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.”
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.
When my wife offers the benediction to her congregation, she often uses the one with the phrase, “Hold on to what is good,” and as she says it, she pulls the fingers of her upraised right hand in toward her palm. My hand involuntarily clasps every time I see her do it.
This week I’m thinking about what comes next, how her hand opens again as she goes on to say, “Return no one evil for evil.” In our current situation, when doing evil is so commonplace, this feels important to highlight. It can be hard to let go of the desire to pay it back somehow.
Jesus, in Jerusalem, has been sparring with religious leaders, and one after another they have gone away speechless and dissatisfied. Regrouping, they put forward a lawyer, who asks a question they hope will lead to a misstep. Jesus gives them an answer they cannot dispute, along with its corollary. For many Christians, this pair of commandments forms the foundation of our faith and practice. Love God, love neighbor. That’s the way to please God. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Everything else grows from this.
Still we wrestle with the things the world tells us matter more. In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul testifies to his priorities, formed by his faith. He brings the good news “in spite of great opposition” and with no “pretext for greed” or desire for “praise from mortals.” His love for this newly-formed church made him as gentle as “a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” We live in a time when gentleness is disparaged instead of being seen as strength. We live in a moment when threats of violence are not private or shameful but encouraged by public officials.
In our current situation, how can we, the church, love God and neighbor?
In a Sunday School conversation this past week, someone noted that our individual efforts can feel like a drop in the bucket. How can one person make a difference? There’s so much that needs to be done, and most of it not something one person can do alone. We need to reevaluate our interpretation of the great commandment. If we’re putting too much emphasis on the personal portion, on the individual portion, we’re missing the opportunity. The counterpoint to feeling like our efforts are drops in the bucket is to look at the bucket we are filling together with the drops of our effort, our faith, and our love.
I hope for the day we will find the bucket is so full and so heavy to lift that to carry it requires a wider communal effort. Our shared efforts can work to alleviate systemic racism, register people to vote, care for people on the economic margins both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, and give us strength for conversations with people who don’t agree with us. We can live into the commandments that Jesus told us were the most important. We can open our hands and let go of the urge to return evil for evil.
Please, God, help us to do this now. To love you well. To be kind in a world that is cruel. To be fierce in our work for the good. To love you with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, together.
For the Sundays from September 13 through November 1, I will be offering prompts for a sermon series called Current Situation, focused on the gospel and epistle texts and how we might read them in this contentious time, with an emphasis on strengthening our identities as followers of Jesus, our relationships within the church, and our witness to the world. Preachers, you’re welcome to use whatever is helpful to you.