Saturday, September 1, 2018

Practice what you preach


Practice what you preach. Actions speak louder than words. You have to walk the walk. Practice what you preach. Actions speak louder than words. You have to walk the walk. These are all common phrases that we know. There are many more like them, but they all have the same point – words are not enough. For our words to be true and be believed, they must be followed with action. In our second reading today from St. James, he says essentially the same thing, but he says it this way, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Or more simply, practice what you preach.

One of the greatest dangers in the life of faith, I think, is to be enamored of Scripture, to love the teachings of the Church, to hold 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 also what Jesus is tackling in today’s Gospel. The Pharisees and Scribes are obsessed with the external observance of the Law, but their actions say something different. They were obsessed with rituals, but neglected the change of heart and life that those rituals hope to bring about in people – their actions are completely devoid of the love, compassion, and mercy that are the hallmarks of someone who truly knows and loves the Lord.

In today’s passage, the Pharisees allow the failure to ritually wash their hands keep them from sharing God’s Good News with the people who need to hear it. Jesus points out that it is not the purification of hands that will save them, but the purification of their souls.

Now, Jesus isn’t condemning ritual or doctrine, but asking if those practices in their lives are having an effect. It begs the same question in our lives: are our external practices the goal of our faith? Is our faith nothing more than attending Mass or praying rosaries? Or do these practices – and more – help us become the people God wants us to be, as James says, those who “care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep [themselves] unstained by the world.” Have we become “Doers of the Word and not hearers only?”

If you are like me, you can’t help but hear these words today outside of the context of the scandal that we’re living through in the church today. After all, in so many ways, this scandal can be reduced to an example of failing to practice what we preach. For abusing clergy, there is certainly a disconnect between the life of holiness their vocation called them to and the horrific acts they committed. So too for those in leadership who failed address these situations with justice and with the care of the most vulnerable. Clergy abuse is so scandalous first because of the harm it has caused to victims; but secondly because these actions are the definition of failing to practice what we preach. We hold our clergy to high standard – as we should. Those who are ordained have pledged to live public lives in witness of the Gospel. These men who have failed, harm not only their victims, but they harm the church itself – they harm you and me by violating their promise to be images of Christ in our world. They create an image that is counter to what we profess as followers of Jesus. And the only way we will get through this current moment of crisis is by becoming more and more true to the call of Christ in our lives. To be doers of the word and not mere hearers. To practice what we preach in every aspect of our lives. And to call out those who fail to do so. When we practice what we preach, the innocent are protected, the guilty are prosecuted, and no one seeks to protect an abuser.

The church needs our faithful witness today more than ever. Our lives lived in harmony between what we say and what we do are the proclamation that calls the whole church to holiness. Our Scripture reminds us today that our faith should be obvious through the way we act in our world. That when people see the way we act, they will know immediately that we are follows of Christ; that our faith in Jesus has changed our lives.

St. James tells us, “Humbly welcome the word that has taken root in you. Act on it. Because if all you do is listen, you are deceiving yourselves.” In His Word and in His Holy Sacraments, Jesus gives us the strength to do what He asks. He gives us the strength to be a different kind of presence in the world – one that loves, one that shows compassion, one that reaches out, one that seeks justice – especially for those in most need. So, let us hear God’s Word again today and let that seed be planted in our hearts. Let us be strengthened again today by His Body and Blood so we can truly leave this place as “Doers of the Word of God….for that will save our souls.”

Or as St. Francis of Assisi put it, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” It will not only change us and make us more like Christ; it will change the church; it will change the world.

May the Lord give you peace.

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