Wednesday, August 16, 2017

What can we say come November 5? All Saints Day / 22nd after Pentecost

     We do All Saints on Nov. 5, and those are the lections I’ll treat here.  It would be hard not to address Revelation 7:9-17 – but I am finding some intriguing linkages between 1 John 3:1-3 and Matthew 5:1-12.  Maybe you’ll go there with me…

     In his classic Anchor Bible commentary, Raymond Brown calls 1 John 3:1-13 “an emotional aside” for the epistle writer, amazed over what God has already given, more moved by what is to come.  The opening verb, “See,” is strong, more like “Look!” or “Behold!” (ίδετε).  Also, visibility must matter:  the Father’s love must be tangible, viewable – in Christ, and in the life of the Body.

     Reading slowly (always recommended), the second word, “what,” is ποταπήν, which, according again to Raymond Brown, expresses “both quality and quantity, thus, how much love, and what amazing love.”  Volume (overwhelmingly endless) and quantity (the likes of which we only dream of): God’s love makes us God’s children.  Jesus spoke of becoming like children – and I think of the beautiful moment in 2 Kings 5 when the leprosy-stricken Naaman finally washed in the Jordan, and his flesh was restored “like that of a young child.”

     How fitting for All Saints – and every day: “It does not yet appear what we shall be.”  “Is that all there is?” was a sappy song Peggy Lee made a career of singing – its message being if this is all there is, then “let’s break out the booze and have a ball.”  Maybe we break out the wine and celebrate our Lord’s supper and its anticipation of the heavenly banquet.

     “When he appears, we shall be like him.”  Wow.  Jesus doesn’t save me so I can keep being like me; our portrayals of heaven (playing golf, lavish meals, sunshine) are so vapid.  We will be like him (and we can’t be sure, but most likely the writer means God, not just Jesus).   St. Athanasius and a holy host of theologians unblushingly spoke of deification: we will become glorious – 
or as C.S. Lewis put it in his astonishing sermon “The Weight of Glory,” “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which you would be strongly tempted to worship… There are no ordinary people.  You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

     This “being like him” implies something counter-cultural.  “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”  C. Clifton Black (New Interpreter’s Bible) calls this purity one of the “family traits” of God’s children.  The preacher can speak of her own family traits (like the Howell men get white hair early but it stays attached, or the Johnsons are big talkers, or the Whiteheads are given to depression).  God’s children are pure, or at least aim for purity – and they are liberated, motivated, and energized to do so because of that immense love (with all the volume and quality).  I like Black’s questions: “Can it really be doubted that a hunger for assurance that they are ‘children of God’ persists among many of our society’s children, whose destruction of self and of others stems largely from never having known the love of even a human parent, much less the love of a heavenly one?  Does not a deep yearning for this assurance gnaw even at the soul of the church, which is beset by the alluring but finally heartbreaking promises of fulfillment in our jobs, wealth and politics?”

     Maybe what we shall be is envisioned by Jesus in the Beatitudes.  I cannot think of Matthew 5:1-12 without remembering Mother Teresa’s visit to the Charlotte Coliseum.  Just as she came out on the stage, the whole crowd was singing that wonderful David Haas, “Blest Are They.”  My daughter Sarah, who was 8 at the time, saw her face on the jumbotron and said “Daddy, she looks like somebody in the Bible.”  Indeed.  It occurred to me she looked like the Beatitudes.

    But which one?  Poor in Spirit, yes, merciful, yes, a peacemaker, yes.  I spent a lot of time with this text while writing The Beatitudes for Today – and two important realizations came to me (from the wisdom of others, not any brilliance on my part).  The Beatitudes aren’t a list of distinct things; they are a set, or a ladder, or a painting of the life of God’s children (1 John 3 again).

     And the Beatitudes can be read as autobiographical.  Whom most flawlessly do Jesus’ words describe?  Jesus himself.  Weaving this together with 1 John 3, it may make a wise sermon to say We will be like Jesus – in these ways.

     The Beatitudes aren’t commandments: go be poor in spirit, and then go be merciful and make peace too.  Jesus looked out at a bunch of nobodies, who felt oppressed, not blessed, and this messianic one blessed them.  It’s a stunning moment; they must have been perplexed and delighted.  Blessed are the poor (Luke’s version)? Blessed are those who mourn?  Blessed are the persecuted?  We think of blessings as comforts, success – but in Jesus’ upside down world, things are inverted, and for this we should give thanks to God.

     It’s important to remember two things.  Robert Schuller wrote The Be Happy Attitudes – a fundamental misconstrual of God, us, and the text.  The translation “Happy are those…” (so μακαριος is rendered in the Common English Bible) confuses readers whose whole life quest has been that elusive, ill-defined “happiness.”  This isn’t a path to what you’ve always been looking for.

     It’s also crucial to take note of what Jesus didn’t say – like “Blessed are the successful, blessed are the healthy, blessed are Americans, blessed are the white people, blessed are the good-looking…” (expand on your own!).

     I think I will touch a moment or two on each Beatitude, and hopefully attach a person to each one – and, as it is All Saints Day, I’ll fixate longer on the Mourners, and the Pure in Heart (in keeping with 1 John 3!)

   Blessed are the Poor in spirit (or poor): Jesus doesn’t glamorize poverty.  But the spiritual advantage, the humility, the empty, available space, the lack of stuff to cling to, the absence of false buttresses to your self-worth could be probed.  Jim Forest said, “Being poor in spirit means letting go of the myth that the more I possess, the happier I’ll be” – and Gustavo Gutiérrez spoke of a desirable “spiritual childhood.”  Knowing my impoverishment, my brokenness: this is the opening to life from God.

     Blessed are those who mourn.  We pity, or avoid those who mourn, and hope I don’t join their ranks any time soon.  But Jesus blesses them – and how lovely, on All Saints’ Day.  If you’ve not read Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for a Son, his reflections on the death of his 23 year old son, you should.  Immense heart and wisdom there.  Over time, his grief lightened a little, “But it has not disappeared” (and never will).  “That is as it should be.  If he was worth loving, he is worth grieving over.  Grief is existential testimony to the worth of the one loved…  Every lament is a love-song.”

Wolterstorff said he would for the rest of his life look at the world “through tears.  Perhaps I shall see things that dry-eyed I could not see… The mourners are those who have caught a glimpse of God’s new day, who ache with all their being for the day’s coming, and who break out into tears when confronted with its absence….  The mourners are aching visionaries.  The Stoics of antiquity said: Be calm.  Disengage yourself.  Jesus says: Be open to the wounds of the world.  Mourn humanity’s mourning, weep over humanity’s weeping, be wounded by humanity’s wounds, be in agony over humanity’s agony.  But do so in the good cheer that a day of peace is coming.” 

     And then Richard Rohr (in Jesus’ Plan for a New World): “Jesus praises the weeping class, those who can enter into solidarity with the pain of the world and not try to extract themselves from it.  That is why Jesus says the rich man can’t see the Kingdom.  The rich one spends life trying to make tears unnecessary and, ultimately, impossible….  The weeping mode allows one to carry the dark side, to bear the pain of the world without looking for perpetrators or victims, but instead recognizing the tragic reality that both sides are caught up in.”

     Blessed are the meek.  Try putting “meek” on you resume…  and yet the humble, the teachable, the small and unlikely are blessed by Jesus.  My mind is drawn to Tolkien’s hobbits – and then the principles I articulate in my new book, Weak Enough to Lead: with God it’s not about skills and strengths, but vulnerability, brokenness.  Meekness. 

     Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Not those who are righteous.  Just those who crave it, seek it – like those Cappadocians, getting a taste of righteousness which only brings the realization of how much farther there is to go, which then whets the desire for more.

     Blessed are the merciful.  Reflect on Pope Francis’s ministry, and comments we’ve made earlier in this blog series on Walter Kasper’s book, which influenced him and me, Mercy.  What everybody wants, so hard to find.

     Blessed are the Pure in Heart (as in John 3!).  The Greek καθαροι – catharsis, implies having been though a cleansing.  Søren Kierkegaard wrote a duly famous book entitled Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.  The human predicament is that we let ourselves get frittered away in multiple directions, trying to be and do everything, when we were made for just one thing, for the one thing that finally matters:  God.  If purity of heart is “to will one thing,” then focus is everything.  The pure, like a race-horse, need “blinders” to block out their peripheral vision, so they keep their eyes on the one goal, straight ahead, the finish line.

     Our diffuse, scattered lives do come into focus on occasions, like those we mark on All Saints, whether we seek purity of heart or not.  The phone rings in the middle of the night, or the doctor informs you that “it is malignant,” or someone runs a red light.  Suddenly your calendar, which loomed over you as a relentless taskmaster just moments before, suddenly flies out the window, and nothing else matters but the one thing.  Anna Quindlen’s novel, One True Thing, tells the story of a daughter who leaves her life and career to care for her mother, who is dying of cancer.  Her love for her mother was “the one true thing.”  When asked, “Did you love your mother?” she replied, “The easy answer is yes.  But it’s too easy just to say that when you’re talking about your mother.  It’s so much more than love – it’s, it’s everything, isn’t it?  When someone asks you where you come from, the answer is your mother.  When you’re mother’s gone, you’ve lost your past.  It’s so much more than love.  Even when there’s no love, it’s so much more than anything else in your life.  I did love my mother, but I didn’t know how much until she was gone.”

     Months passed, and then as she looked back, she had to confess that “what was important… was that we had so misunderstood her, this woman who had made us who we were while we barely noticed it…  And being so wrong about her makes me wonder now how often I am utterly wrong about myself.”

     Purity of heart is to will one thing.  To use Quindlen’s words, purity of heart is about our relationship that is really more than love with the one from whom we all came.  We would have our hearts purified, for we are a mess of misunderstandings about God, and therefore we are a mess of misunderstandings about ourselves.  One thing is needful.  Blessed are the pure in heart.  The wounds we mourn in life can bring the needed healing, yielding what Marilynne Robinson called “an earned innocence.”

     I’m also driven back to Psalm 73, which redefines “God is good to the pure in heart.”  Purity – not moral blamelessness, but the simple desire to be “near God.”  And this good?  It is nothing but God’s own self.  On his deathbed, Thomas Aquinas heard a voice he assumed was God: “Thomas, you have written well of me.  What reward would you ask for yourself?”  Thomas replied, “Nothing but yourself, O God.”  And Jesus says the pure in heart will see God – again, identical to 1 John 3!

     Blessed are the Peacemakers.  Not the peace-wishers, or the lack-of-peace-complainers, but the peace-makers.  I think of Father Elias Chacour and his brilliant ministry bringing together warring people in Israel/Palestine.  The steps into his church in Ibillin are emblazoned with one Beatitude after another.

     And blessed are the persecuted.  All the martyrs through history, those harassed for their faith today, all who suffer on account of Christ.  Don’t pity them.  They are God’s children.

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