Sunday, November 5, 2017

Practice what you preach

HOMILY FOR THE 31st SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME, November 5, 2017:

This past week began, of course, with Halloween, the annual dress-up day in which children run from house to house in their costumes begging sweet treats. Among the most popular costumes this year were Pennywise the clown, the kids from the TV show Stranger Things, Belle from Beauty and the Beast and Wonder Woman. Now when I was a kid, there were only four basic choices - ghost, witch, cowboy, or hobo. For kids, and the young at heart, Halloween is a day of pretending to be someone or something that we are not.

The word “pretend” comes to us, as many of our words do, from Latin. It is a combination of the verb, teneo which means “I hold”, and the prefix “pre” which means “in front of”. This is essentially what children do at Halloween – they pretend; they hold in front of them an image that is different from who they really are. In fact, very often, the image that they hold is so different that it is hard to recognize the true person.



Pretending is also what Jesus wants to address today in the Gospel. As we heard, “Do and observe all things [the Pharisees] tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice.” Jesus is speaking about a group of pretenders, the Pharisees. Jesus tells His disciples and the crowd to follow the demands of the Law, but do not follow what the Pharisees do. They are pretenders, holding in front of themselves religious symbols. As Jesus said, “They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.” Phylacteries are containers affixed to arms and foreheads. Inside are written important verses of the Law. People who see them are impressed believing that those who wear them are as holy as the verses themselves.

Jesus reminds us that following Him is not about saying you are a Christian, but it is a matter of the way we live our lives. Being a disciple of Jesus it is about what is written in our hearts, and shown by the way we live and what we do – these are the things that let people know that it is Jesus we follow. Jesus, of course, is the complete opposite of the Pharisees. While they put on a good public show, Jesus is no pretender. He lives what He preaches and invites us to let go of any pretending in our lives and to follow Him in what we say and in what we do.

One of the greatest dangers for people of faith, I think, is to be enamored of Scripture, to love the teaching of the Church, to hold as precious the words of Jesus – but, to act no differently than the rest of the world when we’re outside of a church building. This is what Jesus is addressing so strongly. The Pharisees were obsessed with the external observance of the Law, while their actions said something different, even something opposite. They were obsessed with rituals, but neglected the change of heart and life that those rituals hope to bring about in people.

On Wednesday, the day after Halloween, we celebrated All Saints Day. It is the day we celebrate the opposite of the pretending of the night before. We celebrate those holy women and men who shed all pretense, all masks, and witnessed fully to their love of Jesus in every aspect of their living. These are our heroes, these are our inspirations, and we strive to follow Christ like them.

We can all feel the challenge of pretending in our lives. We come to Church and we leave here feeling better, but the difficulties of ordinary life seep back in – the challenges of family, of the secular world we live in, the difficult people in our workplace. We can be intimidated to speak to loudly when words of hatred, or prejudice, or racism, are expressed in our presence. But, Jesus calls us to be His fearless witnesses in a world which is hungering for His message.

In the ritual for the Ordination of a Deacon, the Bishop hands the Deacon a Book of the Gospels and says to him, “Receive the Gospel of Jesus Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, practice what you teach.” This call is not only for deacons, it could equally be the call of every baptized Christian.

St. Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” When we believe what we read, teach what we believe and practice what we teach, it not only changes us and makes us more like Christ; it has the power to change the world.

May the Lord give you peace.

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