Saints in the Shadows

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In this life, there are headliners and there are backup singers. The headliners get the fame and the spotlight and the melody. Then there are those who stand in the shadows, off to the side, adding harmony and rhythm and counterpoint to the song. Their names aren’t on the marquee; they don’t have groupies and they don’t get Grammys. You might think they are pleasant but dispensable window dressing. You’d be wrong. Without backup singers, the music would be flatter, less textured, and less fun. Have a listen to Midnight Train to Georgia and tell me the Pips don’t make that song. 

The Bible transcends time and culture, so we shouldn’t be surprised to find stars and supporting players in God’s story, too. In the letter to the Hebrews, we find a lineup of All-Star saints: Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph and Moses, David and Samuel among them. Generations of people have looked to them as exemplars of faith.

There is another list, in another letter. The letter to the Romans concludes with a litany of names — 26 mostly unknown, unheralded saints of the church. (Romans 16:1-16) In exhorting the church to greet these Biblical backup singers, Paul is turning the spotlight towards these saints in the shadows.

He gives just the barest details about them.

“Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you.”

“Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and greet his mother, a mother to me also.”

“Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ.”

It is largely left to our imagination what they did to merit Paul’s gratitude and love. But we do know this: Paul wanted everyone in Rome to know that these were people worthy of honor and deserving encouragement. He didn’t just pull them aside and say, “Nice job!” He shouted: “Look at these people! They are the saints of the church. They console and nurture. They are the ushers and the bulletin-folders. They keep the lamps filled and the garbage emptied. They bake the bread for the communal supper and wash the dishes afterwards. They pray for you. They are ready to give their money and their lives for the sake of the Gospel.”

I had the privilege of reading their names aloud in worship this week.

I wanted to be sure to say their names clearly and loudly and with love.

I was determined to speak their names boldly because I wanted to turn the spotlight on them, just as Paul had.

Prisca and Aquilla.
Hermes and Hermas.
Andronicus and Junia.
Nereus, Asynchritus
Phlegon, Patrobas and Olympus

I wanted to give them the honor and praise they rarely get, living as they do in the shadow of the Greats.

I want us to remember that there are still people like them, in every community. People who quietly and humbly serve in ways most of us don’t even notice. They don’t seek the spotlight and they don’t look for praise. But they do deserve honor and encouragement.

Let’s face it: even when we’re serving out of love, we can get weary. We wonder if what we do matters. Our spirits can flag and our bodies groan. Sometimes a simple “Atta girl!” is balm for the soul. And another thing: acknowledging everyone’s contribution, whether they’re the headliner or just singing the “Wa Wa” in the background, underscores our mutual dependence and need.

So, next time you see Epaenatus straightening the pew cushions, greet him and remind him what an inspiration he’s been.

When you run into Tryphosa and Tryphena at Starbucks, thank them for their quiet servanthood.

Drop a note to Asyncritus or Philologus and tell them how their prayers have blessed the church.

And greet one another with a holy kiss.

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The Flip Side

Photo credit: Jennifer Foster/AP

Photo credit: Jennifer Foster/AP

For a few weeks in 2012, this picture was everywhere:  A New York City police officer offering a pair of boots to homeless man.  When I saw this photo, I was moved to tears by this officer’s love and humility.

“What Would Jesus Do? This.

When I looked closely at the picture I was shocked.  I knew that homeless, shoeless man.  I had seen him six years earlier, walking up Fifth Avenue in the freezing cold, without shoes or socks.  Unlike that cop, I didn’t go and buy him shoes.  I didn’t kneel to help him put them on.  In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”  And on a bitter cold day, right in front of beautiful Christmas decorations celebrating the birth of the Savior, I saw Christ suffering and kept on walking.

I wasn’t indifferent.  I was just paralyzed.

The sight of him began a frantic dialogue in my head: “I have to do something. Is it safe to approach him?  Should I buy him shoes?   How would I know what size? Maybe I could bring him into Lord and Taylor.  Would they even let me in with him?  Would he just turn around and sell the shoes and use the money for God knows what?”  As the questions swirled in my head, I kept walking in the opposite direction.

I was shaken for days afterward.  The sight of a homeless person wasn’t new to me — I’ve lived in the New York area most of my life, including the “bad-old days” of the 70s and 80s, when it seemed that every subway station and street corner was a great black hole of human need.  I was taught to look away, hold tight to my purse and keep moving. But this day was different.  I wanted to help, but didn’t know where to begin.  I wanted to do something, but felt utterly impotent.

This is the flip side of the Mighty Mouse delusion I wrote about in my last post.  Instead of feeling all-powerful to save, we can feel weak and small and useless. Just this morning, I looked at pictures of refugees emerging from the Aegean Sea with that haunted look in their eyes, and I thought —I am just one person, far away, with no useful expertise to offer.  Could I be more useless?

Instead of rushing in with fantasies of saving the day, we can let the enormity, the complexity or the intractability of the problem render us immobile.  The flip side of thinking ourselves more powerful than we are is believing we have no power at all.  Each is a serious misunderstanding of what God asks of us.

Sometimes we think that in asking us to feed the hungry, God expects us to eradicate hunger.  We think that in asking us to clothe the naked, God is expecting us to eliminate poverty.  Not so.  When Jesus says, “The poor you will have with you always,”  it is a sobering reminder that we live in a broken world that only the Second Coming will completely heal.  Still, this isn’t an excused absence from doing social justice.  We are still called to love, clothe, feed, visit and bear one another’s burdens.  But we do so knowing that the ultimate, complete restoration of God’s good creation is yet to come.

God is in charge of eternity.  We are responsible for today.  Regardless of the final outcome, every act of service and love is holy and sufficient in and of itself.   Ironically, several weeks after the policeman bought him new boots, that same homeless man was spotted, barefoot once again.  The cynics said, “See, he probably sold those boots and bought booze. That cop was a sucker.”  Maybe so.

Loving and caring for God’s people can be a messy business. It isn’t always clear what to do, when to do it, or how.  There’s no guarantee that you won’t be taken advantage of, or that what you do will really help.  But God only asks us to act, and to leave the outcome to Him.

We are not all-powerful.  We are not powerless.

The life of faith is lived in the tension between these two poles.  St. Ignatius put it this way:  “Act as if everything depends on you.  Trust as if everything depends on God.”

 

 

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