Homily for the 31st Sunday of Ordinary Time

Oct. 29/30, 2011

For the communities of Dignity/NoVA at Emmanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Arlington, VA and Dignity/Washington at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC.

There probably isn’t a parent on the face of the planet who at least once hasn’t said to his or her child some version of, “Do as I say, not as I do.” And of course, there probably isn’t a child on the planet who, upon hearing this from his mom or dad, has ignored such parental admonition just as quickly as it was pronounced.  Ignoring and disobeying parents in such cases – whether it’s a three-year old or a thirteen year old – is probably rooted not so much in obstinacy or defiance as it is the innate ability most children have to know that being told to “do as I say, not as I do” is hardly that carries a lot of inherent weight!  Kids know – as do most of us – that something’s not quite right if the person in “authority” is saying one thing, but clearly doing not just a different thing, but often the complete opposite thing.

I’m sure we can all picture such a situation – perhaps even one in which we ourselves were either the parent or the child – and see the young person rolling her eyes, or muttering something under his breath.  The innocence of the three or four year old might enable her even to say out loud, “But Dad, you said that wearing a bike helmet is what smart kids do when riding their bikes.  Aren’t you smart? Why don’t you wear a helmet?”  The teen might have a little bit more “attitude” when he responds to his angry Mom who has just found his cigarettes in his desk drawer.  “But you smoke like chimney, so what’s the big deal?”

The scripture readings we have just heard all deal with this disconnect between saying one thing and doing another.  Our first reading comes from the last book of what we often call the “Old Testament,” or more appropriately, the “Hebrew Scriptures.”  The name Malachi may be the name of the prophetic author, or it may simply be a reference to the Hebrew meaning of the word “Malachi,” which means “My messenger.”  Although this book is a bit unusual in that it has few historical references, thus making it difficult for scholars to know exactly when it was written, it most like was written in the middle of the 5th century before Jesus – about 450 BCE.  As a whole, the book probably makes clergy, of all people, wince just a little bit, because one of Malachi’s consistent messages is that religious leaders have failed miserably.  It’s a theme that is present in the passage we hear today when Malachi announces, “And now, O priests, this commandment is for you.” The religious leaders of the day, the ones to whom God has entrusted His message and who should be the ones who, by the example of their lives, not only preach the Covenant, but also live the Covenant – these leaders seem to have failed in making the connection between what they say and what they do.  I don’t say this to be cynical – but it does seem to be true that the more things change, the more they say the same, leading us to wonder how far we have or haven’t come in 2,500 years!

As long as there are no innocent victims – as there clearly can be when clergy sometimes abuse their power or position – we often take devilish delight in learning about the scandals that are seen all too often in the lives of religious leaders.  And while we might feel a bit smug when the latest anti-gay evangelical preacher is caught in a sex-scandal with a male prostitute, we should really listen attentively to the words of Matthew in the today’s Gospel passage before we smile too widely.

You’ll remember that last week, we were reminded that one of the main ways in which Matthew depicts Jesus is that Jesus is “the new Moses, the giver of a New Law.” That Law, of course, is the Law of Love. That Jesus is the New Moses would have been very clear to Matthew’s readers.  Even though the scribes and the Pharisees have taken their place in the community “on the chair of Moses” – which, by the way is a phrase that appears nowhere else in Scripture – Matthew’s readers would have been keenly aware of the fact that, while these leaders might sit on that chair and hold an office that has a certain degree of authority and power, they really are not who they claim to be. They might have a position of authority, but the disconnect between what they preach and what they practice would undercut the legitimacy of their claim to be the true heirs of Moses.

Jesus, on the contrary, not only proclaims the New Covenant, but he also embodies the New Covenant. In his very person – in his thoughts and his words, his deeds and his actions – Jesus exemplifies complete and utter integrity.  He is able to have such integrity, such wholeness and inherent unity, because of his connection with Truth, because of his message of Love, and his abandonment of self-interest to become the Servant of all.

These are the things that are essential if we, as disciples of Jesus, are to have some measure of integrity in our own lives:

  • Having the courage to live our lives in the Light of Truth;
  • Expressing to all others the same unconditional Love that God has for us; and
  • Having humility to wash the feet of others in true servanthood

These are the prescripts of the New Law, the New Covenant that Jesus hands down not from the mountaintop of Sinai, but from the height of the Cross.

Easy to say? You bet.  Easy to do? Not so much!

Nonetheless, that is the challenge we have before us not only today, but every day of our lives as followers of Jesus. “Practicing what we preach” – “Walking the Talk” – “Lives lived with Integrity” – there are many ways we can talk about it.  Likewise, there are many ways we can live it, for each of us is uniquely gifted and uniquely blessed, each with our own strengths and weaknesses, our special talents and gifts.  But whatever way God may be asking us to Live out in our daily lives that Commandment of Love so central to the New Law and New Covenant of the Gospel, one thing we can be sure of us this:  the more we are able to make that connection, both to proclaim and to practice the Gospel of Jesus, the more we will be able to experience the truth of what the Psalmist proclaims, “In You, O Lord, I have found my Peace.”

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