Sunday, November 2, 2014

I Thessalonians 2:9-13

You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10 You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. 11 As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, 12 urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.13 We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.

Matthew 23: 1-12

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4They 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. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

I’m going to preach a sermon. And then I’m going to unpreach that sermon.  I’m sincere about both the sermon and the unsermon.

Here’s the sermon:

If you like your saints on pedestals, carved from marble, chiseled into perfection, larger than life and towering like religious Super Heroes over the little folks, then you’ll be disappointed in the best of them: Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Francis of Assisi, even (especially?) Saint Paul. Did you hear how boastful Saint Paul sounds boastful in today’s Epistle Reading–bragging of his “pure, upright, and blameless . . . conduct” (I Thessalonians 2:10)?  He is not always an-easy-to-love saint.  But his point is actually about humility, equality, and service. He believes shining the light of Christ into this world requires humility. In fact, Paul elsewhere addresses the entire church of Ephesis as “saints” (Eph. 1:1), so he’d surely have rejected “saint” as his title. I think we can assume you and I can be on a first name basis with Paul from here on.

Like Jesus, Paul was a spiritual leader in the honor-based 1st century Mediterranean culture.  The honor/shame codes of that world were very different from our own 21st century Western ways of measuring someone’s social status. In Paul’s culture a different psychology, based on family and group identity, was operating, and a different understanding of the primacy of honor and how it’s attained and maintained shaped all relationships.  Jesus and Paul were not simply telling their followers: “Don’t think too highly of yourselves.”

One factor of the 1st Century culture is that honor and shame were embedded in one’s social group. Paul, in imitation of Jesus, was creating new social groups that defied the strongest of Mediterranean bonds of family and religion.* Paul called on his “sisters and brothers” to live as equals in a community in which the leader works hard to avoid burdening the followers—a system at odds with the hierarchical Roman empire.

Jesus had likewise preached about the kingdom of God that could turn his culture’s values upside down. Jesus insisted that God’s ways can only be ushered in when the last are first and the first are last. God’s realm exists whenever those on the margins are the guests of honor. Jesus upended the honor code of his culture not only by preaching the now and coming kingdom of God but also by modeling the way leaders yoke themselves with their followers to lighten the burden of the followers (Matt. 11:30). Jesus rejected honorific symbols (special garb and elite seats) and eliminates special titles (like father or rabbi). (Matt. 23: 5-8).

A few Sundays back you surprised with me a beautiful pastor appreciation service—and the gift of this exquisite stole.  Explanations for the origins of the clerical stole vary.  To be honest, probably all clerical garb is rooted in Christianity’s 4th century leap into respectability and privilege when it became the religion of the Roman Empire and church leaders aped the attire of the empire’s leaders. But two other stories explain the stole in particular: 1) Some say the stole represents the “napkin” or cloth Jesus draped over his shoulders as he humbly washed the disciples’ feet on the night he was betrayed.  If so, the stole is a sign of service and humility, not power.  2) Others say the stole symbolizes the yoke of ministry that we clergy wear like the weight of a lost sheep draped over the Good Shepherd’s shoulders—another image of selfless care and a reminder that clergy should feel the weight of their office. Pastors should bear the weight of their sheep and not place the burdens on the flock.  I think it’s a good thing for clergy to feel a literal weight of responsibility.

Children are invited to come forward to wear one of several stoles and are told what the colors and symbols mean.

Today’s Gospel lection follows a series of exchanges between religious leaders, who were concerned about religious symbols, and Jesus, who was concerned about the people. The scribes and Pharisees had been trying to catch Jesus in unorthodoxy they could use against him. Not so subtly, he nails them for their hypocrisy and their abuse of the people in their care (Matt. 23:1-4).

I’m tempted now to dig out one of the many contemporary stories about greedy, manipulative, abusive pastors who’ve worn the symbols of their office for their own advantage. But I’m going to resist pointing fingers because I have my own flaws. And because the easy examples of televangelists buying mansions and private jets from the donations of poor widows do not get to the heart of Jesus’s concern.

Jesus was criticizing the scribes and Pharisees for placing the burden of religiosity on their people. He was concerned about the way religious leadersburdened people with religion itself and its legal minutiae. The modern comparison that comes first to my mind is the way religious leaders today have singled out certain groups of people to be the named chief sinners. When priests and pastors heap the burden of focused religious condemnation on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons, they are doing what the Pharisees and scribes did in Jesus’s day: they are burdening their people with religion. Religion should be lifting burdens. The LGBTQ community should be buoyed by religion, not burdened by it; Jesus followers need to be blessing, not burdening, the folks being scapegoated and scorned. The kingdom of God will be manifest only when we invert the empire’s value system.

Yet I’m now going to push back against the idea that the pastor needs to bear the burdens. I’m resisting or complicating this point not because I want to squirm out of my vows of servant leadership but because I’m recognizing and celebrating that Open Table is an increasingly lay-led congregation with many leaders who themselves can be overburdened. Many of you feel, from time to time, the yoke of leadership, and it’s not light.

So here begins the unsermon. More and more of you, my sisters and brothers, are seeing what needs to be done and stepping up to take on responsibilities in our faith community. Thank you. More and more of you are appropriately claiming your roles in leadership and envisioning new possibilities and voicing your dreams for Open Table. Stella demonstrated her own growing awareness of her responsibility within our faith community when she wrote me a note last week that said, “Your [sic] nice and caring. You take my suggestions. Your [sic] the best!” This eight-year-old does regularly share suggestions with me, and I listen to them and try to learn from them. She has already taken on the yoke, the burden, the responsibility of church leadership.

I want to be careful that Stella sees church leadership lived out in healthy ways. Which means I want her to see her pastor being self-giving but not self-destructive. I suspect you want that, too—for Stella’s sake, for my sake, for our sake. I want her to see her parents contributing generously, as they are—but not taken advantage of.  I want her to eventually experience the joys and frustrations and plain ol’ messiness of church life—making hard decision with others who have different opinions, sometimes working harder on a project than others, struggling to communicate clearly without hurting someone’s feelings. I want her to know what it means to experience the joys AND the challenges of being in community. But I don’t want any of our children or grownups to be unduly burdened. It is tricky for the church to call forth generosity and sacrifice—without going so far as to create an unhealthy and ultimately unsustainable pattern of letting a few key leaders bear all the burden. The Church has enough martyrs, as I hope last Sunday’s sermon underscored. Give and take is required. There should be seasons of sacrifice and seasons of renewal.  Self-awareness is also essential. And a bit of luck so that you have a deep enough leadership bench to rotate in new leaders when some leaders are tired.

For Paul, the sin of pride is the chief sin from which all other sins develop. Therefore, Paul urges church leaders to be humble and take on their people’s burdens. And I’ve agreed with Paul in sermon #1 for today. But now in the unsermon I’m agreeing with feminists who’ve argued that the “sin” many women must confront is that of self-abnegation. Women have been acculturated to be self-sacrificial in unhealthy ways. For many Christian women—and for many pastors—and maybe especially for female pastors—the spiritual challenge for them is to set limits, let others deal with consequences if some things don’t get accomplished, and trust that the world will not come to an end if a deadline is missed or a task goes undone or if someone is disappointed in us. Men can also struggle to discern the limits of self-sacrifice.Sometimes we just need to sing the song from Frozen: “Let it go! Let it go!” But it aint easy.

What I’m trying to say—in the context of All Saints Day and Reformation/Re-formation Sunday—is that the saintly life is one that requires ongoing and honest re-formation.

Saints-in-the-making make sacrifices—and allow others to sacrifice. But never do we want religion to become a burden that crushes someone’s spirit. Saints bring light. Saints make others’ burdens light. Everyday saints bless rather than burden.

In honor of the death this week of one of my favorite poets and because of his fondness for an official saint of the church, I share Galway Kennell’s poem titled “Saint Francis and the Sow.” Picture, as I read, St. Francis bending down to bless a mother pig lying on her side with 14 piglets lined up nursing alongside her. Saint Francis knows how to bless those who need a blessing.

Prayer: May our vocation be a life of blessing. May the saints of all times and places celebrate each time we can lift a burden and each time we experience a lightness in our vocation.

* For a brief introduction to the anthropological concept of the honor/shame culture and an annotated basic bibliography, look here. 

A seminal work is:

Malina, Bruce J. The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, 3rd ed.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

Category Scripture
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