What do we confess before the world?

Archie Smith
March 9, 2009

Archie Smith, James and Clarice Foster Professor of Pastoral Psychology and Counseling, delivered this sermon in honor of Howard Thurman as part of the Annual Howard Thurman Lectureship.

Lectionary: Micah 3:5-12; Psalm 43; I Thessalonians 2:9-13, 17-20; Matthew 23:1-12.

Open my eyes that I may see
Glimpses of Truth Thou has for me.
Place in my hand the wonderful key
That will unclasp and set me free.
Silently, now I wait for Thee
Ready my God, Thy will to see.
Open My eyes, illumine me, Spirit, Divine.

Sunday, November 2, is All Saints Sunday. Some of us will sing, “For  All The Saints, Who From their Labors Rest, Who thee by faith before the world confessed, Thy name, o Jesus, be for ever blest: Alleluia.”
We will recall those who have gone before us, and whose lead we follow. St. Paul,  St. Thomas Aquinus, Saint Augustine, Joan of Arc. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Theresa,Howard Thurman, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Fanny Lou Hamer, Dorothy Day, Georgia Harkness, Archbishop Romero and many, many others whose names are unsung.

We will ponder anew what it means  for us today to pick up their scent and follow their lead.

The scripture lesson from Matthew’s gospel tell us about saintly behavior and behavior that is not so saintly.

Illustration: I was working out in the gym the other day when I heard grunts of pain. Someone was working out with his personal trainer. He was doing the push-up exercise. That seemed challenging enough. Then the trainer placed a weight on the trainee’s back. This poor fellow began to grunt louder. His personal trainer looked on as this poor fellow worked with a heavy burden laid on his back. Some burdens that are laid on us may be for our good and placed there by those who care. But, Matthew’s Gospel has a different kind of burden in mind.

We note the words from Matthews gospel: “they do all their deeds to be seen by others”… “They love to have the place of honor…”   “they do not practice what they teach, they tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others….” (Matthew 23:2-3). 

That behavior is not saintly.

Unsaintly behavior (the things that tie and bind us): Matthew’s Gospel is not kind to people who put heavy burdens on others for the sake of exploiting them. They are the bad people in Matthew’s Gospel, the unsaintly. They help create the binds (physical and spiritual) that restrict human freedom and moral responsibility. We are not supposed to be like them.

And yet, “they” are the kind of people our world encourages. Lay aside your scruples! Do whatever it takes to succeed. If you want to get ahead, then you’d better learn to schmooze with the right people. You need to travel in the right circles. You better let the important people see what you can do. Do not be subtle about it either. Strutt your stuff. If you are expected to get respect, then you better make some noise. The right noise, of course. Make yourself visible. Show ambition and seek the high position, the desired places of honor. Be a winner, go for the gold! And if you are clever, really clever, then you will figure out how to get others to work for you and you will claim the credit. The message is—it’s all about me!

“They” do all their deeds to be seen by others”… “They” love to have the place of honor…” “They” do not practice what they teach, “they” tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others….” (Matthew: 23:3-4). That is unsaintly behavior.

Who are “THEY”?!

The “they” people of Matthew’s gospel are not the saints. “They” are most of us most of the time jockeying for position, competing in the rush hour traffic of life. We are the “they” people when we try to keep up or get ahead, secure a spot, achieve an identity and be somebody—at any cost. The “they” people are you and me—much of the time--when our deeds are done to be seen by others, when our aim is to turn heads in our direction, and when it is not expedient to  practice what we preach. We are the “they” people when we make it hard for other people, especially those who differ--to be themselves. We know a lot about the “they” people in Matthew’s gospel. We are embarrassed by the “they” people when we recognize that “they” are us.
I have some sympathy for the “they” people. There are times when it is important to do things that will get the attention of others. There are times when we do need to know the right people.
The Matthew passage is clear, but it is also disturbing when we see ourselves in its light. I am disturbed when it comes to my attention that I am not practicing what I preach and when I am betraying my own cherished values. Sometimes I do the things I ought not do and neglect the things I ought to be doing. Perhaps all of us know a lot about the unsaintly “they” people.
But we may not know a lot about the saints, those, sometimes invisible folk who work off stage and behind the scene doing all the good they can. The saints live to bring greater harmony to the whole community. They live intentional lives, sometimes with quiet dignity and in service with others. I think that Howard Thurman was like that. Walter Fluker, in referring to Martin Luther King, Jr. called Thurman the lesser known theologian. We see the people who are in the limelight, but we seldom see or notice the person who is holding the light. Just a few months ago, in August we were mesmerized, and rightfully so, by the athletes who did stunning things and won the metals, but we seldom saw the team that coached them and never saw the millions of people who worked behind the scenes and made Beijing possible. We did not know a lot about them. They went about their work quietly.

The saints in Matthew's gospel are like that and they are keen observers. They see the difference between those who talk the talk, but do not do the walk. Do not be like them. Rather, be like the saints, the keen observers. They see what is going on. They do what they do because they believe it is the right, uplifting and decent thing to do. The saints would do the right thing even if no one was watching. They share the burdens of others. They are trustworthy. The saints are true to their word. They practice the good they preach. The saints refuse to participate in smear campaigns. They take responsibility for their part in the social drama. In this way, through word and deed the saints make their confession before the world.
Illustration: I was sitting on a London bus when an older (Muslim?) woman was trying to pass with her full bag of groceries. She accidentally stumbled into me as she was trying to settle into her seat. I apologized to her for being in her way. My grocery bags were slightly sticking out into the isle. They would have caused anyone to stumble. She said something remarkable, “No, it is I that should apologize to you.” Then, when she got up to leave the bus, she said, “Thank you, Driver.”  I thought that what she did was not only remarkable, but also uncommon. Seldom do I hear a public servant being thanked for the work they do. I have heard people curse out a bus driver, or a bus driver curse out another driver in an act of road rage, but I seldom hear gratitude expressed, “Thank you, Driver.” Was I witnessing someone living a saintly life? This was remarkable and I was grateful to know that there are people like her in the world. The message is--it is all about us and we must care for one another and our world.

Saintly behavior: The collect for this coming All Saint’s Sunday is: “Almighty and merciful God, it is only by your gift that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service: Grant that we may run without stumbling…”
The saints are people who express their gratitude for the gifts of God’s grace. They know how to live in gratitude even in difficult times. The saints are not perfect. That means, they, too, make mistakes. They stumble. Yet, their prayer is one of gratitude for God’s grace. And we share their intent. We too would serve God and others without stumbling. But we do stumble.

Have you ever tripped, stumbled, and fallen—when you were trying to keep up or get it right?
It can be embarrassing as well as dangerous. Sometimes we are bruised when we stumble and fall, and sometimes the result is tragic. Lives have been lost because the stumbling proved to be fatal.

We, the Church are not called to be perfect or successful, but we are called to be faithful. That means, we will stumble and sometimes we will fall. But we will also get up, learn from our fall and try again. Our aim is to offer true, faithful and laudable service. This is the opposite of the “they” people spoken about in Matthews Gospel. “They” were looking out for themselves. Do not do as they do.

It is only by God’s unmerited gifts and grace that we may run in the moral and spiritual life without stumbling. But how is that possible--for us to run without stumbling… stumbling over our guilt, stumbling over our fears, stumbling over our anger, stumbling over a depressed spirit, stumbling over evasions, stumbling over our misdeeds? Does the Church not stumble when it merely preaches good will and offer simplistic moralisims? Does the Church not stumble when it does nothing to confront injustice and poverty amidst a sea of greed and plenty? Does the Church not stumble when it becomes a closed fellowship? How do we avoid stumbling into culpability in the hurt of others? Do we not stumble every time we offer lame excuses but do nothing to correct ourselves?

The Church of Jesus Christ is that community that repents and seeks deliverance from those forms of stumbling. It is not a group in and for itself. Rather, it is a confessing Church. It seeks God’s merciful help in redeeming life from the powers of greed, deceit and wrong-doing. The Church of Jesus Christ is that community that seeks to do God’s justice and show uncommon compassion-especially to strangers. But, alas, this is not the Church we normally encounter in the real world. The church that we normally encounter has lost this way of being in the world.  

In such a normal world, Thurman tells us, we are likely to ‘build our own private little shelter and wall, build our little altar and worship our little god, organize the resources of our little life, and build our little defenses—all to no avail!’ (Thurman, The Creative Encounter, 151).

Often and without thought we, the would-be-faithful, the saints, have let our fear and anger dictate our behavior. Disposition often trumps the message of the Gospel. We may let our sense of failure imprison us. Our penchant toward stumbling and bumbling may depress us. We carry a heavy weight. The heavy, depressed Spirit—for which psychiatry may not have an answer can overwhelm us. If the best in psychiatry cannot help, then is there an antidote or are we hopelessly stuck, hemmed in and defined by a depressive spirit? The Psalmist asked:

"Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?
and why are you so disquieted within me? “ (Psalm 43:5).

We may add our own perplexing questions: Is my soul full of heaviness because my faith is not strong enough? Is it because I am holding something back? Isn’t my own sadness/depression sufficient proof that I am lacking something or somehow defective? Is my soul downcast because the sins of past generations are now dumping their payload on me? How do I, a person of faith who strives to be faithful, explain my sadness, even to myself? Am I not "entitled" to something better?

Faith in God is not an insurance policy against depression or sad feelings.

The antidote to sadness or despair, the Psalmist said, is trust. But Trust in what? Just anything will not do. The receiver of our trust must be trustworthy. The Psalmist said, put your “trust in God.” Then light may break forth from the darkness of despair. You will know when you experience this kind of trust. A deep resonance of thanksgiving will burst forth—like the dawn piercing the darkness of night. Thurman called it, deep calling unto deep.

What new thing would we see if we were lead by the Divine light and truth? What would we see if brought to a new place of hope, God’s Holy Hill? We might not only see some new things in our world, we might also see some old and familiar things in a new light.

We might see just how we place heavy burdens on others and then take steps to mend our ways. We  might recognize that we sometimes deny placing heavy burdens on others. Then we can be lead to healthier relationships. We might acknowledge our tendency to seek the lime light at the expense of others. Then we can find new and just channels to express ourselves faithfully. We might find ourselves challenged and changing when we put into practice the good we frequently talk about. This is what it means to have God’s light and truth at work in us.

The Psalmist cried:
Send out Thy light and Thy truth,
Let them lead me and let them bring me to Thy Holy Hill.

                                                   -- Psalm 43:3

The radical call of the Gospel: The Gospel calls us to a radically different way to live in the world (Matthew 23:1).

Matthew’s gospel tells us to renounce worldly titles, do not make more of them than what they are. Graduates soon-to-be, no need to pretend that you do not have your degree, but at the same time, do not use them to oppress or put others at disadvantage. Do not place heavy burdens on others when you yourself are unwilling to even lift a finger of help. Howard Thurman encouraged us to always search for the ground that is common between us. We are in this life together.

When the Muslim woman and I bump with our groceries we were stranger who found common ground. We could acknowledge that we were both carrying heavy baggage, that the aisle on the bus was narrow, and that we, as human beings could work this out respectfully. There was no need to engage in a smear campaign, Muslim against Christian.

Can more of us learn to live our lives in such a way that it is not difficult for you to be you and me to be me? Can we learn to co-create such a world—at home, school, play and in worship? Every moment of our waking lives offer us rich opportunities and challenges to do justice. What would it mean for us to begin now to seize the moment and do the good that we know?
The Gospel calls us to a higher standard of justice (Matthew 23:2-3): There will always be a higher standard by which you must measure your performance in this world. When Nelson Mandela emerged from his cell after 26 years of imprisonment, he did not emerge as a dejected, humiliated, bitter, and finished human being. No, he emerged as a visionary ready to inspire and lead his country. His standards were higher than those who had imprisoned him. The standards by which the Church must measure its life is the parenthood of God and the Messiah-servanthood of Jesus. This is the saintly call to ministry. It will always be a radical call because all around you will be those who push their own sense of importance. It is all about them. They promote themselves through their position and titles—rabbi, teacher, and by extension-doctor, professor, preacher, bishop, conference minister, pastor, head deacon, choir director, organist, Sunday school superintendent, and so on. Sometimes they will “ tie up (bind us with) heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on your shoulders or on the shoulders of others.” “They, themselves may be unwilling to lift a finger to move them. Sometimes, we are “they.”
But other times we are not the “they” people. Sometimes we do hear and respond to the radical call of the Gospel with a resilient faith. We take courage and make decisions when the right decision will make us unpopular. We strive to live intentional and faithful lives. Sometimes we do not model ourself after the folk who seem popular, big, powerful, influential because of the size of their salary or egos. We do not expect to bow down before them. The saints do not go there! You have been called to a higher standard of justice.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it… is to create a force for good in the face of selfish and evil strivings. At first you will stumble and what you do may seem small. Acts of justice and kindness may seem insignificant like a drop of water in a sea of wrong doing, deception or evil-speak. But keep doing the small good you know. It will be joined by the goodness of others. Soon the goodness you and others are doing will become a stream, and then a river and strong current of hope that will carry you and many others. This is the deeper current that Howard Thurman knew. Traces of that deeper current reside in you. It will reside in the ordinary people in your parish or faith community. It will reside in the stranger and wider community. You remember the Muslim woman on the bus who said, “Thank you, Driver.” She was a witness to those around her. The faithfulness of the saints will be a trace for you to build on.

I want to close by giving you two examples of those who left their trace. The first is Selma. Her husband I shall call Samuel. Selma was a member of the Church, but Samuel, was a jazz musician who never came to church. Samuel had become ill and was soon confined to a wheel chair. Still he supported Selma’s church–going activities in his own way. A strong bond of affection and faithfulness existed between them. It was their 50th wedding anniversary. Friends had been invited to celebrate with them at a big dinning hall. A swing band had been hired for the occasion. Samuel was confined to his wheelchair. That is what we thought. Selma walked to the center of the dance floor. Samuel wheeled his chair to the center of the floor where Selma stood. With her help Samuel somehow got up out of his wheelchair and danced with Selma. He then was helped back into his wheelchair and together they move to the periphery. A hush fell over the crowd of friends as we watched with amazement, respect, and admiration at how this couple of 50 years worked, played, and danced through adversity together. Now, this may not seem like much. It seems like a small thing. But this small thing  is an example of cooperation, faithfulness and endurance. It helps us to see that the deeper currents of harmony are built from small acts. They operate through particular circumstances of hardship and reveal to us the face of faithfulness. That is what Thurman was pointing to when he talked about the drawing power of a deeper harmony that transcends barriers and bind people together. Elsewhere Matthew’s Gospel tell us that the reign of God grows from a small mustard seed (Matthew: 13:32). Big things can grow from small beginnings and from struggles that seem small or ordinary.

The second example is about Howard Thurman. I was not present when Thurman died, but my good friend the Reverend Noah Osborne was close at hand. The story goes something like this: Thurman was having a difficult, restless night, tossing and turning. He was struggling. He groaned a lot. Sue Bailey Thurman, his wife stayed at his bedside through the night. The next morning she said, “You were restless the whole night. What were you doing?” Thurman said, “I was trying to get the particular man to go into the universal man.” Thurman struggled his whole life to blend his particular and little spirit with God’s universal and big spirit. Shortly, after that he died.

The saints are those who stumble, struggle and groan for God’s Spirit. Through their particular struggle for God’s universal Spirit they confess themselves before the world. In this way, their actions speak as loud and sometimes louder than their words. They leave their trace so we can follow. Selma and Samuel, Sue Bailey, and Howard Thurman were lights shining in the world’s darkness. They are among us in spirit. And we are with them and all the saints who continue to labor in faith. The question now is how will we confess our faith before the world?