All Saints Sunday – November 1, 2020
How often, since the Covid-19 pandemic began, have you said, “I can’t wait until life gets back to normal?” Are you tired, are you weary? I admit that I am a bit weary. We’re going through a lot….there is the pandemic, the rioting, the need to say Black Lives Matter because they’re not treated as though they do matter, the political environment and upcoming election…there’s a lot going on. A lot of struggles that can make us weary.
Of course, we want life to go back to normal…to travel again, and welcome people into our homes, and worship in-person in our churches, and put away our face masks, and send our children to school, and hug our loved ones without fearing for their safety. Of course, we want the dread, isolation, uncertainty, fear, grief and anxiety of this year to fade into memory.
But during this week when the church celebrates All Saints and All Souls, and the lectionary invites us to reflect deeply on Jesus’s inaugural “Sermon on the Mount,” it may be a good time to ask some painful questions: What exactly is “normal? Who decides how we define it? What does “normal” look like to Jesus — and does my vision, our vision, of normality align with his?
Perhaps you grew up hearing that the “Beatitudes” are “Be-attitudes,” — that is, postures and perspectives we should strive to adopt in order to earn favors from God. If you still believe this, then read Matthew 5:1-12 again, and notice that the passage doesn’t contain a single “should,” “ought,” or “thou shalt.” There is no transactional language in these verses at all. No commandments. No moral injunctions.
What Jesus is doing is simply describing reality. As in, “Here are the facts. Here is how the world works. Here is an accurate description of life as it truly is.” In other words, here is “normal.” God’s normal. Perhaps, if this interpretation is correct, the essential question to ask about the Beatitudes isn’t, “Have I worked hard enough to merit God’s blessing?” The essential question is, “Do I trust that God’s description of reality is accurate? Do I believe in Jesus’s version of ‘normal life’ enough to test all my versions against his? Or don’t I?”
In the Beatitudes, Jesus claims that the poor, the mournful, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure-hearted, the peaceful, and the persecuted are “blessed.” They are the fortunate ones. The ones whose lives are aligned with the heart and character of God. They are the ones who will enter heaven, experience comfort, inherit the earth, be filled, receive mercy, see God, and be called the children of God.
Do we believe this?
The problem, of course, is that God’s “normal” is not the normal we most often see and experience in the world around us. We live in a world where the loudest, strongest, wealthiest, and most privileged people prey on the “less fortunate.” We live in a world where greed and selfishness pay big time, while meekness, mercy, and mournfulness earn little more than contempt. We live in a world where securing our own ease and comfort is our “right” — the rest of creation be damned.
But Jesus in his wisdom recognizes this disparity, and addresses it in the very wording of the beatitudes: “Blessed are…for they will be.” The language bridges the present and the future, the now and the not-yet, the kingdom that is and the kingdom that is coming. The blessing is here; God’s favor is now. But its fulfillment — its perfection — still lies ahead.
We are hearing Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount on All Saint’s Day. As we remember and honor those who have gone before us, we celebrate the unbreakable communion between past, present, and future. We draw comfort, resilience, and hope from the fact that countless others have mourned, hungered, thirsted, and grieved in years past, and gone on from their struggles to the fullness of life in God’s presence. As religious scholar Tim Beach-Verhey puts it, “The saints provide a glimpse of God’s already in the midst of our not-yet.”
We will get through this tough time, we are in partnership with the entire communion of saints – past, present and yet to come. We are in partnership through the power of the Holy Spirit. Krister Stendahl, a New Testament Scholar, published a little monograph on the Holy Spirit. In it he said “The Holy Spirit is the energy of God to go against the current, to live as healthily as you can and witness to health and vitality and love.” Individually, we don’t have enough. I can’t do it on my own, you can’t do it on your own. It takes the energy, the energies of God, what Teilhard de Chardin called, The Energies of Love. And the Bible says God is love. We’re talking about the primal energy of everything that is. Being in partnership with that energy, what Dr. King called cosmic partnership, that is how you begin to get through it and over it.
I listened to Brene Brown’s recent podcast with our own Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, which is wonderful, listen to the entire podcast…. and he talked about the movie, The Hurricane, based on the real life of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter who was put in prison for a crime he did not commit. Bishop Curry says: “Carter was really smart, he was really very bright, and he started reading, and he started reading a lot. And he realized as he was reading that the forces that incarcerated him and his incarceration, they were bigger realities, and that if he could tap into those bigger realities, if you will… He didn’t use the God language directly, but if he could transcend, if he could… That there was a freedom that was possible even in the midst of incarceration. There’s an old spiritual, it’s, “Oh freedom, oh freedom, oh freedom over me, and before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.” That was a spiritual sung by slaves.
“Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.” That is a slave declaring emancipation before Abe Lincoln probably had been born. And that’s what Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was talking about. “I transcend my condition, I’m already free, now I just have to make it a physical, tangible reality by getting lawyers to work on it. But you can’t incarcerate my soul, you cannot hold my soul in chains.” See, that spiritual emancipation that precedes the physical… I think is it Walter Brueggemann, it was one of his early books, that talks about the moment of liberation in the Exodus with Moses and all of that stuff, it didn’t happen at the Red Sea, that’s not when the Exodus happened. It didn’t happen in the plagues of Egypt, it didn’t happen when Pharaoh said, “Y’all get out of here,” and the Hebrews slaves got free. It happened when Moses went up Mount Sinai and saw an alternative vision of reality, that Pharaoh’s static vision of the world of slavery, slaves and masters, was not the only reality, was not the only vision. Moses saw another vision, another, what Brueggemann called an alternate possibility to the static enslavement of Egypt. When that happened, Moses was free, and it was only a matter of time before the Hebrew slaves would be free.
Brown, B. (Host). (2020, September 30). Brené with Bishop Michael Curry on Love & Hope in Troubling Times [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Cadence13. https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-with-bishop-michael-curry-on-love-hope-in-troubling-times/
I love that…alternative possibilities, the spiritual imagination of something different. Can we see the alternate way of life that Jesus is presenting to us today in the Beatitudes? And if we can see this vision, we can work to bring it about….just like the Saints who have gone before us….like Moses who saw the alternative possibility, the reality of God, and, even though he said no at first, he didn’t want to go back to Egypt, Moses did take the journey back to Pharaoh and through a period of negotiations came to say “let my people go”.
So what normal do we want to live in? Do we trust, do we believe? Bishop Curry talks about Karen Armstrong and her book, The Spiral Staircase, He says “And at some point in the book, she talks about realizing that faith and belief… That belief, that even the word “believe,” is not about assent to a set of propositions. They may be true, but that’s not what it means. Actually, the root of it is in the words, the Latin Coeur doux, heart, that to believe is not necessarily, first off, to give my mental assent to. To believe …. Coeur doux is related to cardia, to give my heart to. And just that realization that that’s the root of the word of credo, to believe, it’s just, “I give my heart to.” I got my doubts, I got my fear. All that stuff’s going to crowd in, that’s human, but darn it, I give my heart, here, you got me.”
Today, may we give our heart to Jesus Christ and see, really see, the blessedness in God’s alternative lifestyle, and work together, with the energy of the Holy Spirit, the energy of love, to bring it into reality. Amen.