Matthew 23:1-12

Easy as 1-2-3

By Dr. Philip W. McLarty

In keeping with the spirit of All Saints’ Sunday, I’d like to ask two questions: What’s a saint?  And how can we become a little more saint-like ourselves?  Since we’ve got a full service this morning – paying tribute to those who have died in the faith this past year and celebrating the Sacrament of Holy Communion, I’ll be brief.

So, what’s a saint?  In the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, saints are those who have passed the ecclesiastical tests of canonization, which requires, among other things, that you first be dead.

I’m not making this up.  No matter how pure and holy you may be in this life, you can’t be considered for sainthood until years after you’re dead and buried.  Mother Teresa, for example, may be a revered figure, but she’s not a saint; at least, not yet.

We take a different view in the Reformed Faith.  We go back to the practice of the early church and think of saints as all those who have been baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.  This is what Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Ephesians,

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus through the will of God,
to the saints who are at Ephesus…” (Ephesians 1:1)

As far as we’re concerned, saints are ordinary people who’ve been washed in the blood of Jesus Christ.  That is to say their sins are forgiven by the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  They’re justified by grace through faith, and that means, in the words of one of my dear elders, “We’re counted as righteous, even though we’re not.”

The Good News is, by God’s grace, we are saints.  The bad news is we don’t always act like it!  And that’s what I’d like for us to think about in the sermon this morning: How can we become more saint-like?  What I hope to make clear is that it can be as easy as 1-2-3.

Step One: Practice what you preach.  Jesus warned the people,

“The scribes and the Pharisees sat on Moses’ seat.
All things therefore whatever they tell you to observe,
observe and do, but don’t do their works;
for they say, and don’t do.”
(Matthew 23:2-3)

The scribes and Pharisees were legalists.  They could cite every nuance of the law telling you what to do and what not to do.  But they were just as guilty as everybody else when it came to keeping the law.  Jesus didn’t question their authority, only their integrity: “Listen to what they say, but don’t follow their example because they don’t practice what they preach.”

We all know that actions speak louder than words.  This is why, in the Letter of James, we’re told to “be doers of the word, and not only hearers.” (James 1:22)

A popular saying puts it this way: “You have to walk the walk if you’re going to talk the talk.”  In other words, don’t tell me, “Do as I say, not as I do.”  If you’re not willing to do it yourself, I’m not listening.

Practice what you preach.  I like the way St. Francis put it.  He said, “Preach always; if necessary, use words.”  Edgar Guest expressed this notion in a poem entitled, “Sermons We See.”  It begins like this:

“I’d rather see a sermon
than hear one any day;

I’d rather one should walk with me
than merely tell the way.

The eye’s a better pupil
and more willing than the ear,

Fine counsel is confusing,
but example’s always clear;

And the best of all the preachers
are the men who live their creeds,

For to see good put in action
is what everybody needs.”

Practice what you preach.  That’s the first step.  And the second step is: Don’t call attention to yourself.  This was Jesus’ complaint of the scribes and Pharisees.  He said, “Everything they do is done for men to see.”  That’s just the opposite of what he taught his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount.  He said,

“Therefore when you do merciful deeds,
don’t sound a trumpet before yourself…
don’t let your left hand know what your right hand does…
when you pray, enter into your inner room,
and having shut your door…
when you fast, don’t be like the hypocrites, with sad faces…”

(Matthew 6:2-18)

Jesus said we’re to do all these things secretly without making a big fuss about it.  He said that, in this way, God will reward our faithfulness.

And it’s true: When you get recognition for something you’ve done, you’re given your fifteen minutes of fame, and then it’s over.  As Jesus would say, “They have received their reward.”  (Matthew 6:2)  But when you do something good without calling attention to yourself, the result is a well-deserved feeling of accomplishment that’s yours to enjoy for the rest of your life.

I don’t know of a better example than anonymous giving.  It’s a paradox: When you give anonymously, you don’t get any recognition; yet, because of that, you become the recipient of an endless debt of gratitude.

Here’s what I mean.  I was serving as Associate Pastor for a large church in Nashville, Tennessee.  One day I got a call from the store manager of a men’s clothing shop.  He asked if he could come to my office and measure me for a new suit.  “You must have the wrong person,” I said.  He said there was no mistake, that one of my members had ordered a tailor-made suit for me, and that he needed to take my measurements.  Well, you can guess the next question: “Who?”  “I’m not at liberty to say,” he said.  “The donor wishes to remain anonymous.”  He assured me it was all on the up-and-up.

Well, he took my measurements and, in a few weeks, he delivered the suit, and it was the nicest suit I’ve ever worn.  For weeks, I’d survey the congregation on Sunday morning trying to figure out who gave it me.  I came up with several possibilities.  I’d say to myself, “It’d be just like him – it’d be just like her – to do such a thing.”  I’d look for a smile or nod or some slight indication that I was right.  But it never came.  I never solved the mystery.  I never knew who to thank.

So I thanked God instead, not once, but over and over.  I still thank God, though the suit has, long since, been recycled.  But, when you think about it, that’s the point: To give anonymously is to be part of the generosity of God’s grace and love.  It’s to live without calling attention to yourself.  When you do, you find your place in the kingdom of God.

Let’s review: Step one, practice what you preach; step two, don’t call attention to yourself.  Step three, take a back seat.  This is what Jesus said of the scribes and Pharisees:

“They… love the place of honor at feasts,
the best seats in the synagogues,
the salutations in the marketplaces,
and to be called ‘Rabbi, Rabbi’ by men.”
  (Matthew 23:5-7)

One of my favorite sayings is, “many who are first will be last; and the last first.” (Mark 10:31)  It comes in handy at fellowship suppers: No, you go ahead.  I’ll bring up the rear.  Just remember:

“Many who are first will be last;
and the last first.”

All kidding aside, it’s true: Those who take a back seat, who open the door for others, who lose themselves in service of the common good experience a greater joy than those who don’t.  For one thing, they’re relieved of the stress and strain of competing for the best portions and, in so doing, they’re more likely to be content with what they have.

Be honest: When you were a kid, did you ever push and shove to be first at the water fountain after recess?  I’m ashamed to say I did.  The water fountain had a small tank and there was only so much cold water to dispense.  Once that ran out, everyone else got water straight from the tap.

So, how did the other kids feel about drinking tepid water?  I could’ve cared less.  I was only interested in quenching my own thirst.  Thankfully, I’ve grown up, at least in part.  Oh, I still think about satisfying my own appetites, but not nearly as much as I once did.  And I’m pretty sure if I were ever to be totally Christ-like, I wouldn’t be concerned about my own needs at all.

The truth is the more you take a back seat, the more the back seat becomes the front seat, because those who put others first are given a place of honor that can never be taken away.

Years ago, we raised money for the PTA by selling magazine subscriptions.  Remember that?  As incentive, prizes were awarded to those who sold the most.  I was in the seventh grade, and one of the top prizes was an X-ACTO knife set.  It had a fancy handle and several interchangeable blades for wood carving.  It was just perfect for cutting balsa wood to make model airplanes, which was one of my hobbies at the time.

I wanted that X-ACTO knife set worse than anything in the world.  So, everyday after school I’d canvass the neighborhoods walking up and down the streets knocking on doors selling magazine subscriptions.  And I was good.  I made a lot of sales, so that, when the day came to announce the winners and hand out the prizes, I figured I had a good chance of being the top salesman and getting my pick of the prizes which, of course, was that X-ACTO knife set.

Mrs. Mason was the Principal.  She had the teachers herd us into the auditorium where we sat and waited to see who won.  She praised us for doing a good job and then she called the top three salesmen to the stage.  I was one of them.  As it turned out, I came in second.  Vince Foster sold the most subscriptions, so he got first pick of the prizes.

I’ll never forget what he did.  He knew I had my eyes on that X-ACTO knife set.  So, he walked to the table and looked over all the prizes, then he picked up the X-ACTO set and looked at it.  I could have died.  He turned to me and smiled, then he put it back on the table and took another prize, leaving the X-ACTO set for me.

As long as I live, I’ll always remember his kindness and how he took a back seat for me that day.  And I can tell you this: As far as I’m concerned, he’ll always have a seat at the front of the class.

Friends, remember this: You are a saint … not because you’re good or perfect or, in any way, deserving.  You’re a saint because Christ died for you.  Your sins are washed clean by the blood of the lamb.  What God wants is for you to become more saint-like, and that’s as easy as 1-2-3:

1.  Practice what you preach.
2.  Don’t call attention to yourself.
3.  Take a back seat.

Do these things and you’ll find yourself in the company of all the saints and martyrs who have gone before you.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Copyright 2009 Philip W. McLarty.  Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.