Proper 26 Year A
When my nephew was a toddler, he had a Fisher Price toy-work-bench with pegs in it that he would hammer down until they were flush with the surface. He’d turn it over and repeat it, moving from one colored peg to the next. At the time, we thought it was great. It would keep him occupied, albeit somewhat noisily, for a good stretch. When he was finished with the work-bench, however, he’d sometimes move about the living room, hammer in hand, seeing if he could somehow gain a similar feeling of accomplishment by employing the hammer elsewhere, and not always in the most helpful ways. Years later, I thought of him when I heard an old adage, “To someone with a hammer, all problems look like nails.”
It’s a surprisingly sage bit of wisdom. And it has application in broader terms than those usually offered discerning toddlers. Especially in this day and age – when it seems more and more challenging to decide just how much of which saddening or anger-inducing current event to reflect upon in moments like this. I’m thinking especially of some of the newest saints-in-light – mowed down by a rented truck on the afternoon of Halloween. How are we to respond – internally and externally?
I’ve begun to think the wisdom of the hammer speaks to this – and to our gospel lesson today in a particularly resonant way – in a way that can offer us some insights as to how we move through day-to-day life experiences, as well as what’s begun to seem like the weekly traumas that punctuate our lives. On some level it’s about a change in mindset. And I’d like to share just a few thoughts about it.
First, however, I’d like to look at the nature of this particular gospel passage, and its use for All Saints Sunday. What about The Beatitudes relates so closely to the Feast of All Saints that it gets to be the gospel reading in this, the year of Matthew’s good news?
I wondered if rewriting them using more modern language and concepts might offer some clues – a more current take, pointing us toward what we’re facing in the world currently. A couple of friends of mine came up with some suggestions, offering statements like:
• Blessed are the blamers, for we didn’t want them on our team anyway
• Blessed are the hero archetypes, for they can do our parts as well
• Blessed are those who criticize without suggestions for improvement, for they show us what it means to be in hell
• Blessed are the grasping and greedy, for they show us our richness.
The first three suggestions – albeit, almost funny – don’t really seem to offer me any significant clues as to how The Beatitudes might serve as a platform for All Saints Day. But the last one, if not exactly opening a door, definitely knocks on it.
It’s about changing the way we think. Which is no surprise since, so often, in the gospels, that’s what Jesus would have us do. And this gospel moment – this entrance into Jesus’ great teaching discourses in Matthew’s gospel – reveals something of how Jesus thinks and would have us begin to think as well.
Now it’s interesting that of these eight Beatitudes – yes, there is a ninth, but most of the scholars I read think of it as an expansion of the eighth – of these eight characterizations of what it is to be blessed, the first and the last announce the presence of the kingdom of heaven in the present tense. The six in between point toward fulfillment of that presence at some future point. It’s an interesting literary device. It opens our minds to the understanding of the nature of God and God’s reign in this world as being available to us and yet not assumed to be present in human terms – terms of our ownership of it, if you will.
The tension resulting from the use of present and future tenses, speaks to what is already true about Christian community and the potential woven throughout us as that community. And we’re also, quite brilliantly, invited to know that, because the future tense is used – and use more frequently – we can’t take comfort in a belief that Christianity is a “philosophy of life” designed to make us successful and calm today – in the present moment. We can’t rest in Christianity’s being a scheme to help us reduce stress, or lose weight, advance in our careers, or even be preserved from illnesses and disasters natural or otherwise. Christian faith is, instead, a way of living based on the firm and sure hope that meekness is the way of God. That righteousness and peace will finally prevail, and that God’s future will be a time of love and mercy – not fear and cruelty.
Now that’s good stuff. And I give hearty thanks for it, to the authors of the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary. Good, solid scholarship. Words that resonate deeply and in a meaningful way.
And yet, while they aren’t at all hollow words, it still seems to me there’s something missing. I yearn for more. There’s got to be a way to get more deeply into the heart of what it means to move in connection with God, and in ways that spring from this series of present and future blessings.
It’s so mysterious. It’s perhaps the greatest challenge to a preacher, to find a way to articulate some small piece of what is in my heart that helps me to understand what God is trying to say. To share with you how I’ve come to know God, even just a little, and why the adage about all problems looking like nails to someone with a hammer made me think of the Beatitudes. And, honestly, if God-speak is not your language, feel free to think in terms of whatever language works for you – and however you might be called to respond to life’s daily rhythms and weekly traumas.
It was a simple moment, in a way. It was sad and exhausting, but the moment when I gained a different kind of clarity came so simply and gently.
I’d come home from another twelve hour day in the hospital, caring for my husband. It was his fifth month in the hospital. He had brain cancer and it was very near the end of his life. I showered and fell into bed. I was too tired to even cry anymore. Spent. Completely. I couldn’t even pray Compline – the final prayer service of the day in the Episcopal Daily Office – so I opted to murmur The Lord’s Prayer, hoping to fall asleep before the end. I had a rosary in my hand – old habits – and as I got to the words, “thy will be done” I stopped. I’m not sure why, but a mystical moment occurred just then. I knew in my heart, in a brand new way, that a big part of the suffering was over. I knew that Benn would die and that all our efforts and pleading and hoping, while not for naught, were somehow subsumed – enveloped – embraced in the enormity of God. In the enormity of that which is not me. I was utterly humbled, but in a way that told me I was definitely not alone in this affair. And I felt overwhelmed in the knowledge that I had, in turning it over and releasing my energies that had been being directed toward pushing against, had somehow accessed a kind of mercy that I hadn’t known existed in the face of brain cancer before. The struggle and pain were not lifted from me, but I was transformed, in a way, in my ability to be present, to witness and to behave – to move in connection with God’s purpose and with God at my side.
I stopped trying to draw God into my experience, and, instead, allowed myself to be drawn into God’s experience. In the midst of hell, I suddenly knew a blessing. And it had as much to do with a change in mindset as a change in heart.
What’s working on you? Is there a challenge in your life? Is it the terror attack from last week? What will it take for you to stop and turn your thinking around? For me it was exhaustion mixed with love and the loss of what had seemed my entire world. But I don’t know if that’s necessary in all cases. I honestly have a hard time thinking that God would impose such a requirement upon us in order to draw us nearer. I’m not sure I’d want any part of a God that would make such a demand. I think it’s more about God – knowing that the world we live in, by its very nature, can include struggle and pain – is always available to us – always ready to be the Divine Presence and to bring peace. To forever being about comforting, strengthening and loving us into what becomes a great cloud of witnesses – binding us to those we’ve loved and lost – to new souls that enter in so tenderly and with such grace. I think God is in the business of helping all of us to become even a little more saintly – much of which may turn on how we see and perceive ourselves and others.
I don’t know that trauma is the only gateway into that change of mindset – that letting go of the hammer, and making room in one’s life for God’s experience of the world, in whatever language makes sense. In my case, it might have led to discernment of a call to vocation. But, in the end, I don’t think it’s necessary for any of us to make a career out of it. Just a life.
The Rev. Edwin Chinery
November 5, 2017