Perseverance – the Beatitudes in a word

Downstairs in the church kitchen just above the sink, hangs this sign with the words: “Blessed are they who clean up.” An encouragement this is, no doubt, to wash up dirty dishes with soap and place in the cupboards when finished.

But are these words more than encouragement?

Indeed, the Beatitudes which form the first part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel[1]are often treated as commandments. We read them as rules for living. And rules demonstrate a reality that we have not yet achieved, a desired reality that is beyond our present circumstances. And a reality that we must work towards by following the rules.

Dirty dishes left in the sink is not the desired reality. A clean kitchen is. So, get to work!

Last week, after Jesus called his first disciples, he went throughout Galilee teaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.[2]In these Beatitudes, now, we encounter precisely what constitutes the kingdom of heaven on earth. And it isn’t about following rules.  

For one thing, the bible isn’t a rule book with lists of commandments and directives for living. Its original writers were not products of our 21st century bias towards a rational logic based on a cause-effect, either-or, legalism. For the most part they didn’t write in order to tell people what to do, but rather to describe the kind of relationship we might have with the God of truth and love.

Besides the laws we read, especially in the Hebrew scriptures, we have to acknowledge the Bible contains other forms of writing: For example, there is rich narrative. There are stories and parables. There is history and sermon. In the bible’s pages we also read beautiful, image-rich poetry and incredible visions of the future.

The Beatitudes fall under the latter categories of the poetic variety. These are not expressed as rules; rather, as a vision of God’s faithfulness to the people of God. They describe what faithfulness between God and human looks like.

In order to understand what these Beatitudes mean, I suggest we consider other images—of the poetic variety—that could convey the meaning of the Beatitudes. In this way, we remain true to the original spirit and style of Jesus’ preaching in the introduction to his lengthy sermon on the mount.

Thomas Merton, born 104 years ago yesterday, and whom many consider the father of contemplative Christianity in the modern era, wrote: “Nothing has ever been said about God that hasn’t already been said better by the wind in the pine trees.” Like Merton, let’s use the metaphor of a tree to describe something that is true about our walk with God.

Twentieth Century African-American author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman, in his Meditations on the Heart, describes his journey to the tree line near the arctic circle. There he makes a startling discovery about the trees:

“It was above the timber line. The steady march of the forest had stopped as if some invisible barrier had been erected beyond which no trees dared move in a single file. Beyond was barrenness, sheer rocks, snow patches and strong untrammeled winds. Here and there were short tufts of evergreen bushes that had somehow managed to survive despite the severe pressures under which they had to live. They were not lush, they lacked the kind of grace of the vegetation below the timber line, but they were alive and hardy. 

“Upon close investigation, however, it was found that these were not ordinary shrubs. The formation of the needles, etc., was identical with that of the trees further down. As a matter of fact, they looked like branches of the other trees. When one actually examined them, the astounding revelation was that they were  branches.

“For, hugging the ground, following the shape of the terrain, were trees that could not grow upright, following the pattern of their kind. Instead, they were growing as vines grow along the ground, and what seemed to be patches of stunted shrubs were rows of branches of growing, developing trees. What must have been the torturous frustration and the stubborn battle that had finally resulted in this strange phenomenon! 

“It is as if the tree had said, ‘I will not give up. I will use to the full every resource in me and about me to answer life with life. In so doing I shall affirm that this is the kind of universe that sustains, upon demand, the life that is in it.’”[3]

Thurman’s description captures for me the essence, the feel, of what Jesus’ beatitudes represent. And, one very strong feel about these Beatitudes is the quality of perseverance that marks our relationship with God, and God’s relationship with us.

Our life with God is anything but passive. To stay the course with God requires perseverance, dedication and faithfulness. It is not to give up when the going gets tough. It is not to throw in the towel when the stress of living bears down.

“Blessed are you when people revile you…” Walking the path of Christ will invite scorn and judgement from a culture disinclined to Christ-like living. Yet, we are called to persevere on this simple but difficult path.

Whenever I watch footage of hurricanes slamming Caribbean island coast-lines, I am amazed at the resiliency of those palm trees on the beach. Storm surges wash away and erode shorelines. Untrammelled winds assail and play havoc with anything not bolted down and boarded up. Destruction follows the wake of these tempests.

And yet, the palm tree remains. How? Its capacity to be flexible, to bend, even so the branches on its crown may touch the ground. The strongest of these palms, the ones that have encountered and survived many storms over decades, have learned this art of living well: not to be so rigid so as to snap when the storms first hit; not to be so unyielding when the environment changes. To be able to move when necessary. And, therefore, to live.

Why the Beatitudes present such a challenge for us, is because they suggest a different kind of ‘knowing’ when it comes to God and our relationship with Jesus. In truth, we cannot know God. Ever. No matter how hard we try. Regardless of the number of books we’ve read, the number of bible verses we’ve memorized, the arguments we’ve won, even the number of times we’ve ‘gone to church’. While we walk this earthly path, we can only learn how to love God and one another in Christ. 

To know God this way has already given us all that we need for this path: not rules for living but gifts for the journey. Despite all the suffering, pain and challenge we encounter on the path, the grace of God provides a rich blessedness filled with gladness and joy for all we need.


[1]Matthew 5:1-12

[2]Matthew 4:23

[3]Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart (Beacon Press: 1999), 123-124.

“¡Presente!”

Each of the four blessings is matched with a corresponding ‘woe’[1] First, Jesus says that blessed are they who are poor, who are hungry, who weep now and whom people hate. But, unlike Matthew’s version of the beatitudes[2], Luke doesn’t stop there. Luke doesn’t let us off easily.

Lest we become too enamoured with spiritualizing virtues or escape into some pie-in-the-sky notion of faith, Luke’s version of Jesus’ sermon only sets us up for being gobsmacked upside the head. In a stunning reversal to each blessing Jesus brings a ‘woe’—to those who are rich, who are full, who laugh now and about whom people speak well.

But wait—a secure financial future, a full stomach, a light heart, and a good reputation – aren’t these all values we want and seek? Aren’t these the things around which we structure our lives to obtain? Don’t these describe to a ‘t’ our five-year, ten-year and twenty-five-year goals?

A surface reading of this scripture can leave us picking sides. Am I on the ‘blessing’ side or the ‘woe’ side of the equation. Either / Or. Will we dare go deeper?

And, at the deeper currents of our awareness — when we are honest with ourselves — don’t we already know? Don’t we already know the truth of it—that, at best, wealth, a full stomach, a light heart and a good reputation are mixed blessings? They come at a great cost to health and relational well-being. They are temporary, fleeting. They can come and they can go.

Contrary to popular belief, rather than being evidence of God’s favour, prosperity can actually endanger our relationship with God, as was the case with the rich fool and Zacchaeus—both characters unique to Luke’s Gospel.[3]

What is common to both characters? Both came to Jesus rich men with full stomachs and their reputations intact. When they came to Jesus, both the rich fool and Zacchaeus were perfectly able to take care of themselves, to say the least.

The common trait they share as prosperous men of first century Palestine, is their self-sufficiency. This state is what separates them from God. And has them trapped. they are self-sufficient.

Elsewhere in Luke’s Gospel, we read that those who lay up treasures for themselves are not—and cannot be—rich toward God[4]because when we can take perfectly good care of ourselves, it is altogether too easy for us not to trust God. So, what jeopardizes the wealthy Christian’s relationship with God is the subtle temptation to think that we can go it alone and take care of ourselves.[5]

This underlying belief applies not only to our personal lives—and what we decide to do with our wealth, our investments, our properties our material blessing— but, also to the way we do church.

Will we be a community that lives only unto ourselves, or for the sake of others? Meeting the challenges of church today, how do we move forward? What decisions will we make with the resources we have? Will we abide by the code of self-sufficiency and go it alone? Or, will we seek out effective partners, neighbours and others on the journey of faith? Will we say God is only here inside thesewalls alone? Or, will we seek God’s work out there in the world?

What with all the competing values and programs for success beating down the doors of our hearts and minds, to follow the Christ of the cross is not easy. It’s not a technique or strategy that we can simply employ. In light of the beatitudes from Luke, the way of Christ cannot be an add-on. It cannot work that way, as another activity to add to the schedule of our already busy lives.

It comes to us as a complete package. It’s a call to transformation – a whole-life make-over. I understand the hesitation. Because life in the fast lane has its perks. Maybe we don’t want to give them up. Not easily, anyway. Seeking after self-sufficiency is too much of a lucrative deal for our egos.

Therefore the message of the Gospel can really be a downer! After all, how can we ever live faithfully when immersed in our world and its values?

But, perhaps, the message of All Saints provides an antidote to the despair and the grief. And give us hope for the journey. After all, the Gospel is not just about how to get into heaven after you die, but actually more about how to live in the kingdom of heaven on earth before you die. Not just the saints of heaven. But the saints on earth.

I want to close with a brief reflection on the meaning of a couple of words. First, ‘blessing’. “Blessed” is sometimes translated as “Happy”. I prefer the translation of the first word in the Psalms[6]which incidentally is also often translated to “Happy are they …”:

The Hebrew word here is ‘ashar, which means, literally, “to find the right road.” So, in offering the beatitudes, Jesus is saying: “You are on the right road when you are poor, when you hunger, when you weep, when you let go, when you don’t hold it all to yourself.” I prefer this translation because it implies a direction rather than a moral state. It acknowledges a journey of becoming. And any path of growth and transformation will include honest struggling and striving and letting go.

It is human to struggle with these things. On one hand, we do need to learn early in life how to take care of ourselves. Learning vital skills around self-care are important. Along the journey of maturity and growth, however, we must also learn how to balance this skill towards attention to others.

The second word is ‘presence’. This word doesn’t appear in the biblical texts for today, but it is implied in our ritual of All Saints. In Spanish, you hear the word said aloud: “¡Presente!”—which literally means “here” or “present”. There is a long tradition in Latin American movements for justice of invoking the memory of those who have lost their lives in the struggle.

At political gatherings their names were read out loud, one after another, not unlike we read the names of the saints earlier. After each name the crowd says together: “¡Presente!” as if to say: “You are not gone, you are here with us. You are not forgotten, and we continue the struggle in your name.”

It is human to struggle in the mission of God on earth. But we are not alone. Not only are the saints of heaven among us in spirit and in love, God is with us each step of the way. On the journey of life …

“Blessed are you who are poor – because you are not alone!”

“Blessed are you who hunger – because you are not alone!”

“Blessed are you who weep – because you are not alone!”

“Blessed are you who are despised – because you are not alone!”

“¡Presente!” “¡Presente!” “¡Presente!”

 

[1]Luke 6:20-31

[2]Matthew 5:1-12

[3]Luke 12:16-21; 19:1-10; E. Elizabeth Johnson in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word; Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Volume 4 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2010), p.239-241.

[4]Luke 12:21

[5]E. Elizabeth Johnson, ibid., p.241

[6]Psalm 1:1

You can tell a pilgrim …

Before I took my first steps on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage a couple of years ago, I first had to choose my shell—the symbol for St James the Apostle. Along the roadways and paths of the 800-kilometre trek across the Iberian Peninsula in northern Spain you can tell a pilgrim by the shell they have attached to their backpacks.

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Wearing the shell attracted attention, often very positive. The group with whom I was walking came through a small suburb of the city of Guernica one Sunday morning. When we walked into the town square, we soon realized we were at the finish line of a marathon fundraiser for a local, special needs school.

There, some of the locals had set up large barbecues where they were grilling all sorts of meats for the marathon runners to enjoy after their race. We entered the square moments before the first runners crossed the finish line. But those preparing the barbecue called us over and without even asking our names or who we were offered us some of the delectable meats.

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When we expressed our gratitude, they asked us to say a prayer for them at the destination of our pilgrimage: the shrine in the city of Santiago, Spain—still some 700 kilometres away. I promised them I would.

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As you know, I didn’t make it to Santiago, falling ill to pneumonia and coming home early after only a couple of weeks on the trail. I remember struggling with my ‘failure’ to achieve my spiritual and physical goals. For one thing, I wasn’t able to offer a prayer in Santiago for those good people from Guernica who asked me to.

Was it worth it? Did my truncated pilgrimage do any good? Or, was the love and generosity those locals showed us and our receiving their gifts graciously, enough?

On Ash Wednesday, we begin a journey. And at the beginning of this journey, we are given a mark—not a shell, but the sign of the cross on our foreheads. It is a public act, a public ‘coming out’ if you will. By this mark the world will know we are Christians.

I hope you will wear your mark home tonight, wherever you go and whatever you still have to do—keep it visible. And see what happens. You might be invited into some meaningful, enriching conversations along the way. Some might even ask you to pray for them.

Go into the closet where no one can see you, instructs Jesus.[1]And pray to your Father in heaven who hears you, and will reward you for your faithful act. But even when we think our faith fails us? Or only for its visible success? Or only if we achieve our goals?

Arnold Lobel, author of his children’s book called The Frog and Toad Treasury describes the relationship of two friends and how they pass time together, explore the world together and support one another.

In one chapter, the action takes place in October. The leaves are falling. Frog decides to go to Toad’s house, secretly, and rake his leaves for him. “I will rake all the leaves that have fallen on his lawn. Toad will be surprised,” Frog says.

Now, his friend Toad has the same idea. Both manage to arrive at the home of the other unseen, ascertain that no one is home, rake the leaves, and return to their own houses unnoticed. On their respective ways home, however, a wind comes.

The wind blows and blows. The piles of leaves do too, so that the leaves are scattered everywhere. At the end of the day, neither Frog nor Toad realizes what the other has done, because both return home to leaves strewn across their yards. Both pledge to rake their own leaves the next day. Nevertheless, that night Frog and Toad are both happy when they each turned out the light and went to bed.[2]

What is more important: Our good intentions and motivation? Or, the outcome of our actions. Being authentic matters more than the results of our actions. The Gospel is not about the consequences, good or bad, of our good or bad intentions. The Gospel is not about achieving results and being rewarded for our good work, even with righteous motivation. In the end, the Gospel does not leave us stuck (and perplexed!) in self-centred piety, it points to what God is all about.

Normally when we hear the words of Jesus: “the kingdom of heaven is like …”[3]when someone does so and so, we think of the job we must do to enter that kingdom. And so, we imagine and want to be like that religious person, attending to ritual and prayer and acts of charity and justice our whole life long; the more we can do, the better.

Not that we don’t do anything or don’t keep trying. But we cannot ignore from these words of Jesus what Godis all about. I consider those scriptures about the kingdom of heaven as describing the character of God: A God who treasures each of us. And will stop at nothing to find us. And give up God’s very life on the cross—give up everything—in order to be with us and love us.

God is the one who sells all in order buy the field with the treasure buried in it. God is the merchant who sells everything in order to obtain the pearl of great value. Where God’s treasure is (God’s life, God’s mercy, God’s presence—in us), there God’s heart is also.

This is a fundamental message of Christianity. A message of One who comes into our life even in the messiness and despair of being human. Born a vulnerable baby to poor, teenage parents in a backwater town of Bethlehem. Living the life of a simple man from Nazareth, hanging out with fishers, tax collectors and prostitutes. Dying, even, the very humiliating death of a criminal, for all to see.

The message of Christianity is about a God who ‘sells it all’ in order to be with us, live in us and work in us, for the good.

God does all of this in order to know us, really know us. To love us. To grieve with us. To enjoy with us. To walk with us this often difficult journey that we undertake again this day.

And despite the difficult journey for which Lent is a metaphor, may the world in each step we take on the pilgrimage know we are Christians by our love.

And that’s enough.

 

[1]Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

[2]Cited in Lori Brandt Hale, David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C Vol 2 (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2009), p.23-24.

[3]from his later parables (or stories) describing the reign of God, specifically Matthew 13:44-45.

Impossible Questions: a sermon for Thanksgiving and Confirmation

In observing Jesus’ teaching style in this text (Matthew 6:24-34), indeed throughout the gospels, notice all the questions he asks.

Normally, you would think the student is the only one who asks questions of the teacher, not the other way around. Jesus, the Rabbi, or Teacher, asks questions to reinforce his point. In fact, Jesus is employing a technique he learned from the sages of Israel who came before him.

There are at least two kinds of questions employed by the wisdom writers of the Hebrew scriptures: The first, is the rhetorical type, the one with the obvious answer. The obvious answer is leading to either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’

For example, “Can one walk on hot coals without scorching one’s feet?” (Proverbs 6:28); “Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?” (Proverbs 8:1)? To answer these questions, you don’t need to study the night before.

Now, Jesus’ teachings include some rhetorical questions, such as: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?” (Matthew 7:9); “Is there anyone among you, who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake?” (Luke 11:11; Matthew 7:10); “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16; Luke 6:44). No brainer, right? Either yes or no.

We have a large three-panelled window at the front of our house. Recently we placed my reading chair beside it so I can enjoy the natural lighting and look outside. Periodically a bird would hit one of the side panels with a loud ‘thump’ and we would jump each time a bird slammed into it, offering a prayer for the poor bird’s well-being.

One day we noticed a good-sized crack making its way from the top corner of the centre panel. And we called in the window-guy. As he was removing the large centre panel window, he asked for my help. It wasn’t easy getting it out of the frame. Even with the vinyl strips removed we needed to do a lot of jimmying to get that frame out.

“This panel was installed too tightly,” he mused. “That may be the cause of the problem. Windows need to have some give, some space to move. Otherwise when something hits it, it’ll break.”

Rhetorical questions are like that window that have no give. Today, rhetorical questions don’t get much traction in meaningful conversation let alone as an effective teaching method. Like the window too tightly installed, there’s no wiggle room. Laced with presumption, rhetorical questions are often used as cheap shots in a fight: “Do you think I was going to say anything in response to that stupid thing you did?” “Duh! Isn’t it obvious you should not have done that?”

Rhetorical questions are also not very helpful in dealing with crises. When someone struggles, asking them rhetorical questions presumes ‘they should know better.’ I remember sitting in a church assembly years ago when the bishop forbade the use of rhetorical questions in the debate we were having.

Given the trouble associated with this style of asking questions, you can breathe a sigh of relief because–maybe you’ve already noticed– rhetorical questioning isn’t the type of question used in today’s text. But, don’t breathe too easily just yet. Because Jesus’ distinctive voice comes through more clearly in his “impossible questions.”[1]

His impossible questions made him a subversive teacher who often undercut the comfortable assumptions of his audience. His teaching and use of questions were more in the style of Ecclesiastes and Job, rather than the sunnier outlook of Proverbs. Some examples of impossible questions we see in Ecclesiastes and Job:

“How can the wise die just like the fools?” (Eccl 2:16); “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun?” (Eccl 2:22); “Where is the way of the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness?” (Job 38:19-20). Not so easy, these questions are, to answer. Even impossible, in light of reality for many people. Nothing neat and tidy about answers to these kinds of questions.

Impossible questions annoy and even anger people. Why? Because they make us scramble for answers and doubt our most basic assumptions. Who likes to do that? It’s easier to be fixed and unyielding with clear-cut proofs and rules. It’s easier to repel the questions with sure-fire answers. If we don’t yield or bend, however, we will crack under the pressure of our own doing and the challenges of life that come to us all.

  • “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matthew 6:27; Luke 9:25).
  • “What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Matthew 16:26; Mark 8:36; Luke 9:25).
  • “Salt is good, but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” (Matthew 5:13; Mark 9:50; Luke 14:34).
  • “If you love those who love you what reward do you have?” (Matthew 5:46; Luke 6:32)

Indeed, Jesus uses sayings that conform to traditional wisdom like the beatitudes and proverbs. But he uses them not to resolve conflicts of life but to heighten them. He uses them not to preserve the status quo, but to push the hearer to questions one’s own values and assumptions.

Not a very popular technique. No wonder the authorities got nervous and eventually did away with Jesus.

Questions are indeed indicators that learning can happen. Of course, just because we ask questions, or questions are asked of us, doesn’t mean we will respond positively to them. Just because we ask questions to which are provided answers, rhetorical or otherwise, doesn’t mean we will take the next step forward, ourselves, with our growth, healing and transformation.

We will likely stumble out of the gate. And continue to stumble on the path of life. And sometimes get stuck in the mud. But just because we can’t fathom how to emerge from the shackles of our own humanity, our own failings, our own weaknesses, doesn’t mean all is lost. Doesn’t mean the journey is not worth taking.

Jesus stirs the pot. And continues to do so. But because he believes in us. Because Jesus believes in our growth, in our transformation. Because Jesus is anchored in his divine self, Jesus is free “to dive into a fully incarnate and diverse world—as it is. He can love this ordinary and broken world … and critique all false absolutes and idolatries at the same time.”[2]

Jesus nudges us and beckons us forward on the journey, refusing to abandon us when we get stuck. He goes ahead on the muddy path. In shine and shower, wind storm and in the calm stretches. And, on the way, can we learn to let go of the false absolutes and idolatries in our lives? Can we release our preoccupation with worry, for example, to hang on too tightly to the emotional securities of material wealth, which seems to be the message of the passage today? But I would extend this to worries about what awaits after  we let go of anything that we have held on too tightly in our lives?

Every time we worship and every time we say the Creed together, we are being confirmed in faith. We have a confirmation every Sunday! And the one being confirmed is YOU!

Yet, as I’ve tried to make clear to the confirmation classes year after year, just because you are saying ‘yes’ today, just because you are saying the words of affirmation of baptism printed on the sheet in your hands, just because you are standing up at the front of the church doesn’t mean:

  • You’ve got it all figured out
  • You have all the answers to all the questions of faith
  • You are finished on this journey of learning
  • You have nothing more to learn
  • You will now never again make any mistakes nor experience any hardship

You keep on keeping on, as they say, not because the church is perfect. Listen, if you haven’t figured that out yet let me emphasize again: the church is not perfect. The church will continue to be full of people who are far from perfect. You stay on the journey NOT because the church or its leaders are perfect and never make mistakes. Your faith and your participation in a life and journey of faith is not validated by the church to which you belong, but by the God who loves you and us despite all our failings.

If anything, what you are doing today is bearing witness to the need to keep on the journey. You are standing with the rest of us, calling for us to stay the course alongside you. By your witness today you are calling the rest of us not to stop asking questions. Not to stop doubting from time to time. Not to stop saying once in while, “Hey, wait a minute. I’m not sure I believe that. What’s that all about?” Not to stop looking up and asking for help from time to time. Not to give up, on the journey.

Your window of faith will last intact a lot longer when there continues to be ‘give’ around the frame of your beliefs.

Jesus suggests to us that knowing all the answers and not making mistakes is not the point of the faithful life. Rather, it is the imperfect yet faithful following on the journey that makes all the difference.

Despite all that is wrong, God is still there.

We stay on the path not because it is easy. But for those moments of grace. We do this for those moments of joy where we notice the pinpricks of light across the dark canvas of our world.

Where forgiveness melts cold hearts.

Where mercy triumphs over condemnation.

Where love embraces the weary traveller.

Thank you, God.

 

[1]Alyce Mckenzie, No Easy Answers: Reflections on Matthew 6:24-34 (patheos.com, February 21, 2011)

[2]Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation,3 October 2018 (www.cac.org/Meditations@cac.org)

If only there were one use for salt

To melt ice

and soften stone cold, unyielding hearts

with words and acts of love, compassion, understanding, gentleness;

To preserve food

and persevere, don’t give up!

for the future is worth the hard work of the present;

To add flavour

Rejoice and savour the simple gifts of life

from what is ordinary, can also yield fulsome taste;

To create thirst

and point to the One, Jesus

who is the source of life-giving water

and who quenches the thirsty.

So many uses for salt

All good, all necessary,

Born from the earth, a grounded creation.

Which is your saltiness? Are you giving it?

Whose other saltiness will you appreciate today?

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.

Bane and Blessing

In the popular Brothers Grimm fairy tale, “Rapunzel”, that was in recent years adapted for the big screen in the movie “Tangled”, the main character, Rapunzel, has extremely long hair. This is her gift, it would appear.

But the evil witch has locked her in a room at the top of a tall tower without any entrance or exit except a window near the top. The witch and the prince climb up to the room where Rapunzel lives, by calling for Rapunzel to let down her long hair; they use her hair like a rope ladder.

But Rapunzel never uses her gift of long hair to free herself from her entrapment. While others recognized the gift she had, for better or for worse, why couldn’t she just cut off her own hair? Why could Rapunzel not use her gift, especially if it meant freedom? She had what she needed to be free!

Was it her strong emotional attachment to her hair that prevented her from living life truly, freely? If only she could let go and surrender that which was most precious to her….

In the famous Beatitudes, Jesus described the ‘blessedness’ of those in the kingdom of God. How can we understand this ‘blessing’? This Sermon on the Mount does not read like a self-help manual for the successful, in the twenty-first century. There is something counter-cultural going on here; something paradoxical, even radical.

It seems to suggest to me that to be followers of Christ we must also be able to see in ourselves what we see in others: the bane and the blessing, the good and bad, both/and. It is, on the one hand, to recognize the sinner in ourselves, and to forgive – let go, surrender – ourselves of that sin. And not let it rule us.

To recognize, embrace and confess the poverty of spirit within us.

To explore and acknowledge places of grief and loss in our own lives.

To practice humility with others, a stance that recognizes God as the “source of our life” (1 Cor 1:30).

To identify and name our own hungers, longings and thirst for righteousness.

To be merciful unto ourselves, to begin with.

To search after the purity of our own heart.

To share the gift of peace that is within us.

And to endure the persecution and suffering we all encounter in whatever form, for Christ’s sake.

It’s easy to point the finger, and see it in others, and preserve our own sense of self. It’s easy to do nothing and ‘wait’ for someone to come and save you from your problems (like Rapunzel), without noticing the resources you have yourself to do the right thing, even it means starting by confessing your own sin.

The Gospel of Jesus, while being simple is not easy. Therefore, we need not shy away from seeking after the ‘blessing’ of God upon our lives in our honest, simple, vulnerable selves. We need not hold back from coming to God in all our sinfulness, because God won’t hold back his love to us.

“Consider your own call …: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not…” Paul writes (1 Cor 1:26-28).

Spiritual greats over the centuries have recognized this truth of God. St Augustine says, “In my deepest wound I see your glory and it dazzles me.” Julian of Norwich put it, “God sees the wounds, and sees them not as scars but as honors … God does not blame us for them.” Paul wrote elsewhere, defining God as one “who creates life out of death and calls into being what does not exist” (Romans 4:17).

On the cross, Jesus reconciled all these divisions in himself (Ephesians 2:10). It was, and is, the pattern of his life with us, as the Scriptures testify: Jesus himself was crucified between a good thief and a bad thief, hanging between heaven and earth, holding on to both his divinity and humanity, expelled as a problem for both religion and state.

His dying – his absolute letting go – upended any religious program that said, ‘You need to earn your worth and favour with God.’ Letting go is the nature of all true spirituality. Letting go is the nature of any genuine reconciliation. Letting go is the engine of meaningful and lasting transformation. And these are all, admittedly, a mystery – a paradox.

For Rapunzel, we cannot blame her for being attached to her hair; after all, it was a gift. Why would she want to cut it off – for any reason? Why would she want to give that up? It was such a deep part of her identity.

When we see Jesus on the cross, we see that our faith is about being ‘attached’ in love. Jesus instructs his followers in the Golden Rule to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27).

But there’s a price, a cost, to pay for it. When you love someone, and act out of love for them, there is always the risk of pain and we will suffer for it. If we love, we give ourselves to feel the pain of the world. Love will simply lead us to the cross.

Sometimes the worst possible circumstances in our lives turn out to be the greatest gift – and vice versa. Because our greatest gift can be the source of our downfall; or, at very least, keep us from become the people God called us to be. Yet, it is in the collision and letting go of these opposites, where the blessing is realized.

Listen to the witness of a Catholic priest who visited the Philippines:

“I saw so many shining eyes in the Philippines, yet these are souls who have been eaten up and spit out by life. The Filipinos are a people with so little. I celebrated a Sunday Mass in a squatter’s camp. Shacks all around. Yet they were so excited that ‘Fodder’ was coming. The kids met me to lead me into the barrio. Out of these shacks came kids in perfectly clean clothes. I don’t know how the mothers kept them so clean. They were all dressed up for Sunday Mass. The boys all got their guitars, and it was the big event of the week. They have something we have lost.

“I felt like telling them, ‘You live in a dump by our standards, but do you know what you have? You’re not cynical like we are. You’re all smiling. Why should you be smiling? You don’t have any reason to smile. You live in a shack! It smells like garbage. But you have father and mother and clear, simple identity.’”

Then, this priest confesses: “I don’t know who trained them to do this, but you constantly feel your hand taken by the little Filipino children. They take your hand and put it to their head. They don’t ask you to bless them. They take it from you. It made me weep. For they have their souls yet! They have light, they have hope. The little children call you ‘Fodder, Fodder,’ and I think when they pull blessings out of you, blessings really come forth.

“They are ready for the blessing. They believe in the blessing, and you are not really sure if it was there until they saw it, expected it, and demanded it. These are the blessed of the earth,” he concludes.

These are ones who don’t need to be taught the faith. They live it. They live the mystery of life and death, blessing and loss. They’re okay with paradox, even if they can’t articulate it as such. They don’t need everything explained to them. They just love. And bless. And are blessed.

They, indeed, have the light of Christ. And they know it, deep down, in their souls.

Apart from the reference to Rapunzel and the film, Tangled, most of this reflection is adapted from Chapter 6, “Return to the Sacred” in Richard Rohr’s book, “Everything Belongs”