Genesis 15:1–12,17–18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17–4:1; Luke 13:31–35
We were tremendously blessed this past Thursday to have The Rev. Dr. Kathy Grieb amongst us. And she led us powerfully through Luke’s Gospel, particularly calling part of it The Journey Motif. And I began thinking, as I sometimes do, of journey themes in our lives. We have the Lenten journey, which we are currently in, that pilgrimage we began on Ash Wednesday that will carry us through the Great Easter Vigil. And on this journey, we may be trying to discover new ways of being church, fresh ways of being in relationship with God, and reflecting on how we are challenged in that relationship. We are also on a life journey, which we know has a beginning and an ending, with all of us somewhere in the middle of it. But the journey that we can forget at times is our spiritual journey. We are all on a continuing journey, or we are called as humans to be by the One who created us, to draw ever near to the Divine presence. Much like the Lenten journey, only having more variety and need for staying power, we are moving toward God – back and forward again, sometimes getting stuck, sometimes becoming frustrated and angry, but always moving.
Life is a journey, as the old saying goes, and not a destination. We may think of ourselves as heaven–bound – that is our destination – but heaven is not the sole purpose of our lives. We cannot “achieve” heaven by our actions and works, after all. Christ has already achieved our redemptive freedom because God has acted through Jesus. I believe that there is a heaven – don’t misunderstand me – a place with God, a next chapter when we shift off this mortal coil. Jesus has promised (see John’s Gospel) that it was so.
But we were not placed on this earth with some unhealthy focus on life after death. We very much need to refocus our center of gravity, when it comes to our reflection on God and journey. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son … God has chosen to dwell with us and in us. Our journey of the spirit is to discover that God is already – in fact – with us. We are God’s dwelling place and our journey actually calls us – through prayer, reflection, reading of scripture, building life–giving relationships – to work to move those things that hinder us and take up the space that God would inhabit in us. Our journey calls us to become a more and more welcoming space for God to reside in and to see our lives grow in equal measure.
I found Psalm 27 to be very instructive over the course of this week, long though we have discovered it to be.
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid? …
One thing I have asked of the Lord; one thing I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life …
The Psalmist, pre–Christian Israel (including 1st century Palestine) most clearly connected the presence of the Lord with Temple; they sought to “dwell in the house of the Lord.” If they were not near the temple, they wanted to get closer. If the Temple was destroyed (by the Babylonians, and later by the Romans), they wanted to rebuild it. Now, as all that is left of the Second Temple is the Western Wall of it in Jerusalem, observant Jews of Palestine (and the Diaspora), actively seek the holiness of the Temple. In so many ways, we can be no different. We can closely align our hearts and minds with the physical place/space, like our nave/sanctuary, where we most nearly feel the presence of God.
Yet Christ said, in John 4: 23–24, to the Samaritan woman at the well, “The time is coming and has [in fact] arrived, when you will no longer worship on the temple at Mt. Gerizim [where the Samaritans, themselves Semitic/Jewish people, had a temple that had been destroyed 100 years before], or at the Temple in Jerusalem, but shall worship the Lord God in spirit and in truth.” Jesus is the arrival of the indwelling nature of God. Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us. Our journey is not intended to take us to God; God is already with us in Jesus Christ. God’s indwelling mercy, love, and salvation are present in us. Our journey to God in Christ is actually the stripping away of that that stands in the way (no all at once, it is a life’s work) of our living fully as the Temple of God in Christ; the place God longs to dwell; where God, in fact, already resides.
The time is now and here! Until we are able to pray, discern, reflect and converse with others on how our resistance takes up so much room where God longs to be, we will not reap the real, tangible and experienced benefits of God’s benevolence, joy, and light. The stronger we are able to sense the indwelling nature of God in our own lives the more we will experience a transformed life that spills out onto us and the wider world. The question remains, for all of us: what kind of dwelling space will we make for the God of our life and salvation? How do we work on making a roomier space for God to live in us?
I am using, for the second time, a wonderful Lenten devotion by Albert Holtz, a Benedictine monk who for more than 30 years has taught in inner city Newark, NJ, with young men and women. The devotion follows Fr. Holtz’s year of sabbatical, when he traveled all over the world, including many of the holiest sites in Christendom. This past week, he chronicled a journey he took to Fatima, one of the most famous sites of a vision of Blessed Mary, Mother of our Lord. The legend has it that in 1917 Mary appeared first to a young girl in the village of Fatima (in central Portugal), then to a group of children, and her last appearance was to nearly the whole village and people from the surrounding countryside. Her final command was for the local people to build a shrine in her honor, as a way of being faithful to God.
So, Albert Holtz arrives at the splendid plaza in front of the huge and beautiful shrine. And he confesses he didn’t feel much there. He made his way around to the small chapel, built right after Mary’s appearance, the first and real effort of the local folks to be faithful. And he felt a surge of the Holy Spirit. The place is small (about 18 people can fit), built from local and native stone and lumber. The folks used what they had, their hands, their resources, their skills. Kind of like when St. James was built in a similar fashion (though a bit bigger) in the late 1800’s.
And Fr. Holtz observed that perhaps there is a lesson for how we build the temple of God in us and in our own lives (or, rather, allow God to do so in us). It need not be anything fancy. We need not be grand cathedrals or shrines to God. We use what talents we have, what passions we possess, what skills and desires that inhabit us already. And we all have them, no matter how unskilled we may feel we are (remember, speaking is a guy whose idea of computer expertise is turning the thing on and off …). The presence of God is what is important. Our realization of who we actually are – God’s own possession – and how God desires to use us, and understanding that it is the blessed indwelling nature of God in Jesus Christ that sets us free.
Sometimes we are called to dwell with Christ in Jerusalem; the walk the pilgrim way of Lent, of sorrow and suffering and I would not presume to tell you why that happens. It is not for our good, it is not because God wants to test us, it is in realization that life places us in situations of intense pain, longing, loneliness, and challenge. There are times, too, when we are literally called into the Jerusalem of Christ’s suffering to stand with others who are suffering, to ease their suffering, or to experience it with them; to gain perspective in the challenged lives of those who are different from us. But, in our journey to Jerusalem, carrying the crosses of our lives, Christ Jesus dwells in us still. We are not abandoned by God, even when, God help us, we sometimes very much feel God’s absence. We must infuse our lives with prayer, for in our prayer, God abides. We must steep our lives with the vulnerability to love – even those who are nearly impossible to love – because in answering Christ’s call to love, Jesus the author of love is present. We read Holy Scripture as a true imperative, because in God’s holy word, even when we wrestle with it, God is most surely found.
There is a prayer that I would like to end with, called the Anima Christi. I memorized it a few years ago and have used it nearly every day since to remind myself of how God lives in me, and how I so desire to realize His presence in all ways. It is from the medieval period and may not resonate with everyone. Yet, I think we all are encouraged and blessed when we find the skills and instruments that move a tiny bit more of the clutter out of the place God longs to be: in our own wounded, fragile, but incredibly brave spirits. Let us pray.
Soul of Christ sanctify me.
Body of Christ save me.
Blood of Christ inebriate me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O Good Jesus, hear me!
Within your wounds, hide me.
Suffer me not to be separated from you.
From the malicious enemy, defend me.
And at the hour of my death call me,
And bid my come to you, that with your saints I may praise you forever and ever.