November 1, 2015

“A Present Victory”
Isaiah 25:6-9; Revelation 21:1-6a; Matthew 5:1-12

When I was in seminary, in one class we had a small group exercise, it was to consider our own death. My friend and neighbor across the hall, Phil, said, “I wake up with Jesus. I fail to see the down side.”

There is some benefit to his way of thinking. Normally we don’t like anything about death. We disdain its sound, its color. We avoid it. Where once the death bed was the same bed that people slept in, it is more frequently now somewhere else; a hospital bed, a room in a long term care facility. There was once the presence of extended family, including children. Now, there may be a nurse present. The sheer distance at which most family has been dispersed across the country prohibits these kinds of gatherings and goodbye’s.

There is this ‘Sunday School faith’ that takes these tender moments and says to us “they are allsaintsin a better place.” We say this because it is true. Part of St. John’s revelation on the island of Patmos records a word picture of this place, the new Jerusalem, descending from the heavens and from God. It was and is a comforting word given to Christians who were suffering and dying. So this Sunday School faith tempts us to postpone our sense of victory over death ‘until the Lord comes.’

There is a different faith, a mature faith, that offers an alternate response. There is sadness to be sure. Jesus himself wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. On the sermon on the mount, Jesus promises to the ‘blessed’ great rewards in heaven. This we count on, but we also depend on the fact that Jesus promises abundant life, not only afterlife. It takes some effort for us to nurture the faith that says that our victory over death begins here and now. My friend Phil was only partly correct. We wake up every day to Jesus.

The sociologist Christian Smith argues that most religious people in effect live a faith he calls “moral therapeutic deism.” It boils down to this: God wants them to be happy and modestly moral; God makes few demands on them; God promises heaven to anyone who is not egregiously evil; and God is not imagined to be actively part of a person’s everyday life. Religious skeptics rightly ask: What real difference in your life does being a Christian make? [Peter Feldmeier, America Magazine, Aug. 27, 2012.]

My response is that on days like today that our faith has the potential to make a significant difference in our lives, our everyday life, because it directs us back to living. At its best, faith has the power to make us more alive today than we could possibly be without it. We have a present victory.

Have you ever read Anne Tyler’s novel, St. Maybe? The happy Bedloe family is living the ideal existence in Baltimore in the 1960s, until a tragic event occurs and 17-year-old Ian Bedloe blames himself for the accidental death of his older brother.” “Depressed and depleted, Ian is almost crushed under the weight of an unbearable, secret guilt. Then one crisp January evening, he catches sight of a window with glowing yellow neon, the ‘Church of the Second Chance.’ He enters and soon discovers that forgiveness must be earned, through a bit of sacrifice and a lot of concern…” in one scene Ian is driving his nice, his dead brother’s daughter. They talk:

“You think I don’t know what I’m up to, don’t you,” Daphne said.
“You think I’m some ninny who wants to do right but keeps goofing. But what you don’t see is, I goof on purpose. I’m not like you: King Careful. Mr. Look-Both-Ways. Saint Maybe. … Mess up, I say!” Daphne crowed. “Fall flat on your face! Make every mistake you can think of! Use all the life you’ve got!”

This niece, Daphne, who teeters on the edge of waywardness, is under Ian’s care. And in her strange way she encourages Ian to reclaim aspects of his life he set aside when his brother Danny died. Rev. Emmett, pastor of “Church of the Second Chance” urges Ian to do the same; not ignoring the rotten events that have brought him to this moment, but to live into and through them.

To do his requires a mature faith that returns again and again to the reality that Jesus is present here and now. In all things. This faith notices God’s presence, perhaps in something as simple as a friend who sits with us, saying nothing, while our tears fall. Usual activities may have a certain void that cannot be filled because someone is absent. But there are others…”who gradually will help us find the road to life again, who will walk that road with us.” [Rabbi Josua Liebman, “Peace of Mind” Citadel, 1998]

What I hope that we remember on this day when we are giving thanks for loved ones, and Saint’s of the church from the past, is that the reason we bring to our remembrance faithful people is that somehow, large or small, in a public or private way, they took what they had and served God in their time. They lived. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus mentions qualities of a live that make this abundantly clear. This condition of blessedness is not something that is awarded posthumously. It is something that is now, and I, for one believe that these qualities are a means, not to salvation, but for the abundant life that Jesus promises.

You know, Jesus insists the Kingdom of God has and is breaking into the world. Seeing it, participating in it, here and now is possible. Thomas Merton, a saintly person in his own right, said: “A saint is not someone who is good. It is someone who has experienced the goodness of God.” That is an experience in the now.

I confess that there are days when this is hard to do. To notice and claim the goodness of God. Yet, I believe, no, I know, that Christ is not done with me, Christ is present in these days, in all things God’s goodness is close by, today, tomorrow, and always. The victory he gives us is to be savored and responded to now. This moment. This day.