Sermon: Practicing What Gets Preached November 2, 2014
St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church 21st Sunday after Pentecost
Scripture : Matthew 23:1-12
Then 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. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one a parent here on earth, for you have only one –the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Your steadfast love endures from age to age, O living God, for in Christ you tenderly care for your people. Instruct us in your way of humble service, that we may imitate his saving deeds humbling himself for our salvation and who is now exalted with you in splendor forever and ever. Amen.
Most of you know that in addition to serving as the Transitional Pastor here at St. Paul’s 20 hours a week, I also write grants and engage in fund development for other nonprofits. The October 9, 2014, edition of the Chronicle of Philanthropy to which I subscribe contained a special report detailing charitable giving in every county in the US. (See the map on their website!) The results are fascinating, at least to me, but I admit that fully digesting what the implications of this study are for the church was more difficult than I thought it might be.
What is clear is that the most generous people in the United States are not the most educated, most affluent, or the most liberal. They are decidedly the least educated, least affluent, and most conservative. I found this to be a bit troubling. For instance, we often hear that California sets the tone for what the rest of the U.S. is going to do. Have we not heard it said: “California is ahead of everyone else?” Yet, the study shows that not one county in California gives in the upper ranges, and the state itself ranks as the 10th LEAST generous state in the union. Is this where America is going?
The most educated and wealthiest two states in our country are Massachusetts and Connecticut. Both have more Ph.D.s per capita than any other state in the union. The average household incomes are nearly double most of the rest of the country, but these two states rank as the fifth and sixth LEAST generous states in America.
Progressive folks are generally the ones calling for social change and more spending for poor, homeless, minorities, immigrants, etc. They are most often found in the blue states. Yet, the top 17 most generous states in the union voted for Mitt Romney in the last election and the bottom seven least generous states voted for Barack Obama. Go figure!
Another clear fact in the study is that the MOST generous people are living in the states that have the most religious practitioners. The MOST generous state in the US is Utah followed by the Bible belt states of Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina. In each of those states you will find that in at least half their counties, giving to church or charity per capita averages over 5.2% of their income. In states like New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, California, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, there is not one county giving over 3.9%. These states are categorized as the least religious states in the union.
So here we are at St. Paul’s — religious folks, faithful church members living in a not-so-religious state; we have above average education levels, but we are not giving to charity at a particularly impressive rate, and we are solid supporters for the most part of Obama, but our charitable financial contributions fall quite short of the national average. 1 Our Experience Expanded “Why don’t you practice what you preach?” Have you ever said those words to someone else? Maybe someone has said them to you. I still rue the day that Dayja learned the word “hypocrite!” Hypocrites, as you well know, are people who pretend to be something they are not and on that day I became one. Jesus was quite candid when he told his disciples to follow the words of the scribes and Pharisees, but then warned that these spiritual leaders may act one way in a certain setting and then act another way in a different setting. It is very important that as Christians, we follow the example of Jesus Christ. It doesn’t matter where we are or who we are with. The words we speak and the things we do should always reflect our faith. Sometimes we are good at telling other people, particularly our children, what they should do and how they should live, but then we fail to follow our own instructions. We need to, as the saying goes, “walk the walk, not just talk the talk.”
Some time ago, I saw a Peanuts comic strip that had Snoopy on top of his doghouse with a flock of baby birds. The time had come for the baby birds to learn how to fly, (it isn’t clear how they got to the top of the dog house) and Snoopy somehow ends up as their teacher. Snoopy flaps his ears and walks to the end of the roof of the doghouse. He leaps into the air and continues to flap his ears. Of course he lands flat on his face. He gets back up onto the roof and shares this lesson: “Do as I say to do and not what I do.” 2
In Matthew 23, Jesus tells the crowds and his disciples to do what the Pharisees and the scribes teach them to do, “but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (Matthew 23:3). In other words, the leaders talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk. Why is it important to practice what we preach? The most basic reason is the integrity of our faith; we are the body of Christ for the world. Living into the promises we make, remembering who we are and what we represent says a lot about us and how seriously we take our faith. Somewhere (front cover of the bulletin) it says we are the only Jesus most people will ever meet.
Re-mything Our Tradition
How do we practice what gets preached? One way is to be careful about the words we speak. You can tell a lot about a person by the words they use, can’t you? You can tell even more by the words they use when they are distressed, angry, or threatened. People are listening to the words we speak. Especially children! Do our words build people up or cut them down? Do our words bring peace and calm to a situation or do they add fuel to the fire? The words we speak should match the person we claim to be. If we profess that we are followers of Christ, then our words should be a reflection of that relationship. This is a form of good stewardship. My mother always said, “What you see is what you get,” and so we try to act the same wherever we are. When people see us, they should see a reflection of Christ. And you know I have to ask: Do we live our lives in ways that reflect him? In a few moments we will dedicate our pledge cards for 2015. This is such an important part of “walking the walk”. It is through stewardship that we give back to God what has been so generously bestowed on us. The way we thank God for blessing us with special gifts, whether we live in a red state or a blue state is to make a commitment to support financially the work of the church. Although we did hear from Delores Henry, the chair of a Stewardship and Finance Ministry Team, last week that the payments of our pledges for 2014, the actual dollars receive against the amounts promised, are behind at this time, we give based on our need to give something back to God, we do not give based on the church’s need for money. Now, having said that, if you are someone who is behind in paying your pledge any effort to catch up with it would be greatly appreciated! When we become members of a faith community, we make a lifelong commitment to follow Jesus regardless of the cost. That commitment cannot be expressed in any single action. What we give doesn’t matter about what our politics are, where we live or how well educated we are – not any of it singularly. What does matter is that we respect the teachings of scripture in our stewardship practices: Don’t hoard your resources (Luke 12:13-21), use your resources wisely (Matthew 25: 14-30) and be content with enough (1 Timothy 6:6-10). If we “walk the walk” the result is a rewarding way of life in which our personal relationship with Jesus is enriched and deepened every day. If we keep the promises we make we have found the key to peace – it makes the world we live in such a better place for everyone. I want to close with a wonderful story about “walking the walk”. A man arrived in 1953 at the Chicago railroad station. He was to receive the Nobel Peace Prize that year. He stepped off the train, a tall man with bushy hair and a big mustache. As the cameras flashed and city officials approached with hands outstretched to meet him, he thanked them politely. Then he asked to be excused for a minute. He walked through the crowd to the side of an elderly black woman struggling with two large suitcases. He picked them up, smiled, and escorted her to the bus, helped her get on, and wished her a safe journey. Then Albert Schweitzer turned to the crowd and apologized for keeping them waiting. It is reported that one member of the reception committee told a reporter, “That’s the first time I ever saw a sermon walking.” 3 Amen!
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 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 sovereignty where love and mercy reign; through Jesus Christ. Amen.