By the Rev. Elisabeth Hartwell
RCL Reflection, Proper 26 Year A
November 5, 2023
Note: If you are preaching for All Saints Sunday, check out the links below to previous reflections.
Jesus taught, “Therefore, do whatever the scribes and Pharisees teach you and follow it, but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” -Matthew 23:3
Dear fellow preachers, as Jesus calls out the religious authorities of his day, he invokes the dreaded “h” word: hypocrisy. Jesus addresses the people and his disciples, admonishing them not to be like the scribes and the Pharisees: do what they say, not what they do (23:3). This is not the first time in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus speaks out against hypocrites. Especially in Chapter 6, Jesus warns against practicing righteousness simply for the sake of appearances. He is very clear: do not say one thing and then do another, and do not act righteously for the wrong reasons. God should be the only audience we are trying to impress by speaking and acting in accordance with God’s will.
How do we effectively deliver sermons that mirror Jesus’s intensity and forthrightness when it comes to hypocrisy? It seems a relatively simple matter to warn against being a hypocrite, and it is a valuable reminder as we each endeavor to live our faith with integrity. At the same time, I think the natural inclination of many in our congregations (and perhaps also our own) is to point to someone else’s hypocrisy without fessing up to our own. How can a sermon strip down our congregants’ defenses, so that it becomes possible for them to humbly acknowledge their hypocrisy? Several things come to mind:
An effective sermon on hypocrisy will depend on the strength of your relationship with your congregation. Jesus criticizes the scribes and the Pharisees for placing heavy burdens on others, but not helping to carry the load. In preaching about hypocrisy, we must avoid doing this same thing. Examine how you, yourself, help to carry (or have fallen short of carrying) your congregants’ burdens. Have you built with your congregation the trust that is necessary to encourage them to examine their hypocrisy? Do they feel your nonjudgmental support of their faith and their lives?
I almost cringe to suggest this, because it is definitely not easy, but preaching with integrity about hypocrisy involves a willingness to speak about our own pretentiousness and use ourselves as examples. This cannot be a sermon primarily about how someone else has fallen short in matters of faith: to preach with integrity, we must come face-to-face with our own shortcomings.
Invite your congregants to dig deep and examine their motivations for why they say what they say and do what they do. Are they seeking public approval and trying to win points with others? This seems to be our natural human inclination, and we should admit that it is very difficult to act righteously and justly simply for the “right” reasons. We are naturally social creatures: we want others to like us and approve of what we are doing. But can we go deeper so God becomes our intended audience for living and acting virtuously?
Facing our own hypocrisy is painful and embarrassing, and our sermons must emphasize God’s mercy and capacity to forgive as much as they emphasize how we have all fallen short. If we are to have courage to put away our masks and be real, we need to be able to rely on God’s grace.
My fellow preachers, it is very timely to preach about hypocrisy. After all, among other things we live in a deeply divided, troubled nation. How will we ever be able to move closer toward one another with forgiveness and mutual forbearance? As painful as it may be, a first step is to examine our own hypocrisy. Jesus summons we who are his followers to let our light shine before others. A primary way we can do this is to work for reconciliation. And reconciliation begins with self-examination and repentance.
Do your best to keep the mood of the worship service light and uplifting. You will be asking your congregation to do some serious, difficult self-examination. They need support to do this, and so the tone of the worship service should be comforting and reassuring. Also, when you consider the illustrations you will use in your sermon, it might be wise to avoid pointing to any one public figure (religious or political) as a hypocrite. If the overall intention is to encourage our congregants to examine their own hypocrisy, it is not necessarily helpful to “give them an out” by turning someone else into a scapegoat for hypocrisy.
Worship with Youth
Encourage youth to reflect on a disagreement they have had recently with someone. They do not necessarily need to do this out loud: maybe it is best to encourage them to write about it instead. As you ask them to reflect on what happened, encourage them to examine what the disagreement was about and what the other person did, and also to examine their own part in the disagreement and what they may have done (or not done) to contribute to it. Remind them that it is not always easy to admit when we have fallen short, but that it is important to admit our own faults.
Worship with Children
Talk with children about the need to ask God for forgiveness. On a dry erase board, list some of the things you have done that were mistakes (basic things: do not go too deep). Once you have a few things listed, talk about how God forgives us for our mistakes and then wipe the board clean. But then, emphasize also how, for God to wipe away our mistakes, we must first ask for forgiveness. It is okay to admit that we have made mistakes, and indeed it is important, because when we do God can forgive us and show us love.
Here are previous reflections for All Saints Sunday/Proper 26, Year A:
2020 – And that is what we are (All Saints)
2017 – For all the everyday saints and sinners (All Saints & Proper 26)
2014 – A day for hope and rejoicing (All Saints)
2011 – In the company of saints (All Saints)