Do As I Say

Jesus wants us to do as he says, and as he does... A sermon for Proper 19b.

Proper 19b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes.

John Selden, a wise and witty 17th-century English lawyer, is the originator — or at least the recorder — of the saying, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Many a parent or teacher has used this line as an excuse, when their children or pupils point out that the teacher has failed to follow their own teaching. It is an easy loophole to slip through, and Selden the lawyer noticed how poor an excuse it is for any teacher worth his or her salt. As Selden noted, while it might be common for a teacher or a preacher to fall back on this cop-out, saying, Do as I say, not as I do; what, asked Selden, “if the Physician had the same Disease upon him that I have, and he should bid me do one thing, and he do quite another — could I believe him?” No, when life and limb are at stake you want to make sure that the advice you follow is also followed by the one who gives it! Who, after all, would trust an obese doctor to give advice on weight loss, or a doctor who smoked like a chimney who advised against smoking?

Saint James, in the passage from his epistle we heard this morning, seems to offer a similar point: teachers need to be on their guard, knowing that they will be judged with great strictness should they make an error — as anyone is bound to do from time to time. “Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect,” James assures us, and we all know that nobody’s perfect! The best thing to do when caught in an error or a misstatement is to admit the fault, accept correction, and move on — without resorting to excuses or evasions like, “Do as I say, not as I do.”

James knew the wisdom of setting the record straight and accepting his own imperfections, not excusing them, but disciplining his sloppy and fallible tongue. Not an easy task, he goes on to say. If the tongue of even the wisest teacher may slip and speak in error, how much worse the wagging and wicked tongues of gossip and cursing. Better to keep silent, it might be wise to say.

Which, indeed, Jesus says to his disciples concerning his identity — picking up on the theme from last week’s gospel. Whether Jesus really did want the disciples to keep his identity secret, or this was just his way of setting their wagging tongues alight to spread the word, each of us must grasp as best able to do. I noted last week that the idea that Jesus really wanted to keep his identity secret seems not to be in keeping with his continued and open proclamation — as our gospel reminds us today, “he said all this quite openly” — so if he really meant to keep his identity secret — like a first-century Batman or Superman — he does not seem to have followed his own advice to the disciples not to tell anyone who he was, and why he came.

The Gospel shows us Jesus is not shy of speaking out — preaching from the mountainside and on the plain, from the shores of Galilee to the very courts of the Temple. And what is more, he not only preaches — he acts. To paraphrase the Epistle of James we heard last week, he is not a speaker of the word only, but most definitely a doer.

And so Jesus closes this passage today with a good example of the opposite of John Selden’s saying: Do as I say, and as I do. Any who want to be his followers must do as he has done, denying themselves and taking up their cross to follow him. Now, that may seem obvious — how can you be a follower if you don’t follow? But as with those who say one thing and do another, surely we know that the church is not lacking in folks who swear they love the Lord, but do nothing to serve him when they come across him in the form of those who are poor, or hungry, or sick or bereft. Those who are ashamed of him — sometimes in the form of the poor and the stranger, of whom he said, “as you have done to them, so you have done to me” — surely those ashamed of him will find him to be ashamed of them when he comes in unmistakable glory at the end of the age. And so he warns us in advance, to do as he has done.

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So, in this meantime, before his coming again in glory, what is the best course for us, in the midst of this adulterous and sinful generation? How do we best do, not just as Jesus says to do, but to do as he has done? Each of us must answer this as best we can, for no one knows another’s strengths or weaknesses so well as we each do our own. I get a sense of this in James’ epistle — is this in part a confession not only of his failings in speaking, not just in slips of the tongue, but in the wagging of it? Does he speak from experience as one who found it hard to keep his tongue from speaking ill, from spreading tales, and tittle-tattle? Is he preaching to himself as much as to those to whom he wrote? Perhaps, much like Saint Paul, the cross James bore in life was his knowledge of his own weaknesses — and this is in part his way of speaking from experience to his church of the faults he knows only too well.

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In the same way, each of us is called to the knowledge both of our own weaknesses, our own failings, but also to the knowledge of the one in whom we put our trust, the one who will save us precisely because we cannot save ourselves. Those intent on saving themselves are the ones who lose — for none, imperfect as the best of us is, can save themselves. It is those who fix their eyes on the great Teacher — the Teacher who does not just give a speech, but acts; who not only says, but does — perfectly. He it is who saves us because we cannot save ourselves. If we are to follow him, let us do so not in word only, but in deed, framing our lives as best we can to his example: he has given us the cross as a template, as a shape to form ourselves into, to follow him; as generous, loving people who give of themselves to help others. Let us be like him, and countless others, those saints who have followed him in faith, who are not ashamed to sit with the lowly, or to welcome the stranger, to visit the sick and those in prison — in short, to take up our cross each day of our lives, that at the end of those lives, we may be blessed to hear, Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into your master’s joy.+