The previous Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, once uttered a somewhat withering remark, to the effect that you can tell the church is in trouble when the clergy are overly concerned about the color of their buttons. He was referring to the practice in the Anglican Communion of priests adopting the symbols of rank when taking on distinct roles within the church hierarchy. Canons of the church are allowed the addition of red piping and red buttons on their cassocks, as is sometimes in evidence here in our own precincts. Archbishop Williams, even after he had achieved the highest possible position in the entire Anglican Communion, usually dispensed with the sartorial indications of his own rank and office, preferring plainest black. He very likely had in mind Jesus’ own teaching about the scribes and Pharisees: “do not do as they do.... They do all their deeds to be seen by others, for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.”
Jesus was talking about the small accoutrements still used by Orthodox Jews in their prayer: the leather boxes containing a verse of the Torah, and the fringes of the prayer shawl, the tallit. I don’t think he was criticizing the use of these aids to prayer, rather, he objected to the transformation of them into items of personal ornament. And he went on: “You are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher.... And call no one your father on earth for you have one Father - the one in heaven.” It has to be admitted that it is not immediately clear that our Lord belonged to an Anglo-catholic parish. It’s a bit of a worry. I, myself, am in possession of the ecclesiastical garment with the most fulsome and capacious sleeves of any of the clergy in this parish, so I will brook no criticism of my colleagues, wherever your minds may wander.
Of the many sayings we may delight to imagine that Jesus never spake, these few in the 23rd chapter of Matthew’s Gospel are among my favorites to ignore. I do not wish to be called “Rabbi,” but you may stick with “Father,” unless you hear otherwise from the Verger.
My real supposition is that Jesus was not expressing a blanket prohibition of the terms “rabbi” and “father” any more than he was articulating a prohibition of the use of the phylacteries, or the tallit. Jesus’ aim in his teaching was to express something of the sanctity of humility, and the inevitability of humbleness in the truly faithful life. But these few sayings of Jesus’ are precariously available to the practitioner of what we might call “false humility.” For it is easy enough to cast aside the buttons, trim off the fringes, shorten the sleeves, and insist that everyone call you “Bob” without ever actually adopting the true attitude of servanthood and humility that Jesus is teaching about here. In the church, we often decide to have it both ways: to keep both the buttons and the false humility - it’s a specialty of ours.
A little article I came across recently carried the intriguing title, “Why Nobody Wants to Go To Church Anymore.” The author posited these four plausible reasons:
“They don’t want to be lectured.
They see the church as judgmental.
They see the church as hypocritical.
They see the church as irrelevant.”*
I think Jesus might have made a similar assessment of the scribes and the Pharisees, and there’s every possibility that he shares this assessment - at least some of the time - of the church.
But Jesus was an ineffective administrator, and he lacked the imagination of a bureaucrat. He never came up with a four-point program, or with a list of seven secrets of effective discipleship. He didn’t devise a curriculum, or write a white paper. He put no system in place to prevent the church from falling into these same pitfalls to which the religious leaders of his own day were also prone.
No. This is what he said. “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” The first of those phrases refers to himself, in the first instance. And the rest of it applies to us, Jesus’ own mother providing the first example of the truth of the teaching: she who humbled herself was exalted.
By one account, at the beginning of Scripture, all humanity - in the form of the first human - was formed out of the dust of the earth, and animated with the breath of God. You might call that a humble beginning, albeit ennobled by the divine breath.
Near the other end of the Bible, the Son of God - himself fully human - is taken down from the Cross after his scourging, humiliation, and execution, to be placed, at last, in the ground, bringing, in a sense, to perfect completion God’s human experiment: from dust to dust.
In between, the children of God were called into the covenant from which they restlessly and repeatedly meandered; empires rose and fell; the patriarchs and prophets followed God’s guidance to lead the people into and out of exile more than once, and toward the Promised Land; the Tribes of Israel were dispersed; judges and kings lived and died; civilizations were lost; the Temple was built, destroyed, and rebuilt; the Ark of the Covenant disappeared; and the word of God was spoken, mangled, dreamed about, interpreted, written down, lost, set to music, imperfectly copied, and buried in the sand.
But still, for Christians, the story of God goes from dust to dust. Although it was written by the hand that laid the foundations of the earth and fastened the cornerstone of creation, the hand of the One who shut up the sea with doors, and who made the clouds a garment of thick darkness, who commanded the morning, and caused the dayspring to know its place, who entered into the springs of the sea and walked to its depth, who first perceived the breadth of the universe, who knows the place where light dwells, and as for darkness, knows the place thereof, who is himself the father of the rain, and from whose womb came the ice and the hoary frost of heaven, who binds the sweet influences of Pleiades and looses the bands of Orion, who knows the ordinances of heaven, who lifts up his voice to the clouds, and sends lightnings that they may go and say unto the world, “Here we are,” who put wisdom in the inward parts, who satisfies the desolate places with water, and causes plants to spring from the earth, who fills the appetites of young lions, and provides for the raven his food, who knows the treasures of the snow, who has seen the doors of the shadow of death, and for whom the gates of death have opened.**
This is the God whose Son “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him.”***
This God gives us our life, our history, from dust to dust: a story of humility crowned by the humiliating death of his Son, the Messiah, born in a stable, then utterly forgotten for most of his life; who in preparation for his own demise stooped down to wash the feet of his followers, on the night before he died. And then, from the humble, borrowed grave wherein his body lay in the dust, a new work sprang forth, and new life was born, the hope of heaven burst into the world.
The paradox of Christian faith is that triumph is won by the humble figure of Jesus, whose own followers were uncertain about who he is, or about what would become of them. And Jesus regularly reminds them - and us - that if his way toward triumph was humble, we should expect our path toward triumph to be humble too. We should embrace humility, we should be accustomed to kneeling, and the dust should be well-known to us, we should be familiar with the ways of servanthood, we should be prepared to take up our cross, and we should be ready to give up our lives - to lose them in all kinds of meaningful ways, if we expect to find meaning in life at all. This is the consistent and regular theme of Christ.
Jesus is not teaching us easy lessons. And no lesson can ever be easy whose lesson-plan goes like this: God is omnipotent, but he sent his Son to us to set aside his power, live in humility, and give up his life for the sake of our salvation: be like God, and humble yourself so that you may be exalted with him. This is not a winning sales-pitch. There is no jackpot here; there may not even be colored buttons. There is servanthood, which means stooping, bending, feeding, working, sweating, staying up late, and rising early; and which also implies that while you are doing it, covered in dust, you will probably not be sufficiently well compensated. Mind you, I am not preaching an ordination sermon here; Jesus seems to indicate that this is the Christian life he is talking about - meant for all of us, not just for some.
The thing about this message of humbleness is that you cannot really convince someone about it with a lecture. True humility always resists judgmental-ism and hypocrisy. And in world that is screaming in pain and poverty, the humility that leads one person to serve another in need will never be irrelevant. For there in the dust, is carried to us still on wisps of ennobled breath, the reminder that “all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Which is not the sermon I wanted to preach to you, only two weeks away from Commitment Sunday, when I want to be talking to you about stewardship, about giving, about the importance of your generosity of spirit. But the sermon I wanted to preach makes no sense if those four reasons “Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore” ring true: if I lecture you in a church that seems to be judgmental, hypocritical, and irrelevant.
Jesus looked at the buttons of the scribes and the Pharisees, and he told them that their lectures were not only boring, they sounded judgmental, hypocritical, and irrelevant under the circumstances of the day. And the buttons (the phylacteries, the fringes) were not a problem in and of themselves, I think he meant to say, they only proved the point.
But it would do no good for me to go and chop off the very lovely, full, and ample sleeves of my best surplice. Better to gather them in when I kneel, and be in search of feet to wash; to allow those sleeves to drag in the dust, if it puts me alongside you, where we can both see the Cross from a different angle, and seek to serve one another. And we find there in the dust that there are others who are in need, whose lives have been shaped by deep humility, and who need to hear Jesus’ promise that soon and very soon they, and all who have been humbled, will be exalted. May God give us the grace to wrap those humble souls in the long sleeves of our garments, and keep them warm.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
5 November 2017
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
* Wes McAdams, www.radicallychristian.org, 13 June 2014
** See Job 38
*** Philippians 2:7-9