Sunday, November 2, 2014

do not do as they do

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

In our Gospel reading today we hear our Lord say: 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 practise what they teach.' Jesus is dealing with what must have been a very real problem of his day, those who are in positions of spiritual authority who 'talk the talk, but do not walk the walk' to use a modern phrase. Jesus' solution to the difficulty is very simple: follow their teaching, but not their example.

The problem is not unique to Jesus' day. All through Church history there has sadly existed the issue of Church leaders failing to live up to their sacred calling by not living up to the high standards of life that all Christians are called for. It is more than regrettable when men, and now women, of the cloth not only sin, but sin in a public and dramatic way, worse, sometimes even abusing their position in the Church to facilitate their misdeeds – it is a cause for grave scandal. And of course it risks leading astray those they are meant to be guiding on the path to holiness. An important lesson to take from our Lord's words here is that the bad example of another, even if that person is a priest or a bishop, is not a license for bad behaviour in us.

But I do accept that it can be hard for people in the pew to take seriously the words that come out of the person in the pulpit's mouth if it is contradicted by the way that they behave. Which is why it is important that clergy strive always to live up to the vows that they made at their ordination that they would not only teach the faith but live it too. And why it is important that people pray for their clergy.

However, it is worth remembering an important difference between the Jewish faith and the Christian one – ours has the concept of the priesthood of all believers. This means that while clergy and laity have different callings and different roles within the body of Christ, all have a calling or vocation and all have a ministry ... and part of that ministry involves not only serving God and neighbour but also teaching and passing on the faith ... and one of the ways that this is done is by the example of how we live out our lives, and how we model the faith to others.

Sometimes this ministry is very explicit, such as the duty of parents to bring their children up in the faith ... a duty that parents promise to carry out when they bring their children for baptism. But not having children, or having children that have grown up and left home does not mean that you have no role to play. We all have a duty, for example to encourage and exhort our fellow Christians in their faith. An important way of doing that is by our own regular Sunday attendance. Walking into a church built for hundreds with only a few dozen in it doesn't encourage a newcomer to attend, or prompt someone who attends seldom to be more regular ... and may well encourage others to think along the lines of 'well, if it's OK for others to miss a lot of Sundays, why isn't it OK for me too?'

But as I draw to a close, I must stress that the point I have been trying to make isn't about attendance as such ... it's about the poor teaching that can result from bad example, from not living out the faith as taught by Christ and passed on by the Church he founded. Our reading today reminds us that even when we are faced with bad example, we must rise above it and strive to be faithful to that teaching. But that does not serve to excuse the bad example. We must all do our best not to give bad example to anyone. We must pray daily that God will give us the strength to live out our faith, not only for our sake, but for the sake of others, so that they can learn the beauty and truth of the faith from seeing how we live. And we must pray for others who struggle to live up to the high standards of Christian living, whether they are lay or ordained, that they will be granted the grace to do better in the future. Amen

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