Title: A Reliable Presence
Texts: Micah 6:1-8, Matt 5:1-12
Date: Jan 30, 2011
Author: Isaac Villegas
A couple weeks ago Reynolds Price died. With his first novel in 1962 he established himself as a gifted Southern writer. He went on to write a number of novels and plays and short stories and collections of poetry, not to mention a wonderful translation of the New Testament Gospels. In the ‘90s Price wrote a book called A Whole New Life: an Illness and a Healing. It’s a meditation on his life of paraplegia, which developed as a result of a cancerous tumor in his spinal cord.
Early in the book, he talks about something that happened to him a few days before he began radiation treatment. The doctors had told him that either the growing tumor would kill him soon, or he could undergo intensive treatment that would result in the loss of the use of his legs.
One morning, a few days before the treatment was to begin, he was sitting up in bed and in an instant he was transported to the Sea of Galilee—and there, on the shore, Jesus came up to him. I’ll read what happens next from Reynolds Price’s book:
Jesus bent and silently beckoned me to follow… We waded out into cool lake water twenty feet from shore till we stood waist-deep…
Jesus silently took up handfuls of water and poured them over my head and back till water ran down my…scar. Then he spoke once—“Your sins are forgiven”—and turned to shore again, done with me.
I came on behind him, thinking in standard greedy fashion, It’s not my sins I’m worried about. So to Jesus’ receding back, I had the gall to say “Am I also cured?”
He turned to face me, no sign of a smile, and finally said two words—“That too.” Then he climbed from the water, not looking round, really done with me.
I followed him out and then, with no palpable seam in the texture of time or place, I was home again in my wide bed.
In his book, Reynolds Price comes back to this moment—his time with Jesus in the Sea of Galilee, his moment of healing, and his decision to go through with the radiation. While he’s not sure about why he decided to go through with the treatment, he is able to look back at more than three decades of paraplegia and, miraculously I think, say that he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
“I’ve often asked myself,” he said in an interview, “if I could now, knowing what I know about the last 22 years, if I could be presented with this sort of magical retroactive pair of buttons which would say, bypass paraplegia or continue with, I feel, most of the time, I’d press the continue with button. Because as difficult as it’s been and as painful as it’s been, it’s been tremendously interesting.”
Price said he would not have chosen to bypass paraplegia. Because through his condition, he discovered new life, full of healing, even though he could never walk again. Part of that new life involved a profound sense of God’s gentle presence. Listen to this account from his book:
“I’d lie alone in my bed in the dark and sense the presence, just to the right in my mind’s eye, of a patient listener behind a screen. The screen seemed made of translucent cloth, and the slight glow behind it vaguely outlined the profile of a head and shoulders…. He, she or whatever—never spoke a sound but only heard me out as I worked at discovering my…feasible hopes. I never asked…for answers… [The] reliable presence seemed only to say that I had somehow to build my life on radical uncertainty…”
A reliable presence—always there, to show him how to build life upon radical uncertainty.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth… Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
I think we misunderstand this passage from Matthew’s Gospel, these words from Jesus, when we read them primarily as a list of things we have to do so that we can be blessed by God. If we become poor in spirit, then God will bless us. If we do this, then God will do that.
The problem, it seems to me, with that way of thinking about the passage is that it forgets that God is a God of grace. God gives to those who do not deserve anything, God pours out love for no other reason than because God loves to love, God wants to love, God is moved from the depths of God’s being to love. God gives without having to receive anything first.
So, this passage from Matthew, the beatitudes, can’t be another list of what we can do in order to get God’s blessing. Instead, Jesus is telling us about the way God works in the world. Jesus is telling us in these verses about where God shows up—among the poor in spirit, among the lowly, among the meek and humbled, the humiliated, among those who weep and mourn, among those who cry out for justice and righteousness and are in turn persecuted, among those who work for peace.
Those are the places in the world where God brings a full measure of blessing; those are the people in the world to whom God’s presence rests with a gentle intensity—people like Reynolds Price, struck with cancer, rendered a paraplegic, vulnerable, weak, always in need of someone else’s care, and in these conditions he finds a reliable presence, a presence that tells him to start a new life, to lean into the radical uncertainty of his condition and find the kind of healing and wholeness that takes a lifetime to receive: this is the gift of grace, a moment of God’s blessing, the beatitude of Jesus.
I don’t want to say that only the humbled receive God’s blessing, that only the poor in spirit know God’s presence, that God dwells only with those who hunger and thirst for wholeness and peace. That doesn’t seem right because we believe that God sustains all of creation—in the words of that classic children’s song: “He’s got the whole world in his hands.”
Maybe a better way to think about the flow of God’s presence and blessing and grace in the world is to picture a waterfall. The water gushes over the rocks at the very top, and on the way down the water drenches everything. The water goes everywhere. Yet at the bottom, the water gathers and forms pools.
So it is with God’s presence: God’s life flows into our world like a rush of water, and everyone is drenched as God’s blessings splash this way and that—without discrimination. Nonetheless, the water gathers at the bottom and forms pools of love and abundant grace where the humbled and the wounded can rest in God’s presence. That’s how blessing moves in our world. God forms pools of love around those who need it the most.
To move with this flow of God’s life is what it means to be a Christian—to get caught up in the movement of God as God’s life gathers in pools all around us, to feel God’s gentle intensity at the bottom as God becomes a pool of life for us to rest in and be refreshed, renewed, healed.
In his book, Reynolds Price doesn’t tell his story so that readers can pity him. He tells his story to bear witness to the new life he found, a life of joy in the midst of pain and uncertainty and weakness, a life of blessing, of beatitude.
If we are to share in those blessings, we have to draw near to the people Jesus describes in Matthew’s Gospel. And as we draw near, we find ourselves awash in God’s presence, surrounded by God.
At the end of our passage from Micah 6, we hear the words of the prophet: “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
To do justice involves first drawing close to the people who have to live with the injustices of our world. To love kindness involves first drawing close to those who have known the kindness of God and to love them. To walk humbly involves first becoming companions to the humiliated, to those who have been humbled through weakness.
And as we draw near, as we follow the flow of God’s grace to the pools in the lowly places all around us, we may find ourselves with Jesus: the One who knows intimately what it means to be poor in spirit, to be humbled on the cross; the One who hungers and thirsts for justice and righteousness for our sake; the One who shows us the way of peace.
He is there, a reliable presence, as Reynolds Price said, a presence of beatitude, of blessing, in the midst of our profound weakness and deadening uncertainty.
 Reynolds Price, A Whole New Life: an Illness and a Healing (1994), p. 42.
 Price, A Whole New Life, p. 54.