And Moses went up unto God, and the Lord called unto him out of the mountain, saying, Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people; for all the earth is mine; and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.
-Exodus 19:3-6, KJV
So put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander. Like newborn 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. You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
-1 Peter 2:1-3, 9
"Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, doctor, lawyer, merchant chief," or "Indian chief" sometimes if that is 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 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. In fact everything I want to say here is based on the belief that it is the great question still. What are you going to be? What am I going to be? I have been in more or less the same trade now for some thirty years and contemplate no immediate change, but I like to think of it still as a question that is wide open. For God's sake, what do you suppose we are going to be, you and I? When we grow up.
Something in us rears back in indignation, of course. We are not children anymore, most of us. Surely we have our growing up behind us. We have come many a long mile and thought many a long thought. We have taken on serious responsibilities, made hard 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 arecomputer analysts, businesswomen, schoolteachers, artists, ecologists, ministers even. We like to think that one way or another we have already made our mark on the world. So isn't the question not "What are we going to be?" but "What are we now?" We don't have to count cherry pits to find out what we are going to do with our lives because, for better or worse, those dice have already been cast. Now we simply get on with the game, whatever is left of it for us. That is what life is all about from here on out.
But then. Then maybe we have to listenlisten back farther than the rhymes of our childhood even, 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 if we have our wits about us. Suddenly the great shophar sounds, the ram's horna long-drawn, pulsing note louder than thunder, more dangerous than lightningand 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 covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people"my segullah the Hebrew word is, my precious ones, my darlings"and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an 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 almost 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 newborn 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 thunderclouds 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 or keep on following, what niche are we going to occupy in the order of things. But what are we going to beinside ourselves and among ourselves? That is the question that God answers with the Torah at Sinai. That is the question that 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 out of all our reasonable ambitions to be this or to be that. It is 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 have achieved or dream of achieving still, we are not truly grown up until 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. We are called to have faces like thatto be filled with light so that we can be bearers of light. I have 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 case of most of us a little of each? Who knows? In the long run, who even cares? Only one thing is worth really caring about, and it is this: "Ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation."
Israel herself was never much good at it, God knows. That is what most of the Old Testament is mostly about. Israel did not 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 nine-to-five energies, because they are gods who could not care less whether we are holy or not and promise absolutely everything we really want and absolutely nothing we really need.
We cannot 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 would 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 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 would never dream of using the word. There come moments, I think, even in the midst of all our cynicism and worldliness and childishness, maybe especially then, when there is 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. I mean saints who have their rough edges and their blind spots like everybody else but whose lives are transparent to something so extraordinary that every so often it stops us dead in our tracks. Light-bearers. Life-bearers.
I remember once going to see the movie Gandhi 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, girlfriends and boyfriends, legs draped over the backs of the empty seats in front of us. But by the time the movie came to a close with the flames of Gandhi's funeral pyre filling the entire wide screen, there was not a sound or a movement in that whole theater, and we filed out of thereteenagers and senior citizens, blacks and whites, swingers and squaresin as deep and telling a silence as I have ever been part of
"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 yearned for the way in a far country you yearn for home.
"Ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, an holy nation." Can a nation be holy? It is 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" (11:1,4). The eighteenth-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 themnames 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 of God. Dreams like that die hard, and please God there is still some echo of them in the air around us. But for years now, the meek of the earth have been scared stiff at the power we have to blow the earth to smithereens a thousand times over and at our failure year after year to work out with our enemies a way of significantly limiting that hideous power. In this richest of all nations, the poor go to bed hungry, if they are lucky enough to have a bed, because after the staggering amounts we continue to spend on defending ourselves, there is not enough left over to feed the ones we are defending, to help give them decent roofs over their heads, decent schools for their children, decent care when they are sick and old.
The nation that once dreamed of being a new hope, a new haven, for the world has become the number one bully of the world, blundering and blustering and bombing its way, convinced that it is right and that everyone who disagrees with it is wrong. Maybe that is the way it inevitably is with nations. They are so huge and complex. By definition they are 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 if we could learn to listen to each other instead of just shouting at each other, 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 is to us that Peter's Letter is addressed. "So put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander," he says. No shophar sounds or has to sound. It is as quiet as the scratching of a pen, as familiar as the sight of our own faces in the mirror. We have always known what was wrong with us. The malice in us even at our most civilized. Our insincerity, the masks we do our real business behind. The envy, the way other people's luck can sting like wasps. And all slander, making such caricatures of each other that we treat each other like caricatures, even when we love each other. All this infantile nonsense and ugliness. "Put it away!" Peter says. "Grow up to salvation!" For Christ's sake, grow up.
Grow up? For old people isn't it a little too late? For young people isn't it a little too early? I do not think so. Never too late, never too early to grow up, to be holy. We have already tasted it after all-tasted the kindness of the Lord, Peter says. That is a haunting thought. I believe 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 yours and mine. I think we belong to holiness even when we cannot believe it exists anywhere, let alone in ourselves. That is why everybody left that crowded shopping-mall theater in such unearthly silence. It is why it is hard not to be haunted by that famous photograph of the only things that Gandhi owned at the time of 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 is more blessed to give than to receive, but that it is also more funthe 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 good-bye once to his young nephew Billy, 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."
Be kind because although kindness is not by a long shot the same thing as holiness, kindness is one of the doors that holiness enters the world through, enters us throughnot 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 sailorsfor God's sake, if you believe in God, for the world's sake, if you believe in the worldand thus to come alive truly.
Be kind enough to others to listen, beneath all the words they speak, for that usually unspoken hunger for holiness that I believe is part of even the unlikeliest of us because by listening to it and cherishing it maybe we can help bring it to birth both in them and in ourselves.
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 within.
"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 way the light falls through the windows. The sounds our silence makes when we come together like this. 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 to give each other our love, and to give God 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.