“Things Are Not as They Appear”
Rev. Justin Nickel
Luke 6:20-3120 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21 "Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22 "Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23 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. 24 "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25 "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. 26 "Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. 27 "But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting, amen.
Beloved, grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, amen.
And so, perhaps we ought to begin with a few clarifications. No, I have gotten the order of today’s liturgy confused, nor have I neglected to prepare a sermon and am hoping that you will allow me to sort of fast forward the liturgy to the Apostles’ Creed. Instead, we together, are proclaiming the fulfillment of our Christian hope, our belief that, all evidence to the contrary, this whole thing we call life is actually headed towards a peaceful resolution, towards some sort of end goal, the greek word is “telos,” in which God will be all-in-all, wiping away every tear from our eyes. Indeed, though there is always a danger of this getting lost in the repetition, when we say these words, that we believe in the Holy Spirit, in the Church and her forgiveness, in a community of the faithful that extends beyond time and space and will culminate in the resurrection of the body, when we say such things, we actually speak some pretty bold and defiant words.
For, if there is one certainty about this life, it is that it comes to an end: death and taxes, as the old saying goes, or in the uncompromising words of Bruce Springsteen: “everything dies, that’s a fact.” But, it would be the height of insensitivity for me to carry about the reality of death as a theoretical notion, for that is a reality that this community of faith, both as individuals and collectively, has experienced time and time again, and there is one thing, I think, that all of us who have lost a loved one share, no matter if it is a spouse of 50 + years or a distant grandfather. Though the degrees to which this is experienced certainly vary depending on the situation, death’s cruel reality is the same, and it is absolutely awful, so unsentimental, so final. There is nothing about the experience of death that merits our romanticizing, and being the cruel and reckless force that it is, it is no wonder the poet Dylan Thomas’ only advice in dealing with death was to “rage against the dying of the light.”
And we can certainly do this, take up arms against that old foe, and there is much in our culture that can help us in this particular battle. Yes, death’s bitter reality is that which we will avoid at all costs, punishing our bodies for not looking like they did 10 years ago, or insisting to ourselves that age is merely a mindset, and one may thereby stay young forever. To be sure, there is something good and noble about extending our lives and our health and enjoying all the time that God gives us. But, this is also where the human predicament becomes so entirely confusing, and all one can do is marvel at the illusions we create for ourselves. On the one hand, we know the certainty of death as deeply and instinctively as we are aware of our being alive, and yet, on the other hand, we flee from this reality, doing anything and everything in our power to ensure that death does not get us, or at the very least, that we postpone our grim meeting with it as long as we possibly can. Indeed, instinctively we do rage against the dying of the light, and perhaps we rage with all that is in us, because we know that it is a losing effort. We cannot, despite our efforts and intentions, rage forever and this is our tragedy. We want what is fundamentally impossible for us to have: to outrun death and quench our own thirst for the life eternal.
So, really, what are our options here? Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die? Indulge ourselves in every pleasure and whim we can afford, knowing that tomorrow is far from guaranteed? Do we maximize our pleasure and comfort here with no regard for others around us? Or do we succumb to another enemy, that nastiness we call cynicism and despair in which nothing is true or lasting, and those who profess faith in anything are worthy of mockery?
Or do we take yet another option, one in which we courageously acknowledge the reality of death and the ways in which it impacts us and others, and yet, with all the defiance of a willful 15 year old, tell death that we believe in something greater, namely that we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life. The question, then, is not whether or not death is real, but rather, is death finally all that is real, all that is lasting? Yes, the question is: are things really what they appear to be? It is precisely at this point that we look to Jesus’ words, for they, too, are an uncompromising declaration regarding what is true, what is finally real, and dearly beloved, it is not just death. Contrary to the way things seem, the hungry will be filled, the poor are tenderly loved by God and the heavy-hearted will exchange their sorrow for everlasting laughter. This is reality contrary to the ways things appear. And what else should we expect from this God who operates free of our understanding of what is real and valuable? A God who has no interest in our impressive games of power and privilege, status and wealth? A God who blesses the poor and hungry and who urges us to do the same? What else should we expect from the God who first comes not in naked splendor and might, but as a helpless babe, dependent on the love and care of his mother and father, just like any child? What else would we expect from a God who goes to the cross, who defeats death by submitting to it? A God who, against everything we know to be true, rises again in the glory of the Father, so that we might do the same? Indeed, with this God, things are seldom as they appear.
And because things are not what they appear to be, because we believe that God remembers and cares for us, even in the loneliness of the grave, we are given the strength to go about the seemingly ordinary tasks that make up the life of sainthood. Because being sainted means living our present in the sure hope of the resurrection, we embrace this life, in all of its joy, despair and messiness, limited though these things may be. We realize that our sainthood is a gift that we have been given, and so we neither attempt to storm heaven with our good deeds nor do we neglect the very real needs of those we encounter. Instead, we give generously of all that we have been given, we help feed the hungry, and we do not exchange evil for evil, gossiping word for gossiping word. Instead we pray for those who annoy us, and, by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, we show mercy to those we would rather treat with spite or anger. For this, all appearances to the contrary, is what the life of sainthood means. It does not mean being something more than human, but it means being deeply and authentically human, and recognizing, with the sincerest of regard, the humanity of others. Yes, the life of sainthood is one in which, we become so gripped by the hope of the resurrection, so utterly convinced that Christ, the author of creation and goal of human history, will finally conquer with his gentle and merciful reign, we fall so deeply in love with this vision that we cannot help but lose ourselves in this grace and hope, and extend it to others. Do we die? Yes, yes, we do, and that fact is terrible, the final affront to our supposed self-reliance. But thing are hardly what they appear to be. For we believe in the Holy Spirit, Indeed, we pray with St. Julian of Norwich that God would “teach us to believe by (God’s) grace all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all matter of things shall be well.” In Jesus’ name, amen.