Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Holy Ones of God: Bonus Features

One can never say all that one wants in a sermon, much less all that can be said. The topic is just too deep, too rich, to take anything less than a lifetime -- and has, of course, taken many such lifetimes thus far without being exhausted.

But I found three points in particular this week in the propers for All Saints that I had wanted to include, but 1) I didn't have the time in the pulpit to add these and 2) Even had I had the time, including them would have risked distracting from the main message. However, bandwidth being what it is, I can include them here on my blog, rather like the 'director's cut' of a movie.

So here are three further points, included here as bonus features for you, my reader(s).

* One of the values of the beatitudes is that they help us in discernment. It can be quite tempting to look around us at those who have the conventional marks of success, and think that they are successful; they're not only doing something right, they're also doing the right thing.

On the other hand, in the absence of those marks, it can be quite tempting to come to the opposite conclusion. (This is particularly true in America, where we live and die by the myth that everyone can be rich and successful if they just work hard enough: if you are poor, hungry, mournful, or mocked and excluded, you have failed.) Forbes Magazine doesn't compile a list of the 100 poorest, hungriest, saddest souls; culturally, we don't know what to do with them but we are certain that they are not to be looked up and held as examples.

But if you have been embraced by the love of God, if we are being made holy through the Spirit, if (at least metaphorically) we have ‘sold all’ for the Kingdom of God, then to endure poverty, hunger, weeping, exclusion seem light by comparison. Of course, conventionally we might consider them marks of failure, signs that we have somehow gotten it wrong, that we need to turn back and begin again. But Jesus says ‘no, you are blessed.’ That is, if in embracing the Kingdom you are poor or excluded or what have you, this is not a sign that you have got it wrong, but simply the likely cost of holiness in a world beloved of God, yet still wracked by sin, death and disobedience.

* Friends, we might naturally observe at this point to that these people lived in very different times and places than we do: Maximus lived and taught in the seventh century Roman Empire; Dirk Willems was caught and imprisoned in sixteenth century Dutch lands; Clarence Jordan worked in mid twentieth century America. It is quite true that we must think and pray carefully and discerningly about how this holiness looks that is being worked out in our midst. Most likely it will not involve us being maimed or burned at the stake or having our work burned and destroyed.

But we also must not fool ourselves that it cannot involve suffering, or that it will automatically incorporate all of those marks of success that the world embraces: richness, fullness, self-satisfaction, popularity.** Of these, Jesus says ‘woe to you’.

He says this, I believe, in part because these very things cause us to focus on ourselves, they are signs of being 'curved in upon oneself', causing us to be self-satisfied, drawing us back from others, convincing us that we do not need them. In other words, they tend to cut against the holiness, the transforming love for others that the Spirit is growing in us. These are not the preoccupations of the saints, hence they are not to be our preoccupations.

* Sisters and brothers, lest we still not be convinced that true holiness can be blessed while enduring poverty, hunger, weeping, exclusion; or even more, if we are not convinced that the conventional signs of power and success are dangerous and (at least) potential sources of great woe, consider this: each of the three saints that I have described tonight was tortured, killed, or otherwise victimised by other Christians. These other Christians, whether they were the Emperor's court, the Protestant establishment, or the Ku Klux Klan**, belonged to or otherwise represented the powerful majority. No doubt they were able -- quite easily -- to rationalise their behaviour in terms of safety or security or what have you: have you ever noticed there is never a drought of moral justification of the atrocities we commit (or are committed on our behalf)? But looking back, it is clear who the saints were in these stories, and which people the church has mercifully blessed with anonymity.

Now, arguments might be made -- good ones, mind you -- that there was something seriously deficient about the Christian faith of the Emperor's court, the Protestant Establishment, or (especially) the KKK. I certainly agree with that, but it just amplifies my point: while we are living our lives, are we more like these who thought (sincerely***) that they were more-or-less faithful Christians, or more like those who were persecuted? Do we, in making this insightful historical discrimination, then simply assume that we are more like the latter than the former, and thus evade our own sin and disobedience, continuing to persecute the saints and true prophets? Friends, if we do this: woe to us!

** And therein is found one of my chief concerns with mega-churches. They work incredibly hard to make the seam between themselves and the world invisible, and in doing so embrace (quite intentionally) the culture's signs of success: richness, fullness, self-satisfaction, popularity. Which is fine, I suppose, if you are erecting a gilt carriage in which to ride to Hell. But Jesus seems to have other ideas: he says woe to such things. It seems to me that discerning Christians ought to embrace something else.

*** Not that sincerity has anything to do with it.


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