When things crumble

185 Chairs

Our family has been on a month long trip to Australia and New Zealand. Last week, we were in Christchurch.  In 2010 a huge earthquake hit Christchurch and caused extensive damage. Thankfully nobody was killed.  18,158 aftershocks followed, and people functioned in a daily life that felt unsure and threatening. They had no idea what to expect; anything could happen.  And six months later, it did. In February of 2011, a bigger quake struck. Large swatches of the city were decimated, thousands were injured, and 185 people died.  A lot of businesses and individuals have left the city, and while a lot of rebuilding has been done, a lot remains, and Christchurch is a city still locked in PTSD and exhaustion, as the slow work of rebuilding continues. 

Near the place we were staying, a 90 year old women came most days and set out a few dozen water color paintings along the sidewalk, for people to peruse and buy. She’d been painting for 60 years, she would tell everyone who walked by. One day, part of our group stopped to chat with her. And, as went with many conversations in Christchurch, she told them where she had been in the earthquake.  She had just come out of her home on a hill, where she had lived for most of her life. She walked down the walk to the mailbox and opened it, and was pulling out her mail when the quake struck, knocking her to the ground. She looked up and watched the house she had been sitting in 30 seconds before, collapse from the top down, and crumble into rubble before her eyes.

When our scripture opens, Jesus has just come out of the wilderness – 40 days in another world. No cell phone, newspaper or social media; he wouldn’t know if his great aunt had passed away while he was gone, or if the president had changed.  He wouldn’t have had any way of checking in on life back home, which is good, because he had his hands full with what he was doing out there anyway.
The wilderness stripped Jesus down to his most basic self, no protection or community, just him, out there in the elements, hungry, tired, alone, and then, at his weakest, tempted mercilessly by the Accuser. And when all that was finished, we are told, “The devil left him, and suddenly angels came and ministered to him.”

So Jesus returns to the hustle and bustle of the real world, sunburned and skinny, and the first thing he hears is: John has been arrested.

And it crumbles before his eyes.
While you were away, your cousin, the one destined from of old to pave the way for the Messiah, was seized by the authorities and locked away.
And the community surrounding John was undoubtedly in upheaval. What kind of tweets and status updates and forwarded articles were going around the followers of this movement? What urgency and fear hovered over them all? What rumors, interpretations, and rallying cries? What moans of despair, and calls for action? And what did it all mean? Does God’s plan get derailed? Does this mean the end?

Jesus, if you thought this would be easy, think again.  You’ll get no gentle reentry, no chance to reacclimate to ordinary life, in fact, here’s the new ordinary: you wont know what to expect. Anything can happen. And while you know in your bones and soul you can trust God; you can’t trust that God will protect those involved in God’s schemes from suffering and injustice.

So, the text moves really fast through this part, but what Jesus does next is super important: He withdraws to Galilee. And I want to stop in that little space between the period and the next sentence for a minute, because this says something a little shocking and pretty significant: 
Jesus disappeared for a while. Even though he had just returned, even though the community was swirling in drama, Jesus stepped out of the fray, off the grid.

Jesus withdrew. In Matthew, this verb is used when circumstances bring unexpected threat or loss - the Magi returning home another way, Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt, Jesus, later on when he hears John is dead, retreating to a quiet place – in times of upheaval, this verb has people “stepping out of the situation.”
Jesus steps out of the situation.
He withdraws, and gets his grounding. He does what he maybe just learned in the wilderness: he separates himself from the situation and puts himself where God can meet him uncluttered, unencumbered. 

In Presbyterian Women’s gathering, for over three years, we’ve been going through a book about women in the bible. It is taking us so long, because we love to talk, so we get through just one or two women each month, and it turns out, believe it or not, there are a whole lot of women in the bible.  So this week we met Philip’s daughters, in Acts, who were, all four of them, well respected prophets in the church; they spoke words of encouragement from God to the people.  And we began to talk about prophecy, and why we don’t hear so much about prophecy or prophets in the church these days.
Then one of us (Rosie) made the observation that today we live a non-stop life surrounded by noise. We are rarely quiet. Rarely still. We hardly ever let ourselves stop and simply be.  Even when we are alone, we fill the space with radio, television, other distractions. And perhaps with this way of living, we make it a whole lot harder for ourselves to listen to God. Maybe if we were still or quiet more, we would be more likely to hear God.

When Jesus heard the difficult, and potentially frightening news, he stepped out of the situation.  After the period and before the next sentence, Jesus put everything down and withdrew to a place where there was nothing that could distract him. 
And I think it’s safe to say that in that place, apart from it all, God met him, because (as we’re learning), when we stop, God meets us. And when Jesus was finished, when he remembered whose he was and who he was, he came into the next sentence with direction and clarity.  He packed up his things and left his hometown, Nazareth, in the region Galilee, for a new city, Capernaum, by the Sea of Galilee, the land that used to belong to the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, but hasn’t been referred to that way for over 700 years.
Until this scripture. 
Because Matthew is always linking Jesus back to the prophets, showing the continuity of God’s story, so he draws on a prophesy and promise in Isaiah 9, the one we always read at Christmastime,
Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
   on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
   have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
   light has dawned.’
and if we continued on, we would come to, "...for unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, authority shall rest upon his shoulders and he shall be called wonderful, counselor, mighty god, everlasting father, prince of peace,” and end with “the zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”

Here’s what all that is saying about Jesus as he begins to carry out God’s ministry in the world: God-with-us goes to make his home in the land of those God has not forgotten. This story has a long arc, and God’s promises do not fade away.
This is the story you are now part of.

Now once Jesus has settled into his new home, he begins his ministry by picking up the message John the Baptist got started, Repent! For the Kingdom of heaven has come near!

The word repent, Μετανοεῖτε means literally “change how you think after being with,” in other words, turn around, shift your being in another direction, change your purpose after this.” We could think of it as laying down your mind and exchanging it for the mind, perspective, and purpose of Christ.

The kingdom of heaven has come near. The reign of God, the way of life with God in charge, where we all belong to God and we all belong to each other, the order God created for the world and is leading the world towards, in Jesus, this reality has come near. It has come to live among us. 
So here is what that looks like:
We spent our last week with a group of people from New Zealand, South Korea, Vanuatu, and Tonga. We prayed together, sang together, and ate together; we shared stories of joy and suffering, listened to one another, and encouraged each other.
Even though we are divided by language, tribe, miles and circumstances, we found ourselves acting as though we belonged to each other, living out the truth of the Kingdom of Heaven right here on earth, because that is the real reality.

Then on Saturday, our group had the opportunity to help restore a memorial to the 185 people who died in Christchurch’s 2011 earthquake.  An artist had painted 185 chairs white, easy chairs, dining room chairs, folding chairs, car seats and wheelchairs. And he placed them on a grassy spot in rows.  Six years later, this exhibit remains one of the most powerful places of healing for this city.

So that morning the kids and I joined the artist and several other volunteers, many of whom have cared for this display for years, and we helped to repaint the chairs, lay down fresh grass, and replace the fresh chairs in their rows.  We worked alongside those who had lost loved ones, for whom a particular chair meant someone no longer in their world, and alongside these people we’d been spending the week with, none of whom were from Christchurch either.  And the importance of what we were doing, and sorrow for what it represented, did not hinder the laughter and cooperation, the tentative conversations, and the synergy of working alongside one another. 

And at one point, I looked around at this group of strangers in the summer sun, on the other side of the planet from where I call home, working together to minister to a city, and I felt overwhelmed by the awareness that we all belong to each other, and we all belong to God.  With paint on our arms and dirt under our fingernails, the kingdom of heaven has come near. 

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is here.
Perhaps it’s been taught to us in church, or at least insinuated, that Jesus never got afraid or worried, never felt overwhelmed or dismayed. But the way the gospel writers tell it, his whole adult ministry begins with God claiming him in the waters of John’s baptism of repentance, and then the Spirit immediately driving him into the wilderness of temptation. So I would be wiling to bet that sometimes he felt overwhelmed, and at times he felt tempted by the fear and the messages of the empire’s power to derail what God was doing. 
Rather than think that Jesus never needed to repent, I wonder if in fact Jesus repented all the time, if, at the first inkling of fear or doubt, Jesus steps out of the scene, opens himself to God, and allows his mind to be changed, his perspective shifted, and his being reoriented back God’s truth.

When we repent, when we change our mind for Christ’s mind, and turn around and head another direction, we also lift gaze lifted to a further horizon to see the long arc of God’s salvation, and the endurance of God’s promises that cannot be derailed.

Jesus gives us a way; he shows us his way. When he hears the news that John has been arrested, when he feels the messages closing in around him, bombarding him, threatening to make him believe the empire is in control, he withdraws. He leaves the scene and finds himself alone with God.

I was in Australia for the presidential inauguration, and for the next few weeks afterwards. And every day, because of the time difference, I would wake up in the morning and it would be late afternoon yesterday back home. And every day, I logged onto the internet and saw news that made me feel afraid, worried, and despairing.  And most often, I did not choose to step out of the situation, pray and seek direction, and let my mind be shifted back onto God. Most often I obsessed, and read every article I could find, and fretted and worried about what it could all mean.

But after I came home, a couple of days ago, I came into this sanctuary, and I laid out an American flag and some candles, and I sat in silence before God.  And I found myself being shifted back into the mindset of Christ, which is to say, I repented.

This is part of the story. I was reminded. This is not the whole story. 
The world belongs to God.

And after laying down my fears and frustrations, I felt myself rest. 
Instead of worrying, which is practicing fear over and over again, I rested, which is practicing trust. I let myself fall back into the care of God. 
And when I was finished, I found I could approach the world and my concerns with new clarity and purpose, with confidence that the Kingdom of God is here. Even when we can’t always see it; we know where this is all heading. And we get to live in that confidence and trust by living out what we know to be true, boldly and joyfully in a nation starving for connection and hope.  
And I will tell you that I will be doing that in this space every Friday morning from 9:30-10:00 am, and I welcome anyone who wants to join me, to come withdraw, repent, and practice trust with me.

In this life, anything can happen. 
And while you may know in your bones and soul you can trust God; you can’t trust that God will protect those involved in God’s schemes from suffering and injustice.  Things can crumble to the ground before our eyes.
But every day we can repent. 
Every day we have the opportunity to turn around, and change our mind for the mind of Christ. When we start to believe the empire is in control, when we start to shift into fear, when things are falling apart in front of us, we are invited to step out, into a place apart where God can meet us, and to shift our being and our purpose back into God’s reality.  And this story of God’s has a long arc, and the promises of God are trustworthy and true.

So come to me, Jesus says, and I will give you rest.
Follow me, Jesus says, and I will fulfill your purpose and bring you into my kingdom work.
Repent, Jesus says, for Kingdom of heaven is at hand.
And indeed it is.


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