Becoming real human beings

I’ll call my mother later today. I’ll wish her a happy mother’s day and tell her I love her, and she’ll ask me how Nancy and the kids are doing, and how are things at church, and then she’ll ask me what on earth is going on in this country and I’ll tell her I don’t know.

That’s been a pattern lately in conversations, not just with my mom. Sooner or later we talk about the decline of our politics to the lowest levels of so-called reality tv. It’s hard for comedians to find anything outrageous to say when legislators and candidates, the very people they want to mock, keep blurring the line between satire and reality with their bills and tweets.

David Gushee is an ordained Baptist minister and a professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer. “This election year has been revelatory in many ways,” he wrote in a recent column for Religion News Service.

One thing that has been revealed is the weakness of many of our most central institutions, together with an associated loss of confidence in these institutions on the part of tens of millions of Americans. In other words, many of us used to have confidence that grown-ups were in charge and ultimately all would be well. Now we are not at all sure.

Much of Gushee’s column resembles the rant of agrumpy old man and he’s not that old, but it appears he just needed to get some things off his chest about our politics, the economy, our churches, our families, and our television news.

You know, there were those sober-minded TV anchors like Tom Brokaw and Walter Cronkite, who cast their eyes over the day’s news and offered fair-minded description and occasional wise commentary for the Great American Middle. But now there’s not News, there’s Left News and Right News. And there’s not Walter Cronkite, but instead gorgeous young graduates of model school who look very little like Walter Cronkite. It’s the blonde leading the blind.

I wanted to tell him about Gwen Ifill when I first read that, but he knows he’s exaggerating. The point of his rant is that “our major cultural institutions are indeed weaker than they were. [And] our disastrous politics this election year both reflects this reality and, sadly, appears to be advancing it.”

I have prepared this sermon with two promises echoing in my head. One from last Sunday’s gospel passage from John, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14:23). The other promise was made by some commentator on the radio who predicted that this year’s presidential campaign would be the ugliest on record.

I have been hearing calls from party leaders, more desperate sounding on the Republican side, for the rank and file to unite behind the presumptive candidates. And I have listened to Jesus praying for his disciples “that they may all be one” (John 17:21).

In our politics, unity is ultimately about our confidence that the Constitution and other institutions of government will have the capacity to contain our differences of interest and perspective and that they will allow us to find viable solutions to the many problems facing our nation and the world.

But Jesus isn’t calling for his followers to unite behind him. He prays for us. He prays for all who have come to see in him what human beings are created to be. He prays for all who have come to see in him the ultimate revelation of who God is. He prays that we may be one as God is one.
The prayer is the final scene of his farewell meal with his disciples. He has been at table with them. He has washed their feet. He has instructed and taught them. And now he doesn’t call them to unite behind Peter or another of the disciples. And he doesn’t call them to unite on a platform of shared values and objectives. He stops addressing them and begins to pray.

The final words are words of prayer, and we have the privilege of overhearing what he says. We are given a glimpse of the intimacy of the divine life where each person is who they are only in relation to the other two. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you,” Jesus prays, “may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” He prays for us to be drawn into the communal life of God and to find the consummation of all things in the unity of the one who made us, the one who became incarnate to redeem us, and the one who has been sent to be with us forever. He prays for us to be drawn into the communion of love that is God and he doesn’t just make it so, because there is nothing coercive about this love. He loves us and the commandment he has given us is new not in commanding us to love one another, but to love one another as he has loved us. This means that the center of the circle of love as well as the radius that determines its reach have been established by Christ, and there is nothing exclusive about this love.

He prays that the world may believe that he is the one who was sent because God so loves the world. He prays that the world, i.e. all in creation that is opposed to God’s vision of life, will believe and let itself be drawn into the consummation of all things in the communion of love that is God.

Why does he pray so we can overhear his prayer? God has entrusted us, fragile and prone to failure as we are, with making the love of God visible and tangible in the world. Jesus wants us to know that we are not alone in our struggles to live faithfully in this love; he is praying for us, and I take that as an invitation that we join him in praying for the world God loves.

Some of you will know that Fr. Daniel Berrigan died last Saturday at age 94. He once wrote, “One cannot level one’s moral lance at every evil in the universe. There are just too many of them. But you can do something, and the difference between doing something and doing nothing is everything.” He was determined to do something; he was passionate in his opposition to the Vietnam war and to nuclear weapons. His actions were often controversial, but he also inspired many to dedicate their lives to doing something rather than nothing, because all his actions were deeply rooted in God’s love. I read a piece about him by Omid Safi, titled, The Saint I Never Met: Daniel Berrigan. The article complements the column by David Gushee I mentioned earlier; it reflects a similar concern for the decline of some of our institutions, but it is very different in tone; and that’s not all. Safi is an Islamic scholar, so you’re about to hear some of what a Muslim wrote about a Jesuit priest, and you’ll hear it in the context of a Baptist professor’s rant about the decline of major cultural institutions, and you’ll hear all of that – I hope you’ll hear all of that – in the context of Jesus’ prayer for us and for the world.

Safi notes that the actor Martin Sheen once said in an interview that it was Father Berrigan who “kept him” in Catholicism during a time when he was ready to walk away from it. “I look around,” writes Safi, “and I see so many people, so many institutions that drive and have driven so many people away from faith. I see the ‘spiritual but not religious’ crowd searching for all that is sacred and holy and sensual and beautiful, but having been driven away — from institutions, from communities, from rituals, from traditions.”

He continues, “I wonder who today keeps people in traditions, in communities, in rituals, in institutions. I wonder about my own community. I ponder whose voice, whose breath, whose life, whose compassion, whose touch, and whose service keeps people in, keeps people nourished and sustained.”

And then he says, “I miss you, Daniel Berrigan, never having met you.”

Here, ultimately, is what I realize about why I, too, shed a tear at the passing of Father Daniel Berrigan. It is not so much that I wept for him. He was blessed in this world, and I suspect he is blessed now. He didn’t have to wait to meet God in the Hereafter. He was already in that presence here and now.
No, I weep for me. I weep for us. No, I weep for him because I yearn for the presence, the touch, the glance, the teaching of people like him, people who keep us in traditions. I worry that without them, we lose our connection to all that is lovely and beautiful. I weep for us, worrying that we have not yet become true human beings.

Safi tells the story, from a poem by Rumi, of the sage who wandered around the city in broad daylight holding a lit torch. People asked him what he was doing; they thought he was crazy. He told them he was sick and tired of two-legged beasts and demons, and that he was searching for one real human being.

They answered, “Aaah, a human. There’s not one of those to be found.”

The sage responded, “That one, that very one who is not to be found, that is what I am looking to find.”

Safi ends his column with a prayer. “May God make of us real human beings,” is the closing line.

Father Berrigan loved to ask people, “What gives you hope?” In this time of division and bafflement, what would you tell him?

The God who raised Jesus from the dead gives me hope, I would tell him. The God who makes of us real human beings in the company of Jesus, the real human being. The God who loves the world gives me hope.

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