By their works you will know them
Twenty-fourth after Pentecost - Year A
October 30, 2005
Let us pray: O God, may these words guide us to hear your word. May they be expressed in our actions which we know speak louder than words. Amen.
The Scottish Bard, Robert Burns, wrote these immortal words (mercifully translated into English so that you donít have to wince at my rendition of a Scottish Brogue:)
O would some Power the gift to give us
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:
What airs in dress and gait would leave us,
And even devotion!
Strangely enough, the memorable words come from a reasonably forgettable, if not unknown poem "To A Louse" which apparently the poet was prompted to write after seeing one of the little creatures on the bonnet of a lovely woman.
I remember hearing just the first two lines of that last verse of the poem when I was quite young, and as I have suggested they stuck. Of course, Burns wrote the words well before the dawn of digital photography and videography and even before photography of any kind had been invited. We all know however, that it was not photography that he was praying for, but rather the ability to step out of our self-consciousness for a moment and have a look at the way we appear to others without the trappings of our own character to interfere. As Burns suggests, such a revelation might lead us to dress and walk differently and even more importantly to change the way we go about our faith life.
Thatís the thing with the story that we heard from Matthewís gospel this morning. We can hear it and shake our heads in agreement. It is so familiar to us, even if the actual words are completely new. We are given an incredible kind of vision, almost as a part of who we are as human beings - the vision to see hypocrisy when it occurs in other people, but a curious kind of vision impairment when it comes to ourselves. We all know so clearly that it is the way we live our lives and not the way we say we live our lives that is enduring. And yes, the irony that I am saying that to you is not lost on me.
Of course, there is a flip to side to this whole thing as well. There are times when I am glad that people donít live according to their words. I know that there have been times when Iíve listened to people tell me what they believe and have winced, yet when I see those same people living out their faith in action, have been reminded that I should not be so quick to judge, for what theyíve demonstrated is a faith that is much more open and caring than the one they profess in word alone.
Yet another aspect of that well known final verse of Robbie Burnsí poem is that it somehow suggests a desire to be able to step back from a situation to see a much bigger picture. If we could for a moment step back from the local concerns and priorities and get a broader perspective then we just might be able to see things more clearly. We often get so tied up with immediate issues that we forget to remember what lies beyond. In other words, we might go into a situation with an honest desire and intention to serve God, but when the situation gets bogged down in inner concerns, personality conflicts and competing interests, we lose track of the original intention. It would be a sad situation indeed if the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesusí story were intentionally engaged in their showy piety and burdening of others. Indeed, Jesus praised their words, claiming that the people occupied places worthy of respect and that their words were true to the faith. It seems however that their place of respect went to their heads and rather than be humbled by the respect offered to them by virtue of their position they took themselves too seriously and ended up as flashy examples of what not to do! To quote another immortal verse from Burns - the best laid plans of mice and men (sorry for the exclusive language) gang aft a gley. We can only hope that the scribes and pharisees started out with at least well laid and honourable plans even if in practice they got corrupted.
The same theme is touched on in the passage we heard from the first letter to the Thessalonians this morning. Here the issue is how to discern the voice of God among the many voices which are present. Paul suggests some ways to discern the true word among all the competing invitations. With affection for the community he suggests that he represents the true word and true example to the people of Thessalonika. In effect he is inviting them to see that the actions Paul took when he was living among them speak with clarity and conviction. He reminds the people that they did not ask for money for themselves. He and his helpers were careful to find work to support themselves while they were there. Secondly, Paul asks the Thessalonian Christian community to remember that Paul and the people who were with him conducted themselves well. Their actions were holy, righteous, and blameless. While that may not be definite proof that they were there on behalf of Godís work, it is compelling evidence that their intentions were honourable and deserved to be respected. Finally, he suggests to the community that they treated them well, as good parents would treat their children. While this may sound patronising, it must be remembered that this was a newly formed community and therefore would need to be nurtured carefully - and it is that aspect of nurturing more than a "I know what is best for you" attitude that Paul wants to highlight.
And so, given all this, Iím going to stop talking, except to end with one of my favourite quotes. It has been ascribed to St. Francis of Assissi, who also wrote the words upon which the choir anthem is based. Those words are really a prayer to God that our actions will reflect our words, and that is exactly what my favourite quote says as well. Preach the gospel - use words if necessary. Amen.