The Tenderness of God and Ordinary Saints
by Teri Daily
Anthony Cymerys is a retired businessman living in Hartford, Connecticut. But to the poor and homeless people living in Bushnell Park, he is known simply as Joe the Barber. For more than twenty-five years, Anthony has been coming to the park every Wednesday to give haircuts (free of charge) to men and women who need one. Each time Anthony Cymerys enters the park carrying a folding lawn chair and a battery to power his clippers, he is a saint.
Meghan Vogel was a junior at West Liberty-Salem High School in Ohio, and she was competing in the state championships for track and field. With twenty meters left to go in the 3,200 meter race, the runner in front of her collapsed. Instead of running on past her to the finish line, Meghan stopped to help her competitor to her feet. She then helped her across the finish line, being sure to keep the other runner in front of her as she did so. In that moment, Meghan Vogel was a saint.
One day Surjit Singh Virk was riding the bus in his home town of Surry, Canada. It was a cold and rainy day, but there was a passenger on the bus wearing a t-shirt and no shoes. When the bus stopped near a mosque, a man in traditional Muslim clothes got onto the bus. He sat near the man in the black t-shirt; quietly, he removed his own shoes and slid them toward the man wearing no shoes. Passenger Sunjit Singh Virk captured the act in photos but the Muslim man refused to be identified, explaining that Islamic teachings say it is better to do good deeds in secret than in public. When the kind stranger reached his bus stop, he exited the bus and began to walk home in bare feet. Most of us would say that this man was a saint that day.
Saints are those in whose lives we see something of the shape of Christ’s own life, those in whose lives we see something of the heart of God. And what we learn from scripture is that there is a special place in God’s heart for those who are weak, marginalized, poor, hungry, sick, or oppressed.
This special regard for the powerless lies at the heart of the Book of Revelation. With such images as the Battle of Armageddon, the lake of fire, the great red dragon, and the seven-headed beast, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that the Book of Revelation was meant to be a source of comfort. Most scholars associate the writing of Revelation with the persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire during the first century. In the midst of such fear and suffering and death – in the midst of the overwhelming power of the Roman Empire – this book is meant to say to this group of believers that God sees them, God is with them, and God will not leave their side. One day they will know resurrection.
In today’s reading from Revelation, gathered around the throne of God and before the Lamb are the ones who have made it through the great ordeal. And now they are in the full presence of God – there is no more hunger or thirst, no heat that burns the skin, only the shepherd who guides them to springs of living water and a God who wipes away every tear from their eyes. This is the tenderness of God poured out on those who have suffered, on those who are vulnerable. We see it in the life of Jesus.
Jesus did not spend his time filling huge stadiums, visiting the palaces of the wealthy and powerful, or traveling to the most populated cities such as Rome or Alexandria or Athens. Instead, the Son of God spent his ministry in a relatively small geographical area, among a people who were oppressed. He talked one-on-one with a Samaritan woman at the well; he healed a man with a withered hand in the synagogue on a sabbath; he noticed a man who had been begging by the pool for thirty-eight years, and Jesus healed him. This is the compassionate love of God in which not one person goes unnoticed, a love that does not pass anyone by.
Popular images of God sometimes miss this tenderness. Some picture God as a ruler in the sky, forcing God’s will on those less powerful like a puppet master pulling strings. Others think of God as primarily an enforcer of ethics, one who decrees what is right or wrong in every situation and then doles out rewards and punishments accordingly. And yet still others see God as what is known in philosophy as the unmoved mover, unchanging and unfeeling in response to the world. None of these, though, is what we find in Jesus.
The late philosopher Alfred North Whitehead puts it this way:
There is, however, in the Galilean origin of Christianity yet another suggestion which does not fit very well with any of the three main strands of thought. It does not emphasize the ruling Caesar, or the ruthless moralist, or the unmoved mover. It dwells upon the tender elements in the world, which slowly and in quietness operate by love; and it finds purpose in the present immediacy of a kingdom not of this world. Love neither rules, nor is it unmoved; also it is a little oblivious to morals.
In other words, Whitehead is saying that God doesn’t coerce us into following God or even into doing what is best for us. Instead, God invites us over and over again to take the path that leads to the kingdom of heaven. And God isn’t like a bathroom monitor at school writing up infractions at every turn. Instead, Jesus heals on the sabbath and places the wholeness of a person above rigid adherence to a rule or law. Finally, God isn’t unmoved by us; instead, God feels our pain and grief and suffering with a divine empathy. God dwells upon the tender elements in the world and, if we are to show in our own lives something of who God is, then we must dwell there, too.
Such a life is laid out for us in the Beatitudes, our gospel reading from Matthew. Blessed are the poor in spirit – those who are not arrogant, those who know that they cannot meet all of their own needs but must rely on something greater than themselves – for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn – who open themselves to the pain of the world – for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek – those who are not defensive or reactive, but respond with calm, trusting in the goodness of God – for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – those who align themselves with the oppressed and work on the side of what is right – for they will be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful – those who forgive and treat others with compassion, those who welcome the stranger and care for the refugee – for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart – those who are not double-minded but, instead, love God without reservation – for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers -- those who treat their opponents with care and respect, those who pray for their enemies, those who break down walls – for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake – those who are deemed “losers” because they refuse to subscribe to the world’s ideology of success, power, and achievement – for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
To be a saint we don’t need to lead a whole army like Joan of Arc, or fight a dragon like Saint Michael, or tame a wolf like Saint Francis. We need only to slowly and quietly operate by love, to operate in the way laid out in the Beatitudes, and to do that right where we are. That’s how we participate in the tenderness of God; that’s how we will see God. How much more blessed could we be?
 Daniel Clark, “The Barber in the Park: A Man Called Joe Helps the Homeless and Inspires a Community,” abcNews. http://abcnews.go.com/US/barber-park-man-called-joe-helps-homeless-inspires/story?id=19250731.
 Doug Binder, “Prep Runner Carries Foe to Finish Line,” ESPN, http://www.espn.com/high-school/track-and-xc/story/_/id/8010251/high-school-runner-carries-fallen-opponent-finish-line.
 Carol Kuruvilla, “Muslim Man Walks Home Barefoot in the Rain after Giving Needy Bus Passenger his Shoes and Socks,” Daily News, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/world/muslim-man-walks-home-barefoot-giving-needy-stranger-shoes-article-1.1766701.
 Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, 343.