Sainthood as challenge of the acceptable

Posted: October 28, 2020 in Uncategorized

Matthew 5: 1-12

David Lose begins a sermon he wrote some years back with reference to a scene in Schindler’s List the movie where Amon Goeth, played by Ralph Fiennes, is the commandant of a German death camp. Goeth is, in brief, a violent sociopath, prone to kill the Jewish prisoners at his camp indiscriminately. And he believes that his ability to kill is the very essence of power. Oskar Schindler, played by Liam Neeson, is a consummate showman and has somehow worked his way into Amon Goeth’s good graces. One evening, Schindler challenges Goeth’s beliefs about power. The ability to kill isn’t power; the ability to have mercy is power. That’s why, Schindler argues, the Emperor was the most powerful person in Rome. Anyone could kill; only the Emperor could pardon a convicted criminal out of mercy. Goeth “tries on” being merciful, pardoning a few people who have annoyed him. It feels good, but he can’t pull it off for long, eventually returning to his brutal ways. Exercising mercy, it turns out, is harder than it looks and proves to be a power that he eludes him as he is drawn back to the ordinary, cultural exercise of violence as power.

The connection with this scene in relation to the Beatitudes is possibly the common mistake we make when reading the Beatitudes which is to see them as a kind of moral check list. Sermons following this interpretative line will typically urge their hearers to live a “beatitudes-kind-of-life” (or employ some other moralistic and simplistic slogan). And let’s admit it this approach is sympathetic to the pull of this reading. This is Matthew, after all, who is prone to defining the Christian life in terms of behaviour. And the beatitudes do indeed lift up particular behaviours – hungering and thirsting for righteousness, being merciful – that are admirable and lend themselves to exhortation. But while we can imagine imploring folks toward some of these ideals, it feels like it makes less sense to urge some other beatitudes as actions – “Go be meek!” – and somewhat ridiculous when it comes to others still – “Be mournful!” So? What do we do with this?

Perhaps we can look past Matthew and his agenda of behaviour modification and  see the Jesus he is talking about as inviting us to imagine what it’s like to live in the realm of God and, by inviting that imagination, drawing a sharp contrast between the realm of God and the realm of the world and challenging our often unconscious allegiance to the latter. Maybe we could see the world as different but not bad as traditional theology has often painted it. Maybe we could notice that the people who Jesus is calling “blessed” are definitely not the people the world culture views as blessed. Those who are mourning rather than happy? Those who are meek rather than strong? Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness rather than wealth? That seems absurd does it not. And that holds for pretty much everything on Jesus’ list.

We remember here again that in Matthew’s chronology, Jesus begins his ministry with a summary of all that will unfold in the text before he meets his fate.  What they hear from Jesus is a series of contrasts that are completely counter-intuitive to conventional wisdom: those who “hunger for righteousness” and are currently dismayed by the odds against them will prevail in the end; those who show mercy and make peace even when they are persecuted for their beliefs and actions, following Jesus’ example, will be known as “children of God.”  However, the same old human story relentlessly continues: you can expect to be persecuted “in the same way the prophets who were before you.”

So perhaps Jesus is playing for larger stakes than an improved ethic. Perhaps he’s challenging those who we imagine are being blessed in the first place. Who is worthy of God’s attention? Who deserves our attention, respect, and honour? And by doing that, he’s also challenging our very understanding of blessedness itself and, by extension, challenging our present culture’s view of pretty much everything. In our culture, blessing equals power. success. the good life. righteousness. What is noble and admirable. What is worth striving for and sacrificing for. You name it. Jesus seems to invite us to call into question our culturally-born and very much this-worldly view of all the categories with which we structure our life, navigate our decisions, and judge those around us.

And one of the big challenges we encounter in this approach is the grapple with our view of those we have loved and lost in the previous year. In doing this we can come against the inadequacy of vocabulary in light of the kingdom or realm Jesus’ proclaims. It is too easy here to leap off into the supernatural or the superstitious when we have not “lost” those who have died. In traditional terms they live now in the nearer presence of God, beyond our immediate reach, yet connected to us through memory, faith, and love. This is the unblessed verses saints when we celebrate All Saints’ – and, indeed, at all memorial services. Maybe we are called to participate in the inversion of the kingdom of the world which believes that all we can see, hold, control, or buy is all there is. When we commend those, we have loved to God’s care, we proclaim that God’s kingdom is not some distant thing or place but rather exists now, exerts its influence on us now, transforms our reality now. All Saints’, along with all Christian funerals, is a repetition and rehearsal of the Jesus promise that there is something more, something that transcends our immediate experience, and this proclamation is rooted in the confidence that God’s love and life are more powerful and enduring that the hate, disappointment, and death that seems at times to surround us. Again, not supernatural but rather part of what it means to be human.

Here we have the connection with the scene from Schindler’s List. The other-worldly concept challenging alternative Way that is the possibility of imagining that the path to God is not through might, power over or domination of thought but rather through what might be termed a weak theology, through a worldly foolishness, through doubt, failure and what I have suggested in my book. Through an ‘almost’. Or as John D Caputo suggests, through a God that does not exist but rather insists. In this alternative exercising mercy is more powerful than wielding violence, turning the other cheek, loving one’s enemy’s is more powerful than being right. The Jesus Way, is suddenly a very this-worldly possibility. But it’s not easy. It takes practice.

Suddenly returning hate for hate, condemning those who do not conform to our expectations or moral categories, and exercising violence against those who will not yield to us seems so clear it becomes hard not to believe they are the only possibilities, whether as participants or victims.  That’s what happens when we ask the hard questions that challenge our social norms and our assumptions of righteousness.

If this approach to the promised realm that the Jesus Way insists, we engage with is worthy then each week we gather is a gathering with others around One who would have been considered, in almost every conceivable way, an absolute loser and a tragic victim, rejected by the prominent, executed by the powerful. Yet as revelation of the Way becomes in tradition, Jesus the Christ, the one raised from the dead, as vindication of claims about his worth and validating the reality of the life and love to which he lived and loved.

So perhaps the task before us this All Saints’ Sunday, is less to exhort our people to a particular ethical behaviour than it is to recognize the alternative in-breaking promise is that this alternative realm is real and transformative, and it invites creative, creating imaginative construal. Even the slow demise of Christendom conforms that exhortation, rarely works. If it did the church would be growing would it not? And it’s not that we don’t know what we should do, but rather that we cannot see how. And we know that we do not need more rules because it is impossible to make enough. We know that we need a new heart. One that is rooted in the promise of surprise. The surprise of who is blessed, who is loved, and who has been commissioned to exercise the counter-cultural imagination Jesus proclaimed. And that starts with you and me; people who probably don’t feel particularly blessed, loved, or capable, yet if our story is correct it is those whom the Jesus story still calls for just those things.

Let’s be sure here. As traditionally evangelical and emotional as this call may be, it is hard to give what one does not have and this means that the call is not to give a beatitudes-informed list of ethics but rather a beatitudes-created set of eyes capable of seeing the divine as an alternative yet world transforming blessing. The alternative approach this text call us to is the rediscovery of the engagement between the stories of scripture and the whole human experience within the timeless conversation of tradition. If human concerns and questions are recognized and addressed in the biblical texts which know the human condition thoroughly and, simultaneously, bear witness to the holy, then we are to host a “sacred conversation” between all past texts and the present occasion when they are read and interpreted in public.

We can all agree that the world needs saints. And we might also say that saints need you and I to stand in a Jesus’ place and surprise them with the news that they, too, no matter what their circumstances or situation, and whether the world sees them this way or not– and even whether they see themselves this way or not – all are blessed and loved, and linked in this way with all the saints who have gone before us.

For those who would see the concept of saints as elitist and selective Jean-Luis Chretien reminds us that

“Other voices are at once the past and future of our own voice.  The past because they have already called us and even named us, they have already addressed themselves to us, and through their immemorial past, immemorial as far as we are concerned since they preceded the I, they have always already gathered lights, no matter, how obscure, in the place that becomes, little by little, our place.  Future of our voice also, since it is only through them that we can learn to speak and to say something.”

For those who would suggest that the idea of sainthood is an out of date concept and of no further use Ludwig Wittgenstein says:  

“You may say something new and yet it must be old.  In fact you must confine yourself to saying old things– and all the same it must be something new!  Different interpretations must correspond to different applications.  A poet too has constantly to ask himself: ‘but is what I am writing really true?’– and does this necessarily mean: ‘is this how it happens in reality?’  Yes, you have to assemble bits of old material.  But into a building.”

I want to finish with a summary of the above discussion which is that, there always has to be something to make the human connection between human beings and that which we name God, and that something has most often been rooted in human imagination, consisting of words to be sure; after all we humans are speakers and thinkers, as well as artists. Our words of prayers and, sometimes, even the words of our theological doctrines and ideas are but really the frail filament through which the collective consciousness passes.  Without them it would not pass at all, but they are frail nonetheless.” This is the ‘almost’ the process of becoming, the living planet, the cosmic system and very possibly, the realm that Jesus proclaimed as here and yet to come. It is to be seen in the foolishness of the crucifixion and in the weak theology of a ‘crucified God’,

The sainthood revealed in the beatitudes is not about a set of behavioural ethics but rather about the promise of, the possibility of a new transformed world, a world where love changes everything. Amen.

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