Because it all matters to God

Last weekend, my family visited the Biodome in Montreal. Situated right beside the Olympic Stadium, it used to house the cycling competitions during the 1976 Summer Olympics. But in recent years it was converted into four distinct and self-contained eco-systems from diverse regions in North and South America.

My favourite was the eco-system from South America, for its lush, tropical environment: humid, warm, pungent air; broad leaf palm trees; and, a host of diverse animals – crocodiles, capybaras and scarlet ibis birds.

Our nine-year-old daughter’s favourite animal is the turtle. She spent a lot of time gazing down onto the mossy ground of the rainforest where the yellow-spotted turtle made its home.

When the guide asked us if we had any questions, my daughter wondered where the baby turtles were. The guide said that it was getting more and more difficult for them to obtain babies since they were very vulnerable in that stage of life; indeed it seems that natural selection is making the turtle an extinct species.

Without their fully developed shell in which the adult turtle could retreat to hide and keep safe from predators, the infant turtles are getting far too susceptible to a premature death and more difficult to protect. Who knows? Maybe the turtle with its shelled existence is going the way of the dodo bird.

The religious people in Jesus’ day felt they were up against a formidable predator in the Roman occupation of Palestine. The Gospel of Matthew was written about the time when the Roman legions were laying siege to eventually destroy the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and fetter out any Zealots who violently opposed the occupation.

With their temple under attack, the anxious people of God were asking questions of identity and purpose: Who are we and what are we to do? How can it be that God’s holy city and temple are occupied territory? What does this say about God’s relationship with us? How does God want us to respond to this dark and murky reality of life?

This is the social and political context to which Jesus spoke, on the hillside near Capernaum overlooking the Sea of Galilee. This Gospel text (Matthew 5:13-20) forms part of the famous Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus outlined the values and purpose of the kingdom of God “that is near” (4:17).

It is a situation not completely unlike our own. When you consider the history of Christianity over the past two millennia, we find ourselves today in a similar, challenging circumstance: the institution of the church is diminished to the point of demise in many quarters. Christendom, once mighty, powerful and dominant in the western world, is relegated now in our society to the point of obscurity and irrelevance.

Many are asking those same questions: Who are we, and what are we to do? How can it be that God’s nation is “occupied” territory? How does God want us to respond to this dark and uncertain reality of life?

It is a natural instinct for many who, when under stress and pressure and the burden of fear, retreat under the shell – as a turtle does. One response to the perceived threat is to strengthen the walls between sacred and secular. Against the wiles of the crazy, dangerous world ‘out there’ we escape into our private and safe domains of home, property and religious purity. And build a fortress. But is this the right strategy? Or, does it spell, like the turtle, possible extinction?

Amidst the threats against the practice of faith in first century Palestine and twenty-first century Canada, Jesus preaches another way.

Amidst these threats, Jesus challenged Israel to be Israel, just as he challenges us to be ourselves in faith today. Jesus did not say, “You must become salt of the earth by pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.” Jesus did not say, “You must one day down the road when everything is perfect in the world again, or when you can somehow make yourself worthy of it, become the light.”

Jesus announced, to remind them and us: “You ARE the salt of the earth.” “You ARE the light of the world, right now, right here, in the world as it is, in your life as it is now with all its uncertainty, and in all its darkness.” We don’t have to hide nor retreat behind fortress walls. The solution is in somehow activating saltiness and brightness within us.

So, how do we do that? If there were to be only one way of doing God’s will; if there were only one way of being a Christian – then I’m not sure Jesus would talk in parables and present metaphors and images like salt and light – images open to a multitude of functions and capabilities. Jesus would just spell it out in the letter of the law.

But no. Salt and Light. It’s as if he is saying: Given all the uses of salt, and the various applications of light – how do you fit in?

When Jesus uses the image of light, he makes the point not to hide it under a bushel, but make sure everyone can see it (Matthew 5:14-16). But if others are to see the light, in what conditions do we let it shine? At the noontime of a bright, sunny day?

We will have to shine it in the darkness. After all, people don’t notice a light – whether a flashlight or candle – in the brightness of day. But at night. When all is dark. When you can’t see everything clearly. When the way is uncertain. Where shadows lengthen.

That’s where we are to go. Into places of darkness, in the world and in our own lives: Where people suffer hunger, homelessness and rejection; Where we harbor unhealthy secrets within our souls. This may not seem very religious. This activity may not be easy or make us feel good. But it is where Jesus calls us “to follow him”.

Annie Dillard writes, “You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary.” (p.43, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, New York: Harper, 1992)

Why do we go into the darkness of the world? Why should we take these risks, and expose even our own weaknesses and vulnerability?

Because this world matters to God. All of it. Not some utopic fantasy of what it could be without all the stains of human sin splattered all over the place. But this world in all its complexities, challenges, difficulties, problems.

Just like the weeds and the wheat – what did Jesus instruct his disciples in telling that parable? (Matthew 13:24-30) – To leave the wheat and weeds together, and God will take care of separating out the two when the time comes.

This world matters to God. Our human condition matters to God. Otherwise, Jesus would not have come the way he did:

  1. Jesus appeared in the dust of first century Palestine. Often throughout the Gospels, the writers take pains to indicate the time and place of the event they are recording. For example, the Gospel of Matthew opens with a detailed account, name for name, of the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:1ff). The Word became flesh. God entered humanity, in a specific time and place in history. Jesus fully embodied both human and divine. The incarnation was, and is, not some abstract notion removed from life on earth. Jesus was born into this world.
  2. When Jesus died on the cross, the veil in the temple ripped in half (Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38), symbolically abolishing the distinction between sacred and secular for all time. No longer would religious life be divided into neat categories that separated the faithful from real life, from engagement with the world as it is.
  3. In the ancient (Apostles’) creed of the church we say we believe in the “resurrection of the body”; by placing value on our own bodies in following Jesus we claim continuity between this world and the next. That means that laughing, grieving, crying, caring, walking, working, making love – doing all those things that are part of regular living in our own skin – these are all sacramental activities. These activities, Jesus preaches, are the building blocks of the kingdom of God.

The stuff of earth matters to God. And that’s why we reflect the light of Christ in the darkness of it.

By going the way of Jesus to reflect his light in a dark world, we discover a great grace: that we already have and are all that we need and God needs, to fulfill God’s purposes for us and for the world, in this time and in this place.

Your Word is true, on letting go

When I spent a year in Germany during my seminary days, I struggled in the first half of that year with feelings of being lost, without guidance, and without my usual supports in place. I was lonely: For the first time in my life, I wasn’t able to rely on my parents, and I didn’t have my twin brother close by to share a life experience. I felt depressed, rudderless, cut off, a ship floating aimlessly in the stormy ocean.

I was reminded of this turbulent time in my life after reading the Gospel text (Luke 21:5-19) for today. Jesus points to those external ‘structures’ in the lives of his disciples, structures that they have come to depend on for guidance, for a sense of purpose and identity – and tells them basically that they will crumble, that they will have to learn to do without the usual dependencies, that they will have to ‘lose’ these. They will be no more.

First, it’s the massive and impressive temple that Herod was building, adorned with decorations; the temple presented a glorious architectural masterpiece to the world. At the end of the text, Jesus mentions family – even those closest to us will be cut off from the path we are on. There is a profound losing that imbues this scripture today, not unlike what the Israelites had to experience when they were exiled from their land, their homes, their precious Jerusalem temple, some five hundred years before Christ. It is a pattern that is repeating again.

The first part in the path of faith – of true spirituality – is one of letting go, of releasing, of surrendering. If anyone has experienced even a margin of what that means, it’s never easy. It’s hard, especially when for most of your life you’ve placed so much energy and invested your emotions and stability in a building, a place, a person, a family – and then you have lose it.

Luke wrote this story in the Gospel some forty years after the life of Jesus. Remember, all of what we read in the Bible was for the longest time first shared by word of mouth – stories told to the community and from generation to generation. In the latter half of the first century A.D. these told stories about Jesus began to be written down in the form we see them today.

It’s important for me to mention this because Jesus’ prediction that the temple would be destroyed actually happened. In about 70 A.D. the Roman armies laid siege to Jerusalem to try to subdue the radical Jewish insurrection who were rebelling against Roman occupation of their land. The victorious Romans eventually toppled the impressive stone walls of the temple, leaving only what we see today – the famous western wall, or the “Wailing Wall”.

All this is to say, that Luke wrote these words of Jesus at a time when the rebellion was reaching its peak: “… the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” These written words carried extra emotional weight, it would seem to me, to those who first received them in the late first century. Because it was actually happening.

Early Christians were encouraged to trust Jesus, because what Jesus says is true! What Jesus promises will come to pass. This truth is consistent with the tradition of earlier scriptures, first echoed in the poetry emerging from the exile – “The grass withers, the flower fades – but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:7-8).

Though the path is full of suffering, one thing remains: the presence and purpose of God. This may give us a clue as to the meaning of Jesus’ closing words in the text: “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Some translations have it, “by your patience”.

Since I opened with a personal story from my seminary days, I’ll bring here another story I heard from a seminary class studying ‘the end times’. For you to get this story, I need to remind you of how a liturgical church, such as ours, organizes our reading of the Bible. We follow a lectionary, which means that there are assigned readings not only for every Sunday of the year but for every day, even. You can find these assigned readings at the front of our worship books. The point is, after a three year cycle of following this ‘lectionary’, we will have basically read through the whole Bible.

So, these seminary students were engaged in a discussion of what Bible text they would choose if they had reason to believe that this was the Final Day. Some suggested John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Others suggested Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want, even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil …” Still others suggested the very last verses of the Bible from Revelation 22:20-21 – “The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon. Amen! Come, Lord Jesus (Maranatha). The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the Saints. Amen!’”

But, the winning suggestion was – “I would preach on whatever Bible lesson was appointed as the Gospel for the day.”

A homeowner hired a gardener to plant a certain kind of tree. “But that kind of tree takes many years to mature,” the gardener protested. “Then get started with the planting,” the homeowner replied. “You do not have a moment to lose.”

If the first difficult part of the path of faith is surrendering, letting go, not identifying any longer with those structures on which we have come to depend heavily, the second part is the motivation to endure in the regular, daily task. It is full of promise, and new life.

Because those endings and beginnings in Christ are not our doing. We do not control our destiny, contrary to what so much of our culture preaches. We are called only to be faithful in our daily service, doing that which is set before us this day. We don’t know exactly how things will turn out. But we can take the risk and take the first step because we have the true promise of God:

Being aware of God’s faithfulness to us, being assured in the Word that what Jesus promises is true, we can be buoyed by a vibrant hope on the stormy ocean of life. We live every day as if it were the last, doing all that we can, doing the right thing, in the moment. And we cling to the assurance that God will not only do the rest, but much, much more!

In the last few months of my year abroad in Germany, I finally found my stride. Maybe it was because I knew ‘the end’ was coming; my time in Germany was coming to an end, and soon and very soon I would be returning home. Being aware of and confident in my returning home coming closer with each passing day, I was able to enjoy and fully enter each moment: I travelled with my friends, visited my families in Poland and Germany, breathed the air deeply, and went about finishing the tasks set before me.

In engaging my life fully, doing what I was called to do there – even though it wasn’t always easy – I now remember that time as one of those crucial, pivotal and cherished learning moments of my life. For, a true letting go yielded a wondrous new beginning.