Gospel & Culture
| Luke 6:20-26
||Sun, October 18, 1998
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia
"Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
'Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you
on account of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven;
for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.'"
All Saints' Day. I don't know about you … but I've been thinking about All Saints' Day … because it's on a Sunday this year … this Sunday. And if it is Sunday it means that I - and at least some of you - will be called upon to preach the Word … the Word found in Luke 6. So, I have been thinking … and seeking … seeking the Word in the library, among all of its words.
Now, a number of you have noted that I seem to make my home in the library. In a way, I think it is because there I find myself in community … I never feel alone in the library, but rather find great company among the books. It is this that draws me there, as inevitably as a magnet draws iron or as gravity hold us on the earth. In such a place the community of saints opens its arms wide and invites us in … invites us home. The testimony begins the moment a cover is turned ... and the 'great cloud of witnesses' who surround us find their voice … if we will listen.
That cloud includes the living … it includes Americans … even Presbyterians. I know. Until recently an American Presbyterian Annie Dillard made her home thirty miles from mine, just across the border … over which her voice invites me in to the communion of saints:
"When I was a child, the adult members of Pittsburgh society adverted to the Bible unreasonably often. What arcana! Why did they spread this scandalous document before our eyes? If they had read it, I thought, they would have hid it. They did not recognize the lively danger that we would, through repeated exposure, catch a dose of its virulent opposition to their world. Instead they bade us study great chunks of it, and think about those chunks, and commit them to memory, and ignore them. By dipping us children in the Bible so often, they hoped, I think, to give our lives a serious tint, and to provide us with quaintly magnificent snatches of prayer to produce as charms while, say, being mugged for our cash or jewels.
In Sunday school at the Shadyside Presbyterian Church, the handsome father of rascal Jack from dancing school, himself a vice-president of Jones & Laughlin Steel, whose wife was famous at the country club for her tan, held a birch pointer in his long fingers and shyly tapped the hanging paper map - shyly because he could see we were not listening. Who would listen to this? Why on earth were we here? There in blue and yellow and green were Galilee, Samaria itself, and Judaea, he said (and I pretended to pay attention as a courtesy), the Sea of Galilee, the River Jordan, and the Dead Sea. I saw on the hanging map the coasts of Judaea by the far side of Jordan, on whose unimaginable shores the pastel Christ had maybe uttered such cruel, stiff, thrilling words: "Sell all that thou hast …"(1)
'Sell all that thou hast' as well as 'blessed are you who are poor' and 'blessed are you who weep' and 'blessed are you when people hate you and exclude you and revile you on account of the Son of Man'. You see the text rising over the horizon of the lectionary calendar and wonder how on earth you can avoid it. Oh, there was a time - fresh out of seminary - when you rubbed your hands in glee at the thought of the beatitudes. What does Robert Schuller call them? The 'Be-Happy Attitudes'. But not anymore. Now they are terrifying … dangerous … too far removed from the people sitting in front of the pulpit … and behind it. Thank heavens that Annie and the rest of the saints understand … or we would be lost:
"What a pity, that so hard on the heels of Christ come the Christians. There is no breather. The disciples turn into the early Christians between one rushed verse and another. What a dismaying pity, that here come the Christians already, flawed to the core, full of wild ideas and hurried self-importance. They are already blocking, with linked arms, the howling gap in the weft of things that their man's coming and going tore.
For who can believe in the Christians? They are, we know by hindsight, suddenly not at all peripheral. They set out immediately to take over the world, and they pretty much did it. They converted emperors, raised armies, lined their pockets with real money, and did evil things large and small, in century after century, including this one. They are smug and busy, just like us, and who could believe in them? They are not innocent, they are not shepherds and fishermen in rustic period costume, they are men and women just like us, in polyester. Who could believe salvation is for these rogues? That God is for these rogues? For they are just like us, and salvation's time is past.
Unless, of course -
Unless Christ's washing the disciples' feet, their dirty toes, means what it could, possibly, mean: that it is all right to be human. That God knows we are human, and full of evil, all of us, and we are his people anyway, and the sheep of his pasture.
Unless those colorful scamps and scalawags who populate Jesus' parables were just as evil as we are, and evil in the same laze, cowardly, and scheming ways. Unless those pure disciples turned themselves and those watercolor women - who so disconcertingly turned into The Christians overnight - were complex and selfish humans also, who lived in the material world, and whose errors and evils were not pretty but ugly, and had real consequences. If they were just like us, then Christ's words to them are addressed to us, in full and merciful knowledge - and we are lost. There is no place to hide."(2)
To see what the saints can see is to know that there is no place to hide. We cannot hide behind the fences that we so carefully hammer together: 'its not possible in my denomination' … 'you don't know my congregation' … 'the head of staff has all the power' … 'the seminary won't stand for it'. No. Peter and Paul and Mary and Martha and all of the rest of them discover it, too. When Christ addresses us 'there is no place to hide'.
Which puts us in mind of another book … another saint. Recall pastor Dietrich in his early 30's. Remember his startling discovery - after ordination, after he has received his Doctorate in Theology - that he has no place to hide from Christ's call. It is in the seminary at Finkewalde that the aristocratic, upper-class, intellectual son of the Bonhoeffer family finds Jesus' blessings transforming all of life. You recall the task of the small group of students and faculty at Finkewalde? In their life together they set about reimagining how to faithfully embody the gospel in the alien culture of the Third Reich. Like the disciples, they can not hide from Jesus any longer. As Dietrich says to his class:
"Jesus sees his disciples. They have publicly left the crowd to join Him … They have only Him, and with Him they have nothing, literally nothing in the world, but everything with and through God. It is but a little flock He has found, and it is a great flock …. They are the "poor" … They have no security, no possessions to call their own, not even a foot of earth to call their home, no earthly society to claim their absolute allegiance. Nay more, they have no spiritual power, experience or knowledge to afford them consolation or security … Now they are poor - so inexperienced, so stupid, that they have no other hope but Him who called them. Jesus knows about all the others here, the representatives and spokesmen of the national religion, who enjoy greatness and renown, whose feet are firmly planted on the earth, who are deeply rooted in the culture and piety of the people and moulded by the spirit of the age. Yet it is not they but the disciples who are called blessed - theirs is the kingdom of heaven ….
'Blessed are they that mourn' … By 'mourning' Jesus, of course, means doing without what the world calls peace and prosperity: He means refusing to be in tune with the world or to accommodate oneself to its standards. Such men <and women> mourn for the world, for its guilt, its fate and its fortune. While the world keeps holiday they stand aside, and while the world sings, 'Gather ye rose-buds while ye may', they mourn. They see that for all the jollity on board, the ship is beginning to sink. The world dreams of progress, of power and of the future, but the disciples meditate on the end, the last judgment, and the coming of the kingdom … The disciple-community does not shake off sorrow as though it were no concern of its own, but willingly bears it. And in this way they show how close are the bonds which bind them to the rest of humanity.
The community which is the subject of the beatitudes is the community of the crucified. With Him it has lost all, and with him it has found all. It is the cross which makes the beatitudes possible … <In the Kingdom of Heaven> God wipes away the tears from the eyes of those who had mourned upon the earth. <God> feeds the hungry at <the> Banquet … The echoes of this joy reach the little flock below as it stands beneath the cross, and they hear Jesus saying: 'Blessed are ye'."(3)
But we cannot believe it … we dare not believe it … because we hear the woes. And the woes get to us ... the woes haunt us: "Woe to you who are rich … woe to you who are full … woe to you when all speak well of you". We look around … at our church, at our people, at ourselves … and we see … why we see Mrs. Turpin. You do know Mrs. Turpin? She is from around these parts ... she lives in the imaginative world of Flannery O'Connor … that catholic saint from Milledgeville, Georgia. Mrs. Turpin is sure that she knows who is blessed and who is not. She has it all worked out:
"If it's one thing I am … it's grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, 'Thank-you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!' It could have been different! … 'Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!'"
Mrs. Turpin knows what she isn't. She isn't coloured. She isn't white-trash. She isn't ugly. And she isn't a lunatic. She is blessed. But Mrs. Turpin is in for a shock. Her beloved Jesus literally hits her over the head one day when a young woman who Mrs. Turpin describes as "ugly and half-crazed" throws a book square in her face and whispers to Mrs. Turpin:
"Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog."
Mrs. Turpin hears it as a revelation from the Lord. Suddenly she realizes that maybe, just maybe, she is not so blessed after all … but rather that woe is she. Her world is upside down. She is no longer found. Now she is terribly lost. Mrs. Turpin wonders how she can be saved … redeemed … blessed. Her prayer echoes ours as we see our church for what it is and ourselves for who we have become:
"What do you send me a message like that for? …. How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too? … Why me? … It's no trash around here, black or white, that I haven't given to. And break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church … How am I a hog? … Exactly how am I like them? … You could have made me trash. Or a nigger. If trash is what you wanted why didn't you make me trash? … I could quit working and take it easy and be filthy … I could be nasty … Go on, call me a hog! Call me a hog again. From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell … Who do you think you are? …."
It is then that time and space are transformed … then that Mrs. Turpin realizes that the reign of God is near, very near … that it is right here. Mrs. Turpin is no longer blind to the Kingdom come … her eyes are opened in a moment of conversion and she sees, for the first time, the good news of great joy that is for all people. Saint Flannery tells it like this:
"Mrs. Turpin stood there, her gaze fixed on the highway, all her muscles rigid, until in five or six minutes the truck reappeared, returning. She waited until it had had time to turn into their own road. Then like a monumental statue coming to life, she bent her head slowly and gazed, as if through the very heart of mystery, down into the pig parlor at the hogs. They had settled all in one corner around the old sow who was grunting softly. A red glow suffused them. They appeared to pant with a secret life.
Until the sun slipped finally behind the tree line, Mrs. Turpin remained there with her gaze bent to them as if she were absorbing some abysmal life-giving knowledge. At last she lifted her head. There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eye. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behaviour. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.
At length she got down and turned off the faucet and made her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah."(4)
Hallelujah, indeed … and Amen!
1 Dillard, Annie "The Gospel According to Saint Luke" in "Incarnation: Contemporary Writers on the New Testament", ed. Alfred Corn, (Viking: New York, 1990), pp. 35-36.
2 Ibid., pp. 36-37.
3 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich "The Cost of Discipleship", trans. R.H. Fuller, (MacMillan: New York, 1949), pp. 89-98.
4 O'Connor, Flannery "Revelation" in "Collected Works" (Library Classics: New York, 1988), pp.653-654.