on being humble
By Dr. Rev. Barbara Barkley
Scripture reading: Genesis 21 8-20, Matthew 10:24-39
Sermon for June 25, 2017
Have any of you, like Sarah in the passage from Genesis, ever felt jealous and/or threatened by the power, popularity, achievements or even just the potential of others? Even those who have less power and stature, like Hagar, who was not Abraham’s wife, but his slave: still, Sarah felt threatened - threatened that he had another child by another woman: threatened enough that she wanted Hagar and her son sent away - in other words she wanted them dead for a woman and her son would not survive in the wilderness apart from the tribe. She felt so jealous and threatened that she wanted Hagar and her son to die. She must have felt an amazing amount of pain to feel so vindictive against Hagar and her son. And while we may not act on feelings of jealousy or threat in such a way, almost all of us experience some degree of jealousy, or threat to our sense of place and status at one point or another. Most of us, I think, experience situations and places where it is important to us that people know who we are, what our status is, what our accomplishments are. We feel threatened and even angry or lost when others don’t value us in the way we would like, recognizing us as loved, as successful, as... whatever it is that matters to us.
When Jonah was eight he broke his collar bone at school. The school called me, told me he had fallen running and that I needed to pick him up and take him to emergency. When I got to the hospital, though, before I could tell the doctors and nurses that this had happened at school, I found the general assumption was that I had been abusing my child and that this was how his collar bone was broken. The hospital personnel had their minds made up from the second we walked into the hospital as well. They barked at me, treating me as if I were an uneducated, uncaring, awful mother who deserved to lose her child. They put him in a room that I was not allowed into while they "interviewed" him. I was already going through a horrible time because I was worried about my son. But it was also a matter of humiliation for me. I wanted to shout at them that I had a degree in psychology, that I had a doctorate, that I was a pastor, that I had three children and all of them were wonderful and amazing and brilliant despite the tragedies they had experienced. I wanted to shove layers of credentials in their faces because they made me feel little, small, unworthy and un-valued. In the end, I found myself grateful that his accident had happened at school, even though he did not have the comfort of a parent with him, because the possible consequences of this having happened at home were made absolutely clear to me through that experience.
But I am not alone in this need to be seen and valued. When I had surgery a dozen years ago: the doctor came out to talk to my family about how the surgery had gone, he still had on his scrubs, with a stethoscope around his neck, the little mirror thing around his head: My family got a clear impression that this was not so much that he felt in a hurry to talk to them as it was important to him that the other people in the hospital know that he was a doctor, not one of the patients, not a nurse, but a surgical doctor.
At Jasmyn’s school at one of the back to school nights, I found myself talking with another parent whom I did not know before and found that she was very quick to make sure I understood that she was not just a mere parent at the school, but a teacher as well. Her sense of identity and sense of accomplishment needed to be validated by my knowing she taught as well as parented.
At many programs where the poor, homeless or marginalized are served, the volunteers all have name-tags stating their status as volunteers - distinguishing them from those who are being served. There are always reasons for doing this, some of which are good, valid, helpful. But at some level one has to ask what import it serves to separate us into categories in this way? For some of the volunteers, this distinction is important. For the newest volunteers especially, it can feel important to not be mistaken for a person in need.
Again, I think we all have felt some sense of threat to our identity at some point, some need to stand up and say, “Wait! That’s not who I am! Look at what I’ve done, or who I know or who I am!”
But today’s scriptures point out several things.
We are told, first, that whatever is not known will be known. All will be revealed. In this context that means that our real selves will be known, will be measured, will be opened for all to see. And that real self is not going to be judged by our status, our job, our accomplishments, our wealth or our popularity. Our real self, our core self, has to do with our care and love to God and God’s people. And by “care” I don’t mean the good works we do so much as how we approach God’s people, all of God’s people every day. Even more, our real worth is a gift given to all. For our real value, our worth is actually about the fact that we are God’s children - all of us - none of us loved more highly than another, none of us loved less highly than another. Jesus assures us in this passage from Matthew that all will be known. At that time, we will be measured by our hearts: and we will be found valuable simply by the fact that we are God’s children. Those who would judge us then, who would hurt us, who would take away our wealth, our popularity, our health, our status, we are told, should not be feared because eventually their worth, too, will be shown and all those marks of status we value so much in this life will be found to be meaningless: those who would hurt us will also be shown as the equal children of God that they are. Even family connections, we are told, will be brought to nothing. Those then, who would separate us out, by our lack of these things: connections, popularity, fortune, these who judge us and put us down, who disrespect us, who treat us as “less than” are not to be feared.
As the beginning of the Matthew passage says, “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master.” In other words, all our attempts to be of more value than someone else have no worth. God calls us to be God’s servants, doing the work of loving and caring for God’s creation. That is our job. And that work is not neat or tidy or beautiful or glorious: that is not work that will earn human praise or honor: but it is the real work of being God’s people.
One summer while I was in college I went to the most rural part of Alabama as a Volunteer in Mission for the Methodist church. I worked that summer for a parish - or a group of ten very small congregations spread out over this very rural area: some of these churches had only 4 or 10 members, but they kept on meeting, worshiping together. The parish center united these ten churches but it did more than that. It ran a clothing thrift store, it kept a food pantry, and most importantly it ran a building program. Groups of youth from around the state would come to this parish spot for a week or two and help repair and build houses for the poorest of the poor, the disabled, and the elderly: those without education or income or anything except the little pieces of land or house passed down through the generations. I came to this program full of myself as a person who would go to seminary and become a missionary, for that is what I believed I would do at the time. I went ready to be a community organizer and to work hard with these youth groups and with this building project. But one week Dorsey, the pastor in charge of this project, asked me to help out with the thrift store. I went in and Dorsey’s wife, who ran the thrift store, asked me to go into the back room and sort through boxes of donated clothes, helping to sort them by size, checking for holes, making sure they all had price tags. I went back and began to do as she said, but found that there wasn’t a lot for me to do. Most of this work had already been done, and I began, after time spent mostly waiting and watching, to feel resentful and even self-righteous about this. I was a college student at Cal, I was going to be a pastor, I was going to be a missionary, they were putting me in the “hang out with thrift store clothing” box because I was female when I was just as capable as men to do other more useful work, I was....this and this and this...all reasons why the work of waiting, and the work of looking to see if anything else needed to be done, the work of looking at old discarded clothing felt somehow below me. I hated this, and I made sure that message was conveyed.
The next day Dorsey asked me to go with him to a building site for a potential house. We went out and Dorsey and another man talked about water and pipes while I stood impatiently to the side, uninvited into this conversation, and standing around waiting once more. After twenty minutes of standing there Dorsey said, “Barbara, please go get me my wrench.” So I walked the two feet over to his tool box and brought him back his wrench. I continued to stand there and after another forty minutes had gone by he again addressed me, “Barbara, please bring me my measuring tape.” I did so and again stood around waiting. After another half hour had passed I finally lost it and said, “Dorsey, is there something useful I could be doing here?” He looked up at me sternly for a minute, then excused himself from the conversation with the other man and took me around the corner for a lecture I will never forget. “Who are YOU?” he demanded “that this work is too good for you? Who are YOU that you decide what is useful and what is not? Who decides what is God’s work? Who decides what is needed? You will never be God’s servant until you are able to see that God’s work is often the most humble of work, often the least recognized work, often the least glorious work.”
He was right. And that day I learned a most humbling lesson.
But it wasn’t the last day of my lessons on humility for this summer. Remember, as I said, the houses we were building and repairing were for people who grew up in a very different culture and place than this. Many, most, had no education at all. Many times their rural southern accents were so strong that they were almost speaking another language. This particular week the house the team needed to repair belonged to an elderly man who had probably never been farther than five miles from his little run-down house in his entire life. He had been born there, he had been raised there. He lived in extreme poverty and even squalor. And we came that week, with a team of youth from the city to replace the original roof on this 100+ year old tiny and run-down abode. The roof that was there hardly existed anymore. So up we climbed onto the beams of the house, me and a team of six teens, one of whom was an African American girl, no more than 14 years of age. And as we laid black roofing material in 100 degree humid weather and pounded nails into this man’s new roof, he stood at the bottom, on the ground and shouted up at us about how evil black people were. He quoted scriptures that in his mind were proof of their inferiority and even their lack of humanity. He stared at the African American girl as she built him a new roof and cursed her, again and again. And as I listened and watched, incredulous, I noticed that the African American girl, who clearly heard every arrogant, prejudiced word that this man said, still, despite everything, put 100% of her effort into doing a good job for this man. She never quarreled with him, she never challenged his words: she just did her work. I tried to challenge the man and was told by her to stop. At the end of the day we discussed the situation and she told me that she did not believe this man would change through argument or anger. She did not believe the man would change old ingrained beliefs even through other scriptural quotes. She said her job and our jobs that week were not to change this man, to “educate” this man. Our job was to love this man by building him a new roof. Our job was to be God’s hands and feet and do our best to care even for those who would hate us. If God used that to change him, so be it. If the man never changed, so be it. But our job was clear.
Doing God’s work is not pretty or glorious. Sometimes it looks like waiting. Sometimes it looks like fetching objects. Sometimes it looks like pounding nails into a roof while being cursed at from the bottom. Sometimes doing God’s work of caring for the least of God’s people - the poor, the homeless, the oppressed, the children - sometimes that means losing friends, or losing a job, or losing connections or losing popularity, fame, glamour. It is messy work. It is hard work: it is not easy to stand up to someone you care about. It is not easy to keep building on the roof even when you are being cursed from the ground. But this is God’s work. And we are called to do it without asking for recognition or popularity or glory. We are called to do it as servants - servants who are loved beyond anything we can imagine. Amen.