Practicing What I ______

Matthew 23:1-12 – The 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for October 30, 2011

“…therefore do whatever they teach you and follow it…” (Matthew 23:3)

in the
the spring.

The words above were part of a “test” I once took. The phrase appeared for mere seconds on a screen and then vanished. I was expected to copy the sentence.

Easy. Paris in the spring. Any fool can be . . . wrong.

We add words. We ignore words. No surprise, though. How can we expect logic through words when most declare, “The sun is rising.” Isn’t it really the earth spinning?

We blissfully use outdated language because, well, we always have.

Thus, we stand on a beach in Hawaii, while the planet beneath our naked feet spins furiously through space, and announce, “The sunset’s gorgeous!”

Thus, we punch numbers on a phone’s keypad and announce, “I’m dialing the number right now.” When was the last time you used a phone with a rotary dial to order pizza?

Words are slippery. Logic is fluid. How we view the world is hugely influenced by personal bias and selective blindness.

Earlier this week I read Matthew 23:2-3 this way: “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 preach.” STOP. READ THE VERSE AGAIN. Sounds correct, right?

In the NRSV, the final words of Matthew 23:3 are really “…they do not practice what they teach.”

The sentence in my Bible, in black & white, on the printed page, read teach and yet my biased, blind and bruised brain saw preach.

I used bruised ‘cuz I thought you’d be impressed with the alliteration. But I also used bruised because it’s how I sometimes feel. As a United Methodist Pharisee (excuse me, clergyperson), I’ve preached thousands of sermons. So when I hear Don’t preach to me or Practice what you preach, I take it personally. Those phrases do feel like bruises. Whether they’re said as overt insults or casual comments, a little part of my soul turns black and blue from the hurt.

Am I overly sensitive about the cultural perceptions regarding sermons? Sure. Are my feelings illogical? Absolutely. Do I see or hear certain words even when they’re not there . . . duh!

But there’s also this: the truth hurts.

I’ve spent most of my adult life preaching, teaching and writing. As a way of exposing my hypocrisy or challenging me to be very careful with how I share my faith (or both) Jesus could have said, “…they do not practice what they _______.” Preach, teach and write could be interchangeably scrawled onto the blank line. I proclaim one thing, I do another. I instruct one thing, I do another. I publish one thing, I do another.

We all do. Between sunrise and sunset, we’re all Pharisees. The earth spins and we spin our words to protect “me” or blame another.

Sometimes, it’s best to say nothing. Indeed, one of the best sermons I ever gave occurred when no words were preached, taught or typed.

In 1999 I was one of over 100 clergy who participated in a holy union. As a way to affirm the love of two women and call attention to the United Methodist church’s stance against gays, we publicly co-officiated at a ceremony in Sacramento, California. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done that prompted national media coverage. Since our actions broke church law, we were charged with misconduct.

Bad pastors!

In order to determine whether or not scores of ministers would be punished, a hearing took place. Other clergy would judge us, deciding if there was sufficient evidence for a formal church trial. The accused had three minutes to make a statement, to “preach” to the judges to explain our actions. When my turn came, after hours of testimony, and with hours to go from other clergy following me, I said…


I recall facing my clergy judges. I suspected most wouldn’t vote to condemn a colleague. But I knew people beyond the room were listening, applauding or condemning our actions. I also guessed, after hours of listening, the judges might be bored. Indeed, as my time began, they shuffled papers, glanced at watches or whispered to the person next to them.

By saying nothing, I got their attention. The silence nudged the judges to look at me, to stop whispering or shuffling. In my final seconds, I briefly explained the church—and we modern scribes and Pharisees—hurt people with our silence and by forcing a group of people to live silent lives.

Was I practicing what I taught, what I preached? I don’t know. All I know for sure is that I’ve done some of my best proclamation of the Good News by saying nothing.

I love words. Use ‘em all the time! But I also know they trick us, can be tripped over and are wielded to entrap others. Whether it’s Paris in the the spring or watching the earth spin, sometimes I’ll keep my mouth shut.

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  1. Gosh, I’m not sure I can do such a long posting justice. I will just bounce to the first thing which comes to mind which is, no surprise here, a quote from the film Avatar, when the Na’vi spiritual leader says, in a scene deleted from the final theatrical release “When you see nothing, then you can see everything.” (Very similar to the act of Christ’s kenosis at Phillipians 2:7…queue Twilight Zone theme…). We are so full of expectations. We read what we expect. And when it is not what we expect, we fill it in to fit our expectations. That’s the point of lectio divina, of seeing things in the words which are so easy to gloss over….Of course, I also have to be the devil’s advocate, and say that this mechanism by which the mind anticipates things probably goes a long way to keeping us alive, as when our ancestors heard that twig snap behind them, and they believed they were all alone. Turn around with weapon at the ready Ally Oop! (How many remember the cartoon, Ally Oop!)…

    1. Hey Bruce…thanks for your comments. However, I’ve spent years of counseling trying to block Ally Oop from my memory. Now, like an endless series of cartoon panels, it’s flooded back. Ha!

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