August 14th, 2016
Everything that rises must converge—this is both a title of story our BBQ Book Club read this past week, and an idea from a theologian and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. This phrase means progress, a kind of pilgrim’s evolution, the way of all flesh to death and new life in Christ. Flannery O’Connor wrote a story with this title, taking it from an essay by de Chardin. Her story is about a young man, freshly finished with college, and his racist mother. Like most of O’Connor’s stories, there is no clear hero, no one of clear moral superiority striving against evil. Julian, the son, tries to show his mother the new world coming to be, one of greater equality, but he also shows a horrible disregard for her. She tries to show him her basic decency, and she gets thwacked in the face with a purse. The story ends with the mother having a stroke or a heart attack and the son screaming into the darkness. Typical uplifting stuff by Flannery O’Connor.
As we discussed Thursday evening, evolution means that somethings pass away as others come into being. This is true for our ethical and moral lives as much as anywhere else. As Hebrews encourages us, we must cast aside the weight of sin that clings so closely, cast aside the weight so we can freely run the race. I've been watching swimming a lot recently, and I remember, or think I remember, how it felt to let go of my father and venture out into the water, figuring out how to swim. It was terrifying and exhilarating. You have to let things go to rise--just like you have to leave your parent's home eventually. Just like Jesus let go of his divine glory to face death and temptation.
I found the idea of letting go illuminating for our work this morning, with some very harsh seeming texts—I come not to bring peace, but a sword, says the Prince of Peace. What could he mean? He means the sacrifices total commitment to discipleship requires, a commitment that outweighs even family ties, a commitment commensurate with the commitment God shows to us by sending the Son to die on the cross. Out of love for us, God let death enter God’s own very being. How can you and I be so committed, when far from offering out lives to God, we find it so hard simply to let go of a single weight, not to mention all the other weights press against our shoulders? Who can meet these demands? Small wonder that so many of us, including great artists like Flannery O’Connor, are blind to the ways in which we fall short. Some sins are just too hard to let go.
Judge not, lest ye be judged, the Lord was also know to have said, and I think that is compassionate way of being, because the the people we admire and love are only people. People will always, in time, let you down. Our author the letter to the Hebrews has give us a litany of the saints of God, who were great and mighty, but also stoned and sawed in half. You'll notice that he pulled from history the example of the saints, gives the names of heroes for us to contemplate in our walk of life: Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jepthah, David, Samuel, and all the other prophets. You could say they are saints, number them among the patriarchs. They were also horrible. Gideon was supposed to fight Philistines, but he required more signs and than the George Washington Bridge. Ancient commentators didn't like Barak because he wouldn’t do anything without Deborah, a woman judge, telling him what to do. He actually trusted her more than he trusted God. Samson, as you know, abandoned God's commandment and fell into the hands of Delilah, and became a pathetic and desperate figure. Jepthah was a powerful judge, but made a rash oath to God, that if God gave him victory in a battle, he would sacrifice sacrifice to God the first person who showed up at his door. He sacrificed his daughter. David was a warlord and a murderer. Samuel was a great prophet but a bad father.
Every single person in this great cloud of witnesses had flaws every bit as deep as their virtues. They are saints not because they are better than anyone else. They are saints because they had faith and continued to follow God even when they failed. And the work they did, the work of being faithful, is not over. Hebrews says, "Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect." We none of us receive the better, the fulfillment of the promise without everyone else who believes. Christ gathers in all who believe in his name--and the we are made complete in him and the whole cloud of witnesses. We will fall and disappoint. We will, by God’s grace, also lift one another when we fall, and fill in the imperfections we all have. Everything that rises must converge.
In a few minutes we will rise to converge upon this table. We come each of us with burdens. We come, each of us, clinging to the weight of sin that we feel we cannot live without. We cling to our sin, even as we want to let go and swim away. We may feel like we are not good enough for this sacrament--we may feel like God surely cannot number us among the saints. But God's word is like the devouring fire that rids us of evil, like the hammer that breaks the rock of our sin. If we feel discouraged way, we should take the view of Hebrews, who says we should look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who took a life like ours, enduring shame and sin, and rising call all people to converge on the cross. And he gave us this Sacrament to be sign for us, that God cares about our sufferings, knows them, and has brought us together, all of us, to share in the sufferings and overcome them together in Christ.
Luther wrote, “In this sacrament….I know that all my misfortune is shared with Christ and the saints, because I have a sure sign of their love toward me…." Luther believed the Eucharist that was a meal that brought you into fellowship with Jesus and the whole believing family of God. The sufferings of Christ are the sufferings of all; the victory of Christ is the victory of all. Interestingly, this is not merely rising and converging. It is also God descending and gathering. God fills heaven and earth--God descending seeks us and calls us and lifts and walks before us, taking our suffering as his own.
Luther says, "When you have partaken of this sacrament, therefore, or desire to partake of it, you must in turn share in the misfortunes of the fellowship…As love and support are given you, you in turn must render love and support to Christ in his needy ones. You must feel with sorrow all the dishonor done to Christ in his holy Word, all the misery of Christendom, all the unjust suffering of the innocent, with which the world is everywhere filled to overflowing. You must fight, work, and pray and—if you cannot do more—have heartfelt sympathy.”
We live, it is true, in a world overflowing with unjust suffering. Notice Luther says we must fight, work, and pray. We must run our race. We must battle and strive. You might notice that we are about to sing a hymn called By All Your Saints in Warfare. The new hymnal has made it into By All Your Saints Still Striving. But I want us to think about fighting. I want you to know that the power of sin will not give you up without a fight, that the powers of this world that wish to prevent God from finding you and calling you, that want to weigh you down, will not got away simply because you're a nice person. Love is fierce and dangerous. Love drives out hate. And that’s the fight God asks us to wage. God wants you to step up in the ranks, to stand and fight injustice and oppression and the brokenness of the world and lure and damage of sin. But not alone—all the church has your back. And in front there is your captain, our Lord Jesus, armed with truth in his right hand and righteousness in his left. Look to Jesus, who disregarded shame and endured the cross to win for us eternal life and share in God's reign.
Our God has made it possible for us to acknowledge our sin, but not to give in to despair. Where we are weak, God is strong. Where we fail, God lifts us up. And out of all of us God makes a company, a church, marching together in faith.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack