Servant of the Servants of God   Leave a comment

The following is a homily I gave at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, in March 2018 for the commemoration of Saint Gregory the Great.
Scripture: Mark 10:42-45
Audio note: Unfortunately the first three paragraphs did not get recorded. Mea culpa.

What do you think of when you hear the word servant? Does it have a good connotation or bad? Does it depend on the context?

The first thing that comes to my mind when I hear the word servant is the kind of household employees in mansions that we saw depicted in the TV show “Downton Abbey” and “The Rules Of The Game”, the Jean Renoir movie that inspired “Downton Abbey”.

Perhaps the word is complicated for you by the subservience implicit in its meaning. Or by its connotative adjacency to the word “slave”.

March 12 is the feast day of St. Gregory the Great, and I’m grateful to Reverend Justi for the invitation to preach this morning on the patron of my Community, the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory. I’m fond of reminding you that you are connected to the Brotherhood, and I hope that today you might feel drawn deeper into that connection.

St. Gregory was born around the year 540, the son of a Roman Senator and great-great-grandson of a pope. After a career in politics, Gregory turned to monastic life: he retired to his family home and founded a Benedictine monastery there. He expected to live out his days in prayer and contemplation, but in the year 590 he was chosen to be Pope.

He was reluctant to leave the monastery, and his papal correspondence often includes complaints about his job and a deep longing to be back in that quiet contemplative life, seeking union with the Creator rather than arbitrating ecclesiastical and political disputes.

But he was a great reformer in the Church, revising the liturgy, creating an accounting system for the Church’s resources, and reminding everyone—often in a confrontational way—of Christian responsibility to care and provide for people in need.

In 1969, when young Richard Thomas Biernacki—later Br. Richard Thomas, BSG—set out to found a religious community for church musicians, he and his friend and advisor, a Roman Catholic nun named Sister Margaret Mary Joyce, VHM, decided on Gregory as patron for two primary reasons:

One, Gregory is associated with the creation of the plainchant style that now bears his name—Gregorian chant—which was codified under his papacy. A fitting patron for church musicians, and though the Brotherhood’s charism has broadened significantly since then, music is still very important to us, and a number of our members old and new are church organists, choirmasters, or singers.

The other reason for the choice is that Gregory is beloved in the Anglican Communion (of which the Episcopal Church is part) for sending the first missionaries to England—brothers from his own monastery—which led eventually to the Christianization of England. A fitting patron for a Community that would help change the face of religious life in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion.

But perhaps the most important thing to know about Gregory the Great—the most important message we can learn from him—is the title he added to the papacy.

As he prepared for his enthronement, Gregory the monk thought about the impressive list of magisterial and imperial titles that came with the bishopric of Rome, and decided he needed to add one to keep him humble:

Servus Servorum Dei: Servant of the Servants of God.

As the Church was enthroning him at the top of its hierarchy, Gregory chose to place himself one step below anyone who was God’s servant. Gregory was signaling to the Church and the world that despite all these fancy titles like “Successor of the Prince of the Apostles” and “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church”, I am at your service!

As Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Jesus is telling his disciples—and us—that leadership in his reign means service, and greatness means giving all—to the point of opening his arms on the cross and pouring himself out to all of us.

And being that kind of servant might put you in service to the upper crust of society, or it might put you in service to lepers and sex workers. Perhaps all of the above. The tricky thing about being a servant to the servants of God is that we don’t get to determine who is or isn’t God’s servant.

Jesus modeled servanthood in the way he made himself available—for healing, counsel, or simply to be present—to everyone he encountered, particularly people in poverty and society’s outcasts. He modeled servanthood in his own obedience to God’s will.

Gregory made Servus Servorum Dei his personal motto. And in time Gregory’s attitude of servanthood became more important to the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory than his namesake chant or his establishment of English Christianity. “Servants of the Servants of God” became one of BSG’s mottos as well—a constant aspiration manifested in our vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

We have come to see special resonance in Gregory’s leaving the monastery for service in the world. Gregorian Brothers live in the world, not in a monastery—that is what makes us friars rather than monks (and we have St. Francis of Assisi to thank for that distinction). As religious, we spend a significant portion of every day in prayer and meditation. But we are called into service to God and God’s people, and the contemplative moments of our lives are what feeds our action on God’s behalf. We are apostolic—sent forth—rather than monastic—cloistered in a monastery. As our Brother Karekin Madteos says, we carry the monastery in our hearts.

Every Brother is involved in service of different kinds—in their own parish, in their communities and families, and in their jobs. But then: so are most of you. When you march for justice, or go to work, or spend time with your friends and families, and do so with love and intention, you are in ministry.

Many of you have heard me talk about Brother Ron Fender of blessed memory. Br. Ron spent the later part of his life in ministry to people in deepest poverty. He worked in the Community Kitchen in Chattanooga, Tennessee and lived among the impoverished clients; he provided foot care for them, and never accepted more than minimum wage payment from the Kitchen. He went on to found the House of the Magdalene, where he lived with and cared for several men who had previously been homeless. Throughout his time in Chattanooga he attended those living on the street, and often provided for and officiated at the burials of those who died.

But for most of his adult life he worked in the theatre as an actor and director, ministering to the souls of theatre-goers. Was that any less of a ministry? Any less servanthood?

My favorite story about Gregory is depicted in many pictures and icons of him, and in the medal that every professed Gregorian Brother wears with their profession cross (you’re welcome to ask me for a closer look). On this medal Gregory is sitting at his desk, writing a homily. And just above his shoulder is a dove. This image comes from an account of Gregory’s secretary, who said he saw a dove whispering homilies into Gregory’s ear—or in some versions of the story, putting the words directly into Gregory’s mouth with its beak!

Hagiography—biographies of saints—are often fantastic and far-fetched. As we say of these things: All of this is true, and some of it really happened!

But if you cannot accept this story as miracle, consider it as metaphor. Imagine the ways in which the Holy Spirit might be whispering words in your ear, or placing the words in your mouth with her beak.

Listen for the ways that God is calling you to deeper servanthood to the servants of God.IMG_2749

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