November 2, 2008

Matthew 23:1-12
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13

Those poor old scribes and Pharisees! The Gospel writers sure give them a hard time! It’s easy to start thinking of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day as really terrible people — as hypocrites, as stuck-up, high & mighty, selfish people who enjoyed lording their knowledge and authority over everyone else.

The Pharisees really do get a bad reputation in the Gospels as the people who were too concerned with the letter of the religious law, and not enough concerned with the spirit of it. Matthew’s Gospel has Jesus pointing to the scribes and Pharisees and saying, “do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”

Now, the Pharisees aren’t ALL bad. Jesus is acknowledging that most of their teachings are okay. The problem is that they’re not following their own teachings. They’re not really living by them. They’re talking the talk, but not really walking the walk.

I feel for the Pharisees though, because walking the walk can be tough. Most of the time, it’s not too hard to figure out what would be the right thing to do. It’s actually following through and DOING the right thing that’s more challenging. And as soon as you’re in a position of teaching someone else how to do something, the pressure comes on for you to get it right too.

Perhaps those of you who are parents can relate to this… when you find yourself saying or thinking, “Do as I say, and not as I do,” because you want your kids to pick up and learn your good habits, and practices, and values. And you really wish they would ignore the times when you make poor choices, when you’re greedy or careless or otherwise fail in following your own rules. I feel for parents and teachers and leaders who don’t do everything right all the time, and who (at times) might be called “hypocrites” because we teach one thing and do another.

As a minister, I can relate to that feeling quite well. Whether I’m preaching about how to show love for neighbours, how to care for creation, how to work for justice, or how to offer time, talent, or money for God’s work, I always have the sense that the sermon is just as much for me as it is for anyone else who might hear it.

I remember a time when I challenged this congregation to simplify your Christmas celebrations, to avoid the consumer side of Christmas and dispense with excessive gift-buying. After worship, someone asked my husband about our gift-giving practices. Do we actually celebrate Christmas without buying any presents? “Well, sort of,” Nick responded. “We’re trying to reduce our gift-buying. It’s something we’re working on.”

And when I heard about that conversation, I wondered… Do people actually think that I have all this stuff down pat? Do they think that, because I’m the minister, I do it all right? Or do they imagine that I only preach the things that I already do well myself? In fact, when the sermon comes with challenge (as it often does) it is the challenge of the Gospel, and it is just as challenging for the minister as it is for anyone else.

The image and role of ministers has changed quite a bit over the last generation, and I think it’s a generally positive change. You don’t put us up on such high pedestals anymore and expect us to be a completely different species than the rest of humanity. Preacher’s kids everywhere will be thankful for this change when congregations no longer expect them to be angels, but treat them like anyone else’s children.

It means that you can call us “Amanda” and “Gwen”, and that you shouldn’t be surprised when we’re not perfect. But it also means that we may be able to relate to you and walk with you when you make mistakes, or when you have doubts, because we’ve experienced that kind of thing too.

But we shouldn’t fall into the practices of the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They seemed to be happy to read, and talk about, and teach God’s laws, without making any effort to live by them. People were justified in calling them hypocrites, because they said one thing and did something else. The text explains that they laid burdens on others, but lifted no burdens themselves.

That’s exactly what Paul, and Silvanus, and Timothy were writing about in their letter to the church at Thessalonica. As leaders and teachers in that community, Paul and his friends avoided simply laying a load of burdens on the Thessalonian Christians. Paul went so far as to earn most of his own living so that the churches had little responsibility in supporting him financially.

But more than that, he didn’t just TELL them what to do and how to live as Christians… he and Silvanus and Timothy attempted to SHOW them how to be Christians. They tried to DEMONSTRATE Christian living with their own lives. They likely didn’t do it perfectly, but they clearly walked the same path that they were calling the Thessalonians to join them on.

After all, who would listen to a hypocrite? Who would follow a teacher who says, “Do as I say, and not as I do”?

I remember listening to a lecture by Barbara Brown Taylor a number of years ago. Barbara is an author, a preacher, and a teacher of preaching. I remember her speaking about the act of preaching and telling us that it’s not just the words we say that are the sermon, but it is WHO WE ARE that conveys the Gospel. She was talking about embodiment — about offering ourselves, our whole lives, not just some carefully chosen and prepared words.

I checked my copy of Barbara’s book “The Preaching Life” yesterday as I was reflecting on this idea of not only preaching, but embodying the Gospel, and I noticed that the other word she used was “incarnation”. “Incarnation” is a good churchy word, and it means “in the flesh” — an idea, or a bunch of words, or a thought that is made real or physical or “enfleshed” in an actual life.

As preachers and teachers in the church, our aim must be to live out and incarnate the things that we preach in our sermons. As humans, we will never do that perfectly. But I, for one, will keep on listening to and being challenged by my own sermons and the sermons of others. I will keep on listening for the Gospel, and assuming that it will call me to walk more closely in the way of God day by day.

But there was one person — a preacher and teacher who lived many years ago. He was different from the other teachers and leaders of his time and of ours. He was different because he taught the way of God, not only with words, but by living it out in his life. Jesus of Nazareth lived the way of God so closely that when many people looked at him, they experienced God with them. Later, his followers called him God “incarnate” — God “made flesh”.

You see, Jesus didn’t just tell people how to live God’s way, he actually showed them with his own life…

When Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with tax collectors, he taught them God’s way of acceptance and forgiveness.

When Jesus fed hungry crowds and offered living water to the thirsty, he taught them God’s way of provision and care.

When Jesus healed the sick, touched leprous people, and washed stinky feet, he taught them God’s way of humble service.

When Jesus challenged the authorities, criticized the hypocrites, and judged those who took advantage of the poor, he taught them God’s way of justice for all.

When Jesus didn’t give up, and didn’t turn to violence, and was killed on a cross as a trouble-maker and blasphemer, he taught them God’s way of peace and persistence, and ultimately God’s way of self-giving love for all of God’s children.

Jesus’ way is the way of God that we are all trying to follow. Whether we are preachers or teachers, leaders of followers, the way of God that we see and learn from Jesus is the way that we seek to embody or incarnate in our own lives. Because as Paul said, we are the Body of Christ. We are Christ’s hands and feet and voice and eyes and arms in the world today.

There was an article in the Star Phoenix yesterday about a study on religious people and their behaviour. The study asked the question of whether religious people are actually more helpful or generous than others. And it found that SOMETIMES religious people were more helpful and generous, but only under certain conditions. First, if they had been gently reminded of their belief in God, they were more likely to be good. And second, if they believed that someone was watching them and noticing their behaviour, they would choose to be kind.

What that study found was that most religious people are very much like the scribes and Pharisees. We do good deeds only to be seen doing them by others. We so easily forget that we are called to LIVE God’s way every day, not just to believe or think certain things.

The way of Jesus calls us to humility, perhaps most of all when people call us hypocrites — when they look at our actions and see the way we so often fail to practice what we preach.

But let us give thanks that we are made in God’s image with the capacity to live in God’s way. Let us give thanks for God’s grace when we get off track. And let us give thanks for Jesus, who keeps on TELLING us and SHOWING us the way. Amen.