Fifteenth Weekend After Pentecost (C/RCL): “The Sand Running Out Behind Us” (Moses the Black and Forgiveness)
Luke 14:1, 7-14
August 27-28, 2016
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
Last year I found a funky little book called Saints Behaving Badly: The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men and Devil Worshippers Who Became Saints.1 Two of the people who traded in horns for halos are remembered on the church calendar this Sunday, August 28. One of them is named Moses the Black (Moses the Ethiopian). He’s referred to as “Cutthroat and Gang Leader.”
Moses the Black was born a long time ago, in 330 A.D. He was born a slave. When he was old enough to steal from his master, he did, got kicked out of the master’s household, and literally took to highway robbery to support himself. He was physically powerful and ferocious-looking. He didn’t hesitate to murder those whom he and his band robbed. He and his men had many a close call and made many a quick get-away – until finally he found himself on the lam in a remote monastery in a desert place called Skete. Moses pretended he wanted to become a monk, figuring it was a good place to bide his time and stay under the radar. Little did he guess he’d like it there and that the Holy Spirit and the monks’ lives of faith-active-in-love would bring him to faith and end his life of crime!
Moses, who had previously shed blood as easily as we shed a tear, became a total pacifist, to the point that he refused to take up arms against Berber tribesmen who invaded the monastery years later. By then Moses was 75 and abbot of that little community. He encouraged his brothers, his confreres, to flee to safety in the desert. He and 7 others remained behind. They did not resist their attackers and were slaughtered. In our Lutheran book of festivals and commemorations Moses the Black is therefore remembered not as “cutthroat and gang leader” but as monk and martyr.
So what could a man like that who lived so long ago and so far away have to teach us?? A big reason to remember saints’ lives is to be inspired by their faith and to live out the Gospel more faithfully ourselves. I’m not aware any of us needs to turn away from a life of crime or lay aside a penchant for violence. And it would be unusual (not impossible) for a Lutheran to be called to live a monastic life. Moses the Black has a lot to teach us about humility, though. And humility is at the heart of this week’s Gospel and the “Parable of the Chief Seats” as Robert Farrar Capon calls it.
Our friend Moses the Monk never forgot the pit of sin out of which he had climbed. He never forgot that he had waylaid travelers, stolen treasures, slit throats. Although he became abbot, head of his monastic community, he absented himself from any gathering that rendered judgment on another. When God had been so merciful to him, who was he to mete out punishment on a fellow human being?
There’s a wonderful little book called Wisdom of the Desert Fathers. In it we find the story of how there was an assembly of the monks in Skete to deal with the transgression of one of the brothers. Moses was a no-show. They sent a message to him: “We’re waiting on you to begin!” He went, but in true prophetic form he silently entered carrying behind his back an old basket filled with sand that ran out, leaving a trail after him. Asked what in the world we was doing, he answered:
“My sins are running behind me and I do not see them, and I am come to judge the sins of another man.”2
The proceedings ended before they formally began, and the brother who had sinned was forgiven.
The Celebrate intro to the Gospel says that Jesus:
“uses the opportunity to teach his hearers to choose humility rather than self-exaltation.”
We have to be careful how we view humility, though. Some people think it means we put ourselves down. It doesn’t! Humility means seeing ourselves as God sees us. God doesn’t see us as worthless nothings but as beloved children of God. God sees both the sinner and the saint in us. Humility isn’t a pin that pops the balloon of our pride. Humility is like a pair of spectacles that allows us to see ourselves through God’s eyes. If we were nothings, we would not be made in the image of God! But as the psalmist reminds us, God has made us “little less than the angels, and crowned [us] with glory and honor.” (Psalm 8:5)
Over vacation I read a couple of volumes from one of my favorite detective series about Chief Homicide Inspector Armand Gamache. He’s investigating a murder in a monastery and interviewing a monk with a magnificent voice who sings in that community’s world-renowned choir and unapologetically tells Gamache:
“I am the harmony.”
It was such an extraordinary thing to say that the Chief merely stared at this young monk, with the simple robes. And the grandiose statement.
“Pardon? I don’t understand what that means.”
“Don’t get me wrong, the choir doesn’t need me….”
“Then what did you mean?” It seemed to the Chief a little late for humility.
“Any choir would be better with me in it.”
The two men stared at each other. It now struck Gamache that this might not be pride or bragging. It might be a simple statement of fact. Just as monks might learn to accept their failings, maybe they also learned to accept their gifts. And not pretend, for the sake of a false humility, not to have them.3
One of the gifts we shouldn’t have any problem accepting joyfully is our presence, our part, our place in this community of faith, which enables us to welcome others. ‘Doesn’t matter whether you’re formally on the roles or not. Many of the most active members of our faith family aren’t official members at all. Visitors come in, maybe timidly, maybe tentatively, not knowing (for whatever reason) if they’ll receive a welcome, and certainly not knowing whether you have been here a week or a lifetime. You become Christ to them. Please welcome warmly!
In all holy humility we can say we are rich! As we’ve often sung, “Now let the weak say I am strong, let the poor say I am rich, because of what the Lord has done for us! Give thanks!” We are rich, not because we host the banquet – our Lord does that. We are rich because we are invited to dine at the Lord’s Dinner Table, and we are invited to invite others to do the same. Jesus says, near the end of today’s Gospel:
“…[W]hen you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” (Luke 14:13)
Those are all people whom the Jewish Law forbid serving in the Temple, because they were not “perfect.” (Unlike the rest of us??) Their poverty or their physical deformity was believed to be God’s punishment for their sin.
Whom do we judge unworthy? Martin Luther said that worthiness to approach the altar, to receive the Sacrament is our humble acknowledgement that this is Jesus’ Body given for my sin, and this is Jesus’ Blood shed for my sin. I get it. And when I’m tempted to judge anyone else’s worthiness, from the outside looking in, I’d better picture myself like Moses the Black, trailing sin like sand behind me. Amen
1Thomas J. Craughwell, Saints Behaving Badly: The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men and Devil Worshippers Who Became Saints (NY: Doubleday, 2006).
2Gail Ramshaw, More Days for Praise: Festivals and Commemorations in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2016), p. 206.
3Louise Penny, The Beautiful Mystery (NY: Minotaur Books, 2012), p. 92.
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham