Sermon - Ordinary 31 Year A

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Learning from unworthy teachers

[Note: As usual, this is the written version of the sermon, that was prepared for collection by members of the congregation who wished to study the subject further. Relevant to All Saints Day in the universal church, but not specifically focussed upon this day, it was prepared in 1996 at a time of anxiety in the Uniting Church nationally when the standards of sexual behaviour expected of candidates for ordination was under discussion. It remains relevant, but times have changed. In Australia as in many other countries there has been much attention in the media to immoral behaviour by priests and other people responsible especially for the care of children, although not particularly in the Uniting Church in Australia. It raises general questions about the moral authority of what church leaders say and how much their word in general can be trusted. In reviewing this sermon for preaching now, I am keeping the main emphasis in the Gospel reading for today on the validity of the teaching that has been received from authoritative sources, although the application in people's minds will necessarily be different [DB 1 Nov 2014]. What is written is longer and somewhat more complex than was actually preached. There are sections which should probably be omitted in other situations. Circumstances and my attitudes also have changed in some respects, but the basic message remains the same [DB Oct. 08]. Resources for All Saints may be found in Forward with the saints and Bringing an outsider into the family: Membership in the Communion of Saints.]

Who do you listen to when you want to learn something of spiritual value or something of faith? Or do you not listen to anyone: do you trust your own knowledge and opinions more than those of anyone else. Or do you say, 'One learns from experience'. Or do you learn from what people do rather than what they say?

The gospel reading for today is about listening to unworthy teachers. Can you learn from people who are not good examples of what they teach? There has been much shame attached to churches in recent times when abuse of children in church institutions and in parish life has come to light. Sexual abuse of children is one example of a wider concern. In Australia we are hearing about this abuse constantly in evidence before the Royal Commission the Federal Government established last year (2013). Although there has not been much attention to our own Uniting Church, churches in general have been damaged by it. But we should not be concerned primarily with image, popularity and public support. The truth matters, and the important question raised by the gospel reading for today is how much the message is compromised by the faults of the messenger, and, for us, in our circumstances today, the behaviour of the institution in which the teacher serves.

Do what they say, not what they do! It sounds strange doesn't it for teachers of faith and morals: if they were not good examples how could people believe what they teach? Jesus was very critical of the teachers of Israel for their hypocrisy, as in this reading and on other occasions:

Words and examples of behaviour

The hypocrisy of teachers and leaders does do damage: it is a barrier; it can lock people out of the Kingdom. It is an extremely serious matter to stand in the way of anyone's spiritual development, by word or example to be a stumbling block to another's (a "little one's") faith.

("Little ones" means followers of Jesus, whom he called "children".)

It is obviously much easier to believe a teacher who provides a good example of what they teach, and because of this teachers have a serious obligation not to contradict what they say by what they do. Every school teacher knows that children will be learning from their attitudes and the way they interact with others as much as from the formal content of the curriculum. Parents are perhaps even more aware of it. And as for teachers, elders and ministers in the church, it is enough to make one shrink from the responsibility: as we read in the letter of James:-

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. -- James 3:1

The authority of sound teaching

Yet in spite of their bad example Jesus told the crowds they should follow what the scribes and Pharisees taught. He counselled the people to do what teachers of Israel said, not what they did. Why did their teaching still have authority; why was it still valid? The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it [Matt 23:2-3a]. They should still be followed because they followed Moses; that is, they presented the word of God from the law of Moses.

This is not the only place where Jesus pointed to Jewish tradition as an authoritative guide in spite of the human and spiritual weaknesses of the bearers of the tradition. [Matt 5:17-20; John 4:22]. It is an emphasis that is particularly strong in the Gospel according to Matthew and less strong elsewhere in the New Testament. Indeed the extent to which this emphasis should have been maintained was a matter of great controversy in the early church, as evident in the so-called council of Jerusalem [Acts 15] and some of the strong things Paul said about Peter (or Cephas, as he was called there) in his letter to the Galatians [Gal. 2:11-14]. Yet it remained true that the Jewish scriptures retained authority for the followers of Jesus who constantly referred to them, just as Jesus often did in his teaching. In the early church it became important to guard against false teaching and people looked to the apostles and the Jewish scriptures for guidance.

There was a big problem in the early church concerning authority. Whose teaching should be followed? There were many false teachers. How were people to know whose word to trust. There appear to have been several criteria. The character of the teacher was one consideration, but in the early days the most important was to trust the apostles because they had actually been with Jesus and could witness to him. As time passed, or in distant places, they were not always present. So written records became more imortant, and the truth of any teaching could be assessed by reference to scripture.

So we read from the later New Testament period what was received as the advice of Paul to Timothy:

There was room for interpretation of those sacred writings. They could be understood in different ways, but they were not abandoned. Jesus was critical indeed of the minute and perplexing interpretation of the law of Moses by the Pharisees which was a burden to the people. This was another way, in addition to their hypocrisy, in which they shut people out the kingdom. Nevertheless their basic teaching about God was sound and Jesus taught much the same as the Pharisees. The teaching of Jesus about the Kingdom of God was continuous with the law and the prophets. So even the hypocritical teachers of Israel should be listened to -- Their teaching should be followed in so far as they truly taught 'from the seat' or with the backing and authority of Moses, who taught what God required of the people of Israel as their side of the covenant God had made with them.

Much the same applied to the disciples of Jesus, and especially the apostles although even they might sometimes be called hypocrites [eg. Gal. 2:13]. That Paul was able to accuse Peter of hypocrisy when he was reluctant to eat with gentile Christians, did not mean that he was not still a most valuable witness to what Jesus had taught and what he had done. The whole truth of the gospel, the foundation of what they believed, depended upon the reliability of the apostolic witnesses in spite of all their faults.

Trusting teachers of the gospel

What are the implications for us? We hope it is still true today that people can hear the Word of God in the teaching of Church in spite of the sinfulness of the teachers. A good deal of publicity has been given to the moral corruption of some clergy. For example, there have been well publicised cases of adultery and the abuse of children by priests, and financial and sexual exploitation of believers and others by some well known evangelists. I point here to other traditions than our own for they have received greater publicity, but as I know from my responsibilities of oversight in Presbyteries and Synod, our ministers are not without fault and we have had to discipline some of them. The public image of the church is not good. It has become so much a part of the popular media that it almost seems that it is mandatory in present day drama to represent any clergyman who appears in the story as a self serving hypocrite. It is unjust; but it is no wonder that people outside the church, who nowadays know very little of what we are actually like, tend to view us with suspicion. In spite of that we still maintain that the truth of what is taught does not upon the character of the teacher. If it were not so, and if people did not have the good sense of make allowances for human frailty and still discern the truth, then it would be an intolerable burden and a hopeless task to attempt to teach the good news.

Nor are these principles limited to the ministry and witness of those in ordained ministries or official teaching positions. Parents and grandparents have a significant influence and we can all hope that what people learn from us will be in spite of any poor example they might find in us. Even if it is only as friends and colleagues, others still learn from us, and we are all dependent on the grace of God. But there is a false doctrine of cheap grace taht is used to justify licentiousness, as if we could do what we like because God is gracious enough to forgive us and include everyone in the Kingdom regardless of what we do or whether we repent. You cannot put God to the test like that. We can still hope that the good news of Jesus Christ will still be discerned in spite of poor examples among those who witness to him.

The same applies to the celebration of the sacraments. The church has always held that the validity of a sacrament does not depend on the goodness of those who celebrate, and especially not on the righteousness of the one who presides. We still hold to that, but I don't hear much talk of it there days. The teaching and the sacraments remain valid if they are soundly based on scripture and tradition. In any case it all depends on the grace of God, and one of the means by which we receive the grace of God is through what he has provided for us in scripture and in the tradition and fellowship of the church. In that sense people do still sit in the sear of Moses, and should be listenned to for that reason.

At the same time it is important to acknowledge the need for good examples, otherwise we would be like the hypocrites who Jesus criticised, running the risk of shutting poeple out of the Kingdom. The church discovered in the very early days that it should seek pastoral leaders who were good examples, who were people of good reputation in the community: eg in the pastoral advice of 1 Timothy:-

For these things to have been written, we must assume that there were some unworthy leaders in the early days just as there have been since. The text from Timothy I quoted before is evidence of that, and there was much more. It created obstacles to belief, but it did not render the whole enterprise invalid.

The need to be prepared to learn and grow in spite of difficulty

Why am I telling you this? It is not because I fear some revelation of scandal in the church in the near future that touches us right here -- though one never knows. And it is not because I am especially conscious of my own unworthiness, although at times I might be. No, its not a matter of excuse for us poor clergy that church members should be prepared to discern the truth in the teaching of unworthy teachers. My fear is rather that we are going through a breakdown of authority and trust in the church and that the faith must be preserved through times of difficulty. I sometimes find myself recalling the song from the film "The Posidon Advenure" - "There's got to be a morning after".

Much of the unrest in the church in recent years has been focussed in the desirabilbity of change and the fear of change. We do need to be prepared for change, and judging the value of any teaching we hear can be coloured by our attitudes to change. We know that not all change in good, but we dare not reject something just because it is challenging to what we have always believed. This too was in the minds of those who listened to Jesus when they heard him say many things they had not expected but still he advised them to listen to those who spoke in the tradition Moses and do what they said.

A little parable of change for life or death

If you go for a walk in the forest you will see evidence of change all around you. Now in Springtime [southern] especially, you will see new shoots appearing, seedlings coming up and young plants growing and struggling for a place in the sun: all of that is one kind of change, the kind that make for life. But there are also other kinds of change in the natural world of the forest. Besides growth and development in many forms of life, you will see trees fallen over, rotting logs and sticks on the floor of the forest, and if you look closely there will be myriads of insects, worms and other organisms aiding the breakdown of organic matter that is being returned to the soil. These signs of corruption are the changes associated with death. Both kinds of change are necessary parts of the natural order of this created world. It is like that in the church today. The next time someone exhorts you to be ready to change, ask yourself what kind of change you are being asked to make: is it a change to do with life or with death. Is it a way of growth and development into the light, or is it a change of decay, disintegration and death. Modern doctrines of progress do not always make this distinction clear. Much as it may be unpopular ever to say 'No', it is necessary to discriminate between changes that make for life and those that make for death.

Seeking the truth from unworthy teachers

What do you do if you think you see the signs of death where you had expected to learn the way life? I believe you can still learn the way of life in spite of the corruption. That is the message I would bring you from the gospel for today, in our present circumstances of lack of trust in the church. It requires a peculiar kind of loyalty to which you remain loyal for the sake of the gospel, rather than for the sake of an institution you fear may be corrupt. You need then to be able to discern the truth in the midst of falsehood. As Paul said of the mixed bag of teachers in the young churches he had founded:

Jesus prepared people to exercise a degree of skepticism in regard to their teachers when he told the disciples they should not claim titles indicating special authority.

Adding, to the crowds and all his followers,

So you need to be discerning and not believe everything anyone says simply because of who they are, and that applies also, of course, to what I am telling you now.

At the same time Paul, who was careful to tell people to test everything, and especially to look to scripture, was not ashamed in spite of his own sense of unworthiness, in the same letter, to call attention to his own life and how he had cared for them like a father.

May you also receive God's word in spite of the unworthiness of the messenger and learn from the saints in spite of their faults.

One final word. Do not imagine that you can solve our problems by wandering around looking for better teachers. Of course, there might be some better than those where you happen to be, no doubt there are, but consumer religion is an abomination. Generally, people will not find the truth by seeking their own personal satisfaction. Finding a better church will be an option that many will consider. Denominationalism is not the way either, and neither is the individual style of preachers and congregations. The truth will not be found by increasing division in the body of Christ. Faith and unity are very closely related and we must struggle to preserve the commitment made at the time of union to the "faith and unity of the one holy catholic and apostolic church".

In times of uncertainty there is a temptation to submit to authoritarian teaching from someone has no doubt that some simple theory can guide the interpretation of scripture or who claims some special insight into the will of God. No simple minded fundamentalism nor loyalty to any limited tradition will solve the problem of unfaithfulness in the universal church. It is a sickness we must struggle with and hope that God will in time overcome. Meanwhile, "we have our treasures in earthen vessels" and must be prepared to discern the truth and celebrate the holy mysteries as best we are able. The future of any branch of the church may well depend upon the good sense and faithfulness of ordinary believers who do not make themselves captives of anyone who claims to know it all.

In spite of all the difficulties faced by believers from time to time, the Christian word has always been a word of hope, because it is not in ourselves that we trust, but in God. So I leave you will a word from The Celtic Tradition for All Saints Day, encouraging you to think of how we belong to a much wider fellowship extending across all traditions, different cultures, around the world and throughout the ages, in this world and the next:

Bright, bright
The fellowship of saints in light,
Far, far beyond all earthly sight.
No plague can blight, no foe destroy.
United here they live in love:
O then, above how deep their joy.

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