2017 February Issue
The Faith Of Simple Folk
I have an embarrassing confession to make. I realized only a few days ago what Luke is trying to do in this text. For years I had read it and made the unwarranted assumption that old Simeon was a priest. Simeon was a priest and Anna was a prophetess — good balance and symmetry. But something about the text kept nagging me. Then I realized what it was. Simeon was not a priest at all. He was a simple old man — a layman — an ordinary person. And Anna was not an official prophetess. She was merely a devout old woman who came to the temple a lot. Luke was only underlining a point he had begun to make by telling about the shepherds who were called from their fields and flocks to worship Christ: The coming of Christ was to simple folk! Luke, did you notice, doesn't even tell the story of the wise men; that's Matthew. Luke's whole concern, in the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus, is to emphasize one thing: Christianity is based on the faith of simple folk.
Come to think of it, that's what Luke's whole Gospel is about. It's what the book of Acts is about. It wasn't the priests and Pharisees who received the kingdom of God, it was the lay people, the untutored, the untrained, the unsophisticated. It was simple fishermen like James and John and Peter. It was unimportant public officials like Matthew. It was women like Mary and Martha and Mary Magdalene.
Christianity, my friends, has never been a religion of priests and theologians, ministers and teachers; from the very beginning it has been a religion of devout men and women with no claim whatsoever to professional expertise about their faith. This is important to remember.
I once heard a group of ministers talking at a minister's conference. They were complaining about how they were treated by their various congregations. One of them said, "Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could have churches without people—just ministers?!" But that would be impossible, wouldn't it? God never intended for the church to be an organization of ministers. What he did intend for it to be is an organization of lay persons, all "righteous and devout," like old Simeon, all devoted to fasting and prayer, like old Anna, and all ready, in simple faith, to receive his kingdom and rejoice in it. Ministers, in Christianity, are expendable; good, simple folk are not!
When I think back across my years as a Christian and recall the persons who have blessed me most by their witness to Christ, there are very few ministers and theologians on the list. There are far more wonderful lay persons. I remember Lillian Vaughn, a secretary, who clasped her hands and squealed with delight at the presence of God, and Wallace Ping, a shop worker, whose faith had converted him so completely that his face shone with an inner beauty. I remember Willie Creech, a beautiful, unlettered man who looked up from a hospital bed after his back was broken in a car wreck and had tears in his eyes for the goodness of God that had spared his life, and old Mrs. Mullins, who lived for years as a cheerful widow, always praying for the day when she would be reunited with her husband. There was iron in those people, and gentleness and tenderness, because faith had put it there. I never met a minister or theologian who was their equal!
People expect ministers to have a lot of faith, and I suppose most of us do, at one time or another, or we wouldn't be in the ministry at all. But our faith is often beaten down or wrung out from having to deal with so many problems, from always being exposed to the seamy side of life. And at such times it is the faith of lay folks that does more than anything to restore us, to reinfuse in us a sense of hope and joy and expectation.
This is not to say that there is not a lot of wrong headedness among lay folks—a lot of spite and willfulness and confused theology. Any minister could write a book about the shortcomings of his or her congregation, and some ministers have. We have all felt at times like the Rev. Will B. Dunn, in the comic strip Kudzu. "I like to think of myself as a shepherd," says Will, "and you, the congregation, as my flock." "And of course," he continues, "it grieves the shepherd when his sheep go astray." "Baaa!" somebody says. All over the congregation the sound arises: "Baa! Baa! Baa!" "Let's face it," says Will. "The sheep are startin' to get on the shepherd's nerves!"
It is the faith of simple folk, nevertheless—folk uncontaminated by theological education and constant contact with the inner workings of the church—on which the church of Jesus Christ stands.
I can go into a prayer breakfast at seven o'clock on Monday morning, when the world is going to hell in a hand basket and the village clock strikes thirteen, and hear one good layperson after another baring his or her heart for this person who is ill or that one who is having a hard time in life or an other who has received some bad news and I walk away at eight o'clock ready to take on fifteen devils, the nuclear arms problem, and the IRS. Luke knew what he was writing about, that common folks, lay people, are the backbone of the church.
Look at them. Look at yourselves. You take God at his word. God says to Abraham, "Abraham, leave your home, go out into the wilderness, I want you to found a new dynasty, a new people that will be special"; and Abraham goes, just like that. God says, "Moses, go down to the pharaoh of Egypt and demand the release of my people." Moses says, "God, I'm not very good at that sort of thing. God says, "I know you're not, but I'll be with you." And Moses goes. God says, "Peter, go over to Greece and help those people over there to become Christians." Peter says, "Lord, they're not good Jews." God says, "You think I don't know that? I want you to go and help them to become Christians." And Peter goes. It's that way all through history. God says, "Go there, do this," and his simple folk say, "Yes, Lord, I will." You take God at his word, you do what he asks. No equivocation, no beating around the bush, you just do it.
I remember Sam Flynn, who was a member of the first church I ever pastored. Sam was a simple, uneducated man who eked out a small living for himself, his wife, and three little children out of a few hardscrabble acres of farmland. When pledging time came at the church, Sam came in with a pledge far higher than he could afford. I said, "Sam, this is too much. God doesn't want you to short your family for the sake of the church." Sam said, "That's what God told me to give, and I have to do it. He'll take care of us. I know he will." He took God at his word.
Look again: You build your lives around faith. People build their lives around all sorts of things. Some build them around houses and some around race Tracks and some around big bank accounts and some around social standing and some around education. God's good folk build them around faith.
In England's Winchester Cathedral, near the Lady Chapel, there is a pedestal bearing the brass figure of William Walker, a diver, who is credited with saving the cathedral with his own hands. In the early part of this century there was fear that the cathedral would collapse because of rotten underpinnings, and there was no money to replace them. From 1906 to 1912, working at night and on weekends, William Walker single handedly replaced all the underpinnings, working for no compensation and paying for the materials out of his own earnings. He did it because his whole life was built around the Christian faith. There were others who could have afforded to do the work much easier than he, whose lives were built around other things. But he did it because his life was built around faith.
Dame Edith Sitwell, one of the most famous intellectuals of our time, became a Christian because of the serenity she had seen on the faces of peasant women praying in the churches of Italy. What she saw—and envied—were lives built around faith.
And look once more: You move toward death with unswerving acceptance. I wish all of you could have known Norman Walker during the last months of his life. Norm suffered as painfully and ignominiously as any person could: A vital, good looking man in his fifties, hard worker, world traveler, attacked by cancer of the throat and jaw, operated on, treated with chemicals, got to the point where he couldn't eat anything, his body wasting away, his hair fallen out, his face distorted by the disease. But through it all, through all the horrible months of waiting and wasting away, his eyes glowed with softness and kindness and faith. "I've prayed about it," he said, "and made my peace." He knew he was going toward God, that the Father's arms would be there to receive him.
I've always liked G. K. Chesterton's description of the early Christian martyrs: "They went forward toward death as if they smelled a field of flowers afar off." Norm went that way. A lot of folks can't. They go like Dylan Thomas, cursing the darkness. But the simple folk of God know better. They may not want to leave their loved ones behind, but when the time comes they're not afraid. They know they go to something better, to a life of beauty and glory and riches this world only dreams of.
"Now let your servant depart in peace," said old Simeon. He had seen God's salvation in Christ. That was all he needed to see. He was ready to go. It's all any of us need, isn't it?
Christianity is based on the faith of simple folk. That's why this memorial Sunday is so important, when we remember all those beautiful souls in the Lord who have gone before us and made such an impression on us that gifts have been made to the church and through the church in their names. Go home and read the list of them again. Dwell on the names and your memories of them. Ask God to help you to be like them, and to be a witness to faith in your time as they were in theirs. It will do you good. It is faith like theirs that keeps this church alive.
Queen Victoria, against the advice of the Archbishop of Canterbury, once took communion at the Church of Scotland in the little village of Crathle, near Balmoral, where the English monarchs have a home. The church register for the day quaintly records the attendance by profession. It reads: "Shepherds, 12; Servants, 11; Queens, 1." I thought I might start a Christmas sermon with that someday. Instead, I'd like to end this one with it. What it says is that the common folks are always in the majority in church, and it is their faith that perpetuates everything. The queens may come and go; it is the shepherds and servants, year in and year out, who maintain the church.
"God bless us, every one."