November 5, 2023

"Walking the Talk”

Rev. Scott Landis

Matthew 23:1-12

I remember as a teenager getting caught up in several different fads that made their way in an out of my life rather quickly, but for a moment were of paramount importance. Whether it was a pet rock or rubics cube, slinky, Superball, a specific yo-yo, or Trivial Pursuits, the thing – whatever it was – was something I had to have and would save up all my allowance money in order to get it. 


One year it was a Surfer’s Cross necklace. I don’t know if you remember those, but all the kids my age had them and I had to get one. It was particularly stylistic to wear your Surfer’s Cross in the summer – bare-chested – so that all the girls would notice just how cool I looked regardless of my skinny swimmer’s build. I purchased my Surfer’s Cross in some t-shirt shop on the boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey for $4.95 (as I remember) – big money at the time – and I could not wait to get home and wear it to the community pool where I spent most of my time in the summer. The shiny black enamel of the cross and silver chain glistened in the sun, and I was as proud as could be. Now, mind you I didn’t surf, but I had the cross and man did I look cool. 


But a funny thing happened. Not long after I got home from the Jersey shore my handsome piece of jewelry started to turn a funny color. The shiny silver chain started to lose its luster and the cross itself tarnished as the ocean water obviously took its toll on my prized possession – and on my pride. And I learned a hard but valuable lesson. Things are not always what they first appear to be. That “spit and polish veneer” was nothing more than just that, and what was beneath the shiny exterior was worthless metal.


I bet you could recount similar stories.


Jesus certainly did as he called out the religious scholars and the Pharisees of his day. Mincing no words, he differentiated between what folks saw on the outside and what was really going on inside. They talked a good game, offered lovely prayers, and looked fabulous in their beautiful robes and embroidered prayer shawls – they loved being called Doctor and Reverend and Kahu? But be careful, he warned – there’s not much integrity in what you see. As I discovered in my prized possession – my Surfer’s Cross – looks can be deceiving. 


It is said, “the proof is in the pudding” OR “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” I suppose someone could have warned me that $4.95 was not going to get me a fine piece of jewelry that would hold up in adverse conditions. But, I doubt, I would have listened. At 13 we always think we know better. However, Jesus’ warning had much bigger implications and consequences. He invited his disciples to look carefully, listen intently, and to discern wisely by seeking the guidance of God to lead them toward leaders of integrity and not wolves in sheep’s clothing. 


He offered them a litmus test which made a great deal of sense then – and still does today. Jesus said that there are two things necessary in discerning genuine leadership – tests of those who are in authority and seek to teach and guide others. The true marks of religious leadership are demonstrated in servanthood and the comfort and contentment one exhibits in being oneself. It’s as simple as that – and yet it is amazing how many leaders do not exhibit that level of authenticity. 


So much of what we see today – in both secular and religious realms in leadership – is hypocrisy and not authenticity. It is a shame, but we must be wary of leadership in all forms because what we see and hear may not borne out in what we get. The correlation between what is said and what is done is often missing – and that must be named and called out in our leaders particularly if they purport to be exemplars of the faith. 


But the same can be said for followers as well. We often hear harsh words from those outside the church critical of those of us who are regular participants — we for whom the church is of paramount importance. Unfortunately, the criticism is not unfounded. There is a great deal of hypocrisy within the broader Christian church, and we must do whatever we can to recognize when that occurs and work to change and correct and demonstrate integrity. Or to heed Jesus’ words –  we need to be servants. 


A couple of months ago – shortly after the Maui wildfires – I noticed a couple walking our church grounds – a practice that occurs all the time. We began to chat, and soon they offered an all too familiar story – of how they lost everything in the fire, that they were moving from place to place, and trying to figure out “what next?” They simply wanted to be here, on sacred ground to feel the peace, the mana of what we have all experienced.


  At one point in our conversation, one of them interrupted the flow of thought and asked me, “are you the caretaker here?” which took me aback. I know I was dressed rather casually but didn’t they realize I was the Kahu? I quickly responded, “Oh no, I’m the pastor,” and then went on to tell them my story of my 18-month interim tenure turning into 4 years blah, blah, blah. Eventually the conversation returned to them and their story but I felt unsettled. Did I look like the caretaker?


When I recounted this experience to a ministerial colleague later, she reminded me stating, “But Scott, isn’t that what we are - caretakers?” Whew, I really need to hear that. I had forgotten. As Kahu or pastor that’s exactly what I am.  I am a shepherd, a caretaker, … a servant. 


It’s why we wear these stoles – and especially when we “serve” communion. They are not worn to make a fashion statement. They represent the towel Jesus used to dry his disciples’ feet after he washed them. In short, they remind us that we are yolked for service — caretakers – servants – and we are challenged to walk the talk of our faith. Mimicking as best we can the life of our Shepherd - Jesus our Savior. 


In a few moments we will all recite in unison the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith. For years it’s been a part of our communion liturgy. A line from that statement says, “We are called into Christ’s church – to accept the costs and joys of discipleship. To be God’s servants in the service of the others.” I invite you today, to pay close attention to those words. Let’s think about how we might embody them in our daily lives.  How is God calling YOU to walk the talk?  How is God calling you … to serve?



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