Do As I Say… – Part 5 of our Rise of the Nones sermon series

Next week we end the Lenten fast and with it our sermon series, “Rise of the Nones.”

Over the past four weeks, we have been exploring objections to the Christian faith, which has led to the increase in the number of people who have no religious affiliation.  Most of those do have a belief in God, though, so the objections they hold are not necessarily faith issues with God but with the church.  So we’ve talked in the past few weeks specifically about some of the most troubling objections and asked ourselves what it is that we can do about it.  We’ve talked about the church being too sheltered or self-centered and to combat that perception, we need to focus on the people outside of our walls instead of the inside.  A couple of weeks ago we talked about how many people thought the church was too judgmental and the best way to counter that argument was to base all of our actions on the greatest commandment: to love God and love our neighbor.  Any actions not consistent with that commandment shouldn’t be done.  And last week we discussed being too political.  We shared that we need to be more concerned about being Christian than winning elections because we are a people in the world but not of the world.  When we ACT as Christians and BEHAVE as Christians, we will influence the world in which we live in, and that would be the greatest testimony to God’s grace and love, our own living witness.  Today we will talk about one of the biggest objections to Christianity – hypocrisy.

The Fonz always had trouble admitting he was wr-wr-wrong.
The Fonz always had trouble admitting he was wr-wr-wrong.

Did you know that Greek actors were called hypocrites?[1]

It’s true.  In fact, the word “hypocrite” is derived from the Greek for actor.  It described a person who was play-acting.  So it’s no wonder that some of the best actors are in fact Christian evangelicals.  Not only do they pretend to speak for God, but they are great at being hypocrites.  And just so we’re all speaking the same language, a hypocrite is someone who professes or seeks to enforce beliefs, feelings, or virtues that they do not actually hold.[2]  A hypocrite is someone who professes or seeks to enforce beliefs, feelings, or virtues that they do not actually hold.  What is disturbing is that there are so many of them.  Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard just to name a few of the more heinous ones.[3] Their actions have caused a great many people to lose faith in God and to leave organized religion.  They each have had thousands if not hundreds of thousands of followers and each were disgraced with scandal that went against some of their most ardent preaching.  They lifted themselves up as paragons of virtue and then showed the world they were anything but virtuous.  But make no mistake, these people may have the added burden of being well-known, but there are many Christian hypocrites in the world today; people who preach and teach and profess a love for Christ and their fellow man and then turn around and act in unloving and unchristian ways.   One of my friends who was a pastor had just finished doing the funeral for a young person who had committed suicide.  He was consoling the child’s mother afterward when one of his parishioners came up and told her that her son was going to hell.  Just to clear up any misconception, the Bible doesn’t say that anywhere.  It’s an old theology based on an interpretation of the sanctity of life, but has no basis in God’s Word.  Can you imagine what those words must have done to that grieving mother?  To burden her with those thoughts?  She may honestly believe in that theology, but her saying it to the mother of a child she just buried?  That is counter to the fundamental Christian belief in loving your neighbor as yourself.  And it is this kind of behavior that is at the root of so much Christian hypocrisy.

But hypocrisy isn’t limited to something we deal with in our time, but something Jesus struggled with also.

Our Bible passage this morning shows us that in depth.  If you want to follow along, we’ll be reading from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 23, verses 1-12.  Matthew 23:1-12.  In Matthew’s version of the Gospel, this passage takes place not long after our reading from last week.  As we shared before, this all takes place during Holy Week, not long after Palm Sunday.  The same day that the Pharisees questioned Jesus about paying taxes, the Sadducees came up and questioned Jesus about marriage and Jesus’ argument was so strong he completely silenced them and the people were amazed.  And so the Pharisees, having heard this, decide to go after Jesus again, but he turns the tables on them and gives them a question of his own, and when they can’t answer the Bible tells us that “from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions.”  Jesus silenced his greatest foes.  But Jesus isn’t done.  After silencing them, he has something to tell to the crowds and that’s where we pick up today. 

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

The Word of God for the people of God and the people said, “Thanks be to God.”  Please be seated.

“Do as I say, not as I do.”

This old saying is derived from the passage we just read together.  Jesus has silenced his opponents and now has something to say in return.  He knows their behavior itself is hypocritical because they say they are waiting for the coming Messiah, and yet when he is right there before them, they keep trying to tear him down.  They keep trying to find ways to discredit him instead of embracing him as they should.  They say they are pious, but their fear of losing control is motivating their actions, so Jesus tells the crowds to do everything the Pharisees and the teachers of the law tell them to do because these guys know the law inside and out and their advice is sound.  But he then goes on to say, “But do NOT do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” Then Jesus talks about this load – this “heavy, cumbersome load” – and you get this image of a person being tied down with all of these bags piled on top of his shoulders, barely able to walk from the load because of how heavy it is.  But instead of helping the poor person, the Pharisees and teachers of the law continue to pile it on.

It’s like that episode of Phineas and Ferb where Baljeet is moving this huge dart board across town and he looks at Buford who’s sitting there in a lounge chair and says, “Tell me again how you’re helping?”  And Buford says, “I’m supervising!”[4]  The Pharisees don’t lift a finger to help out.  They’re not interested in helping their fellow Israelites, they’re interested in telling people how wrong they are and how they need to shape up.  And they take great pride in people calling them “teacher” and “father.”  They like sitting in the nice comfy chairs at parties and make a big show about how important they are.  But Jesus says the most profound thing right at the end.  He says to the crowds, “The greatest among you will be your servant.  For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

The key to all the hypocrisy in the world lies right in that saying, “Do as I say, not as I do.”

We tend to think of it as a negative or something said only by failures in life, but the truth is, the key to this problem that we see in the Pharisees during Jesus’ time and in ourselves from time to time is right there.  “Do as I say, not as I do.”  We need to admit our fallacies.  We need to admit our vulnerabilities and our failures and lay ourselves down at the mercy of others.  We must be willing to say to people, “I am fallible.”  “I am broken.”  “I need forgiveness.”  It is in our admission of our failures that people will be able to see Jesus. It is in our admission of our failures that people will be able to see Jesus. “I am not strong enough on my own.”  “I need the help of others.”  It’s like Jesus said about being humble; it is in our humility that we will be exalted.  It is when we do not consider ourselves better than others that we can be taken seriously.  We have to stop justifying our actions and instead accept responsibility for them.  They say that the first step to solving any problem is acknowledging that there is one.  And we need to admit that first.  We need to tell people that church is NOT perfect, that OUR church is not perfect, that NO church is perfect, but that’s what makes it great.  Because all are welcome in God’s eyes.  That’s the key: to admit that we are a broken people who need healing.  We need to admit that we are a broken people who need healing.

It’s hard to admit our failures.  It’s hard to admit when we are wrong.

At times we act like the Fonz from Happy Days.  Even when he wanted to, he couldn’t say the word.  He would say he wasn’t completely right instead.  It’s tough for us because it means showing weakness and vulnerability.  But it is vital if we hope to heal the divide between us and those who feel alienated by the church.  We cannot afford to come across with an air of superiority and perfection, because we are far from perfect ourselves, and if it weren’t for a forgiving God, we would be in serious trouble.  If we hope to change people’s minds about the church, it can’t be done by force, but by example.  When we are willing to be humble, to show weakness, to be vulnerable to others, we are exhibiting the trust and love of Christ.  You can’t change people’s minds by force.  They have to be won over.  They have to be convinced that what God has to offer is greater than anything they could do for themselves.  And the only way they will be convinced is by our actions and our words.  So consider what Christ says and live a life of humility and forgiveness, for these are the keys to life – not just in the here and now, but ever after.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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