September 1. Labor Day weekend. We can smell Fall around the corner. School starts soon. For many of us this time of year carries excitement and a readiness to get back into a routine, to focus on getting things accomplished, quite frankly – to get back to work. As a student, I always enjoyed getting new school supplies, new books and new classes. The sadness of the end of summer was supplanted by looking forward to new possibilities.
But there is another factor at work as we come to the Labor Day weekend and that is a profound exhaustion at the never-ending pace of work. Summer breaks are less refreshing because we never fully leave our work and responsibilities since we stay connected via technology no matter how far away we roam. The pace of life keeps increasing as we get older and it gets harder and harder to keep up. There is so little time for quiet, so few opportunities to “switch off” so we keep working harder and harder to keep up with our many obligations. Very few of us obey the Sabbath commandment so we find ourselves growing ever more weary in body, mind and spirit.
What keeps driving us? Why do we keep striving and laboring and getting too little rest? The wisdom writers of Scripture and the great psychologists of the 20th century identify this core striving as our human ego needs. Our value is measured by our success, productivity, reputation and status. We believe that the harder we work, the more valued, admired and loved we will be. At the root of our unending labor is human pride – the belief that we alone are responsible for and in control of our destiny.
This view is reinforced in every aspect of our society. We are rewarded for how much we accomplish. We admire the successful and the famous. We elect people who demonstrate confidence that can so easily tip over into unhealthy arrogance.
This sin of pride, which is not the same as a healthy sense of the self, is addressed in our Judeo/Christian tradition. “The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.” Pride places self above all others and especially, above the Holy One. Pride insists on its own way. Pride is arrogant and rude and boastful. Pride and envy go hand in hand.
Pride wants the best seats at the table. Pride needs to be seen and honored. Pride wants to be associated with the most important and powerful rather than the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Pride is often associated with seething anger when the ego has been called into question and pride manifests as shame when a hidden fault is revealed.
We live in a time and in a nation where pride is rarely identified in a critical manner. The message is to be great, the best, the most beautiful, the top of the class. The notion of true humility, which involves a right understanding of our selves in relationship to the world and our Creator is undervalued. As we keep working so hard to get ahead, we forget that we are but mortal and therefore contingent, dependent, subject. There is great danger in overestimating our place. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
We can even turn the spiritual life into one of unending labor and striving. I have read and heard endless exhortations to discipline your life of faith, to work out spiritually, and to strive for a righteous life. So often we turn the gospel of God’s grace and unconditional love into a message of earning God’s favor through constant diligence and hard work.
This past Tuesday, our own Brother Isaac died at his home on the property. It was a privilege and honor to minister with him over the past 4 years and to spend time with him at the last. His spiritual journey was a rich one through many disciplines and traditions. When he fully embraced Christianity, it was in a spirit of a generous orthodoxy. He loved and followed Jesus and he probably knew more of theology than anyone I know but what most characterized his commitment to Christ was his desire to grow in humility.
In May of this year I was given the honor of preaching at the closing Eucharist of our diocesan clergy conference. I was pretty nervous about it, since these are my peers and we aren’t always kind to one another. Plus, the bishop was going to be present and that’s always a little bit fraught. As I thought about our calling as Christian ministers, Brother Isaac came to mind. And so I shared the following:
There’s someone I encounter every single day I show up at church because he’s the live-in caretaker on the property. He’s been in that role for 15 years, living in a small apartment. He’s one of many characters at St. Luke’s. We call him Brother Isaac. He’s a priest, a monk, and a hermit. He’s even been consecrated a bishop. At one point his theological library numbered over 3,000 books.
His job involves tending to all our trash. He picks up everything on the property from needles and food to propane tanks and tires. He manages the 2 dumpsters and 9 roller cans it takes to handle the garbage from 200 meals, 5 days a week, a shelter, drop-in center, music school, church plant, urban garden and 9 full-time residents. In addition he is the point person for the people who camp, sleep and pass out on the church grounds. Up until January of this year he made 3-5 rounds every day to keep up with the heavy use we get on the property. He’s easy to overlook because he’s quiet and he blends in with our unhoused neighbors.
But then he got sick, terminal cancer, and he could no longer perform his rounds. None of us had any idea how much he was doing and how hard it was until he had to stop. After the first month, when the trash was overflowing and it took about 10 of us to cover all he had been doing, I asked him, “How did you do this for so long? I get so fed up with everyone who abuses the property. I’m tired of cleaning up feces and vomit and garbage. It’s so hard to strike the balance between the needs of the vulnerable and the need for safety for everyone. How do you deal with such disturbed people every day?” How have you kept your patience and compassion this long?
He looked at me in his classic Brother Isaac way, with a little, knowing smile and said, “Well, God called me to a vow of humble service, and St. Luke’s has certainly provided that opportunity.”
At our first Easter Vigil in many years in April, Brother Isaac was in attendance. It was his final Easter. For high, holy days, he wears his cassock, pectoral cross and biretta. He sat in a pew in the old chapel and his attention was rapt. As Megan, one of our Associate clergy read the Easter Sermon of St. John Crysostom the long western light shone through the stained glass upon him and he was alight. He was radiant. His face was full of hope and faith and love. He saw the risen Christ. He was filled with the Spirit and he knew God.
Here is a portion of what he heard that evening:
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first. First and last alike receive your reward; rich and poor, rejoice together! Sober and slothful, celebrate the day! You that have kept the fast, and you that have not, rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!
Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one. Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith. Enjoy all the riches of His goodness! Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave. Amen.