Practice What You Preach
Grace & Fairview United Methodist Churches
November 13, 2011
Matthew 23: 1-12 (NIV)
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
5“Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’
8“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. 9And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
There are many things I admire about John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. He was intentional about spending time with God each day, even getting up at 4 or 5 a.m. to do so. He took the gospel seriously and wasn’t afraid to remind the people of his day of many long-forgotten truths about Christ and discipleship. He wrote powerful sermons and beautiful prayers, and like his brother Charles, he even authored a few hymns. Yet, for all his writing, there is one lesser known quote from John Wesley, which stands out above all to me. When asked about the distinguishing marks of a Methodist, among many other things, Wesley said this, “As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.”
I could almost imagine that John Wesley had Jesus’ words of warning about the Pharisees that we heard a few moments ago in mind when he said this. “As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.” You see, just before Jesus begins speaking to the crowds here in this passage, he has responded to the lawyer’s question, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” And Jesus answered him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Then Jesus ends by saying, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
In essence, Jesus is saying, “Here it is; here is the root. When it comes to following God, this is what’s most important. Sure there are plenty of laws and regulations, but when it all boils down, this is what matters.” After answering the lawyer’s question, Jesus then turns to the crowd and speaks the words we heard a few moments ago. And basically, Jesus is telling his followers that the Pharisees are good in their devotion to God, and that what they teach is right, and good, and pure, but that when it comes to actual practice they’re not so good; they’re not focused on the root, but rather they’re worrying about other matters. They’re caught up in the mundane, they’re “majoring in the minors” as it were. They’re saying one thing and doing another, they’re talking the talk, but not walking the walk. They’re not practicing what they preach.
In short, in their insistence on strict adherence to laws and regulations, the Pharisees have neglected the most important things, which Jesus describes as “love of God and neighbor.” And instead, they’ve heaped upon their followers these “religious burdens” that do nothing to help people grow in their relationship with God. One biblical scholar translates the verse this way, “You see, they talk but they don’t do. They tie up heavy bundles which are difficult to carry, and they dump them on people’s shoulders – but they themselves aren’t prepared to lift a little finger to move them.”
Now, it is easy for us to read Jesus’ words, to nod our heads in agreement, and to think to ourselves, “those awful Pharisees.” But Jesus isn’t trying to throw the Pharisees “under the bus,” so to speak, if he was, he wouldn’t have complemented their teaching at the beginning of the passage. And so, we too must be careful about our rush to judgment. As with all of Jesus’ teachings, we need to ask the question, “What is Jesus saying to me?” That’s the question we always need to ask, and today we need to consider the possibility that, when it comes to our spiritual lives, we may be more like those Pharisees than we realize.
As Jesus is teaching the crowds about the teachers of the law and the Pharisees, in essence what he is saying is this: that they would load people down with guilt, judgment and condemnation; and then, having done this, they would condemn them as godless! Is it not true that God’s Word and law can be imposed upon people in such a strict way that any sense of mercy is lacking? All kinds of problems can arise out of a condemning and judgmental attitude toward others. We are all sinners, and we all fall short of God’s glory. None of us can stand up under the burden of the strict letter of the law. To try and do so, would be insane!
And yet, do we not go down that road sometimes? Do we, as the Christian Church, in the twenty-first century, make it difficult for others to turn to God by putting on them “a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?” If so, then in what ways are we doing this? What judgments are we casting down upon our fellow human beings that make it difficult for them to turn to God; that make the Church of Jesus Christ look like a hypocritical, bigoted group of nutcases to much of the world?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be that way, I don’t even want to be viewed that way! When I was growing up, I was a tomboy. I still am, really. I was often ridiculed for my short hair. I was never known for my fashion sense. And I was never considered cool. But I also never cared, and that was probably because there were enough people in my life who loved me the way I was that it didn’t matter what everybody else thought. And that should be the way Christianity is. When the world is telling everyone else that don’t have this, or they’re not like that, or they’re not good enough, Christians should be the ones sending the message loud and clear, “we love you anyway!”
If we were to go out on the street and ask people I wonder how many folks would associate Christianity or churches with anything even closely resembling the love of God and love of neighbor which Christ urges upon the crowds? According to some new books by Christian research groups, what many folks feel is something like the burden of that Pharisaic law—zero tolerance, judgment, condemnation. Whether we are willing to admit it or not, Christians have managed to “tie up heavy loads” and burden many people of the world in such a way that, much like Jesus did to the Pharisees, they look at us and cry “hypocrite.” Many people are afraid of coming to church—lest they be judged or deemed unacceptable. I don’t know how many times I have encountered people from different walks of life, and when I invite the person to come worship, they say things like, “I don’t have any good clothes…” or “Do you allow people of a different color to come to your church?”
Allow? My goodness, I’d juggle swords if it would get them to come! It’s that important! Being a part of God’s body is that life changing! We have to better get the message out that we aren’t looking for “perfect people,” as if there were any, we want people to come just as they are because that is how God accepts them! And the way we show that is by showing our love for God and others, rather than “making our phylacteries broad and our fringes long,” rather than taking the places of honor, and exalting ourselves over others.
This world has enough judgmentalism and condemnation as it is. As Christians, we don’t need to be heaping more burdens on top of what is already there as it is. We often fall prey to the charge of hypocrisy because we have reduced Christianity to a list of moral benchmarks coupled with a good dose of judgmentalism. The message the world needs to see and hear is the message of God’s love. I don’t see in Jesus’ teachings a call to fake moral superiority. I’m a sinner following Jesus, how about you? I don’t have it all together, and this admission is precisely what we need in order to tweak the perception of hypocrisy. We all share the human condition with all its brokenness. And we have the hope that Jesus can really transform lives and redeem the future. People inside and outside the church need to know that it’s “okay not to be okay.”
Unfortunately, most people today assume they will not be accepted until they change, not by God and definitely not by church people. For a variety of reasons the “you’re not good enough” message is the prevailing message of Christianity. So as those who know that faith is not a burden but a wonderful joy, we must tell others the truth over and over and over. We have to say, “come as you are.” We have to clear out the confusing messages in order to make one thing clear: God says, “Come as you are,” and so do we; no strings attached.
Suppose that instead of being like the Pharisees, with their foolish insistence on rules and regulations that would make everyone look like them, we send out persistently a message that goes something like this:
Come as you are…You don’t have to dress up. You don’t have to be any particular age. We couldn’t care less who you voted for in the last election. And please, don’t feel the need to pretend about anything. Grace (Fairview) United Methodist Church is a place where God meets seeking people who are far from perfect. That means anyone is welcome, no matter where you are on your spiritual journey. So learn at your own pace. Ask questions. Seek. We believe you’ll find what you’re looking for. You’ll learn how to relate to God. You’ll experience Christian community. And here’s the big thing—you will change! Join us as we seek God together. Come just as you are!
Doesn’t that sound like Jesus! Isn’t that what makes following Christ an endeavor full of hope, peace, grace, and love. We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to do everything just so; no one does. We just have to try our hardest to be faithful; to love God and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. And when we mess up, as we all do at times, we only have to seek God’s forgiveness, and our record is wiped clean; no judgment, no condemnation, no heaping of more burdens. Just acceptance. Just grace. Just love.
“All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Praise be to God! Amen.