“Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, doctor, lawyer, merchant chief,” or “Indian chief” sometimes if that’s how you happened to be feeling that day. That was how the rhyme went in my time anyway, and you used it when you were counting the cherry pits on your plate or the petals on a daisy or the buttons on your shirt or your blouse. The one you ended up counting was, of course, the one you ended up being. Rich, Poor. Standing on a street corner with a tin cup in your hand. Or maybe a career in organized crime. What in the world, what in heaven’s name, were you going to be when you grew up?
It was not just another question. It was the great question. Whether we remember to ask it or not, I strongly suspect that it may be the great question still. What are you going to be? What am I going to be?
I’ll turn 58 this summer, and I’ve been in more or less the same trade for a long time, and I contemplate no immediate change, but I think of it still as a question that’s wide open. For God’s sake what do you suppose we’re going to be, you and I? When we grow up.
Something in us rears back in indignation of course. At 28, 58, 78 or whatever we are, surely we’ve got our growing up behind us. We’ve come many a long mile and thought many a long thought. We’ve taken on serious responsibilities, made mature decisions, weathered many a crisis.
Surely the question is, rather, what are we now and how well are we doing at it? If not doctors, lawyers, merchant chiefs, we are whatever we are — computer analysts, businesswomen, school teachers, artists, ecologists, ministers even, or if the job isn’t already in our pocket, it’s well on its way to being.
The letters of recommendation have all been written. The resume’s have gone out. The interview on the whole went very well. We don’t have to count cherry pits to find out what we’re going to end up being, because for better or worse the die has already been cast. Now we simply get on with the game. That’s what commencement is all about. That’s what life is all about.
But then. Then maybe we have to listen — listen back farther than the rhymes of our childhood, thousands of years farther back than that. A thick cloud gathers on the mountain as the book of Exodus describes it. There are flickers of lightning, jagged and dangerous. A clap of thunder shakes the earth and sets the leaves of the trees trembling, sets even you and me trembling a little maybe, if we have our wits about us.
Suddenly the great shophar sounds, the ram’s horn — a long-drawn, pulsing note louder than thunder, more dangerous than lightning — and out of the darkness, out of the mystery, out of some cavernous part of who we are, a voice calls: “Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenent, then ye shall be a peculiar treaure unto me above all people” — my seguklah, my precious ones, my darlings — “and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Then, thousands of years later but still thousands of years ago, there is another voice to listen to. It is the voice of an old man dictating a letter. There is reason to believe that he may actually have been the one who up till all but the end was the best friend that Jesus had, Peter himself.
“So put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander,” he says. “Like new-born babes, long for the pure spiritual milk that by it you may grow up to salvation; for you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.” And then he echoes the great cry out of the thunder clouds with a cry of his own. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,” he says, “that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
What are we going to be when we grow up? Not what are we going to do, what profession are we going to follow, what niche are we going to choose for ourselves. But what are we going to be — inside ourselves and among ourselves?
That is the question God answers with the Torah at Sinai. That is the question the old saint answers in his letter from Rome. Holy. That is what we are going to be if God gets His way with us.
It is wildly unreasonable because it makes a shambles of all our reasonable ambitions to be this or to be that. It’s not really a human possibility at all because holiness is godness and only God makes holiness possible. But being holy is what growing up in the full sense means, Peter suggests. No matter how old we are or how much we’ve achieved or dream of achieving, we are not truly grown up till this extraordinary thing happens. Holiness is what is to happen.
Out of darkness we are called into “his marvelous light,” Peter writes, who knew more about darkness than most of us if you stop to think about it, and had looked into the very face itself of light.
I’ve seen a few such faces in my day, and so have you, unless I miss my guess. Are we going to be rich, poor, beggars, thieves, or in the cast of most of us a little of each? Who knows? In the long run who even cares? Only one thing is really worth caring about, and it is this: “Ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Israel herself was never much good at it. That is what most of the Old Testament is mostly about. Israel didn’t want to be a holy nation. Israel wanted to be a nation like all the other nations, a nation like Egypt, like Syria. She wanted clout. She wanted security. She wanted a place in the sun. It was her own way she wanted, not God’s way, and when the prophets got after her for it, she got rid of the prophets, and when God’s demands seemed too exorbitant, God’s promises too remote, she took up with all the other gods who still get our votes and our money and our 9 to 5 energies, because they couldn’t care less whether we’re holy or not and promise absolutely everything we really want and absolutely nothing we really need.
We can’t very well blame Israel because of course we are Israel. Who wants to be holy? The very word has fallen into disrepute — holier-than-thou, holy Joe, holy mess. And ‘saint’ comes to mean plaster saint, somebody of such stifling moral perfection that we’d run screaming in the other direction if our paths ever crossed. We are such children, you and I, the way we do such terrible things with such wonderful words. We are such babes in the woods the way we keep getting hopelessly lost.
And yet we have our moments. Every once in a while, I think, we actually long to be what out of darkness and mystery we are called to be; when we hunger for holiness even so, even if we’d never use the word. There come moments, I think, even in the midst of all our cynicism and worldliness and childishness, maybe especially then, when there’s something about the saints of the earth that bowls us over a little.
I mean real saints. I mean saints as men and women who are made not out of plaster and platitude and moral perfection but out of human flesh in all its richness and quirkiness for the simple reason that there’s nothing else around except human flesh to make saints out of. I mean saints as human beings who have their rough edges and their blind spots like everybody else but whose lives are transparent to something so extraordinary that every once in a while it stops us dead in our tracks.
I remember going to see the movie Ghandi when it first came out, for instance. We were the usual kind of noisy, restless Saturday night crowd as we sat there waiting for the lights to dim with our popcorn and soda pop, girl friends and boy friends, our legs draped over the backs of empty seats; but by the time the movie came to a close with the flames of Ghandi’s funeral pyre filling the entire screen, there wasn’t a sound or a movement in that whole theater, and we filed out of there — teenagers and senior citizens, blacks and whites, swingers and squares — in as deep and telling a silence as I’ve ever been part of or has ever been part of me.
“Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk that by it you may grow up to salvation, for you have tasted of the kindness of the Lord,” Peter wrote. We had tasted it. In the life of that little bandy-legged, bespectacled man with his spinning wheel and his bare feet and whatever he had in the way of selfless passion for peace, and passionate opposition to every form of violence, we had all of us tasted something that at least for a few moments that Saturday night made every other kind of life seem empty, something that at least for the moment I think every last one of us longed for the way in a far country you yearn for home.
“Ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.” Can a nation be holy? It’s hard to imagine it. Some element of a nation maybe, some remnant or root. “A shoot coming forth from the stump of Jesse,” as Isaiah put it, “that with righteousness shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”
The 18th century men and women who founded this nation dreamed just such a high and holy dream for us, too, and gave their first settlements over here names to match. New Haven, New Hope, they called them — names that almost bring tears to your eyes if you listen to what they are saying, or once said. Providence, Concord, Salem, which is shalom, the peace that passeth all understanding.
Dreams like that die hard, and please God there’s still some echo of them in the air around us. But the way things have turned out, the meek of the earth are scared stiff at the power we have to blow the earth to smithereens a hundred times over and at our failure year after year after year to work out with our enemies a way of limiting that ghastly power. In this richest of nations, the poor go to bed hungry, if they’re lucky enough to have a bed, because after the staggering amounts we spend to defend ourselves, there isn’t enough left over to feed the ones we’re defending, to help give them decent roofs over their heads, decent schools for their kids, decent care when they’re sick and old.
The nation that once dreamed of being a new hope, a new haven, for the world, has become instead one of the two great bullies of the world who blunder and bluster their way toward unspeakable horror. Maybe that’s the way it inevitably is with all nations. They’re so huge and complex. By definition they’re so exclusively concerned with their own self-interest conceived in the narrowest terms that they have no eye for holiness, of all things, no ears to hear the great command to be saints, no heart to break at the thought of what this world could be — the friends we could be as nations, the common problems we could help each other solve, all the human anguish we could join together to heal.
You and I are the eyes and ears. You and I are the heart. It’s to us that Peter’s letter is addressed, “so put away all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander,” he says. No shophar sounds or has to sound. It’s as quiet as the scratching of a pen, as familiar as the sight of our own faces in the mirror.
We’ve always known what was wrong with us. The malice in us even at our most civilized: the way we focus on the worst in the people we know and then rejoice when the disasters overtake them that we believe they so richly deserve. Our insincerity: our phoniness, the masks we do our real business behind. The envy: the way other people’s luck can sting like wasps. And all slander: all the ways we have of putting each other down, making such caricatures of each other that we treat each other like caricatures, even when we love each other. All this infantile nonsense and nastiness. Put it away! Peter says. Before nations can be holy, you must be holy. Grow up to salvation. For Christ’s sake, grow up.
People at my stage of the game — 58 come July? For us isn’t it a little too late? People at your stage of the game? For you isn’t it a little too early. No, I don’t think so. Never too late, never too early, to grow up, to be holy. We’ve already tasted it — tasted the kindness of the Lord, Peter says. That’s such a haunting thought.
I think you can see it in our eyes sometimes. Just the way you can see something more than animal in animals’ eyes. I think you can sometimes see something more than human in human eyes, even your eyes and mine. I think we belong to holiness even when we can’t believe it exists anywhere, let alone in ourselves. That’s why everybody left that crowded shopping-mall movie theater in such unearthly silence. It’s why it’s hard not to be haunted by that famous photograph of the only things that Ghandi owned at his death: his glasses and his watch, his sandals, a bowl and spoon, a book of songs. What does any of us own to match such riches as that?
Children that we are, even you and I, who have given up so little, know in our hearts not only that it’s more blessed to give than to receive but that it’s also more fun — the kind of holy fun that wells up like tears in the eyes of saints, the kind of blessed fun in which we lose ourselves and at the same time begin to find ourselves, to grow up into the selves we were created to become.
When Henry James, of all people, was saying goodbye once to his young nephew Bill, his brother William’s son, he said something that the boy never forgot. And of all the labyrinthine and impenetrably subtle things that that most labyrinthine and impenetrable old romancer could have said, what he did say was this: “There are three things that are important in human life. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.”
In the unlikely event that as the years go by anybody should ever happen to ask you what it was that the speaker said when he was telling you goodbye on this commencement day, I would be willing to settle for that. Be kind. That is what in his own labyrinthine way the speaker tried to say at least.
Be kind because though kindness isn’t the same thing as holiness kindness is next to holiness, because it’s the door that holiness enters the world through, enters us through — not just gently kind but sometimes fiercely kind.
Be kind enough to yourselves not just to play it safe with your lives for your own sakes but to spend at least part of your lives like drunken sailors for God’s sake, and thus to come alive truly.
Be kind enough to others to listen, beneath the words they speak, for that usually unspoken hunger for holiness which I believe is part of even the unlikeliest of us and, by cherishing which, you can help to birth both in them and in yourselves.
Be kind to this nation of ours by remembering that New Haven, New Hope, Shalom, are the names not just of our oldest towns but of our holiest dreams which most of the time are threatened by the madness of no enemy without as dangerously as they are threatened by our own madness.
“You have tasted of the kindness of the Lord,” Peter wrote in his letter, and ultimately that, of course, is the kindness, the holiness, the sainthood and sanity we are all of us called to. So that by God’s grace we may “grow up to salvation” at last.
The sounds of the birds. The way the light falls through the trees. The sense we have of each other’s presence. The feeling in the air that one way or another we are all of us here — you who are graduating and we your well-wishers — to give each other our love. This kind moment itself is a door that holiness enters through. May it enter you. May it enter me. To the world’s saving. Amen.
From Best Sermons 2, (c) 1989 by Harper & Row, Publishers. Used by permission. Available at local bookstores or call (800) 638-3030.