Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
Apart from a somewhat odd convergence of occurrences over the past few days, I would have been clueless as to how to write about this week’s lectionary readings. To be honest, my first couple passes at them left me mostly flat and uninspired. And then, as sometimes happens, things became just a bit clearer.
I was first awakened to the possibilities offered by the texts when I read Kyle Childress’s bLogos post from last week, which focused on that week’s epistle (1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, the verses immediately preceding today’s epistle lesson). Serendipitously for Kyle, and by extension, for me, this passage from Paul’s earliest extant letter was the text which our mutual friend Stanley Hauerwas had preached several years ago at a celebration of the tenth anniversary of Kyle’s pastorate at Austin Heights Baptist Church down in east Texas.
Kyle channels Stanley in noting the outrageousness of Paul’s words for those of us who, having been thoroughly formed, first by certain strands of Protestantism and then by modernity and its emphasis on the autonomy of the individual, to think of our relationship to God as pretty much our own private business, mediated neither by community nor priest nor pastor.
The church, insofar as it is considered at all from this viewpoint, is typically seen simply as an occasional accidental gathering of individuals who, quite on their own, have “found God.” Given this minimalist understanding of church, the minister, whether priest or pastor, is usually regarded as someone paid to entertain us and make things operate smoothly during those occasions when we do manage to get together.
Over against this highly individualized understanding of how God is at work among God’s creatures, Kyle and Stanley note that Paul more or less directly associates himself and his way of life with the message he preached, claiming, essentially, that the gospel is best understood when it is embodied and enacted – by people just like him. That theme is continued in this week’s epistle, which seems especially fitting as we move in the coming days toward our annual celebration of All Saints’ Day.
This point about how we learn to be Christian was driven home for me yesterday morning, as I re-read chapter five of the expanded twenty-fifth anniversary edition of one of the many books Stanley has co-authored with Bishop Will Willimon. That would of course be their best seller Resident Aliens, which I just happen to be teaching this fall in an adult Sunday School class at church. There the authors assert that theirs is an “elitist” approach to the Christian life, one based unapologetically on the Christian narrative, the liturgical practices of the church, and especially the imitation of the saints, by whom they seem to mean those exemplary members of our communities from whom we learn the Christian life by “looking over their shoulder,” in a manner analogous to the way an apprentice learns from his or her master.
There’s no lack of mediation here; Christianity is learned by slow, deliberate, painstaking work that begins by seeing it embodied and enacted. As Paul puts the matter in another of his letters, “keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:9, emphasis mine).
In light of all this talk about embodiment and imitation and masters and apprentices, Jesus’s words in the gospel text, spoken to his disciples and others, are more than a little tinged with irony. The teaching of the scribes and Pharisees should be attended to, he tells his followers, and even obeyed, for they “sit on Moses’ seat,” and speak with the authority of those who have spent long hours studying and working to understand Torah, which retains its authority even as the reign of God irrupts into history (Matt. 5:17-20).
But don’t you dare, he goes on, look to them as examples of how to obey the Law of Moses, “for they do not practice what they teach.” For the scribes and the Pharisees, the law had become an end unto itself, rather than a gift from God, given to orient Israel’s life together toward the One who had liberated them from slavery (Exodus 20:2 and ff.; Deut. 5:6 and ff.).
Reduced by its official teachers to empty ceremony, rather than formative practice, and a seemingly endless list of largely meaningless dos and don’ts that had long since ceased to have anything to do with justice, mercy, and faith (Matt. 22:23), the law had become both a burden to those who strove to obey it and a means by which its expert teachers could use their authority to their own social advantage.
Yet in averring this “do as they say, not as they do” strategy, Jesus is hardly leaving his followers alone with the scripture, suggesting that each person become his or her own moral example. Rather, he is implying that those listening should heed the call of the one who again and again says “follow me,” whose life represents to the world not the abolishment, but the perfect fulfillment of both law and prophecy (Matt. 5:17), the one whose life we come to know, not simply by reading about it, but by attaching ourselves to those everyday saints in each of our congregations who have lived it. It is through their lives that we may learn truly to love God and our neighbor.
Thank God for such women and men.