A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Pentecost 21 ~ Matthew 23:1-12 (MSG)
I chose The Message bible translation of today’s scripture because it captures the edginess of Jesus’ teaching so well, but it comes with a cost. Our usual NRSV bible contains more familiar wording for what have become two of the greatest one-liners in the bible – found on bumper stickers and wall hangings everywhere!
The first is Matthew 23:3 – “Practice what you preach.” Let your actions be in harmony with your words. Don’t say one thing and do another. Walk the talk. Want to know the quickest and surest way to completely undermine your authority and influence? – get famous saying you believe in one thing and get caught doing the opposite.
To ‘practice what you preach’ doesn’t mean we have to be perfect. It just means we need to live with integrity. If you’re going to hold yourself up as a paragon of virtue you’d better be virtuous! And if you’re not a paragon of virtue, shut the heck up about other people’s actions!
Now let’s turn it around. Instead of practice what you preach, how about we say ‘preach what you practice’? Imagine only being able to speak about things you yourself authentically lived out!
What would government be like if politicians only preached what they actually practiced?
What would church be like if preachers only preached what they actually practiced?
Ok, let’s hit closer to home.
What would your parenting be like if you only preached what you yourself practiced? Our favourite parenting line is “do as I say, not as I do.”
Jesus says that’s simply not good enough.
The second great bumper sticker verse from this reading is Matthew 23:12 – “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Or as The Message bible so colourfully puts it: “If you puff yourself up, you’ll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.”
We all know that’s supposed to be true, and we all want that to be true, but real life doesn’t seem to work that way. In reality it seems like the ones who puff themselves up usually get rewarded.
Funny, the first example that came to mind was politicians! Of course there are exceptions, but generally speaking politicians get elected by puffing and puffing and puffing themselves up. They take credit for everything under the sun that they can. They go on for hours about how they are the best thing for their constituency and how the other person is going to destroy your way of life. That’s what Jesus was kicking those Pharisees for – not for their status, but for their arrogant, over-reaching sense of entitlement and self-importance.
The only time it seems to me that politicians are even close to humble is during their victory speech when they’re thanking their team. Invariably they say, “I’m humbled that so many of you volunteered your time to my campaign.” Humbled? Really?
Grateful, yes. Surprised even, probably. Heart-warmed, absolutely. But humbled? To be humbled means to be brought low, to lower your pride not increase it. On election night, real humility is virtually absent – except for the politician who got crushed in the polls. That is to be truly humbled. But for the rest it isn’t humbling to have so many people believe in you – it’s empowering! However, if you let it go to your head and start to believe your own press, then you get into humility trouble!
But don’t think it’s just the politicians who do this. They’re easy to pick on but in lots of less public ways every one of us struggles with puffing ourselves up too. Put someone behind the wheel of a car and watch their sense of self-importance skyrocket! “I need to get to where I’m going quickly so clearly silly things like speed limits, or obeying traffic rules just don’t apply to me!” How many times have you caught yourself grumbling at another driver because they did something that cost you a whole 23 seconds of your day? It’s soooo important for us to get to the grocery store NOW!!!! How dare they slow me down!!! Isn’t that puffing ourselves up?
The world tells us that to get ahead in life we have to make ourselves look as good as we can as often as we can, and to break the rules and step on toes if necessary. Integrity, authenticity and humility sound good on a resume, or in a eulogy, but they don’t generally get you up the corporate ladder. I’m not saying that’s right; I’m just saying that’s how the world seems to really work.
Jesus offers something very, very different. In fact, he says the opposite. As usual, he turns the world’s wisdom upside down and reveals it to be shallow. He says if you exalt yourself you’re going to be humbled, and if you humble yourself you’ll be exalted. Either Jesus is really dumb, or he’s talking about something other than what we call getting ahead!
Jesus’ strange, counter-cultural teaching is rarely found on anyone’s bumper sticker. Jesus says, “The greatest among you will be your servant.” (Mt 23:11)
This clearly cuts across the grain of how we think the world is supposed to work. The greatest among us are our leaders, our superstars, our sports heroes, our brilliant scientists and savvy business types, the people we admire and look up to. Clearly these people are who we consider the greatest. But maybe we’ve got it all wrong.
In Jesus’ spiritual economy the most valuable thing in the world isn’t money, or fame, or power, it’s love. And serving people doesn’t mean being subservient and submissive to them, it just means loving them. The greatest among you will be the ones who love. Wanna be truly great? Then love! Wanna grow ever deeper in God’s Holy Presence and Joy? Then love, love, love!
In light of today’s scripture, does this mean we shouldn’t advertise this church? We just did a door hangar campaign – was that wrong?
“Come to Faith United – we’re a great church! – We’re a Jesusy church! – We’re a loving church! – We’re a serving church!” Isn’t advertising exalting ourselves?
In other words, can you be proud of your accomplishments, and talk about them, and still be humble?
I think you can! Being humble doesn’t mean being mousy and not claiming your power to love. If the purpose of your advertising is not self-enrichment but the support and love of others – then we ought to name it, and proclaim it! The problem is, our upbringing as nice, polite, modest United Church folk, and good citizens, and pillars of our community, has unfortunately had the effect of lulling us into thinking we aren’t supposed to say anything – aren’t supposed to make waves. Umm, have you ever met Jesus?! He was a major wave maker!!
[sarcastically] Nice Christians are supposed to quietly go about living justly and helping people in need and just shut up about it – just like Jesus, right? Hardly!
The core of this short sermon series has been that to be a church, to be a group of followers of the Way of Jesus, is to be all about love – loving God, loving people, and loving one another. And I’m not going to be shy about saying that Faith United is pretty darn good at this Loving stuff! This is an awesome church. You lot are, in my (ahem) humble opinion, authentically living a deep, loving spirituality. This deserves to be shared.
Jesus spoke quite harshly about those who claimed more than their due, who in their lust for power and self-aggrandizement arrogantly lay claim to a higher status for themselves than they deserve. Jesus does not say “everybody keep your actions in the name of love a big secret!” He says the opposite – “don’t keep your light under a bushel.” – ‘cause it’s actually not your light – it’s God’s light – shining through you.
So our challenge is to work out the balance. At what point are we sharing the love, and at what point are we saying “hey everybody, look at us, aren’t we great!” I don’t think we should be putting “best church in the world” on our letterhead, but I also don’t think we oughta put our hands in our pockets, stare at the ground, shuffle our feet and meekly say, “Yeah, I guess we’re an ok church.”
Practice what you preach.
We preach love – love of God, love of People, and love of One Another.
Let’s practice it – loudly!
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” An advertising campaign trying to draw people into the love we know so they can experience that love too is not exalting ourselves; it’s exalting God – and it’s exalting the people we’re trying to reach. The spotlight here doesn’t shine on me, or on the choir, or on the catering, or the bazaar, or Church Work in Durham, or the UCW, or the Men’s Group, it shines on the love that shines through all of us.
I want Faith to be a great church! And how do you become great? You serve! You put energy into being a serving church. “The greatest among you will be your servant.” And how do we serve? By loving. And what’s the best kind of love to share with the world? The love of God. And through our loving we hopefully draw others into loving God, and people, and one another, and pretty soon we’ve changed the whole world into a gigantic loving community!
Now, if that’s what you want, and you honestly don’t care if your name gets attached to it, or if you derive any benefit from it whatsoever other than knowing that through sharing God’s love you grow deeper in God’s love – then that is true humility – lived loudly. Love is what we preach. Let’s practice! And as we do we will become even more of a Jesusy, loving, serving church than we already are.
And that’s worth sharing!