kids are right to be skeptical. Practice what you preach.

During these waning days of the 1996 Presidential campaign, we have been barraged with demonstrations of the pervasiveness of hypocrisy, of people “talking the talk” but not “walking the walk.” The Democratic Convention was a heart-tugging show on the theme of family values, but much of the country harbors serious suspicions about the Democratic President’s marital fidelity, among other concerns, and the political advisor who was the architect of the focus on family values was caught red-handed in a sleazy affair in the midst of the convention. The Republican candidate rails about the Democrats selling out to “special interests,” after years of having served valiantly in Congress to sustain the concerns of tobacco companies and the Archer Daniels Midland Corporation, and suddenly espouses supply-side economics after opposing it for years. Ross Perot’s currently commercial urges us not to “waste your vote” by voting for either of the leading party candidates, when the received wisdom is that to vote for someone who patently cannot win is to do exactly that: to waste your vote.

Little wonder that the polls tell us that the level of trust in politicians in general is at an all-time low. Most of us have learned to take the speeches of political candidates not with just a grain of salt, but with the whole saltbox. When polled, most of the electorate mostly just want for the thing to be over, to get on with our lives.

Does this mean that we don’t care about our country any more? Does this mean that we no longer “hold these truths to be self-evident,” that every one is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Does this mean that we don’t give thanks for living in “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” in America the Beautiful? No, of course not. Most of us know that our country is far from perfect, but believe passionately in the ideals and the values that shaped it and shape it still.

It was just this way with Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus cared passionately about the traditions of justice from the days of Moses and Abraham, interpreted by the prophets. In his profound commitment to those ideals, his life became a demonstration of how to fulfill not just the letter of the law, but the spirit of it. When the Pharisees accused him of destroying the Law, he responded, “I come not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.” Over and over again, his critique of the Pharisees is that they get so caught up in the outward forms, that they miss the inmost heart of the Law. Here he speaks of their demonstrations of piety as a show, something to impress others, rather than a way of living into the fullness of God.

This, of course, is the besetting sin of public life. The adulation of people is a terrible temptation, and pride is an all-too-familiar sin. Even the most unworldly idealists can begin to fall in love with a heroic image of themselves. For most of us, it is a temptation to believe our own myth of ourselves — a little holier, a little more heroic, a little nicer than we really are. Why else do we love it so much when someone tells that we don’t really look our age? Or why else shave off ten pounds or so when we fill in the blank for “weight” on our driver’s license?

And if our own image of ourself is a temptation to delude ourselves, how much more potent is a public audience that demands of all our public figures that they be larger than life? We only want to vote for Superman, not for Clark Kent. Can you imagine what would happen to a candidate who said, “Well, folks, I’ve made some real mistakes, and I’m only moderately good at managing the government, but on the whole, I’m as good as my opponent so I hope you’ll vote for me.” Will you rush right out to support him?

With that kind of pressure on us, both from inside and outside, to advertise ourselves as better than we are, how can we avoid hypocrisy? How can we walk the walk, as well as talk the talk?

We begin every Eucharist with the Collect for Purity, calling upon God “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” We cannot be hypocrites to God, saying one thing and doing another. God sees it all. As Bette Midler sang a few years ago, “God is watching us.” And God desires for us to grow every day more truthful. God knows that you’re 47, even if you’ve just told someone you’re 42. God knows that the driver’s license may say you weigh 148, but it’s closer to 165. And, at the same time, God forgives us, wanting us to know only that we are loved JUST AS WE ARE.

But in the Collect for Purity, we’re asking God to help us to get better: to “cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of” the Holy Spirit. To make us truer to ourselves and to God. To make us more open, more honest, more truthful. To blow away the chaff and leave the good grain, to burn away the straw and leave the gold.

Our Lord Jesus was the perfect image of the good grain, the gold at the heart of the Law. He is the walking, breathing demonstration of what it is to live the Law to its fullest. He truly “walked the walk.” As he taught, so he lived. And he called to us to do the same.

The election coming up on Tuesday is not a contest among perfect, larger-than-life candidates, Superman v. Paul Bunyan. Some people, disgusted or simply weary of the whole long, noisy campaign, will be tempted to decide that it’s too much trouble to vote, that it’s a choice among scoundrels.

Do you care about the truth? Then vote. It is part of our responsibility as citizens of this country. It is why we are bidden to pray every Sunday for the leaders of the nation. We are part of this nation, and called to work and pray to make it a better place for ourselves and all who live here. Do vote — and then pray for the nation, and for our leaders, that we all may grow more surely into Truth, in the footsteps of the One who came to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Amen.

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Christopher Sikkema


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