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.”




Where the Heart Lives

Child in the Surf

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost | Luke 12:13-21

It is a double warning we hear—watch and keep guard! Jesus is warning, if not against accumulating wealth, at least against valuing it so very highly. We might imagine a circle filled with coins, and a line drawn through it. It’s odd. It was no doubt a strange warning for that first century audience to hear, perhaps almost as strange as it is for us.

Much of our culture seems centered on the accumulation of wealth. There are no reality shows about getting poor, no self-help books on not getting rich. Magazine covers picture the future to which we are supposed to aspire—more glamorous, more sexy, more wealthy.

Child in the SurfThere is another place, in Matthew, where Jesus summarizes his thoughts: wherever your treasure is, there is your heart also. It is another warning, as much as anything. Be careful what you treasure, for in choosing your treasure you give away your heart.

The rich man in the parable dies suddenly, unexpectedly. Death comes like a thief and demands his soul. Sometimes death is like that, slipping in as quick and as silent as a shadow, unnoticed in the noonday sun or blending into the darkness of night. Other times death comes like an army laying siege to a castle. Those within see their death coming, delayed, but inevitable.

In some ways death is like the kingdom of God as it is described in the gospels. The seed of our demise, the idea of our death, is already present within us, but has not come to pass. Like the kingdom of God, it is a thing that is both already becoming and not yet perfected, and we reflect on it, our personal eschatology of the soul.

Brevity. Transience. We want to ignore them, like children whistling past a graveyard. Yet no matter how well we build our houses, we cannot keep them. One day we leave them behind us, as legacy or ruin. Our monuments, our accomplishments, our piles of coins are all so transitory, but we work at them implacably, using them as blinders to keep us from seeing what waits in the edge of our vision.

Jesus built nothing. At least, he built nothing material that the gospels describe in any detail. We cannot go to Capernaum and find a museum with the brass plaque, ‘Home of Jesus of Nazareth.’ He built no businesses, held no patents, left no monuments. All that we have of his life are four gospels, second hand collections of his words and of the stories told by the people who followed him around, sometimes sleeping outdoors so as to stay near him, listening to him, watching him.Surf3

Of course, there is no greater legacy than that of Jesus. If the treasure he left shows where his heart was, there was only one thing Jesus treasured that could be touched—people. People, ideas, faith, but no one can lay a finger on faith or touch an idea.

We like to talk about the eternal. We talk about the future, a heaven we hope to see, one day. I wonder whether all of that is just a distraction, a way to diffuse the gaze of time. We do not rest easy in the present moment, the brevity of it reminding us of our own, but that is the key—presence. Now is all of eternity that we can truly comprehend.

This moment is an aspect of eternity, swirling past our feet like a wave returning to the sea, liquid treasure slipping through our hands.

Child in the Surf

Not Going Anywhere

Seventh Sunday in Easter  |  John 17:6-19

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical  theology.

Pine Straw TossEverywhere I go in the world of Christianity, I hear about heaven: heaven is real, going to heaven, back from heaven, phone calls from heaven. If not heaven, then I hear about hell: it is Jesus or hell, the fires of hell, you don’t want to go to hell, you are going to hell. (That last is usually from people who read these posts.) Yet in this long prayer, on the eve of the crucifixion, in what amounts to a farewell benediction, Jesus does not pray about his followers leaving this world for heaven, nor does he issue dire warnings of hell.

All this talk about heaven, yet Jesus openly prays for his followers, “I do not ask you to take them out of the world….”

He does ask that God protect them from the evil one, one might point out. There it is, the devil himself, right in the heart of all of it. Really? To borrow a question from a long line of thoughtful theologians, who is the evil one? This Satan who is rarely mentioned in scripture but whom we have built into a central figure in horror films? Or is the evil one our too human neighbor? The criminal who does us harm? Our enemies on a battlefield? Are we, ourselves, the evil ones? If so, Jesus is praying that we be protected from the darkness of our own hearts.

John’s Gospel records Jesus confessing that he has given his followers the words that God gave him. This Gospel began with it: in the beginning was the word, we read, the logos, the essence of God. Jesus confirms that his followers keep that logos, that word, that essence of God within themselves. It is an echo of the famous statement found in a very different Gospel, Luke 17:21—the kingdom of heaven is within you, or perhaps, the kingdom of heaven is in your midst.Pine Straw Smiling

We hear no pie in the sky Gospel message, not in these passages at the least. We hear a Jesus who passionately claims that the essence of God, the power of God, the bliss of heaven, is already present in and among those he leaves behind, here on this earth, in this life.

All of which begs the question, what are we waiting for? According to this prayer of Jesus, we’re not going anywhere, at least not any time soon, and any one day destination is entirely forgotten in the urgency of realizing the presence of God, the essence of God, here and now, where we already are, in what we are already doing.

Pine Straw CoveringIt is good to have a future hope. It is better to have a present one.

We become so focused on the future that we forget to live, forget to be present, forget that God is present—in, behind, around, through, in the midst of our lives, our hopes, our needs.

This is where Jesus intends for us to be—in this world. Our lives change, our needs shift, our gifts vary, our interests broaden or deepen or narrow. In all of these circumstances, it is the claim of the Jesus of the Gospels that we are already touching heaven. We walk on streets of gold, whether we look for them or not. We dwell in the mansions of eternity, whether we pause to experience it or not. Whether we feel it or not, accept it or not, believe it or not, we are already in the presence of God. And God’s not going anywhere.