Practice What You Preach

“Practice What You Preach,” Susan Ryder

Matthew 23:1-7 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “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 teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places… But I say the greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” This continues through the chapter, beginning each new section with “‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites!”

St. Francis of Assisi – “Preach the Gospel always. And if you have to, use words.”

Brené Brown: “Integrity is choosing courage over comfort. You choose what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy. And you choose to practice your values rather than simply professing them.”

As we continue our consideration of what it means to be a people of integrity, we move from considering and identifying our core values, which we did last week, to thinking about how to live those values. Integrity, goodness, humility, honesty, fairness, loyalty, honor, kindness, patience and courage are quiet values. They are earned attributes that must be attributed to us by others; proclaiming them for ourselves doesn’t count. For example – saying, “I am very humble” suggests otherwise. Or claiming, “I am very honest,” – words aren’t enough – prove your honesty.

The root of integrity is about doing the right thing even when it’s not acknowledged by others, or convenient to do so. For instance, yesterday during our Steering Committee retreat, we realized Dunkin’ Donuts charged us for our donuts, but not for the two “Boxes of Joe” (carafes of coffee) we picked up on the way to the meeting. It would have been easy to say, “Well, it was their mistake, and it’s not up to me to inconvenience myself by going back and making it right.” After all, we were just finishing a half day meeting, needed to get home to Daisy, and I needed to finish up my Reflection. Adding a stop at Dunkin’ was not convenient, even if it was the right thing to do. Fortunately, our integrity won out, and when Bob went in to pay for the coffee they forgot to charge us for 5 hours earlier, they were very surprised – I doubt that happens very often. The root of integrity is about doing the right thing even when it’s not convenient or acknowledged by others.

As I shared last Sunday, integrity stems from the Latin word ‘integer’ – meaning whole and complete. As in mathematics, wherein an integer is a whole number not divided into fractions, integrity implies that we are not divided – our actions, speech and methods are consistent with our core self, our values, our aspirations. And this wholeness helps us maintain our integrity even when the ethical choices we face are more complex and unclear than making things right with Dunkin’ Donuts. This more nuanced conceptualization of integrity has profound implications for us, both as individuals and as communities. Integrity requires an inner sense of “wholeness” and steadiness of character. When we are acting with integrity, people should be able to visibly see our values through our actions, words, decisions, methods, and outcomes. There should be a consistency of words and deeds – practicing what we preach – whether it’s inconvenient for us, or as Brené Brown suggests, might mean choosing to be courageous. Having a strong set of principles is one thing; living them is another.

Jesus is someone we typically consider as being a person of integrity. During the time of Jesus, it was the job of the scribes and Pharisees to teach others to follow God’s law – that’s what Jesus meant in our passage from Matthew when he referred to them as sitting on Moses’ seat. Jesus was critical, not of their words or teachings, but of their actions, because they did not practice what they preached. To gain a better sense of Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees, it may help to remind ourselves of their primary motivations. According to Josephus, the Pharisees surpassed other Jews in their knowledge of the Torah so, for the most part, what the Pharisees were teaching was not the problem – their knowledge and teaching of the Torah was not what Jesus took issue with. The problem was that they said one thing and did another – they did not practice what they preached. They expected others to do as they said, without meeting that expectation themselves. Thus, Jesus called them hypocrites because they were very much about “do as I say, not as I do.” In addition, their preaching about observing of the law had become a burden that fell on other people’s shoulders, while the Pharisees reaped the rewards of their position and received public accolades without actually following those same laws.

In contrast, Matthew characterized Jesus as one who interpreted and followed the law with an eye to God’s larger vision and love for humanity, while the Pharisees served as literary foil against which Jesus’ interpretation of the law stood out. We like to credit Jesus as offering a new teaching, but the message he spoke in Matthew was one that ran deeply throughout Judaism. In fact, Jesus’ message was similar to the prophets who came before him. In particular, Jesus taught others to keep the law in a way that also met the demands of God’s justice and mercy – and as such, Jesus’ actions were consistent with his teachings, which is the very definition of integrity. His relationships with tax collectors did not mean that sinning was okay. Nor did he argue that keeping the Sabbath was bad. However, Jesus suggested that keeping the law without exercising common sense and mercy did not fulfill God’s expectations. The law was made for people, not the other way around, so while Jesus typically recommended following the law, if someone was in need it was okay to break the law in order to help them out, such as healing someone on the Sabbath. Preaching adherence to the law without exception or mercy for individuals resulted in hollow words and rendered the law worthless. So Jesus admonished his followers not to be like the Pharisees. “Don’t be like them,” he urged, “Walk the talk.”

I began my remarks saying this was a tough Reflection to write against the backdrop of the impeachment hearings this past week – heck, it’s a tough topic any week since November 2016. It’s easy to feel helpless and hopeless when we are mired in such deceit and doublespeak. Which is why I find these words from Ed Catmull, former President of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios so helpful. “Our actions change our reality. Our intentions matter. Most people believe that their actions have consequences but don’t think through the implications of that belief. But Steve [Jobs, owner of Pixar] did. He believed, as I do, that it is precisely by acting on our intentions and staying true to our values that we change the world.” Perhaps it’s the only way we change the world – staying true to our values no matter what. As St. Francis said, “Preach the Gospel always. And if you have to, use words.”

As I turn things over to you for a few moments I invite you to tell us about someone you know who preached the good news without words? Someone who lived with integrity. Remember – integrity, goodness, humility, honesty, fairness, loyalty, honor, kindness, patience and courage are quiet values. They are earned attributes that must be attributed to us by others; proclaiming them for ourselves doesn’t count. Who would you attribute those values to?