Proper 26 A
So, we have a familiar story as our Gospel reading this morning – the one about calling “no man father.” It’s the reading that makes all Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican priests extremely uncomfortable since we have historically taught our people to call us “Father!”
I will spare you the tiresome sermon (examples of which I have preached on numerous occasions myself) about why it’s really OK to call your priest Father – just as we call rabbis “rabbi” and teachers “teacher.” Instead, I want to explain why Jesus said what he did about titles and honorifics like “rabbi,” and “teacher” and “father” and why this reading is so important and, far from being extraneous to his message, is actually a central part of it!
If I asked you to list some of the essential components of Jesus’ message, you would rightly list such things as the fact that sinners and outcasts are welcomed into God’s kingdom and that indeed God has a preferential option for the poor and the marginalized among us; that the kingdom of God is not something just to hope for in the future, but is a present reality now (the kingdom of God is among you!);
(T)hat God forgives us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us; that Old Testament ceremonial laws like Sabbath observances and kosher food laws no longer apply to Christians; and that the Temple and animal sacrifices and a Levitical priesthood have been replaced by Jesus himself and his own sacrifice.
And, as I say, you’d be right about those things. One thing you might not mention – and which is directly related to some of the things we did list – is that Jesus taught that our relationship with God is “un-brokered” and that our access to God is direct without any need for human intermediaries. What do I mean by that?
Well, the history of religions – and specifically the Judeo-Christian religions we are most familiar with – shows that human beings have always felt kind of ‘unworthy’ to approach God directly and so have relied on the mediation and intercession of particularly “holy people” to plead their cause in the presence of God. They have been called rabbis, and teachers, and priests!
From Moses standing in the breach and asking God to have mercy on his people; to Joshua taking on that role in our First Lesson today; to the mostly-unsatisfactory kings who ruled over Israel from Saul and David on down the line; to prophets who conveyed God’s word to the people and interceded for the people to God; to the long-expected Messiah; to St. Paul who told the Corinthian Christians that he had “become” their father through the Gospel; to the bishops, elders and deacons we see developing in the New Testament and which have come down to us through the centuries. And to “the saints” who we honor this weekend by celebrating the feasts of All Saints and All Souls. All these have come to be seen as intercessors and intermediaries between us unholy types and the All Holy God!
Now, there’s nothing wrong with having leaders. Every community raises up and celebrates its leaders – whether military, political, or religious. And there is nothing wrong with having exemplars – worthy examples of what it means to be all that we can be. Certainly nothing wrong with religious communities acknowledging its own heroes and heroines and even designating some of them as “Saints.”
But as soon as we begin to make the mistake of thinking that we need such figures to stand between us and God – to plead our cause before God and be the sole interpreters of the Word to us, we begin to be in error. We begin to have a “brokered” relationship with God rather than the “un-brokered” one which Jesus taught and exemplified.
The “cult of the saints” has been so misused in our history. First, we have spoken of Jesus as “our only Mediator and Advocate” before God. Then, as Jesus gets more and more exalted, Christians began to feel unworthy to call directly on him so we began to ask the Blessed Virgin Mary to intercede with her Son on our behalf. I have even seen prayers which invoke another Saint to speak to Mary so that she might, in turn, speak to Jesus for us who will plead our cause to the Father!
Even the Sacrament of Confession has been misinterpreted as “confessing your sins to a priest” (the intermediary) when Anglicans have always been clear that we can confess our sins directly to God in prayer and in the Liturgy and, even when we use the Sacrament of Confession, that we are not confessing our sins to a priest, but confessing our sins to God in the presence of a priest, who is there for counsel and direction as well as pronouncing Absolution.
So even as we sing our hymn “For all the saints, who from their labors rest” this morning, let’s remember that those saints were women and men just like us. Yes, they loved their God and accomplished great deeds on God’s behalf. But they were also flawed human beings just like ourselves who relied on the grace and compassion of God every bit as much as we do.
And let us never think that we need anyone – prophet or saint, bishop, priest, or deacon – to stand between God and us. Jesus came to shatter all those barriers and to assure us that our access to God is unfettered, un-“brokered”, and that God is “always more ready to hear than we to pray and to give more than we either desire or deserve” (to cite one of our famous Collects BCP 234).
And why is God ready to do all that? Because God loves us…and is as close to each one of us as life and breath itself. We need no intermediaries!
Call No Man Father
Proper 26 A