by Ellen Sims
text: Matthew 23: 1-12
“1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3. therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
There are some things I still appreciate about my Southern Baptist background. When I was a child, we addressed our pastors (always male pastors, unfortunately) as “Brother” followed by their first names: “Brother Don,” for instance. Other denominations used “Father” or “Reverend” followed by the man’s last name, to signal his role and authority. But back then Baptists still emphasized their common standing before God and one another. Even when I was a child, my pastor, although greatly respected, was considered at some deep level my brother.
By the time I entered adulthood, many Baptist ministers and televangelists began declaring themselves to be “Dr. So-and-So”, although most lacked an advanced degree from an accredited (Association of Theological Schools) seminary or theological school. Some of these ministers also began receiving exorbitant salaries that surely made Jesus want to scream. Early Baptists and others coming out of the “free church” movement would have condemned such shenanigans and would have cited today’s Gospel reading. In fact, Matthew’s Gospel in general supports a nonhierarchical church.
Egalitarian feminist pastors often struggle with the use of titles, advocating for equality for all within the Church and beyond, which includes equal opportunities to serve the church regardless of race, gender, or sexuality. So even though titles are not important to me, in formal settings when men are being introduced as “Reverend” or “Father,” I expect to be addressed by my title, too. The failure to recognize my equality happens less often these days, but I still occasionally speak at an event at which a male minister is presented as “Reverend” while I am introduced as “Miss” or “Mrs.” Sims. I politely correct that error because it’s an issue of justice for all women, not because I think I am special. I appreciate that among you, most Open Table participants call me, at my request, by my first name, although some of you address me as “Pastor,” which is to me the tenderest of the titles for ordained ministers.
And today’s Gospel lection reminds me of the bedrock Gospel truth found earlier in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount: The kin*dom of God inverts hierarchy so that the first become last and the last first. Jesus specifically blessed “the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek . . . the persecuted” (Mt. 5:3-10). Therefore, the kin*dom of God insists that the greatest in the kin*dom are the humble ones, and that those whom the world mocks, humiliates, deprives, and takes advantage of will be honored.
Of course, if each of us honors one another, no one has to fight for respect. If we become so focused on caring for others, we will develop a kind of self-forgetting. Being attentive to others’ hurts and happiness keeps us aware of the interconnectedness of our lives so that we don’t have time to dwell on insignificant or unintended slights; we don’t stew in our own disappointments. That’s not to say we ignore our own needs, but we don’t easily take offense and we can forgive easily and love deeply.
But that’s not what the leaders in the kingdom of this world model. We’ve lately seen braggarts and bullies being admired and emulated and empowered. We’ve seen so-called public “servants” behaving without any sympathy for the weak and without accountability to the public. But like the people Jesus ministered to, we can take heart that God loves and honors the honest and humble ones, while the proud and boastful will eventually be brought low. Many American political leaders like to refer to themselves as “public servants”—but few really serve the public that humbly; few put the needs of the “least of these” first. And lately we’ve heard very few at the pinnacle of American political power even acknowledging themselves as “public servants.”
Since the lectionary has assigned this text to us on All Saints Sunday, let’s consider the connection between Jesus’s lesson on humility and the Church’s celebration of all the saints on this day. Genuine humility is a virtue of the saints who don’t have to pose in front of a church with a Bible held awkwardly in one hand. Perhaps we honor best the lives of the saints when we, too, live humbly. How rare it has been in this election season to hear, from either political party, sincere humility. I suppose people can’t run for public office without proclaiming their own excellence. But what lives on after we’re gone from this earth is not the hype and the promises. It’s the relationships and the daily actions. It’s love’s lowly duties. It’s what one poet called “love’s lonely offices.”
“Those Winter Sundays”by Robert Hayden
Robert Hayden – 1913-1980
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
All Saints’ Sunday is a time for us to pause and consider that most of the saints who’ve walked this earth have performed love’s duties unobserved by reporters, unrecorded by cameras. And all the saints have been flawed. Yet today we honor the light they have shined into this world–even if that light emanated from a simple fire made to warm a child in a cold house.
Matthew’s Gospel helps us imagine the way Jesus spoke in his day to everyday people being oppressed by the injustice of the Roman occupiers. Coinciding as they do this year just days before the 2020 presidential election, All Saints Sunday and today’s Gospel reading remind me that the state of this world is NOT God’s ultimate intention for us. We are to take heart that God will have the final word, which will be a word of justice and loving kindness. The politics of might and majesty do not reflect the Jesus Way. Authorities who gain power in order to gain more power will be exposed. Governments that fail to serve the lowly will not last. Those who lie to the gullible and fearful may prosper for awhile, but the evil they do will eventually be recognized and repudiated. What is happening in this moment, on this day, in this election cycle is important. But the saints of all the ages attest to God’s continuing grace and trust that Jesus’s Way will one day hold sway.
So believe the saints, both dead and living: humble acts of love will save us. And as we light our little fires, love grows, warming more hearts and lighting up more truth.
Last night George and I watched the charming Pixar animated movie Coco with our granddaughter and her parents, an apt choice in anticipation of Halloween and All Saints Sunday. For the first time I truly appreciated the Mexican celebration of El Dia de Los Muertos, “The Day of the Dead,” which previously had seemed macabre and gruesome to me. But through that children’s musical I sensed how another culture understands that one’s ancestors remain with them, guiding them, even celebrating with them. It reminded me, too, of the Celtic concept of “thin places” where this physical world and another world beyond are closely connected. As I watched the movie with little Molly, I felt more than understood how closely Life walks beside Death, that my life will continue in some way beyond this physical world, and in some sense a part of me will remain with her.
When the New Testament book of Hebrews speaks of the “great cloud of witnesses” that cheer us on in “the [spiritual] race that is set before us (Hebrews 12:1), it, too, rightly reminds us that we are connected not only to those whom we know in this life but also to those have gone before and those who follow after us.
What a privilege to have served these years with you–you imperfect saints in an imperfect world who sometimes don’t get it right but often love so purely that you forget yourself in your quest to care for another. You put aside your pride, you relinquish your need for recognition or thanks. Your love is so focused on serving another that you start shining, gleaming, radiating God’s love. I see you. I know you care deeply for lgbtq teens. I know you love your spouse who, like you, is imperfect but you forgive one another and learn and do better for each other. I see you. You’ve confided in me. So I see you with halos askew, but they’re shining brightly nevertheless. You are ordinary saints humbly doing extraordinary acts of love.
The work of many humble and mostly unknown saints has preceded us and will follow us. In some way no one fully fathoms, God’s love is woven together in this enduring procession. It’s the small acts of love that live on. It’s the humble souls who light the way.