This is the Sunday we call All Saints Sunday.
Many of us think of Saints with a capital S, that is the Saints who have been through canonization. There are over 10,000 of them. And growing up Catholic I can remember calling on a few as protectors: Saints Joseph, Michael, Catherine, and Christopher are all protectors of one kind of another.
We are Protestants, and in the reformed tradition we focus on all saints with a lowercase S. We come from the tradition of “the priesthood of all believers,” which downplays the focus on Saints with a capital S or priests who are seen as a conduit between ourselves and God. Instead our tradition celebrates this day by honoring all those who have dedicated their lives to God while also honoring those who are still alive, trying our best to do the same.
However, I confess, I’ve never let go of my fondness for the Saints with a capital S.
As James Martin writes in his book, My life With the Saints, “The Saints are models of what our lives could be.”
Models of what our lives could be.
Martin writes, “Some might argue and some do argue, that all you need is Jesus. And that’s true: Jesus is everything, and the Saints understood this more than anyone. Everything the Saints say and do is centered on Christ and points us in his direction.”
And in our scripture this morning, Jesus himself does more than point us in the direction of his own will. He gives us a directive. And unlike his parables, this scripture is about as direct as Jesus gets. After pointing out the hypocrisy of the leaders, calling them “them” – they do this, they do that – he then turns to his followers using the pronoun “you.” He says you/we are to do this.
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.
All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
I could spend all day focusing on the them of this passage, relating the leaders of today to the ones that Jesus was calling out. I could point out all their faults, their cruelty, lack of empathy, but haven’t we had enough yet?
As David Brooks wrote in his column this week,
“[E]ven when justified, permanent indignation is not a healthy emotional state. We’ve become a little addicted to our own umbrage, addicted to that easy feeling of moral superiority, addicted to the easy affirmation that we get when we repeat what we all believe. Politics has become a way to define and signify your identity….(Our politicians) have made life all about themselves, and a lot of us too readily played along.”
So rather than continuing to perpetuate the lack of decency we witness day-after-day, let’s begin by asking how we, saints with a small s, can model for one another, living our lives the way they could be. Can we begin by admitting where we’ve failed? Isn’t that the best chance we have of not repeating past mistakes? The uncovering of corruption and the indecency that has risen to the surface did not happen because of one political party or one president.
Our country and its people have lacked humility for quite some time, and in some ways now, with this election upon us, we’re being brought to our knees in prayer. But perhaps being brought to one's knees in prayer can be understood as a saving act of grace. When all else fails, when the votes have been cast, the rest seems out of our hands, and all the indignation in the world will not heal us. But with God’s help, perhaps we can heal ourselves. If the Saints model for us what our lives can be, perhaps it’s humility that will allow us to model for one another the same.
As part of the “priesthood of all believers,” we have one God, and one Christ, one leader that we follow and ideally all the choices we make in our lives are influenced by God’s love and grace, and the example of humility that Christ lived his life with by becoming servant to all.
Humility carries a lot of weight and often gets confused for low self-esteem, meekness, passiveness, and subjection. (All synonyms, according to the dictionary.)
But, in the words of Carter Heyward, "Genuine humility is a gift from God which has nothing to do with downcast eyes, a misty voice and noble stories of sacrifice. Humility is, rather, living courageously in a spirit of radical connectedness with others, which enables us to see ourselves as God sees us: sisters and brothers, each as deeply valued and worthy of respect as every other."
Since COVID hit, I’ve been consumed with a word very much related to humility, but perhaps more reachable in practice. That word is consideration.
And by consideration, I mean what is listed as the third definition, which defines it as having a thoughtful and sympathetic regard – regard for the needs of others.
To consider others before oneself is perhaps a practice we can employ in the world as a good place to start understanding humility. To consider where another person is, with regard for them before self, is to take the position of humility, to humble oneself, to take the low position out of concern for the person who we call kin in the eyes of God.
Certainly since COVID hit, this word has been most on my mind when thinking about mask wearing, because masks have never been about protecting oneself but always about protecting the people you’re with.
And because I don’t get out very often, I’m aware of how much people are either considering others or not, in the market or on the trails, which are my two big outings these days.
On the trails, the polite etiquette now is to lift your mask up as you approach a person walking towards you who is doing the same. It’s to politely announce yourself, if you’re a quiet runner, to let the person know that you’re coming up on their left, which gives them time to lift their mask, and also gives them a heads-up to move over.
On some single-track trails, you come to an impasse. It’s too narrow for both parties when moving in opposite directions to keep moving. Someone has to stop. Someone has to step to the side, risk standing too close to the edge if there’s a drop off, or risk standing in poison oak. There’s risk involved in considering the needs of the person you encounter on all roads of this life. Someone has to stop to consider the needs of the other, someone has to choose to stand close to the edge and sacrifice something, out of consideration for the other; and in a perfect kingdom, both parties stop to consider the other, and connection is made. To engage from a place of humility is a service to God, out of love for a God who loves us, as we model for one another what our lives could be.
Whether on a trail, in a supermarket, in a line waiting to order, considering where someone else is in space becomes an act of connectedness. To take on humility is to assume you know nothing about their circumstance, their health, their susceptibility, their emotional state, or even their ability to hear you with a mask on.
To come from a place of humility is to consider the lives of others in small everyday ways, but also in bigger ways, as we consider policies that will affect the lives of millions of people's health care, people's experience of discrimination, and all the other challenges facing the most vulnerable among us – and in doing so become a model of what our lives could be in practice, often failing, falling short, confessing to God, and getting up and trying again.
In his book, Martin, now a Jesuit priest, tells the story of receiving a note from the person he most admired in this world, Mother Teresa. At the time he was a theology student at Cambridge and was working on a book that would answer the question “How can I find God?” He sent that question to people from many faith traditions. He mailed letters asking the questions to religious leaders, public figures, writers, and received back letters from people he never expected to answer, including Elie Wiesel, author and psychiatrist Robert Coles, poet and essayist Kathleen Norris, and many others. But even the rejections were interesting. People sent back cards with their reasons for not being able to answer the question, including the Pope at the time.
But his favorite rejection came in a small white envelope with type that had clearly been produced by some ancient machine. The return address was Missionaries of Charity, Calcutta India.
Dear Brother James (it started)...
God love you for your beautiful effort to lead people ever to His truth and love. I will certainly keep this project in my prayers, that Jesus may use this book for the glory of God and the good of His people. I regret to inform you however that I will be unable to contribute to the book as you requested. Keep the joy go on loving Jesus in your heart and share this joy with all you meet. Let us pray. God bless you,
Mother Teresa, mc.
Then on a card she wrote this...
The fruit of SILENCE is prayer
the fruit of PRAYER in faith
the fruit of FAITH is love
the fruit of LOVE is service
the fruit of SERVICE is peace
Jesus says the greatest among you will be servant to all. This is the role we are to take on when modeling what our lives could be, if only we could embody a life role-modeled after Christ.
And while that may be too tall an order on most days, we can certainly become more considerate, considering where another person is, whether on a narrow trail or in great need of basic provisions like food and care. We can model our lives on the Saints, those with a capital S, as well as those who have gone before us, saints with a lowercase s, and perhaps most importantly, one another, as we strive to serve God, with humility, this day and all days.
“Trump’s Presidency Smashed the ‘Decency Floor,’” by David Brooks, New York Times, 10/28/20.