“There once was a person who said such amazing things and did such wonderful things that people followed him.”
I love these opening lines from Godly Play. I love these opening lines, because they don’t start with all the baggage I have about Jesus or the church. I love these lines, because they clarify for me why anyone would follow Jesus in the first place.
“There once was a person who said such amazing things and did such wonderful things that people followed him. And as they followed him, they hear him speaking about a kingdom.”
The things he said were amazing. They left people in awe.
The things he said were at odds with the world around them, and called them to a new way of life, a way of life that promised flourishing – not just for humans, but for all of creation – through those who followed in that way, that beautiful way, that Jesus way of life. The things he said were amazing. His words comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable. His words – but more than that, his stories and the life he lived – told of a day when the first would be last, and the last would be first.
At first the people thought that he was promising revolution. At first, they thought he was talking about overthrow. At first the people began to believe that he told stories where the roles would be reversed, where those who had been kicked to the curb would finally be in a place to trample their oppressors till they had a taste of their own medicine. An eye for an eye.
But over time it became clear that Jesus’ stories did not paint such a picture. Jesus’ kingdom tales did not set up a future where the oppressed would rise up to become revenge-filled oppressors, but rather, a day where lion and lamb would lie down together. A day when oppressor and oppressed would somehow, amazingly, inexplicably, come to see one another as a part of an indivisible whole.
Over time it became clear in those early Jesus-following communities that the stories told, that the news he proclaimed, that the kingdom he envisioned and embodied, looked nothing at all like the kingdoms they experienced. Looked nothing at all like the striving power plays they saw, that they themselves were a part of.
Over time it became clear in those Jesus-following communities that the kingdom Jesus envisioned would not be handed down from on high, but would be won with hard-fought radical nonviolence through God’s grace by communities who clothed themselves in a Jesus-shaped love.
There’s always been something about Jesus that has bothered me, and it’s this: it’s the way in which he constantly undermines my expectations, the way in which he constantly shocks and surprises me. It’s the way in which Jesus, his stories, and his life constantly call me on my shit, especially those moments when I’ve come to the conclusion that my way is the right way.
There are times that I think I’ve got this Jesus thing down, that I’m with him, that I’ve signed on the dotted line to become a part of his movement of reconciling love, that we’re all going in the same direction, only to find that I’ve wandered 50 miles down a different path and am about to get eaten by a bear. There are times that I think I’m with him, got my eyes to the road in front of me, finally look up, and am like DUDE, where have you gone?
There are times that I think this community has got this Jesus thing down, that we’re with him, that we’ve signed on the dotted line to become a part of his movement of reconciling love, that we’re all going in the same direction, only to find that we’ve wandered 50 miles down a different path and are about to get eaten by a bear. There are times that I think we’re with him, got our eyes to the road in front of us, finally look up, and we wonder, DUDE, where have you gone? Why have you left us? Why have you left us behind?
Such is the life of faith. Such is the life of humans seeking to follow in the way of Jesus. Such is the life of communities who are trying to figure this out. Sometimes we’ve got this, really we do. Sometimes we’re caring for the sick and the poor amongst us. Sometimes, we’re practicing what it means to treat each and every one of our number as indispensable to Christ’s body, sometimes, we’re bending over backwards to take meals to those who need a helping hand. Sometimes we’re working to connect other members of the community with housing, or jobs, or the help that is needed. And other times we’re too busy, too tired, too fried to take this on, let alone acknowledge that the person across the way does, in fact, carry the imprint of divine love.
A couple of weeks ago I was in Haida Gwaii, that group of islands 70 nautical miles off the coast of British Columbia. I was there on retreat, a time of reading, writing, and primarily listening for a word from God. The past number of years I’ve pushed myself ever harder with my work, especially in my work with the Maundy Café. Trying to create more space for people to connect across the lines that would otherwise divide us.
There was so much good in the way that we used to deliver food at the Cathedral. But part of the problem was the way in which we saw it. Part of the problem was that we saw ourselves primarily as delivering food to them. Those people who needed food. What we failed to see was that we all need food. We all need company. And that if we thought about it somewhat differently, we might be able to find what we were looking for, together.
And so, the past few years of the Maundy Café have been about creating space where we could have more than brief cursory interactions, and then count the number of meals served. The past few years have been about finding ways to create a space that will allow us to have real, authentic, human encounters amongst people, believing that the gift of encounter, the gift of meeting one another as beloved, will transform us all.
To steal words from Jewish Philosopher Martin Buber, my hope all along has been to create a space where we can engage one another in I-Thou relationships. Where what we do when we share food with one another is, as much as anything, beholding the people we’re eating with, and recognising the image of God in each and every one. My hope is that the Café becomes a place of encounter, where we experience encounter with the divine spark in people we wouldn’t normally associate with in the real world. And I suppose, that’s my hope for how all Christian communities (including this one) might live too.
So little of the modern world operates in a world of I-Thou relationships. Rather than beholding the divine spark in others, we are constantly categorizing people, imposing identities upon them without ever having truly beheld them or opening ourselves to encountering them and the beauty that they possess by virtue of the miracle of simply being alive.
It’s not just in electoral politics that we other each other. It’s not just in politics that we engage in hostility towards one another. It happens all the time in our daily lives, and in our faith communities too. Even in our faith communities, there is the temptation to treat another person as a means to an end, as some thing that can be used for our gain, or to acquire a new experience.
Even in our faith communities, we can impose particular categories upon others. They may be categories that help us to make sense of the world, perhaps, but imposed categories that do violence all the same. We do this, particularly when we operate as though we are individuals first, and not, somehow, deeply interconnected.
While I was in Haida Gwaii, David Archer, his dog Zappa and I wandered into the forest at Port Clements, home of the famous Golden Spruce. There we met a local, a former forester who had worked for the logging companies, turned local, and fierce advocate for the protection of the rainforest.
He told more stories than I can count, in very little time, but one aspect of his storytelling – more science lesson than anything – has stuck with me ever since. He told of the way in which the forest we were standing in is connected through a layer of fungus called the mycelial network. Perhaps it’s something like the internet, but for trees.
He talked about the way in which a tree in one part of the rainforest, can send nutrients a distance of miles to another tree or group of trees who are struggling to find that nutrient. He talked about the way in which trees miles apart can collaborate, can care for one another. He pointed to a small seedling and talked about the way in which plants such as that, struggling for nutrients in the darkness of the forest, are often sustained by the caring actions of more mature trees. He pointed to another tree that recently had died and spoke of the ways in which trees at the ends of their lives often dump their remaining nutrients into the network before giving up the ghost, in order to ensure that the stuff of life is handed over freely to those who will carry one.
I’m so used to city trees and to container gardening. I’m used to seeing all life, including trees as individuals. My life can be so isolated from other humans, can be cut off from, and independent of others. That’s often the language and the grammar of a city. I am here, on my own. I exist over and against others. Sure, we have our little tribes, but those tribes often exist over and against other tribes, rather than seeing that we too are connected. We too, need each other.
Embracing one another in I-Thou relationships demands more. It demands that first we see one another. That we acknowledge the belovedness of one another, that we see and start to experience one another first as beloved and gift, even when we enter into conflict.
The letter to the Ephesians this week reminds us that Christ has come to bring us near to himself, and to each other. That he is our peace, and that in him, the barrier wall has been broken down. In Martin Buber’s philosophy, divine spirit is the breath that enters us and surrounds us. In this forest metaphor, divine spirit manifests in the fungus of the mycelial network. I’ve not thought about Holy Spirit as a mushroom until today, but it’s something to chew on.
In another letter, the letter to the Colossians, the author writes that all things are reconciled in Christ. It’s not in the acts of power, one over another such as that exercised by empires ancient and modern, but in the beholding of one another. It’s what we see when we look deeply in each others’ eyes. It’s what happens when we draw a deep breath. It’s what happens when we linger as we pass the peace. It’s what happens when we meet another person without first doing violence of judging and assessing them based on our rule book and set of ideal characteristics.
There are times that I fear that we will never get to reconciliation. There are times I fear it is impossible for our country. There are times I worry for the church. Today I’m reminded that we are never going to be the people who reconcile all things one to another. The letter to the Ephesians reminds us that that is Christ’s job. That said, we’re not off the hook. We do have a part to play in this divine mystery.
As followers of Jesus, and readers of the letter to the Ephesians, we have a role too. And here’s where we can start: we can daily take on the practice of looking for signs of the divine image in the people we meet. At work, school, at church, in traffic, or even on the bus. What would it mean to treat the Maserati driver who just cut you off as a beloved child of God? I don’t know. I’ve never been able to get that far.
And here, at St. Brigids, we have an even more promising opportunity. We gather here weekly. We meet in small groups. We throw amazing potlucks. We get together and share food and take care of one another. And as we do so, we have the opportunity to practice seeing the world as Christ sees the world. Not as a world full of enemies, but as a world full of people who are first beloved and beautiful. A world full of people just as broken as we are too.
Here at St. Brigids we have the chance, like that early Ephesian church struggling to build a community of Jews and Gentiles, insiders and outsiders, to build a community where the us gets just a little bit bigger, and bigger, and bigger, so that one day, we might become a community that, in the spirit of Jesus, says such amazing things, and does such wonderful things that people might be curious enough to join together in following him.