Sunday, October 30, 2011

20 Pentecost

October 30, 2011

Matthew 23.1-12


+ A few weeks ago, right here, in St. Stephen’s, one of our Moravian guests stopped me and said, very nicely: “You know, I will never call you Father.”

“Okay,” I said.

He then proceeded to quote our Gospel reading this morning.

“And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven.”

I then proceeded to tell him what I tell everyone who has a problem with this issue: “It doesn’t matter to me what I am called.”

And it really doesn’t. I’ve never really insisted on anyone calling me “Father.” I use more out of convenience than anything any thing else. After all, I—and all of us as Episcopalians—do come from a tradition in which the male priest can be called Father—and, in more modern times, the female priest as “Mother”. Some people find either title uncomfortable, for various and very understandable reasons. And I hope that if they do find it uncomfortable, they don’t use it.

The sad fact is, there aren’t a whole lot of equally acceptable titles for clergy out there. “Pastor” just doesn’t cut it with me—at least not here where every Protestant clergy person is “Pastor.” Also, Pastor is not a traditionally Episcopal title.

And Reverend is grammatically wrong. We don’t call a priest “Reverend Jamie” anymore than we call a judge, “Honorable Janet.”.

Of course, those are, for the most part, my issues and I can’t control what people will call me or not call me. Nor do I even want to. And I will remind people who have issues with calling priests “Father” or Mother” that it is their issue as well.

Recently, I followed a long drawn-out discussion on this issue on the House of Bishop/House of Deputies listerserv. The discussion got almost “shrill” at some point, and I ended up just not reading any more posts. This doesn’t come as a surprise, I’m sure, to anyone here who knows me, but I have a problem when people “command” me that I should do something. One of the reasons I am actually quite frustrated over the issue is that I have known those clergy who have abandoned their titles and demand from people that they be called by their first name. What I have seen often in these cases is that those same people who reject what they see as signs of authority, defeat their own cause. They actually, by their rejection, attempt to exercise control over their congregation by essentially dictating how they should be perceived.

As my colleague, Fr. Jared Cramer, summarizes it:

"No, I'm not hierarchical! Stop seeing me that way, I command you!"

Of course, that’s not true of every clergyperson who uses their first name. But many of the clergy that I have known personally who essentially demand it certainly seem, in my experience, to have definite authority issues. Some clergy who demand that people call them by their first name do so as an exercise of power that is at least as bad as what they claim to oppose.

Yes, I understand, as I said, that some people perceive the title of Father as some kind of male hierarchical issue. But many of those of those same people have an even bigger issue calling a woman priest “Mother.” And don’t even get me started if the reasons for not using those titles are based on some kind of anti-Catholic bias. That definitely does not cut it with me.

And as I have said a million times, none of this is really much of an issue for me. Call me Jamie, call me “Father Jamie,” call me whatever makes you comfortable.

But, I get very tired and very impatient when we spin our wheels on things like this, when we could be using our energy on much more important things like loving God and loving others and doing the ministry each of us has been called to do.

Still, if someone, like that Moravian has an issue calling me “Father,” I understand. But I do have an issue when people use the scripture we heard in today’s gospel as their basis for not callings someone “Father.” Is Jesus really telling us we should call no one “Father” other than God? Of course not. He would not have a problem with us calling our own fathers “Father,” Nor would he have a problem with us calling our Jewish clergy “Rabbi.” Or any of us who are teachers, ‘teachers or instructors.

We should not approach what Jesus is saying from that literalist point of view. He is telling people not to call hypocrites like the Pharisees “Father,” nor should we call anyone by such a term we should be reserving for God. The Pharisees were fond of placing burdens on people that were intolerable. Jesus, on the other hand, offers something much easier. He offers the yoke that is easy and the burden which is light.

Pharisees longed for things like titles, and the respect and the honor that went with them. For them, these issues of titles were a BIG deal. They would have loved to have spun their wheels, and wasted their energies debating such issues. Titles, after all, were a way for them to manipulate people and to coerce them. And titles puffed them up with pride.

We have all known people outside the church who are attached to their titles. We have known people who define themselves by the letters behind their names, or the titles like “doctor” in front of their names. Jesus, by his very example, shows us what a true servant leader is. He shows the example of what teachers, rabbis, priests and ministers and fathers and mothers should be.

A literalist view of not calling anyone father or teacher or rabbi would be ridiculous. To say that Scripture prohibits the use of “father” or “teacher” is a very selective view of scripture. It’s a way to cut and paste scripture and to manipulate it for our own means. It is a way to be more concerned about the letter of the law, than the spirit of the law. And to do so would cause us to have to ignore all those other references in scripture in which the terms “Father” or “teacher” are used in a positive way.

Even Paul refers to himself as "father" in his first letter to the Corinthians. Jesus refers to Nicodemus as a teacher of the Jews in John 3. John 8:37-39 and Luke 16:24-25 both have Abraham referred to as father, and this use is not condemned by Jesus. In his letter to the Romans [4:16-18] Paul mentions Abraham as the spiritual father of us all.

So the term "father" is clearly not a problem for Jesus or for his closest followers. The problem, as I have said, is when "father" replaces God. ”Father” becomes an issue when we give the authority to that hypocritical religious leader we call “father” who claims the authority that belongs to only God. And here is where there is some validity to the condemnation Jesus makes in today’s Gospel. If a priest misuses a title like “Father” so they can act or think in a superior way, if they use such a title to manipulate their role (and let me tell you, I have known those priests as well), then I would say that, in such a case, they come under Jesus’ condemnation here.

If, however, the term is used for someone who is a caring and compassionate elder and father to the people in their care, I don't think that would have been an issue for Jesus.

The point of all of us this, is course, essentially, what we were talking about when Jesus was using the Roman coin for a illustration. Render to God, what is God’s. Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. But don’t mix the two up. Don’t call someone Father if by Father you are giving them the authority reserved only to God.

For us, the matter is essentially one that will not cause most of us to lose sleep. Most of us get this. We understand this. We understand that what is God’s is God’s. Few of us, I seriously doubt, would give to any human being the honor meant for God. And if any priest came along demanding to be called “Father” or “Mother” out of puffed up arrogance, let me tell you, they would be put down to size pretty quickly here at St. Stephen’s. We know all the distinction in all of this.

Our Gospel reading for today really is about equality. Those who think of themselves as better will be humbled. And those who think they are not worth anything, will be lifted up and cared for. This is how the God’s Kingdom works. And this is what we, who are following Jesus, are striving to make happen. We are striving for the equality. We are striving to put people on the same level.

So, let us do just that. Let us, in our following of Jesus, strive for that equal ground of the Kingdom in our day. Let us love each other, fully. And let us look at each other as equals, as ministers working together, side by side and shoulder to shoulder.

This is what it means to follow Jesus. And this is what it means to serve each other in Jesus’ name.

As for me, I am Jamie. To some I am Father Jamie. To some I am just Jamie. I am a priest. I am a Christian. And I am a minister, just like every single one of us here this morning, striving, sometimes failing, but always trying. None of us better. None of us less. All of us equal, serving each other and God in whatever God has called us.

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