Matthew 23:1-12, Revelation 7:9-17
If you send a letter to my parents the address is Manheim. Manheim is not a big place. The nearest city is Lancaster but Lancaster is not a big city. Truth be told, however, we are not even from Manheim but 5 miles out of town. Indeed the small cluster of houses closest to us, Mastersonville, which might be called a village or maybe hamlet, is still a mile or so away. Mastersonville is where my elementary school was. Mastersonville elementary had one of each grade from Kindergarten to 6th grade with no cafeteria and no gym. Eventually it was reduced to K-4th and then eventually closed (and is now, strangely, a place for incinerating dead animals. Not like a crematorium for people’s cute little pets but more high powered and practical). Other than this school and a church the only other institution in Mastersonville was Hess’s store. A sort of general store that had one type of everything you might need. Hess’s store was at one time owned by the Hesses—Robert and Floy Hess. Robert and Floy were from my home church and were regarded as the sort of anti-celebrity celebrities which the church often calls saints. I don’t actually quite remember Robert. I sort of remember his dying. More clearly than this event, though was the sort of reverential way people talked about him or referred to him for years afterward. These weren’t even heroic stories but simply how “Robert Hess” was alluded to. The one specific story that I do remember is mildly interesting but certainly not particularly saintly. It was how Robert would write his sermon and then leave it lay out in the basement of Hess’s store and memorize it while working.
Floy Hess, on the other hand, I remember quite well. She died just a few years ago. She dressed in the semi-“plain” way that was so typical for people of her generation in Lancaster County Anabaptist communities but would catch people’s attention around Capitol Hill. This is not like Amish or old order Mennonite but a rather particular look none-the-less. Floy had been a teacher and when they cleaned out her things they found class notes from the 40s (?). And I remember having a meal with her where she described how in the old days they used to make dandelion wine which was thought to have medicinal properties. At Jenn’s first Love Feast (the Church of the Brethren’s practice of imitating Jesus’ last supper with communion and footwashing) she sat by Floy and washed Floy’s feet. Floy had been there for decades years (I believe she had only missed 1 Love Feast in 50 years) and this ended up being her last. Floy too, was one of those anti-celebrity celebrities we call a saint.
Who are these people? Who are these saints? Yesterday was All Saints day. While this isn’t a day that the Church of the Brethren formally celebrates I got to thinking about saints. Another still living person that might make the cut from the church I grew up in is Nancy Brandt. Nancy and her husband Carl were farmers. At Chiques there is an extensive program of Sunday school in which all ages participate. Children are divided by grade while adults are divided into roughly 10 year increments. Each of the adult classes organize their own teachers. Nancy, has for years, probably decades been asked to teach almost every Sunday. While this is not a sermon it is an hour long class of teaching and leading discussion. Nancy has taught most every Sunday for years. The amount of dedication, hours of study, and depth of knowledge is a challenging example even as I work on another fancy degree.
Some of you probably know of Peggy and Art Gish. Peggy is presently with Christian Peacemaker Teams (or CPT) in northern Iraq. Art is no longer living. For years they were active in all sorts of work. From creating and living in intentional communities to protesting war and farming. In the mid 90s when they could have been slowing down they started to work with Christian Peacemaker Teams, living internationally apart in difficult situations for months at a time. CPT teams are placed around the world in areas of conflict and violence to get in the way and try to stop these acts. Art was particularly active in Israel and the Palestinian territories and Peggy in Iraq. There is a fairly well know picture of him standing, big white brethren beard and red CPT hat, with his arms outstretched nose to nose with the barrel of a tank as he tried to block a house demolition.
These 5 feel like saints to me. But how do I square calling them saints with Matthew 23?
23 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.
This sitting in “Moses” seat is an indication of authority. Jesus’ statement of “therefore” is a ‘since they sit in this seat then their teaching is legitimate.’ Something interesting to discuss at another time is how Jesus and Jewish Christians related to earlier teaching—for us how we relate to the Hebrew scriptures, which we often call the Old Testament. In the passage, however, the point is that even though their teaching is good their actions don’t line up. In particular this passage, recorded long after Jesus’ ministry, may be both a comment on the relationship to Jewish religious leaders but also more direct guidance to the newer Christian leaders and their relationship to the rest of the church.
4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,[a] 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.
In these verses we start to see where leaders lose sight of the reason for the leading, that is, leading the people toward God and get distracted by themselves. When they are to help people see God because this is what the leaders see, the leaders only see themselves.
8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.[b] 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.[c] 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.
One commentary I read noted that it is ironic that many who have had the title “Father” have been humble while many who have merely had the title “minister” have been tyrannical
While this may be a good point—that inherited structures and titles are not personally chosen and even if they were do not necessarily indicate humility or non-humility—it does seem like a curious slight of the hand. The point is taken that there are many non-titled dictators and manipulators of people and power, however, we should not too easily pass over the church’s general complete disregard for what Jesus says rather plainly. In fact, all three commentaries I read seemed to sort of trail off at this point without really challenging the Church’s practice or really explaining why this seemingly obvious challenge to the Church’s practice didn’t need more attention. Now before it is assumed that I am going to engage in some good ol’ fashioned anti-ecumenical or anti-anyone else bashing I would like to emphasize that Anabaptist or Brethren historic spurning of titles has not insulated us for plays on power and abuses of this power. I should also not that I have met very elaborately titled people who are genuine and humble servants.
What is the problem with a title? Is there something inherently wrong or is the problem with what a title leads to? The risk, it seems, is that both the leader and those being led may focus on the wrong thing—the person, whether charismatic, smart, well credentialed…whatever. On the contrary what do we gain by having those we look up to? Paul says imitate me as I imitate Christ. Note this direction—as we hold up others we do this because in them we see someone who lives away from themselves. In them we see someone who has forgotten about themselves and only sees God and others. In Revelation we have a vibrant picture of this.
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing,“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15 For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
We see a motley group, a diverse group worshiping God together.
When we talk of saints we think of those people who have forgotten about themselves. They oriented outside of themselves towards God and towards others.
It seems that we have a very divided mind about what is valued and how we relate to ourselves. We hold up saint like people who are wholly oriented toward God and others but was also admire athletes and movie stars who seem only to see themselves. We often neglect our bodies to unhealthy habits allegedly for the sake of others—clergy and doctors are often rather unhealthy but we also worship our bodies and spend far too much time focused on looking a certain way as if our worth is wrapped up in our appearance.
Though this caution may be good when we see those who just might be saints—when we see those who have so fully forgotten themselves in their orientation toward God and others we often know it intuitively. And in some way become less consumed with asking ourselves about whether or not we can live like this but are simply drawn in to this good work, this life orientation away from ourselves and into God and others.
As we go out this week let us pay attention to those saints we meet and let’s ask ourselves how we too may become like saints—Or better yet let us forget ourselves and see only God and others. Let us forget ourselves in the worship of God and service of others. When we see only this perhaps people will see Jesus in us. Perhaps we too will become saints.