The following homily was delivered by Rev. Ed Beers at Sunday Assembly on January 30, 2011. The readings from the lectionary schedule that day were Micah 6:1-8, I Corinthians 1:18-31, and Matthew 5:1-12.
A few years before becoming a Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, then a student at Columbia in New York City, was especially fond of his English professor, Mark VanDoren. In his autobiography Merton described how VanDoren entered the lecture hall, already deep in thought,and how he would open the class with a single question, as he stared pensively out the massive windows, wondering if the answer might mystically appear.
“Mark’s questions were very good and if you tried to answer them intelligently,” Merton wrote, “you found yourself saying excellent things that you didn’t know you knew, and that you had, in fact, not known before. He had, so to speak, educed them from you, drawn out something latent within you by his questions.”
Some such process might have been at work in the mind of the 8th century Judean prophet Micah, who rhetorically asks six questions to discern what offering is required to achieve divine favor. Response to each question is an implicit “No. that’s not it.”
Suddenly the ground shifts. Just as for Merton, there appeared for the prophet, a truth he wasn’t aware of. That is, the divine longing isn’t for sacrifice to be appeased, but ethical sensitivity among humans: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. (6:8) That final phrase, “walk humbly with your God,” may be the thread that binds each of our readings together.
It’s also a challenge. Because a dominant human desire is not to be humble but great. Behavior we reward is competitive, aggressive, and self-assured.
Madeleine L’Engle, who wrote a book about Lent, which she called The Irrational Season, quipped that if she would write a book about the Beatitudes, she would call it The Irrational Teaching. The Beatitudes don’t fit. They’re often dismissed as splendid poetry, but are clearly impractical.
The initial context for these words was a local conflict. Matthew’s community had been worshiping in the synagogues, but tension increased between those who were influenced by Jesus’ teaching and those who accepted Torah, the law of Moses as their truth. The beatitudes were presented as an alternative way to try to ease that tension.
In searching for a way to justify Micah’s, the Beatitude’s, and Paul’s stress on humility for our time and our culture, I turned to wisdom of a 12th century Benedictine monk for help. Bernard of Clairvaux. In his time and his culture the biblical meaning of Love had been reduced to, and had become synonymous with, the romantic and erotic and was spread abroad through legends of knights performing valiantly to impress attractive women.
To try to clarify what love really means, Bernard wrote a treatise entitled, “On Loving God.” He outlined four stages in the movement toward what he regarded as authentic love:
The first stage: Loving one’s self for one’s own sake. At this stage we place a premium on taking things into our own hands, developing our self esteem and ego strength, often at the expense of others. Aggression and assertiveness are rewarded. The focus is on me.
But, thought Bernard, the sensitive soul becomes restless, feels inwardly inadequate. Seeking something more, in the second stage the person turns toward God. Yet, love remains self-centered. God is still loved for one’s own sake, for what I can gain from loving God. A cartoon comes to mind: Moses, standing on Mount Sinai, is delivering the commandments to an attentive crowd below. There is one hand, waving eagerly for Moses attention. The caption: “What’s the take away value in all this?”
Then, as if one has crossed a perception divide, the self is no longer our primary focus. Trust is discovered. At this third stage one love’s God for God’s sake.
The final stage is the great gift: Loving one’s self for God’s sake. At this stage, the beatitudes and Paul’s distinction between human and divine wisdom begin to make sense and we begin to see that we can, as Micah advised, walk humbly with God because God has humbled God’s self, has condescended to be among us,to walk with us.
These stages aren’t separate; they’re movements toward a mature faith which is never pure. At every stage we carry trappings of our culture with us. That’s why we return to the liturgy Sunday after Sunday to receive that embodied mercy in order that we might be more merciful. There is a mysterious force in us that wants to pull us backward and whispers into the ears of our heart: “Your hunger and thirst for right to prevail, your longing for a pure heart is futile.” But in that final stage, loving one’s self for God’s sake, a new ego strength is being formed in us to combat those tempting whispers, and for this to happen, humility is the indispensible gift. It opens access for God’s love to pour itself into us. That’s the “something more and more that Sister Lynne spoke of two Sundays ago.
This fourth stage, loving ourselves for God’s sake, constitutes the way of the beloved community into which Amilia will be baptized this morning.
She won’t understand this for a while, but as she grows, she’ll notice a different ordering of relationships here, where life is not shaped by suspicion and self-interest, but by trust and mutuality, by thanksgiving and generosity. She’ll notice peoples’ hunger and thirst for justice and right to prevail, because they not only believe in the resurrection but they internalize the resurrection, and they practice it by walking humbly with God because God walks humbly with them.