Choosing the right kind of heroes; a poem by Denise Levertov; and the lessons for Sunday, November 5, 2017

Image result for fearless girl statute ALL SAINTS SUNDAY

Revelation 7:9–17
Psalm 34:1–10, 22
1 John 3:1–3
Matthew 5:1–12

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

I was a junior in High School when I first read Slaughterhouse-Five, a satirical novel by Kurt Vonnegut that chronicles the World War II experiences of his fictional character, Billy Pilgrim, from his time as an American soldier into the postwar years. The story is told in a surreal, unchronological fashion such that Pilgrim’s post-traumatic stress induced delusions mesh with his life experiences making it impossible for the reader to disentangle them. At one point, Pilgrim comes into contact with the work of Kilgore Trout, a failed novelist and author of a cheesy book entitled The Gospel from Outer Space. Trout’s novel narrates the journey of a visitor from outer space who studies Christianity to determine “why Christians found it so easy to be cruel.” The problem with the Christian religion, as the alien visitor sees it, is that its Christ is so clearly linked to God. He had connections. Who would dare to kill him? Who could expect to escape divine retribution for so do doing? Who could pardon anyone for rejecting the teachings of one so obviously close to God? The takeaway: Don’t kill people with connections.

The alien thus attempts to revise the gospel story by making Jesus not the exalted Son of God, but an ordinary, unappealing and bothersome bum nobody likes or cares about. Only after this alternative Christ is abused, neglected and left to die is he revealed as God’s son. Thus, the takeaway message from the alien’s revised gospel is this: “From this moment on, [God] will punish horribly anybody who torments a bum who has no connections!”

Vonnegut’s alien is actually not so very far from the truth of the gospel. Anyone who reads the gospels with any degree of discernment will soon discover that Jesus was, in fact, crucified as a “nobody.” Moreover, he warned that abuse toward the “least” of humanity is a blow against him and his heavenly Father. The kind of Christianity the alien encounters on his visit to earth is in reality a horrible distortion of the discipleship toward which Jesus calls us. Nonetheless, it accurately parodies a lot of American religion seeking to pass for Christian that sees in Jesus a moral avenger rather than a friend of sinners. The ghastliest distortion comes to us from the pre-millennial sects that have Jesus returning to a world reduced to misery by a divinely inflicted “tribulation” in order to defeat the armies of the nations with overwhelming violence and to cast into hell anyone who hasn’t the sense to believe in him after witnessing such fireworks. Such a Christ, though hardly the one proclaimed by the gospels, nevertheless fits the profile of a nation that looks to guns for security, deifies warriors and accepts school shootings as a normal and unavoidable (if regrettable) part of day to day life.

Just as we Americans are tempted to embrace the wrong Christ, we are similarly drawn to the wrong kinds of heroes. Whether it be old-fashioned westerns, comic superhero movies or police dramas, the plot is always the same. Innocent victims are beset by irredeemably evil predators. The innocent are finally rescued by a powerful male[1] protagonist who employs violence to destroy or subdue the enemy. Everyone lives happily ever after-until next week. The characters are so hopelessly two dimensional and the plot so simplistic that we are unable to wonder what drives the evil antagonist, whether s/he is best by mental illness, scarred by an abusive upbringing or motivated by some noble, if misguided belief system. There is no room for sympathy toward the antagonist, for doubts concerning the innocence of the victims or the purity of the protagonist’s motives. Nothing must be allowed to contaminate our pure moral outrage, cool our sympathy for the victim or muddy the clear distinction between good and evil. That would only spoil the cathartic release we all expect when the protagonist justly guns down, beats up or otherwise annihilates the antagonist. The message is clear: Good and evil are delineated by clear and unambiguous moral boundaries. There is no room for compromise and no possibility of reconciliation. There is no alternative beyond life and death conflict. Good conquers evil through brute violence. As so famously articulated by the NRA, “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Given this singular morality play repeated in so many different genres to audiences of all ages on the stage of moralistic simplicity, it should come as no surprise that we are becoming increasingly polarized and unable to view our political opponents as anything less than enemies. It is no mystery why we have managed to elect a president whose sole means of governance is confrontation. Violence from gang warfare to suburban road rage is readily understandable when we realize that such conduct flows from our emulation of the heroes from whom we learned from childhood about courage, manhood, good and evil. Violence is the only tool left in our box. No wonder we treat everyone whose ideas are different, whose race is other than our own and whose language is unfamiliar as an enemy. We lack the imagination to do otherwise.

All Saint’s Day is the church’s opportunity to offer our culture an alternative set of heroes. We are called to remember women and men who stood up alone and unarmed to speak truth to power. We memorialize the believers who faced bravely the raging bull of oppression with only the word of truth. We lift up those who renounced the ways of violence, coercion and materialism in favor of poverty, hunger for justice, mercy, peacemaking, meekness and purity. We celebrate the memories of people who gave their own lives for justice and peace rather than trying to achieve these ends by taking the lives of others. We honor those who have chosen to suffer violence rather than inflict it. Our heroes are people like Stephen, who prayed for the very people who were lynching him. We honor people like Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic nurse who risked certain death at the hands of the Nazis when she smuggled approximately 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto before its destruction. We teach our children to emulate Kyla Mueller who dedicated her life to serving vulnerable populations in impoverished and war-torn areas of the world, and who ultimately was murdered by ISIS fighters while she was assisting a hospital caring for Syrian refugees from Aleppo. We do not rejoice in the death of evil people through retributive justice. We rejoice in the death of saints whose lives bear witness to the greater restorative justice of bread and dignity for all, reconciliation and peace.

All Saint’s Day is the Veteran’s Day of the Church. It is our opportunity to honor and be inspired by those persons whose faithful discipleship mirrors the love of Jesus for the world. Our heroes are not “super.” To the contrary, they recognize perhaps better than the rest of us that the line between good and evil passes through the midst of every human heart, including their own. Just as the same potential for selfishness, meanness and cruelty driving the most depraved criminal dwells in some measure within the heart of the most dedicated saint, so also the image of God in Christ can never be entirely erased from the worst among us. For that reason, the saint understands that violence can never cleanse and redeem us. Only love can save us from ourselves; only reconciliation can give us genuine peace; only forgiveness can break the cycle of vengeance keeping us at each other’s throats from one generation to the next.

To be a saint is to embrace suffering, not because suffering is good in itself, but because the cross is the shape love always takes in a sinful world. A saint understands that the future belongs to the God who raised from death the man who gave his life to love and invites his disciples to do the same. For this reason, Jesus tells us, the life of the poor, hungry, meek, peaceful and persecuted saint is blessed.

Here is a poem by Denise Levertov about the strange blessedness of saintliness.

The Wealth of the Destitute

How gray and hard the brown feet of the wretched of the earth.
How confidently the crippled from birth
push themselves through the streets, deep in their lives.
How seamed with lines of fate the hands
of women who sit at streetcorners
offering seeds and flowers.
How lively their conversation together.
How much of death they know.
I am tired of ‘the fine art of unhappiness.’

Source: Poems 1972-1982 (c. 1975 by Denise Levertov, pub. By New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2002) Denise Levertov (1923–1997) never received a formal education. Nevertheless, she created a highly regarded body of poetry that earned her recognition as one of America’s most respected poets. Her father, Paul Philip Levertov, was a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and subsequently moved to England where he became an Anglican minister.  Levertov grew up in a household surrounded by books and people talking about them in many languages. During World War II, Levertov pursued nurse’s training and spent three years as a civilian nurse at several hospitals in London. Levertov came to the United States in 1948, after marrying American writer Mitchell Goodman. During the 1960s Levertov became a staunch critic of the Vietnam war, a topic addressed in many of her poems of that era. Levertov died of lymphoma at the age of seventy-four. You can read more about Denise Levertov and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Revelation 7:9–17

My experience with The Book Revelation has always been bitter-sweet. Whenever I announce that I will be holding a Bible Study on Revelation, the initial response is enthusiastic. I find, however, that interest soon wanes when it becomes clear that I will not be announcing the end date for civilization as we know it, the identity of the antichrist or who can expect to be raptured as opposed to being “left behind.” The disappointing truth for many folks is that Revelation does not hold the key to predicting the future. It does nevertheless hold many other fascinating and edifying treasures often missed by those intent on using it as a crystal ball. For a good general overview of Revelation, see the Summary Article by Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Our lesson for Sunday is one of several self-contained liturgical interludes between the visions given to John of Patmos from chapters 4 through 22. See also, Revelation 4:9-11Revelation 5:6-10Revelation 11:16-18Revelation 15:2-4Revelation 16:4-7Revelation 19:1-8. This hymn of praise, along with the surrounding narrative, was the inspiration for the old Norwegian hymn, “Behold, A Host Arrayed in White.” See Evangelical Lutheran Worship # 425. John of Patmos is given a vision of a “great multitude” too numerous to count. Vs. 9. These words echo the calling of Abram in Genesis 12:1-3 in which the patriarch is assured that God will make of him a “great nation.” See Kelly, Balmer H., Revelation 7:9-17, published in 40 Interpretation (July 1986) p. 290. That nation is precisely what John is looking at. It is a nation made up of every country, tribe and people yet its allegiance is to “God who sits upon the throne, and the Lamb.” Vs. 10. The political import of this vision is clear. The people called into existence by God and the Lamb, not the Roman Empire, will reign. God, not Caesar, sits upon the highest throne. All rule and authority belongs not to emperor, but to Jesus Christ, “the Lamb.”

We were first introduced to the Lamb in Revelation 5:1-5. He is the one being in all heaven and earth worthy to open up the scroll through which John must enter into the visions soon to be revealed. Though announced in the court of heaven as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (Revelation 5:5), this being appears as a lamb that was slain. Revelation 5:6. This strange juxtaposition, the slain Lamb as the “conqueror” over the vicious predatory beasts to be revealed, is the key to understanding the Book of Revelation. Just as it is the crucified Jesus through whom God’s suffering love overcomes the violent reign of Caesar, so also through the suffering endurance of the seven churches addressed in Revelation 1-3 God’s gracious will for the world is both revealed and actualized. Contrary to appearances, the enduring reality is the life of the fragile, persecuted and demoralized churches-not the Roman Empire.

The great multitude robed in white represents the struggling churches as they truly are: loyal subjects of the triumphant Lamb. They have “washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb.” Vs. 14. This is not to be understood as substitutionary atonement. This “washing” in blood refers to the churches’ sharing in Jesus’ suffering under the cross of Rome. They have come out of the “great tribulation,” that is, persecution under the reign of Caesar. Vs. 14. The image of white robes might very well be an allusion to baptism as well. The use of white garb for the newly baptized is evidenced very early in the life of the church and might well date from the New Testament era. The thrust of this vision is clear. Things are not as they seem. Presently, it appears as though Rome rules supreme and the churches are powerless victims. Caesar’s violence appears to have the upper hand. In reality, however, the patient, suffering love of God revealed in the slain Lamb is destined to outlast the empire. It is precisely through such suffering love that Caesar meets his defeat.

The song making up verses 15-17 evokes numerous images from the Hebrew Scriptures. Service in the temple of the Lord was seen as the highest possible privilege and delight. See, e.g., Psalm 84. Though reserved for the Levitical priesthood in ancient Israel, this privilege is now given to all the baptized. Language strikingly similar to Psalm 23 and Psalm 121 can be found in verses 16-17, i.e., “the sun shall not strike them,” “For the Lamb on the throne will be their shepherd,” and “he will guide them to springs of living water.” As in so many instances throughout the New Testament, John of Patmos draws from numerous familiar images in the Hebrew Scriptures and weaves them into his poetic portrayal of God’s sojourn with his church under the scourge of imperial oppression and violence.

In sum, “Revelation 7:9-17 is, therefore, unalloyed ‘gospel,’ a seeing and hearing of the final justification of the Christian hope. If it is to be part of the church’s proclamation, then, especially in Eastertide, it ought to be proclaimed without ‘if’ and ‘perhaps.’ Similarly, it will not do merely to hold out before persons tempted to despair only a future prospect, coupled with the advice to live out the times in between in chronological waiting. The strength of biblical hope is that it focuses on what is real rather than simply on what will be. Triumph will be because it is the fundamental truth of human life corresponding to the truth of God. Although apocalyptic enthusiasts have frequently reduced the images of Revelation to a time-conditioned calendar, the author surely meant to give the church a vision of God’s victorious vindication always ready to break upon the human scene, so that in the Apocalypse, perhaps more strongly than anywhere else, it is a case of the future determining and creating the present.” Balmer, supra at 294.

Psalm 34:1–10, 22

This is a song of thanksgiving for deliverance from unspecified distress. It is one of the “acrostic” psalms, the others being Psalm 119Psalm 9Psalm 10Psalm 25Psalm 37Psalm 111Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. Its form suggests that the psalm is more likely a mature reflection upon events in the past than a spontaneous expression of praise for something that just occurred. It is quite possible, though, that I take this view because most of the saving acts of God I have experienced appear only in the rear view mirror. That is to say, looking back on my life I can recognize the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing me to the place where I stand today. But I am not one of those persons who experience the guidance of the Spirit in the present tense. I have seldom made choices in my life that I felt certain were inspired, willed or directed by God. Instead, I have stumbled blindly along through the darkness only to discover much later that Jesus has been with me in the darkness and has somehow gotten me to where I needed to be. And this despite my having taken the wrong course, made the wrong decisions and pursued the wrong dreams.

The psalmist invites us to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Vs. 8. This offer to “taste” makes clear that faith is neither an intellectual exercise nor an emotional attachment. Faith takes the shape of “eating” and sustaining oneself on the promises of the Lord. “[T]hose who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” Vs. 10. It is life lived out of a relationship of trust and confidence in the Lord to provide all things necessary.

From verse 10 the lectionary takes a flying leap to verse 22 which reads: “The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.” This is not to be taken as immunization against condemnation by any human court. We know well enough that the innocent frequently are condemned by unjust and oppressive structures. Even in relatively just societies justice sometimes miscarries. But the judgments of all human authorities are relative and subject to reversal in God’s court of appeal. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the ultimate reversal of human judgment. It is precisely because God raised Jesus, who lived according to the humanly impractical directives of the Sermon on the Mount, that believers can so live, endure the world’s rejection, ridicule and persecution but anticipate vindication on the Day of Jesus Christ.

1 John 3:1–3

Professor Stanley Hauerwas is fond of saying that the life of discipleship is unintelligible apart from the conviction that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from death. That is why the world, which does not know or believe in what God did through Jesus, finds disciples of Jesus so utterly incomprehensible-or at least it should. This is what separates Christian ethical conduct from every other ethical point of reference. It is precisely because disciples of Jesus are convinced that the Sermon on the Mount embodies the kingdom destined to come as it must exist in a sinful world that they conform their lives to it even when doing so seems ineffective, impractical and counter-productive. The Sermon is not an unachievable ideal. It was, in fact, achieved and lived out by Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’ faithfulness to the Sermon he preached resulted in his crucifixion. That, standing alone, would validate what every “realist” tells us. The Sermon is impractical. If Jesus had remained in the tomb, we would have to concede that the cross proves the realist’s point. But God raised Jesus and that changes everything. To every objection of impracticality one might raise against following Jesus’ call to love our enemies, renounce the use of coercive force and lend without expecting repayment, the only proper response is, “but God raised Jesus from death.”

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him…” vs. 2. This is perhaps one of the most important words on the resurrection and eternal life. Far too common is the belief that eternal life is nothing more than a continuation of our present existence-only without sickness, poverty, warfare, Barry Manilow and whatever else makes life miserable. A friend of mine once told me that “death is not real,” that it is no more than “passing through a door.” But if I am the same person on the other side of that door as I am today, nothing has changed. If I carry with me into eternity the same prejudices, the same grudges, the same scars and the same selfish ambitions that characterize my present existence, eternal life will be nothing more than a continuation of all the animosity and strife we now experience-except that there will be no end to it. That sounds very much like Jean Paul Sartre’s portrayal of hell in No Exit.

Death is not only real, but necessary. That is precisely why Paul speaks of baptism as being joined in Jesus’ death. Romans 6:1-4. We need to become the sort of people who can live faithfully, joyfully and obediently under the gentle reign of God in Jesus Christ. That requires repentance which is a sort of death. Repentance, it must be emphasized, is not an individual act. It is rather a way of living in community shaped by the faithful practices of preaching and hearing, Eucharist, prayer, sharing of resources, almsgiving and witness.

Matthew 5:1–12

The problem with the Beatitudes is the same as the problem we have with the well known lullaby, “Rock a by Baby.” The words are so familiar that their shock value no longer registers. Seriously, does anyone really think it’s a good idea to sing an infant to sleep with a song ending in the fall of a baby from the top of a tree? So, too, is there anything inherently blessed about poverty, mourning and persecution? Yet unlike “Rock a by Baby,” which in my view has no redeeming value, the Beatitudes make sense, but only when read against the backdrop of Jesus’ obedient life, faithful death and glorious resurrection.

Moreover, when properly understood as the preamble to the Sermon on the Mount, it becomes obvious that the conditions of beatitude are not metaphorical. Poverty, real poverty, is what can be expected when you lend without expecting return, refuse to re-take what has been stolen from you and forego coercive measures to enforce your “rights.” I therefore agree whole heartedly with Dietrich Bonhoeffer in rejecting the all too common belief that Matthew’s beatitudes represent a watering down of Luke’s briefer version in the Sermon on the Plain. “There is no justification whatever for setting Luke’s version of the beatitudes over against Matthew’s. Matthew is not spiritualizing the beatitudes, and Luke giving them in their original form, nor is Luke giving a political twist to an original form of the beatitude which applied only to a poverty of disposition. Privation is not the ground of the beatitude in Luke nor renunciation in Matthew. On the contrary, both gospels recognize that neither privation nor renunciation, spiritual or political, is justified, except by the call and promise of Jesus, who alone makes blessed those whom he calls, and who is in his person the sole ground of their beatitude.” Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, The Cost of Discipleship, (c. 1959 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 119.

It is important to recall that it is not suffering in general, but the suffering consequential to faithful discipleship that Jesus calls blessed. As pointed out in a frequently quoted passage from the works of John Howard Yoder, “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling [Jesus’] society.” Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, (c. 1972 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 129. Faithfulness to Jesus divides families, invites hostility from the surrounding culture and often requires the sacrifice of life itself. Though they do not frequently make the cut for what the mainstream media considers “news,” there are plenty of instances throughout the world of Christians experiencing poverty, mourning and persecution for their obedience to Jesus. That we do not typically experience these things in the United States is perhaps more an indicator of the church’s lack of discipleship in these parts than the “religious freedom” in which we take such pride.

So what is the “All Saints Day” spin on this text? For some reason, that question calls to mind a novel I read in my twenties entitled Morte d’UrbanIt was written by J.F. Powers. The main character is Father Urban, a priest and member of the fictitious Clementine monastic order. Urban is personable, a skilled organizer and a charismatic speaker. His leadership skills are much needed to shore up his failing Clementine order, but the order is run by unskilled, incompetent and less forward looking men who consistently assign Father Urban to positions where his gifts are wasted. Yet wherever he goes, Father Urban uses every opportunity to further the interests and growth of the Clementines.

Over time, however, Urban begins harkening to a different voice calling him to integrity, self-awareness and compassion. The more Father Urban grows into this new self, the less successful he becomes in his role as a promoter of the Clementines. He eventually alienates the powerful and wealthy benefactors he spent so much time and effort cultivating. Ironically, it is at the point of his lowest level of competence (and the height of his spiritual development) that he is appointed leader of the failing Clementine order. His leadership proves to be as ineffective as that of his predecessors-but effectiveness is perhaps overrated.

Is Morte d’Urban a cautionary tale, a parable for a failing protestant establishment desperate to save its institutional life? When survival is at stake, both institutions and individuals are sorely tempted to put spiritual priorities to one side. The bottom line becomes the only line anyone looks at. When new money comes in the door, one tends not to look very carefully at where it came from or how it was made. If somebody within the institution is successful at bringing in membership, building up support and attracting wealthy donors, one does not scrutinize the methodology. As long as nothing blatantly illegal is going on, let the golden goose keep laying! What the heck, it works. None of us likes to think we are that mercenary. But when an institution feeds you, clothes you and provides your medical coverage, it is hard to resist grasping at anything that will extend its life.

What does saintliness look like in our context? What are the qualities we seek in our leaders? Are we valuing effectiveness over faithfulness? Or is this a false dichotomy? Do we need to ask “effective in doing what?” What is a faithful church supposed to look like in 21st Century North America? Are poverty, mourning and persecution marks of such a church? How are we measuring the success of our bishops, pastors and leaders? Is “success” even an appropriate category for such measurement? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but it troubles me that so few in our church are asking them.

[1] I understand that women are breaking into acting roles in the superhero and police genre. I suppose that’s a good thing-if equality and diversity are genuinely advanced by our acknowledgment that women are as competent as men when it comes to killing people and breaking things.

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