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Mother Teresa And The Messianic Life

Shining Through The Darkness
Sermons For The Winter Season
"On that day," promised wild Isaiah, "on that day when things are finally set right, the wolf shall live with the lamb, the calf and the lion together, the cow and the bear will graze together, the time of violence will be over, God's harmony will prevail. On that day there will be peace -- when the true 'anointed one' rules -- when the genuine Messiah comes; it will be 'God with us' -- Immanuel -- peace, at last."
-- Isaiah 11:1-10 cf

A voice cries in the wilderness, "Prepare now the way for the Lord; clear a straight path for him." John the Baptist proclaimed, "I baptize you with water, for repentance; but the one who comes directly after me is mightier than I am, whose sandals I am not worthy to remove. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."
-- Matthew 3:11 cf

It will be the Messiah who will bring in the kingdom of God, the Christ.

I read of a rabbi who said, "I do not believe Jesus was the Messiah not because I do not believe in the Messiah, but because Jesus did not bring the messianic age." The prophets longed for the advent of the Messiah, the day of the Lord when the just would be vindicated and the unjust judged fairly, that time of pure shalom when the lion and lamb would lie down together, when war would cease, human abuse would be banished, and environmental degradation ended. Well, obviously, post-Christmas, and post Easter, this has not happened.

Just before last Thanksgiving I had an opportunity to spend a few hours in one of my favorite places -- the Philadelphia Museum of Art -- where I became reacquainted with some of my favorite paintings. This museum has an extensive collection of the work of Edward Hicks, a Quaker preacher who also painted in the early 1800s. Hicks is perhaps best known for his series of paintings titled The Peaceable Kingdom that he based on the theme and hope of this morning's reading from Isaiah. In the foreground of these paintings are the symbols of Isaiah's vision of shalom under the reign of God: a lion and lamb lying down together, a bear with a cow, and a snake with a child. In the background of these paintings, standing along the banks of the Delaware River, is William Penn greeting Native American chieftains. They have come together to ratify an agreement of peace in which they all pledge to respect each other and share the wonders of this land, which for Penn was a new land, a bountiful frontier of possibilities, a new beginning, a new Eden. Hicks' paintings are the artwork of great hope and expectations -- a hope for a new world, a new start -- the messianic age at last. "Prepare ye the way of the Lord!"

Broken treaties and clear-cut forests soon destroyed the tranquility of such a great and immanent expectation. The paintings quickly became symbols pointing again to future hope for a messianic age.

Last spring break, my son, Andrew, and I spent a day at the Met in New York while they were featuring the work of the artist, Horace Pippin. Horace Pippin, born in 1888, spent most of his life in New Jersey working as a young man in a coal yard and an iron foundry. Then he worked as a hotel porter and a used-clothing peddler. In 1917, the 29-year-old enlisted and served in the war in an all African-American Infantry Regiment. He was shot through the right shoulder by a German sniper and honorably discharged. He married a woman who worked in a laundry. As therapy for his injured arm, which he could no longer raise above shoulder height, Pippin began using charcoal to decorate discarded cigar boxes. It went from there to painting with his right hand propped up by his left, and he was eventually "discovered"! His depictions of African-American mothers lovingly bathing their children on Saturday night, serving them breakfast on Christmas morning, and presiding over their evening prayers, were sought out by major museums. Along with these scenes of family harmony were also paintings portraying death in war, and racial prejudice in this country; for example, there was a painting of a Klansman watching black and white soldiers being forced apart.

The most haunting painting by Pippin on display at the Met that day was where Pippen put both themes together -- war and peace. It was titled The Holy Mountain. Pippen wrote about this painting: "... one thinks of peace ... can there be peace, yes there will be peace, so I looked at Isaiah 11:6-10. I went over it four or five times in my mind. Every time I read it I got a new thought on it. So I went to work."

In the foreground, living in peaceful co-habitation, are the lamb and the lion, the bear and the cow, the leopard and the goat, and a young child is leading them. But in the background, in the shadows of the forest, there are scenes of combat, tanks and soldiers, and there is a lynching, and a row of graves. The painting was completed on August 9 -- the day the Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki.

What kind of messianic hope is this? In the background the human lion still devours the lamb if given the opportunity; our life together is marked by a constant stream of injustice, but Pippin, a devout Christian, saw something else already occurring in the foreground of our lives -- a messianic gift, already given and by some, received and accepted. Immanuel.

I am going to tell you a true story. One summer I was in Calcutta, India, in July. It was an arena of incredible heat and dust, and a feeling that all of humanity had somehow managed to gather together in this one location and form one pulsing community of flesh and blood in action. There was a flow of people interwoven with the smoke of cooking fires and the sound of the traffic -- a parade of life stepping over others -- sleeping, praying, eating, and dying.

At the time I was running a very high fever, trying to find boiled or carbonated liquids to force down, trying to focus my eyes and hold my physical self together in the heat and dust. But when the invitation came to encounter a living, universal symbol of transcendent love, I was not going to ignore it. No matter how sick I was, there was so much hope and purpose packaged into that living symbol that I was invited to encounter in person, I did not want to be denied that encounter with hope. So I borrowed strength from the future and accepted the invitation to walk down the shadows of a narrow alley near a Kali temple and enter into a home for sick and abandoned babies that also served as her home. When Mother Teresa entered the room, I thought to myself, "My God, she is parchment paper, she is straw, just a fragile, frail, little human being. She is a mere candle flame in a vast hurricane of pain. My God, she is only parchment paper." Then she spoke, and I saw the fire in her eyes and experienced the power of her words and her purpose and the endlessness.

Mother Teresa may be accused of being naive. Don't ask her about the pros and cons of nuclear power plants, or about the ordination of women. Rather just sit at her feet and listen to a particularly clear expression of God's words uttered through her lips and God's eternity shining through her eyes. Most precisely, it is in her actions that one sees God. She is one who clearly lives a messianic faith now in our broken world.

Since she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 there have been a large number of books and articles written about Mother Teresa, all trying to catch her spirit. But she runs so counter to the definitions of success that resonate within our society today that the essence of her personhood is hard for most to fathom. Biographers often try to find her source of power by excavating her past -- her childhood, her schooling, and the years she was a high school principal, and they are surprised to find that very few people could even remember her then. Those who could remember remark only about how ordinary she was. Like a stable birth or a carpenter shop upbringing -- it all lacks the trappings of power.

Interviews of Mother Teresa by the secular media often go unheard, not broadcast or published because she speaks very simply using the language of the church and the scriptures -- a language and a moral sensitivity that has shriveled in today's often self-centered secular society, a society that no longer takes seriously the concept of the incarnation and that has real difficulty comprehending the thought and life of those who do. But I have come across an essay concerning a dialogue that Malcolm Muggeridge had with Mother Teresa, and which, from my point of view, catches the transcendence of this fragile woman. Muggeridge, who wrote The Third Testament, said to her, "Our fellow human beings, or many of them, perhaps including myself, have lost their way. You have found the way. How do you help them find the way?" Her simple answer, "By getting them in touch with people, for in people they will find God."

Muggeridge knew how most of our contemporaries would take that answer. To suggest to many a college student or faculty member that the people he or she meets every day would be central to salvation seems like nonsense. So Muggeridge pushed her to articulate her faith, not just live it. "You mean," he asked with mock incredulity, "that the road to faith and the road to God is via our fellow human beings"? She replied, "Because we cannot see Christ, we cannot express our love to him, but our neighbors we can always see, and we can do to them what if we saw Christ we would like to do to him ... in the slums, in the broken bodies, in the children, we see Christ and we touch him."

She was asked, "Aren't there already too many people in India? I mean, is it worth salvaging a few abandoned children who might otherwise eventually die anyway?" She could not comprehend the question. From our sophisticated, calculated growth-profit oriented point of view, such incomprehension betrays an inability to think beyond one's own values and to grasp ideas impersonally and objectively. She would probably flunk out of Wittenberg University. "Is it worth salvaging a few abandoned children?" For her, this is a question of madness. All life is sacred. She could only stammer -- "I believe in love and compassion."

The message of John the Baptist, in this morning's gospel text, is that Mother Teresa is not a remnant of a simpler time or simpler mindset, but she is a manifestation of the new age, the new person who accepts the reality of incarnation, who lives the light of Immanuel -- God with us -- right now.

During the civil war that gutted Lebanon, Mother Teresa went to Beirut after a major shelling. She was in the streets helping place two wounded children into an ambulance when she was accosted by several Western reporters. One of the reporters asked her if she thought her relief effects could be considered successful given the fact that there were 100 other children in a nearby, bombed-out hospital whom she wasn't helping. She replied, "Don't you think it is a good thing to help these little ones?" The reporter did not flinch but asked his question again. "The other hospital has many wounded children, too. Can you call your efforts successful if you leave them unattended?" Mother Teresa sighed and answered her own question, "I think it is a good thing to help these children." Then her shoulder sank beneath the weight of the stretcher.

The incarnation of divine love, transcends time and flows in opposition to the systems of human power and glory, and cuts through the legalisms of our communal living.

That summer of my Indian pilgrimage, it wasn't the fever that caused me to see the incarnate Christ in the light emanating from the soul of that small, parchment-paper body in the heat and dust of Calcutta. It wasn't the fever, when I saw the peaceable kingdom in the laughter of now plump children held by the nuns in her clinic. It wasn't the fever, when I saw the lion and the lamb together in her home for the dying -- as a British physician embraced an elderly woman who was breathing her last breath, but now held in the arms of compassion. It wasn't the fever; it was divine love and power active now in our time and space. It was, and is, messianic.

Come, O come, Emmanuel.

A voice cries in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord; clear a straight path for him ... He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with a fire ... that can never be put out."
-- Matthew 3:3 cf

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
-- Isaiah 11:10

Not yet, but already now. Today is also "that day -- the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to all the people."

Sermon delivered December 10, 1995
Weaver Chapel
Wittenberg University
Springfield, Ohio


The article from which the material about Mother Teresa was taken appears online at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1918.
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