Unsung Saints Advent 2020

11th day of Christmass, January 4

Hebrews 11:23-31

By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them.

By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given a friendly welcome to the spies.

Nelda and Oran, Faithful Servants


In every congregation, there are faithful servants who never make a big splash in the little pond. To paraphrase George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, they do most of the worshiping and paying and serving and dying. These are the unsung saints who rarely miss worship, never miss placing an envelope in the plate, will gladly do the thankless tasks that get little attention or appreciation from the many, and just don’t want or expect to be the ones everyone listens to with bated breath. Faithful servants like Nelda and Oran will always greet the pastor at the door with a smile and shake his hand after worship (in other than pandemic years). They are the salt of the earth.

My Dad impressed upon me the importance of learning and remembering people’s names. I have been asked regularly for years how I do that. I memorize faces with names. It’s the original facial recognition system. We all want to be called by name unless we’re in trouble. Every life matters.

So, I knew Nelda and Oran as the faithful children of the Light, a well-dressed older couple originally from small towns. Like many, they moved to Austin when it was the sleepy state capital and university town before California techies began migrating there. Nelda was from the extended family of those who created Blue Bell Ice Cream, but she laughed and said, “My folks were not the ones with the money.” Oran and she had never been able to have children, so she taught Sunday School for years, and one little girl grew up to be a surrogate daughter who showered love on Nelda and Oran.

When one member of a childless couple becomes the surviving spouse, the silence of the home becomes deafening. I remember meeting with Nelda to plan Oran’s funeral and then had several meals at her home. Knowing that I would ask about her future, she shared that she had already made her funeral and estate plans. It was a necessary conversation so that her pastor would know with whom to speak when she died, but Nelda also knew the church always asked to be remembered in parishioners’ plans.

Whether it’s done smoothly or crassly, there are those who, like James and John or their Mama, need to be more important in the kingdom than everyone else. When pastors are young, we are often wanting to be noticed by the bishop (or whatever the regional judicatory head is called) and hoping to get fast tracked to the bigger, better church or office. I remember those days with a goodly amount of sadness and amusement at my younger self. The same sort of need for recognition by lay persons and even staff in a parish can be such a bane. Our Lord still speaks, “The last will be first and the first last.” Paul tells a young pastor that by rejecting faith and a good conscience, some have brought about the shipwreck of their faith (1 Timothy 1:19). The confusion of authority with power is both an internal and an external problem.

Nelda and Oran never needed to be “somebodies” in their church. They were grateful children of God by grace alone and always humble before the Lord and their neighbors. When Oran died, Nelda never lost her sweet demeanor and gentle smile, but the sadness in her eyes was unmistakable. They had been young together, built and furnished a home with treasured possessions, and had cared for what they had with wise stewardship. She knew she would be able to go on financially. But going on was a sad road.

In my fortieth year as a pastor and five more as a student and vicar before, I have seen a lot of death and have officiated at hundreds of funerals. Then, we properly honor the uniqueness of each Christian life and lift up the hope that is ours in Christ Jesus. It’s the afterwards, the in-between now and later, that is so hard to live and so painful for a pastor to behold: All the empty spaces where the unsung saints sat and the all too often lonely eyes of faithful servants like Nelda separated for a season from her Oran.

The president of our seminary used to talk about the kingdom of God being an inverted pyramid with the Lord at the bottom. The man had a monstrous ego. Now he knows the kingdom’s economics better.

Dear Father, thank you for Nelda and Oran, faithful servants whose greatest gift is to exemplify for the ambitious and those with give-me-attention disorder how to be humble. In Jesus’ holy name. Amen.

Place thirty-seven pennies, nickels, or dimes in a bowl or box as a sign of love for neighbors in need.

St Matthew's Pastor Sam Zumwalt

Pastor Samuel D. Zumwalt, STS
St Matthew's Evangelical Lutheran Church
Wilmington, NC

English Standard Version (ESV)

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.