Today’s gospel reading makes me think of that questionable old piece of folk wisdom, that if you find yourself in the midst of troubles, all you have to do is look around and realize that there’s always someone else worse off than you are….as if that fact should somehow suddenly make you thankful that your troubles are so minuscule compared to theirs….(thankful or smug or guilty, I’m not sure which). I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m in the middle of some kind of major life crisis, it’s cold comfort to think about someone else’s troubles and how they exceed my own. Truth be told, I want the freedom to wallow in my own discomfort and tragedy for a while, without being urged to see them for the irrational self-absorption that someone else thinks they are. If we are to be perfectly honest about it, resting in the pit of despair is sometimes a strangely comfortable place to be. I know a bit about this – because like most everyone else, I’ve been there. I’ve occasionally enjoyed a good wallow in the overwhelming feeling that life has conspired against me, and singled me out for particular devastation. That’s what happens, isn’t it, when the future doesn’t unfold exactly as we had planned, when we’re suddenly faced with the prospect of unwelcome change, when the news from the doctor isn’t good and no amount of denial or even frantic prayer is likely to change the inevitable outcome. When that happens in life, as it inevitably does, our only real choice is to face an uncertain future with grace, and trust that the grace will be there to see us through whatever changes lie ahead. Wallowing, I would suggest, is OK as a brief exercise in looking into that pit of despair to see what’s lurking down there, but as a permanent resting place, it isn’t realistic or legitimate for people of faith. We aren’t called to stay on our Good Friday crosses when we’re perpetually called to the new life of Easter morning, whatever that may be, whatever that may look like, whatever adaptations or changes that may require.
It’s broadly accepted that Luke wrote the words of warning and exhortations of endurance that we just heard at a time when life was pretty darned unstable for the young Church. Jerusalem was in an uproar – the temple had been destroyed in the uprising between 66-70 AD when the Jewish people tried to take control of their country back from the Romans. They failed, and people were exiled and dispersed; and life as they knew it changed, permanently and irrevocably. So, in Luke’s telling, out of Jesus’ mouth a few decades before that had come words of warning about the chaos and destruction to come; and in particular about the fate of those identified as followers of Jesus who could expect betrayal, hate, persecution and death. So, uncomfortable as it is to be living through this present phase of life in the Church and in the world today, it sure wouldn’t have been any picnic back then, and I suppose we could get lost in the comparison between then and now and think…. well, maybe we don’t really have it so bad after all. But if we did that, we’d miss the point of the gospel – because the real message isn’t in the warning, but in the exhortation to faith and the message of hope contained therein. “Not a hair of your head will perish” – what a supremely eloquent way of affirming, as Julian of Norwich would say, that ultimately “all manner of thing shall be well.”
Julian in her wisdom also wrote the following profound statement of faith, spoken to her by God during one of her encounters with the Divine: “See that I am God. See that I am in everything. See that I do everything. See that I have never stopped ordering my works, nor ever shall, eternally. See that I lead everything on to the conclusion I ordained for it before time began, by the same power, wisdom and love with which I made it. How can anything be amiss?” So – while on one hand we can – and should – grieve and storm and protest against systems and processes that disappoint us and diminish us and make us legitimately fearful of the future, by the same token we’re called to believe that ultimately God is in charge, and is continually in the process of creating, and re-creating both the Church and the world.
In 2008 while on a trip to the Holy Land, I stood beside, and touched, and prayed at that piece of the destroyed temple in Jerusalem that we know as the Western Wall – and I have to say, it ranks among the most powerful experiences of my life. That relatively short remaining section of wall serves as a stark reminder that towers and temples – everything of humankind’s creation, in fact – will inevitably fall. We are bound up in the circle of life and death, which predictably has rhythms of stability, and rhythms of instability….and the only thing that remains constant throughout it all is the unshakeable love and compassion of the Creator whose purposes we may not immediately comprehend, but whose grace in the eye of the storm never fails. For strength, clarity and grace in uncertain times we give thanks and together say
The Venerable Nancy Adams