Sunday, October 12, 2014

Walk the Talk

A Sermon preached on October 12th (Pentecost XVIII) at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Isaiah 25:1-9, Psalm 23, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

As many of you know I worked for a large international corporation for many years. And so over the years I was confronted with lots of new management concepts and fads and with an awful lot of “management-speak.”  One popular buzzword, though not one I particularly liked, was “walking the talk,” which really only means: don’t just say it, do it! Senior managers were always very good at telling middle managers that they had to “walk the talk” for the latest new management concept, while often being spectacularly bad at it themselves, doing things like ordering people to be collaborative!

The idea that people in leadership positions are supposed to set an example and practice what they preach goes back a long way. Pope Gregory the Great, who has his own window here at our church to commemorate him sending St. Augustine to England, wrote a sort of “how to” book for priests called the “Book of Pastoral Rule.” One rule in St. Gregory’s book is that “the footprint of his (the priest’s) good living should be that path that others follow rather than the sound of his voice showing them where to go.” Walk the talk!

But we can go back even further and into the Bible. St. Paul also repeatedly calls on his readers and listeners to follow an example, to imitate either him or others: “I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me. For this reason I sent you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ Jesus.” (1 Cor. 4:16-17) “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”(1 Cor. 11:1) In fact we can find a call to imitate Paul in every letter written to one of the communities that knew him personally, so also in Galatians and one of his letters to the Thessalonians, and as we heard this morning in Philippians: “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.” (4:9) Paul was convinced that what he taught (“the things that you have learned and received”) about how to follow and live in Christ must and could also be seen in his, Paul’s words and actions (“the things you have heard and seen”). Because only if that was the case, only if Paul walked the talk, could he be a good example.

Today too, Christian leaders should be good examples and I can think of many of them whom it is worth trying to imitate. Pope Francis is a wonderful model of a servant leader and of someone who really tries to practice what he preaches. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has shown us what it means to forgive and to trust in God’s love even in the most difficult circumstances. And Archbishop Justin Welby is a wonderful role model for dealing with conflict and living with good disagreement. Unfortunately there are also “one or two” bad examples among Christian leaders. I have recently been particularly saddened by the very public conflict between the Deans, trustees and faculty of two Episcopal seminaries, EDS and GTS. What example are these leaders giving those seminarians who are supposed to be learning how to be examples for their future flocks?

As your priest I am also supposed to be an example, whether I like it or not (and sometimes I don’t especially in such a small city like Wiesbaden: I can’t even get my hair cut without running into a parishioner!). But that is what I promised at my ordination when I answered “yes” to the question: “Will you do your best to pattern your life in accordance with the teachings of Christ, so that you may be a wholesome example to your people?”[1] Thankfully this role is not limited to me. You also promise to be an example every time you recite our Baptismal Covenant: “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ,”[2] and our Catechism also defines the ministry of lay persons as “representing Christ and his Church.”[3]
And in his letter to the Philippians Paul is not only setting himself up as an example, but also calling on all the Christians in Philippi to be examples. That’s why Paul addresses a conflict between two female believers and wants them to be of the same mind in the Lord, and to show it to the world. And look at his other commands: Rejoice in the Lord, literally celebrate exuberantly – so show that you believe and are glad to believe. “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” (Phil. 4:5) Show that you are fearless and that you trust in God’s care and love. Joy, gentleness, fearlessness and trust are the qualities Paul wants them to show to the world. Imitate me, Paul says, as I imitate Christ, and so that others imitate you.

The proper qualities of a follower of Christ are also one theme of the rather complex parable we heard this morning in the Gospel reading from Matthew. The story of the parable was made even more complicated by what we believe to be a later insertion of an allusion to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70: “The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.” (Matthew 22:7) This is a sort of “I told you so” written after Christianity and Judaism had divided. But at its core the parable has three main messages:

  1. Both in the past and at the time of its telling Israel’s leaders had repeatedly refused to hear God’s call and instead sent away or even killed the messengers – the prophets.
  2. As a result of this rejection God will now call those whom Israel’s leaders reject, so both Jewish outcasts and Gentiles. Please note Jesus is not saying that the Jews are now rejected, just those in charge whose example was less than perfect!
  3. But while God does welcome all to the heavenly wedding banquet - that is into the kingdom of God - this welcome comes with expectations. We are welcomed as we are. The only condition is to accept the invitation – but that does not mean we are expected to stay as we are. On the contrary, we are expected to change.

When Jesus encounters demoniacs, lepers, blind, and lame he doesn’t just accept them “just the way they are.” He heals, transforms, and changes them. And this does not just apply to physical ailments. The right wedding robe in the parable stands for the proper qualities of an inhabitant of the kingdom of God. When we accept the invitation to the feast, we also accept an invitation to be transformed into the human beings we are supposed to be, images of God .  

What does it mean to wear the right clothes, what are the right qualities?  In Colossians (3:12-13) Paul tells his readers that as God’s chosen ones they are to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” and “above all clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” In Ephesians (6:11-17) the clothing is described as the armor of God and consists of the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace, and the shield of faith.  In fact all these qualities - love, justice, truth, gentleness, peace, and faith - can be summarized as Paul does in Galatians (3:27) when he defines one single item of clothing as necessary: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” 

As Christians, lay and ordained, leaders or just normal worshipers, we are called to imitate the one we follow. We will not attain perfection in this life, that is restricted to the one who was both fully human and fully divine, but we can and must still try and grow into the clothes we have been given. As Paul writes, keep on doing and keep on thinking about “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable,” (Phil. 4:8-9) Part of the good example we set is to show and tell the world that we know we are not perfect and not complete without God, and that we need and desire the transformation the journey with Christ offers us. 

So in retrospect it seems that “walking the talk” is not such a bad phrase after all. Christianity is all about both walking and talking. As Christians we are called to talk about the Gospel, to proclaim the Good News and as Christians we are called to try and walk it too, to follow the Way, as Christianity was once called.

So my brothers and sisters: Walk the talk!

[1] BCP, 532
[2] BCP, 305
[3] BCP, 855

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