If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary

Practice What You Preach

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.”

Matthew 23:1-3

We’re living in complex and, for many of us, distressing times. Writing from the U.S., it’s impossible to think about this week’s lectionary texts without also thinking about our oncoming Election Day. Running through my head as I write this are stories of voter intimidation, an invitation to a workshop about de-escalating potential violence at the polls, and fears over what will result from the swearing in of a new Supreme Court justice.

How will we preach toward the election? For some of us, it might feel easy. We know our congregations and the way people feel about the state of the world and their hopes for what is to come. For some of us, it may feel impossible. Nothing we say will not be misinterpreted by someone. 

Yet somehow we must offer the needed word God calls us to speak.

I’m struck by Jesus, pulling no punches: Do what the religious leaders teach you, he says, “but do not as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” It’s a power analysis that applies to our current situation. Jesus does not critique the law; he calls out the authorities. We, too, see people in power who do not live by the rules they would apply to everyone else, who place burdens on ordinary people they would not carry themselves. Jesus calls on us to live by the principles of our faith. The epistle points in the same direction. Writing to the Thessalonians, Paul is “urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God.” (1 Thessalonians 2:12)

Practice what you preach. And this week, preach what you practice.

It’s said that every preacher has only one sermon, or two or three, representing the motivating core ideas of their faith. What lies at the core for you? I propose you call on those themes and ideas in this Sunday’s sermon. Be clear with yourself first about the elements of faith in Jesus Christ that animate you and will be so familiar to your congregation to be unsurprising. Lay them out in your sermon, and make note that these ideas are nothing new, coming from you. “You’ve heard me say this so many times. This is my deepest belief, my central understanding of who God calls us to be.” I’m not usually inclined to draw from texts outside the current week’s, but this is a good time to call up the familiar, whether it’s the Great Commandment from last week or some other passage with particular meaning for you that the congregation will remember having heard from your mouth. “Jesus says this, and Paul says it this way, and you know how many times I have stressed it in this particular way.” 

Last week, my seminary, Andover Newton, offered some opportunities webinars for alums as part of Yale Divinity School’s Convocation. One of my favorite professors, Dr. Gregory Mobley, gave a talk called “Embracing the Prophetic Moment.” He reminded us that “Prophetic work is not just the work of people who get famous.” 

It’s my work, and it’s yours. Speak to the people you serve in words they will know have come from your heart. I will be praying for you.