Look out! They’re watching!

At the time our daughter Erin was about 9 years old, I had not been too long out of seminary and had accepted a call to First Presbyterian Church in Pascagoula, Mississippi. We truly were about as poor as the proverbial church mouse, and Erin had just gone through one of those childhood growth spurts that made her well-worn school jacket look like it had three-quarter-length sleeves and belonged to someone else.

Barbara and I realized that our daughter needed a new jacket and took Erin along to the store that sold them. Financially, it was a bit of a stretch to buy a new jacket, but we did it. The next day Erin left for school looking better clothed than she had in a while. We had done our parental duty, we thought. We had clothed our daughter and her older brother, Gary, in suitable attire.

That afternoon when Erin arrived home without the new jacket, a question was in order. Barbara asked Erin where her jacket was and Erin quipped something about giving it away. Startled, her mother asked, “You mean you let somebody borrow your new jacket?” Then Erin dropped her bombshell in such a way that there was no mistaking what she meant: “No. I didn’t let her borrow it. I gave it to her. There is a girl in my class who doesn’t have much, and she was cold. So, I just gave her my new jacket and told her I’d go back to wearing my old one.”

“You what!” from both her parents brought this response from our daughter: “Well, doesn’t Daddy preach that we’re to do what Jesus says? And Jesus said that if we have two coats, we’re supposed to give one to someone who doesn’t have one.”

Be careful what you preach. Your own kids might start doing it. It’s hard to argue with a 9 year old who quotes Scripture right back at you! And there I was, witnessing my daughter delivering a better sermon than I had ever done, or maybe would do.

Edgar Guest says it well:

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.

I soon can learn to do it
if you’ll let me see it done;
I can watch your hands in action,
but your tongue too fast may run.

And the lecture you deliver
may be very wise and true,
But I’d rather get my lessons
by observing what you do;

For I might misunderstand you
and the high advice you give,
But there’s no misunderstanding
how you act and how you live.

When I see a deed of kindness,
I am eager to be kind.
When a weaker brother stumbles
and a strong man stays behind

Just to see if he can help him,
then the wish grows strong in me
To become as big and thoughtful
as I know that friend to be.

And all travelers can witness
that the best of guides today
Is not the one who tells them,
but the one who shows the way.

One good man teaches many,
men believe what they behold;
One deed of kindness noticed
is worth forty that are told.

Who stands with men of honor
learns to hold his honor dear,
For right living speaks a language
which to every one is clear.

Though an able speaker charms me
with his eloquence, I say,
I’d rather see a sermon
than to hear one, any day.

Look out! You’re being watched, and the people would rather see what you preach than hear it. Sermons-to be real-must be seen as well as heard! Faith is not a belief system so much as a demonstration of what we truly do believe. It is not enough for us to define it in our pulpits; we must practice our sermon between Sundays to give it authenticity.

They called him “Brother Bryan” because he addressed everyone he met as either “Brother,” or “Sister.” His given name was James Alexander Bryan, and he was a Princeton graduate. But he didn’t let his sophisticated education get in the way of walking his talk. When he died, the citizens of Birmingham, Ala., erected a statue in his memory near Five Points. You can visit it today. He was an outspoken supporter of all things good from his pulpit at Birmingham’s Third Presbyterian Church.

While some of Birmingham’s leading preachers met at his church to define evangelism one day, Brother Brian excused himself from their meeting, took to the streets and led two homeless men to faith in Christ. Those other preachers tried to define the gospel. Brother Brian demonstrated it. He was well worth watching! In Religion in Shoes, a biography of Brother Brian’s life, Hunter Blakely recounts some of the ways that preacher lived out his message.

A sermon seen is always better than a sermon heard!

“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1).


Robert Leslie Holmes is Senior Pastor of Saxe Gotha Presbyterian Church in Lexington, SC. He may be reached at leslieholmes@saxegotha.org. His book When Good Enough Just Isn’t Good Enough (Ambassador Int’l), deals with leading your church in mission in the 21st Century.

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