by Nanette Dehnke
The Holy Gospel according to Matthew the 23rd chapter:
GLORY TO YOU O LORD.
23Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2"The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father-the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
The Gospel of the Lord
PRAISE TO YOU O CHRIST.
Look at me - the center of attention standing behind this pulpit.
If anyone would have told me even six years ago that I would be standing here, I would have chortled with laughter.
You see I don't like to be at the center of attention.
I spent many years of my life serving in ministries that called me to serve with and for the people in the margins, geographically away from a church building. Sometimes these ministries were in the community and at other times in institutions like a hospital and a hospice.
Being grown and raised in the Missouri Synod, I had learned that my place as a woman in ministry was to serve at the edges, to stay behind the scenes, because women could not be pastors. I knew about being in the periphery of church, I understood the needs of people at the margins.
I have never walked around begging people to notice me. Matter of fact, most of the time it was easy being a deaconess and serving as a chaplain. As a deaconess, I would wear my deaconess pin on my shirt . So visibly people didn't particularly notice me....didn't notice that I was a religious leader. Most often, people didn't even call me 'deaconess'....usually they would call me "Nan" or "chaplain".
So imagine what happened to me when I first came to seminary...it was near the end of my junior year when I learned that I would need a clerical shirt for MIC, ministry in context, during our middler year. I remember the first time I even tried one on. Many of my classmates were attending a workshop over at Augustana Church. Several of us went together into the ladies' room to try on shirts. At the time, I remember wondering.... would they even fit my middle-aged body? How would it feel to wear one of these?
Maybe some of you are beginning to think about buying your first clerical shirt.....others of you are beginning to wear them several times each week while at MIC.....and still others of you have been wearing them for years. And most of you at sometime in your life have been served by someone wearing a clerical shirt.
I have to admit that when my first shirt arrived in the mailroom that I picked it up, took it back to my apartment, hung it up....and then didn't look at it again until the fall of my middler year. I just wasn't ready to wear the shirt.
On the first Sunday in my MIC congregation, I knew I was supposed to wear it. I waited until the last possible moment to put it on before heading out the door of my apartment. It felt strange, uncomfortable on me. It was the right size, but I wondered ...if I was the right size? Could I really be someone's pastor?
But I have to admit, after a year of internship, I like wearing a clerical shirt-- I like people being able to identify me...and reaching out for my care. I like people letting me serve them and care for them.
Let me tell you a couple of stories that stick with me about wearing a clerical shirt on internship.
- I helped serve community meals at our partner congregation, an Arabic Lutheran Church in Dearborn. Most of the members of this congregation are fluent Arabic speakers with a limited ability to speak English. Imagine my surprise at one of our first shared meals when I heard someone call "pastor, pastor". But I just kept on wrapping silverware. Then a woman came and tugged on my sleeve...she was talking to "me" when she called 'pastor'.....and I didn't respond. I wasn't someone's pastor.
- At other times on internship, I went to visit folks in elder care facilities. Frequently, I cared for people suffering with dementia - Alzheimer's disease, senility and other illnesses that affect memory. Two things that folks there recognized were songs and the clerical shirt. When I would sing, "For All the Saints," "Abide with Me" or even "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" folks' eyes would light up and they would join in with the singing - even if they wouldn't do anything else. When I would visit wearing a clerical shirt, folks would immediately call me "Pastor" and would want to receive communion. The shirt brought recognition, not of me, but of strong memories of the servants that came before me.
- Finally, my supervisor's young son had to do a project for school about people's jobs in the community. He chose me for his project. When he came to interview me, he insisted that I wear my clerical shirt. You see he wanted to draw picture of me. "Miss Nan, he said, you have to wear your shirt, the one like my dad wears, so people will know who you are".
The shirt. Folks look at it and they see a pastor. So they know how to get my attention with a single word. Folks look at it and are comforted. An 8-year old child knew that it would let people know who I am.
I liked getting up today and knowing that I was going to wear it..I know that wearing this shirt is supposed a symbol of humility. It reflects my commitment to wait at the table, if you translate the Greek, to serve God and God's people.
I wear it because I think folks get a sense of comfort when they see this symbol, this shirt as opposed to wearing a business suit which reflects a different commitment. And I wear this shirt remembering my best friend bought me this clerical shirt.
But this shirt is only a symbol of a memory in folk's lives.
Those who look at the shirt with respect probably experienced a person who responded to them with love, compassion and kindness. That's been my experience with the shirt.
But I know that there are others. Some folks respond to a clerical shirt with fear and anger. Some respond with disdain and disgust. Their experience with folks wearing clerical shirts was negative - damaging.
I see my role as a pastor to point folks toward Jesus and then to get out of the way. The shirt helps them identify me.
But you know I'm a hypocrite, just like Jesus called the religious leaders in today's text.
Sure - I don't parade around asking people to bow in my presence. I'm always willing to do stuff that wasn't in the job description. I don't care where I'm seated at official dinners - though I do like sitting up in front in the sanctuary so I can see all the people.
Though it may not sound like it, I'm a hypocrite. I like being known by others. I like it when folks say nice things about me. I like it when people I don't know come up and talk to me because they respond to the shirt. It makes me feel good.
And look - I'm not saying these things to hear someone say "You're not a hypocrite". I'm saying these things because I think we need to really ponder this morning's reading. I think we need to acknowledge the hypocrisy in all of us about whatever it is we are hypocritical about. And instead of beating ourselves up about it, we need to trust that God can and does still love us and that God can and does still get things accomplished through us. ...sometimes in spite of us.
We have one God.
"Rabbi" or in our tradition "pastor"... does not mean God.
"Father" or even "Mother" does not equal God
"Teacher" or "Professor" does not equal God
God is God
And God calls us to serve. - Serve God and one another.
None of us are perfect. But we are blessed. Our God can and does get things accomplished through every one of us.
But most importantly, it's not about me....or you being the right size... to be someone's pastor.
It's about trusting God ....our One Professor, our One Parent, our One Teacher , ....the One Messiah who serves us by giving his life for our sins..... It's about the One who shows us how to serve, to wait at the Table of God's people. Through the waters of baptism we were clothed in the grace of God's love. It is by grace that we are called to respond, that WE GET TO serve God's people with love. May we humbly respond clothed in the love of the One Servant.
Matthew 23: 1-12