Sunday, November 2, 2014

The greatest among you will be your servant

A Sermon preached on November 2nd (Pentecost XX1 and All Saints’ Day)at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Micah 3:5-12, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 23:1-12

Recently one of my Facebook friends posted the following image: At the top was the text “Well done my good and faithful….” And below the following list:
  • Bishop
  • Priest
  • Pastor
  • Teacher
  • Evangelist
  • …..
  • Servant
A lot of my Facebook friends are from my time at seminary, so this sort of thing is more likely than videos of cute kittens. Anyway when I saw this posting, I thought it could almost be an illustrated paraphrase of what Jesus tells the crowd in this morning’s reading:
“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant.” (Matthew 23:8-11)

That pretty much excludes a lot of things I get called. Rabbi means master or my great one – and that sounds a lot like "Reverend," which literally means "one who should be revered." A number of people call me Father Chris and one of the roles mentioned at my ordination was that of a “patient teacher!” So that’s out too! Now I really don’t mind what you call me – well within reason, there are limits of course, but the names or titles we use are not the point that Jesus is making here. Later in the New Testament, for example in Ephesians (4:11) we are given lists of roles and titles that are perfectly acceptable: “The gifts he (God) gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.” So the issue is not about titles, but all about our old friends: hypocrisy and excessive pride or focus on self.

Just a few verses earlier Jesus had told the crowd that the problem with the scribes and the Pharisees was not their teaching, which was sound and biblical: “do whatever they teach you” he says, but that “they do not practice what they teach,” (23:3) the classical definition of hypocrisy. Not only were they hypocritical, they clearly also had a well-developed sense of self.

Their outward forms of piety were to be as visible as possible. The phylacteries, these are  small, black, leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah, which are still worn today by observant Jews during weekday morning prayers, were to be as big and as broad as possible, the Christian equivalent might be someone wearing a very large cross around their neck. And the fringes or tassels attached to the four corners of the prayer shawl were to be as long as possible. Instead of glorifying God, the wearers were using these ritual items to draw attention to themselves. They were proud of their position and enjoyed having the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues.

So I don’t see this as a general criticism of robes and special clothing and titles as such, [which probably won’t surprise you] but of a particular attitude. Years ago the company I worked for did away with hierarchical titles and introduced numbered grades instead. That didn’t help at all, people became just as proud of being a level 1 manager as they were of being a director before the change! We have a problem when the person becomes more important than the role and the responsibility of that role, or when those who have been given power and authority use it for their own ends, rather than for those they are supposed to serve. The leaders the prophet Micah criticizes demonstrate an attitude that has gone well beyond hypocrisy and exaggerated pride: “Its rulers give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the Lord and say, “Surely the Lord is with us!” (Micah 3:11) They are mistaken there, Micah says. The Lord is not with them. Or as Jesus puts it: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled.” (Matthew 23:12)

Christian are always also servants, caring for others, being willing to learn from others, and able to rely on others. When we act as teachers, pastors, and leaders we do so not for ourselves, but for God. When we make disciples they are for Jesus, not for ourselves.

The Saints we remember on All Saints’ Day, the cloud of witnesses, the holy women and holy men, are, to quote from the preface of our official list of Saints[1], those “who were extraordinary or even heroic servants of God and of God’s people for the sake, and after the example, of their Savior Jesus Christ.” Let’s look at the people who our Church commemorated last week or will commemorate next week. How were they extraordinary or even heroic servants?  On Wednesday we remembered James Hannington, a missionary to East Africa, martyred in Uganda in 1885. Thursday was the feast day of John Wyclif, a forerunner of the Reformation and responsible for an early translation of the Bible and on Friday Bishops Sasaki and Tsen were commemorated for their faithful Christian witness despite persecution in Japan during WWII and China after the war. Tomorrow is the feast day of Richard Hooker, the first great Anglican theologian and on Thursday we remember Archbishop William Temple, a great social reformer and supporter of the Ecumenical movement.

Martyrs, theologians, religious reformers, social and political activists - their examples are as varied as they are. What they have in common is their willingness to take risks, their single minded dedication, their deep faith and trust in God, and their sincerity and authenticity. I am not asking you to imitate their particular examples, you’re not in their situations – in many cases thank God! But we can and should imitate their sincerity and use their example as an encouragement as we seek to be faithful in our own way and in our own day and situation. We can serve God and serve God’s people in a myriad different ways, both here at church and even more importantly outside the church in the world. Archbishop Temple, who I mentioned a moment ago, is also famous for his saying that the “Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” Our service does not have to be something big, it’s better to be genuinely faithful in little ways, than to try or even to pretend to be faithful in some way that goes beyond our capabilities and possibilities.

As the example of the saints shows us, being a servant is not about a lack of will or an attitude of servitude. It takes a very strong will at times to serve and support people who may not always acknowledge the help they receive. It takes a very strong will to speak against the prevailing opinions. And serving God’s people may well require standing up to and confronting people in positions of power, so being a servant is certainly not about blind obedience. The example of the saints also reminds us that the source for that strong will, for that certainty in the face of opposition is the one all the saints trusted in, the one Jesus refers to as the one Father in heaven, and the one who came and taught and instructed us by word and example, Jesus Christ himself, who was and is the one we serve, yet also our servant and because of that, the greatest among us.

[1] Holy Women, Holy Men, Preface IX

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