When the Walls Fall Down


Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost | Luke 21:5-19

We don’t always get what we want, and even when we do, it is never clear which is better.

Blessings turn into cages, and what we thought were our failures may turn out to be gifts. We keep revising our opinions of the past and of events that brought us to where we are. Perspective, like prophecy, is a tricky thing. Just when we think we have a grasp on either one, it shifts.

You will be betrayed, Jesus says. Some of you will be killed, he says, yet not a hair on your head will perish.

Well, which is it? That seems a reasonable enough question, given the plain contradiction. Are we talking metaphorically? The things he describes don’t seem to be metaphors.

This isn’t the happy Jesus of bumper sticker Christianity. It’s not warm and fuzzy theology, and this isn’t the passage one would choose to read to new converts.

Or maybe it is precisely the right passage. They would know what they were in for. It would match up with what life brings them. A gospel life is not a trouble free life, and blessings are not magic. In Christian theology, all paths lead to the cross.

Rocks in StreamAll the stones will be torn down, Jesus says. All of them will be torn down, with not one left on top of the other.

All of the stones were torn down, of course. The Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, purposefully reducing the stone walls to nothing but rubble, making the sort of point that Rome was so very good at making in the face of rebellion.

Today many Christians read this passage as a word of prophecy from Jesus, telling the crowd about things that would happen. Some say that this Gospel was written after 70 AD, when the author of Luke already had experienced the destruction of the temple and seen political persecution of Christians, and so the writer put these words into the mouth of Jesus. That last view is not particularly infused with faith, true enough, but it’s out there, and it’s possible. Still, who knows? God can work with anything, perhaps even a crafty gospel writer.

The meaning and the value of what Jesus is saying doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the temple in Jerusalem, or with stones in actual walls, or the persecution that played out in ancient courts. All of it could apply equally well at any time to our interior landscape, our inner life, our real lives, regardless of what is going on in the world.

Jesus knew that sooner or later our walls fall down. The stones crack and our building blocks get scattered. Maybe we call it depression, or cancer, or the loss of a loved one, or the lack of someone to love. Maybe it’s war, displacement, a flood, loss of work, loss of the ability to work. Our walls fall down. Our temple, our heart, where we cherish the things we have come to love, is broken, and we are cracked open, torn apart.

One of my favorite words is in the last verse of this passage. It is usually translated as patience or endurance, and I have written about it on other occasions: by your endurance you will gain your souls. Endurance. Patience. ὑπομονῇ. Hypomone. Taking this compound word literally, the meaning is remaining under. Living under. Dwelling in all of what life piles onto us.

It is a word of hope, but not the sort of word that most people want to hear. It is a word of being delivered in our troubles, but not out of them, and it does not match up with popular theology. It is the sort of thing understood best by people who have lost something, or who never had it to begin with—the poor, the troubled, the disenfranchised, those who understand that they live in the Exile, like strangers in a strange land, and knowing they may never see the Exodus in this life.

Fallen RocksSooner or later we are all exiles. Every single one of us. It may last a week, or a season, or the rest of our lives, but our walls crack and fall and we are left in the rubble.

The gospel hope is in the presence of a God who does not reside just in high places and in the palaces of a heaven we have not seen. The hope of Christianity is in a God who did not refuse or flee when we chose to kill rather than embrace the incarnation of God.

Yes, that sounds stark.

Christians are used to hearing words like sacrifice and redemption. It is the language which we in the Church use in part to explain and in part to distance ourselves from the event of the crucifixion. The simple fact of the gospel story is that we, or our counterparts from long ago, wanted this Jesus fellow gone. The presence of this god-man, if that is what he was, made us uncomfortable, so uncomfortable that we wanted him dead. Executed. Maybe a few of us would have stood faithful at the cross with John and the three Marys, but most of us can make no such claim. Not if we are honest.

The gospel story tells that God permitted us to kill even God. Perhaps that is what it took for us to grow to the next stage of humanity—killing the God we thought we knew, that we might grow to know the God who dwells among us like a stranger in a strange land. The resurrection story tells us of a God we had never truly known, and a new way of living in the presence of a God who stops at nothing, not even death, to remain present with us.

By Rama (Commons file) Leonard Cohen in 2008.
Leonard Cohen in 2008.

We may lose everything. All our stones may crack and fall, not one left piled on top of another. We may be betrayed by those we love, killed outright. Jesus gives us the promise of being present, that he will give us the word we need at the right time, the right place, to offer an answer and a reason for our lives. And when a wall falls, there is something on the other side. By our endurance we gain our lives.

As the late Leonard Cohen put it, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”





Fifth Sunday in Lent  |  Bones

Ezekiel 37:1-14 and John 11:1-45

Gravel 008The lectionary guides us to Ezekiel 37:1-14, the valley of the dry bones, and to John 11:1-45, the raising of Lazarus. We are invited, in this time of Lent, this journey toward Jerusalem and the cross, to contemplate the tomb.

Ezekiel, the prophet of the exile, visionary, one of the most strange of all the strange people in scripture, tells us of his vision of the valley of dry bones. Ezekiel speaks of many wonderful and frightful things. He sees angelic beings with wings and wheels, cities built like cubes. He sees a valley full of the bones of the dead. The bones are the people of Israel as individuals, all those who perished in the past, being raised at the last day. The bones are also the collective people of Israel, the kingdoms of Israel and of Judah destroyed by oppressors, finally being restored by God. The bones are many things, on many levels.

The bones are us. The bones are our lives, scattered like sand over our days, our losses, our failures, our shortcomings, our longings, our sins. The bones are our ignorance, our hard-headedness, our hard-heartedness. The bones are us.

And here in Ezekiel, ‘son of man’ (your translation may say something else, mortal perhaps) is not a phrase referring to the Messiah. No, in Daniel and in the Gospels we find the messianic phrase ‘the son of Man’ used to describe the one born of woman but who is God. Here, in Ezekiel’s stark vision, the son of man is just that—the dying child of dying children, one who knows and must accept mortality, the unrelenting bondage of time.

Son of man, mortal creature, says our God, can these bones live? Can our shortcomings be repaired, our failures remade? Can our lies be untold, our unkind truths be recalled? Can we find the honesty to see ourselves from within, our sinews, our bones? Can we be saved from the dust of which we came?

Lazarus had been dead for four days.

Again, there are many levels to this Gospel story, many levels to everything John records in this Gospel. We see Jesus, God among us, the resurrection and the life. Who lives and believes in me shall never die, Jesus says, do you believe this? Shall these bones live, oh mortal? O Lord, God, you know the answer, says Ezekiel, and so say we. Yes, Lord, you are the Messiah, says Martha, and so say we.

Just as the bones are us, our lives, our past, our future, so are Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Each of us is them. Each of us is Martha who boldly goes to meet Jesus, to meet God, on the dusty road. Each of us is Mary, holding back, hearing of God’s nearness, God’s approach, but slower to respond, each for our own reasons and for our own time. Each of us is Lazarus, already dead within, carrying the darkness of our own choices, surrounded by the darkness of the world, grieving for ourselves, for those lost before us, grieving for the pain we cannot spare those we love, perhaps for the pain we have caused them, the pain we have caused for ourselves.

We are in Lazarus’ tomb. We are the people sitting in darkness, the prisoners, the poor, the pitiable, the naked and the blind.

And that is the Gospel we hear—that voice. It is Ezekiel, prophesying, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. It is Jesus crying, Lazarus, come out! The promise of the Gospel is resurrection, newness, life, the promise of Easter.

For now we wait. These days of Lent give us time, here in the darkness, to gather the bones of our failures, our shortcomings, our doubts and our fears, our losses, our grief, our anxieties, our needs, our weakness. We have time to examine the dry, bare truth of who we are, each of us in the darkness, unknown to those other souls around us. And we wait.

Who believes in me, though they die, yet shall they live.

We wait for the sound of the stone being rolled away, death and loss being remade. We wait for the Easter voice of God, calling us out from our tombs.

Already and not yet—the Gospel promise, the new life in Christ, is described as already and not yet. Already we have the life of God. Not yet are we fully transformed. Lazarus comes out of the tomb, alive, renewed. He is already resurrected, but he is no heavenly being; he is restored, but not yet of a new heaven and a new earth. He walked in the same dusty paths as before, but he no longer carried the dread of death; his second journey to dying became one of hope, a journey toward a voice he knew.

We walk as Lazarus, leaving the darkness behind. Jesus commanded that the robes of death be removed, that Lazarus be unbound. Likewise, hearing that voice, we are raised in renewed life, unbound by those burdens that dragged us into darkness. We leave our bindings behind; there is no need of carrying those burdens any longer.

Easter is the promise of resurrection, the call into new life.

And now we listen. And now we wait.

Keep Dreaming

First Sunday after Christmas Day  |  Matthew 2:13-23

Three times in this passage we read that Joseph was warned in a dream. Just as before when Joseph learned that Mary was already pregnant and an angel appeared to guide him, it seems that Joseph’s angels appear to him only in dreams.Rainbow Wash 001

Dreams are that space where the walls we build around our innermost thoughts crack and come falling down. In our waking world we keep our fears at bay and we block out our hearts. In dreams, our fears disguise themselves and walk up to us, our desires walk out into the light to be seen. And in dreams, sometimes God speaks.

Maybe God is speaking to us all the time, and it is just that our dreams are the only place where our minds are quiet enough to hear.

The Magi came, strange wise men from the east. We know nearly nothing about them. It is likely Joseph knew nearly nothing. They came to see the child, left astonishing gifts, and departed never to be mentioned again. And after they leave, Joseph begins to dream.

He believes in the message of his dream enough to take his new family and hide them in Egypt, finding safety in what had been the land of Pharaoh. He has yet more dreams, and he believes in these enough to uproot his family again and to return to Nazareth.

Unlikely as it may seem, Joseph believed his dreams were the voice of God and acted on what he heard. Just like that.

A voice in our heads does not mean that God is speaking to us. Still, though the voice is just in our heads, it may be the voice of God. We only hear God when we stop to listen.

If we never act on our dreams, they remain only voices in our minds. When we act on our dreams, we meet God face to face.

Keep Calm and Carry On, said Jeremiah

Jeremiah 29:1-7

In 1939, the British Ministry of Information produced a series of motivational posters to raise the moral of the British citizens in the face of war. By most accounts, the posters were not widely seen or well received at the time.

In 2000, the owners of Barter Books in Northumberland (you can find them here: http://www.barterbooks.co.uk ) were sorting through a box of books they had bought at auction when they found one of the original posters. The poster simply read, “Keep Calm and Carry On”. They liked it so much they framed it and displayed it in the shop.

Keep Calm and Carry On
Keep Calm and Carry On

(If the image doesn’t render correctly here, you can find it on the shop’s website at http://www.keepcalmhome.com)

In the sixth century BC, the prophet Jeremiah sent a copy of this poster to the Judeans who were taken away in exile to Babylon. No, really. It says so, right there in Jeremiah 29, verses 1 – 7.

Ok, the Hebrew version is a little bit longer. “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens….” Still. You can almost picture a Hebrew version of the Keep Calm poster on a wall in ancient Babylon, can’t you?

The Lord is sending word to these people and saying, in effect, this is as good as it is going to get for the duration. Make the best of it. Live your lives where you are, because you certainly can’t live them where you aren’t, and you aren’t going anywhere.

Oh, and take a peek ahead at verses 8 – 9. Those people who are telling you it is going to get better soon? Yeah, they just made that up.

Sometimes we are where we are. These are the words of wisdom from the Exile experience.

Yes, I have babbled about this subject any number of times – the meaning of the Exile experience. Nevertheless, we are inundated with the other Old Testament theme of Exodus: Moses leading the people out of a foreign land and into the promised land. The Exodus theme has been embraced so thoroughly that it infuses our modern western experience and viewpoints.

The second coming of Christ is an expression of the Exodus hope. The story of America is written in the language of the promised land. And it is even more pervasive than that. Take our nursery rhymes and children’s stories. Cinderella goes to the castle. Snow White wakes up. Hansel and Gretel get away. In Finding Nemo, they do find Nemo. (People seldom read The Little Match Girl, and those who do read it often regret it, but even she ends up in heaven.) Humpty Dumpty may be the only one who is pretty much left in a heap.

Given how pervasive, how American, the Exodus story of deliverance has become, it serves a good purpose to harp on the opposite theme a bit. The Exile experience is more depressing, less American. We want to believe that everything can be fixed, that problems exist to be solved.

Jeremiah is telling us that it ain’t so. Sometimes we have problems we can’t fix. Moses isn’t coming to show us the way out. Sometimes we are simply there for the duration, and we have to make our peace with it.

Yes, it may be un-American, but it is biblical. And it is true. And sometimes hearing the truth, even when we don’t like it, is more helpful than a cheerful lie.

Don’t get me wrong – an occasional cheerful lie may be a very good thing. No, you certainly do not look fat comes to mind, or no, I did not vote for that person or that rule or support that idea, why would I do a thing like that? There are times we might do well to ponder that Abraham, that father of nations, was a consummate liar. If you don’t believe me, read Genesis. No, I’m not going to tell you which part, just start at the beginning, do you good. And one caveat here on the idea of making our peace with where we are – if you are being held hostage by a lunatic, do not make your peace with it. Instead make your way to the exit or to the nearest blunt object.

Nevertheless, sometimes we need to make our peace where we are. You are the only person who really knows whether that has any application in your life. If it does, you get to choose. I think that is what God is telling us. Choose to wring your hands, or plant a garden. Build resentment, or build houses. Lament the past, or build a future.

Let me offer one last un-American thing, if it is un-American. Jeremiah talks about children, and family, and future generations. Being translated, we might say that this life of faith is not about us, or not just about us, anyway. A life of faith does not happen alone. A life of faith happens in community – even a monk praying in a cell is only there because of the faithful community before him and around him, and his prayers, if they are true and good ones, are as much about the people who will follow after as about his own solitary pilgrimage.

So look to the future with hope and faith and expectation. Meanwhile, look around where you are with the same view. Build houses. Plant gardens and eat well, as well as you can. Raise children to have hope and plans, but don’t forget to teach them to enjoy where they are. Seek the welfare of the community around you, and the community to come after you.

Keep calm and carry on.