Under-Promising and Over-Delivering

(Matthew 23:1-12)

I was lying abed the other day thinking about life. And I started having these feelings of anxiety—you know, the ones that brace you, pulling you kicking and screaming from that warm and satisfying state of semi-consciousness that even the best cup of coffee can’t quite persuade you to forsake?

Yeah, those feelings. I was doing a kind of mental/moral inventory, and it struck me—telling people how to live as a vocation is fraught with problems. Who am I to tell other people how to live? The truth is, I have to preach about stuff I haven’t necessarily mastered myself.

But that’s part of being a preacher: You have to preach better than you are. Otherwise, it’s not that you’d have nothing to say, but what you could say would be decidedly abridged.

If you’re a parent, you know what I’m talking about. I often find myself getting annoyed with my children about things that, after all this time on earth, I haven’t quite figured out myself. How can I preach to them about the evils of procrastination, when I drive around on expired tags . . . because, I mean, it’s been busy, and I’ve had things going on . . . you know, grown-up things? And quit looking at me like that. You’ll understand when you’re a grown-up and have kids of your own.

Do as I say . . . not as I do.

And then, they give you that knowing look, the one that says, “Yeah, I see your little game. Hypocrisy is unbecoming—no matter how old you are.”

Oh well . . .

Hypocrisy’s a tough thing for people to grasp about themselves. I’m a master crime scene technician when it comes to other people’s hypocrisy . . . but my own? That’s an entirely different matter. I like to see hypocrisy rooted out . . . as long as it’s yours and not mine.

Take our Gospel for this morning. Jesus sure knows how to make friends, doesn’t he? That stuff he’s saying in our passage for this morning, if it doesn’t make you squirm a little, you’re just not paying attention.

In modern parlance, Jesus is “calling out” the scribes and Pharisees.

Now, unfortunately, this passage has often been used in history as a way of fortifying anti-semitism. You know, Jesus is taking a not-so-veiled swipe at Judaism here. But that’s not fair. But we should be clear: Jesus is a Jew, speaking to Jews. That he’s speaking about a particular group of Jewish leaders and not all Jews is something we need to keep very much in mind. The law, as delivered on Mt. Sinai, was never intended to be a heavy burden, but a source of moral identity.

Jesus, in this passage, isn’t taking off on the law, but on a particular kind of misuse of the law by those who use it and their positions of authority as a way to retain power at the expense of the vulnerable. (Apparently, some things never change.)

Even so, this is difficult to listen to if what you think Jesus came to do was to inflict niceness on an otherwise testy Near East. Jesus sounds so irascible, so cranky.

Couldn’t we get the nice Jesus—the one who loves children and little old ladies? This whole fire-breathing itinerant prophet thing is tough to watch.

But remember why it is that Jesus has been in this marathon cat-and-mouse game with the religious leaders? We’ve talked about this a lot recently, working our way through these past few chapters of Matthew. The reason Jesus has been set upon by those in power goes all the way back to his clearing of the temple at the beginning of chapter 21.

Remember?

Jesus, after calling out the caretakers of God’s house for making it into a den of robbers, presses home the point by immediately receiving into that house the blind and the lame—those who’ve been denied access by the folks in power—the religious leaders who’ve mistakenly thought their job was gatekeeper instead of welcoming committee. Jesus welcomes the unwanted into God’s freshly cleaned house, and heals them.

For the rest of chapters 21 and 22, Jesus has had to take on the religious establishment, who feel threatened by his condemnation of their failure to keep in mind that the law is there not to preserve personal privilege, but to extend the bounty of God’s grace to those who’ve been systematically put out, shoved aside, made to sit in the back of the bus.

Sometimes justice has been forgotten, or misplaced, or ignored. If we claim to follow Jesus, we have a responsibility in those cases to speak the uncomfortable truth that God desires a world in which the lame and the blind, the forgotten and the rejected, the silenced and the oppressed get to sit at the front of the bus.

But it’s not enough just to believe it . . . as followers of Jesus, we have to join the work necessary to realize such a world.

According to Jesus, dirty hands, callused knees, and bent backs are the pledge of our faithfulness.

The class seemed pretty normal. World Religions for three hours a night in June, however, challenges the patience and endurance of even the best students.

So, when I started grading the final essays, my expectations were, understandably, I think, fairly modest. But every once in a while, a student steps up to the challenge, and punches you right in the mouth.

This time it was a young Sikh woman, who was here with her family from Punjab. She couldn’t have been more than 20. According to her essay, she’d never lived among so many people who identified as Christian before, let alone study Christianity in a formal way.

This young woman made an observation that continues to kick about the corners of my mind as I think about what it means to follow Jesus. Simple really, but elegantly put.

My young Sikh student from Punjab wrote: “After learning about Christianity, it occurs to me that most of the Christians I know in America practice less than they say they believe.”

In the words of business, Christians too often over-promise and under-deliver.

I think about her statement a lot. Popular Christianity—based as it is on a sometimes shallow reading of the Reformation emphasis on Grace vs. Law—often stresses the importance of believing the right stuff over doing the right stuff (since doing is fraught with the fear of “works righteousness”).

But, see, when it comes to following Jesus, possessing correct beliefs is never enough. Unless those beliefs support a life devoted to loving your neighbor, they’re useless.

And while that might strike you as harsh, it’s no less harsh than the Bible. As the author of 1 John so eloquently points out, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen” (4:20).

In other words, the very way we demonstrate love for God is by loving our neighbor. We reveal our beliefs as genuine not just by proclaiming them publicly, or by believing them really, really deeply in our own hearts, but by pursuing a world in which all those whom God loves can flourish in the justice and peace God intends for everyone.

And to put an even finer point on it, loving those whom God loves—as we noted last week—means more than feeling properly disposed toward them. Loving the neighbor means having our hands dirtied, our knees callused, and our backs bent in trying to see that everyone has enough to eat, a place to sleep, adequate healthcare, a world in which to be safe as they pursue their projects and goals, with peace of mind about their own safety and the safety of the ones whom they love.

Not hating our neighbor means more than not sexually harassing them or not acting like a bigot toward them; it means more than refraining from being angry when they cut us off in traffic or make us stand too long in line at the DMV; it means more than avoiding personal conflict or violence.

Not hating our neighbor means not sending drones to kill their children in the night; it means not rendering them rhetorically insignificant—as nothing more than “takers” or threats to our religious or cultural traditions, and it means not breaking up their families by sending some of them “back where they belong”—as if here is a place where we only have a responsibility to welcome those whom we choose.

And here’s the thing I think many Christians fail to take into consideration: people are watching to see if we believe what we say enough to put it into practice. They’re not stupid. They’ve read our sacred texts enough to know what Jesus expected when it comes to our treatment of those who seem to live their lives at the back of the line. They hear those who proclaim their orthodoxy loudest, who say they’re most concerned about “saving souls,” walk right past those souls starving in the streets . . . and the people who are watching are completely underwhelmed.

According to David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyon, one of the first things people outside the church think when they hear the word “Christian” is rather unflattering—”hypocrite.” It’s noteworthy that when outsiders observe Christians in America they see two things: 1) we claim to believe a lot, but 2) we actually live those beliefs at a conspicuously lower rate.

But what if our beliefs, though imperfect, were enough to get us started living the way Jesus told us to live?

What if when we said things like “love your enemies and turn the other cheek,” or “sell all you own and give it to the poor,” or “just as you did it to the least of one of these who are members of my family, you did it to me,” people had confidence that we actually meant it?

What if we surprised my Sikh student and began living at least as much as we say we believe.

What if we committed ourselves to a vision of the world in which the forgotten and cast aside are remembered and brought back into the fold.

A world in which those who’ve been downsized, those without healthcare, those who’ve graduated from college but have a difficult time seeing a future that holds a place for them . . . are no longer afterthoughts in our political life, but children of God on whose behalf we need to find our voices.

A world in which the color of one’s skin or the country of one’s birth or the gender of one’s love interests aren’t the characteristics by which people are excluded, but are the very things we lift up and celebrate as God’s gifts to us.

This isn’t optional behavior to get sorted out after we get the right bumper-stickers; it’s the very purpose of the life to which Jesus calls us.

Jesus speaks the truth to those in power, not because he’s mean or disagreeable or because he’s temperamentally disposed to raining on other people’s parades . . . but because he loves us so much he can’t bear for us not to know the truth about the way things are ordered in the reign of God.

It’s a hard word Jesus delivers. Honesty can be difficult to hear. But telling the truth about God’s vision of the way things ought to be is the kindest most loving thing we have to say.

The fact that we celebrate All Saints Day suggests that the stories of our lives aren’t just for us, but for all those who are watching to see if we’re serious about following Jesus, and just what it might look like when we do.

Preaching isn’t something we can avoid doing. We’re followers of Jesus, a preacher himself, after all. But perhaps our words would be more compelling if those words did a little more walking around, if they demonstrated that we’re actually willing to live what we say we believe.

We who follow the one executed as a criminal are under no illusions about what telling the truth and actually living that truth can cost.

On the other hand, we also know that believing all the right stuff but failing to live it out is the deadliest thing people who follow Jesus can commit.

-Amen.

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