The Rev. Dr. William Heisley
Lessons: Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34: 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
Holy! Holy! Holy! We sing it every Sunday as if it’s only a high act of praise. But sometimes it’s as if it’s a cry of longing, a moan of despair, rather than a shout of joy. Holy! Is God really holy! Is there any holiness? Can I be holy?
The despair that is at the heart of contemporary life is not new. An ancient Latin funeral inscription has it this way: Non eram, eram, no sum, non curo. “I was not, I was, I am not, I don’t care.” Out of the depth of our fear of the future we find a place, an island, to which we can cling for a moment’s peace, a moment’s rest. “I don’t care. I just don’t care.” And it’s nothing new.
I try to keep up with the news. And at times I find myself needing to say, I don’t care. There’s nothing new. Jerusalem in eternal turmoil. Civil war, this week in Burkino Faso. Hatred. Lonely death in a hot cell on Riker’s Island. Ebola. Contentious elections. Ineffective government. And the list is so long, so repetitive day after day, that I give up. “I just don’t care.” Where is holiness? What is holy?
Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, is a classic of modern literature. Beckett captured a generation’s feelings of emptiness as his two characters waited for Godot, who never came. Empty waiting. Joyless longing. Craving the holy.
Today we turn our eyes to the graves of the saints who have gone before us. And we think, “But they weren’t holy.” They were people. They were like us. Empty and longing and despairing and waiting. Waiting for God.
And yet there is today. There is the splashing of water, a delightful reminder of our washing that shocks our nerve endings. There is song and there is action to mark this time, this place, as a different time, a different place. Maybe a taste of the holy? Maybe a window into the future that God sets before us? Maybe the saints of the past who were like us, guiding us as exemplars, as forerunners in forgiveness?
The saints whom we celebrate today, workers and sinners and failures throughout their lives just like you and me, the saints whom we celebrate today are holy. Not because of them. But because of God. Not because of them, but because of the love of God in Christ Jesus that is reflected, however dimly, reflected in their lives lived in the past and their lives now lived in eternity. And they call us to change that Latin plaint from Non eram, eram, no sum, “I was not, I was, I am not,” to Non eram, sum! I was not, I am!
However, beset as we are by the exigencies of life, beset as we are by our powerlessness, we cannot change these things on our own. We cannot make ourselves holy. Only the power of the Holy Spirit of God, drawing us into the heart of God’s passion for life, can do that. And today’s promise is that God is doing just that. Exactly that. “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” And there is the heart of the matter. As we bring our longings, our hopes, our dreams, our angst, to the foot of the throne of God’s grace, we receive over and over again the pledge, the sure promise, of our redemption.
I have seen it too often. I have seen people with no center, no focus, no hope. I have seen people who will not, cannot allow themselves to believe in the power of Jesus to love and to lead them and instead spend their lives floundering, searching, never finding. Lost. We do not need to be lost. We have been found by hope incarnate and we can now whisper, and perhaps we can even sometimes shout, Non eram. Sum! I am! I exist as God’s loved child, and that is all that I need.
Jesus stood before a great crowd of his followers, a great multitude of people from far and wide. He stood there as they longed for healing, longed for wholeness, reached out to touch him in what must have been a tumultuous scene. He looked up and said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” I think that the word translated as “poor” here might also be translated as “pious.” Blessed are you who are pious. Who look for God. Who look reverently and live reverently and love reverently. “Blessed are you. You will live in the kingdom of heaven.”
But that kingdom is not yet complete, not yet fulfilled. Where is the holy? Oh, my dear ones, the holy is the presence of the Holy Spirit breathing in our breath. The holy is the presence of Jesus who was crucified and now lives, the presence of Jesus in our sufferings and longings, the presence of Jesus bringing us to holiness, his holiness, the only true holiness. The holy is the power of God constantly seeking to recreate us, to make us saints along with sinners of times past, sinners around the world today, sinners of the future. Washing us and giving us the gift of holy living and calling us saints. Ennui, despair, boredom, the powers that would kill our spirits cannot win the day. Holy, holy, holy are you who are poor. Blessed are you! Thanks be to God! Amen.