The Buried Life (II)
July 26, 2008
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Kings 3:5-12; Romans 8:28-30; Matthew 13:44-52
Last week Barb and I went on vacation. One night at the hotel where we were staying we watched a group of people getting drunk and making fools out of themselves. People about our age, trying to act like they were still teenagers: bragging and joking and hitting on each other. It was sad and depressing.
Yet what the Old Testament tells us today is what the gospel is always telling us, too. We are not to judge. Like Solomon we are to ask for “an understanding heart,” we are to ask for compassion, because underneath the coarseness and the stupidity we might see in others are human beings just like us, vulnerable human beings, loved by God. Only the angels can judge the good from the bad, and only at the end, long from now. The dragnet is huge--it takes everyone in, you and me and the people at the hotel--everyone--and it’s not our job to sort it out. It’s God’s job, and only His.
Besides, it’s not as if I’m in possession of the truth. It’s not as if I know for sure the way things are. The kingdom of God is a treasure buried in a field, and it’s buried deep down. It’s small. It’s hidden. The kingdom of God is a tiny pearl, not a neon sign, not a bumpersticker.
We were traveling last week through the John Day highlands, to see the Fossil Beds. I love that high, clean desert landscape. At the Clarno Unit, near the town of Fossil, we walked down a path where every step we took represented 37,000 years of geologic time. We were walking back into history and prehistory, to when the volcanoes erupted and the desert was a rain forest and there were saber tooth tigers in Oregon. On the bare face of the rocks you could see the clear imprints of sycamore leaves and maple leaves 44 million years old. It was breathtaking.
And it made us feel so small, before the grandeur of life and of change, the grandeur of God. Thomas Condon was a Methodist minister who first discovered the fossil beds, in the 1860s, and for him the evidence there, of vastness and of change, of evolution, was in no way at odds with his faith but deepened and confirmed it. “The hills from which these evidences were taken,” he said, “were made by the same God who made the hills of Judea, and the evidences are as authoritative. The Church has nothing to fear from the uncovering of truth.” The opposition between evolution and faith that we think is necessary is really pretty recent, and it comes from our own smallness, our own lack of humility.
All things work together for the good, the whole creation is moving and groaning, in ways so great and unimaginably vast the effect should be to silence us completely. We come from somewhere, and that somewhere is beyond us.
On another path, in the Blue Basin, we’d come upon exhibits, in the earth: an ancient tortoise, an ancient horse, a pelvis or a skull carefully dug away and exposed. Coming out of the ground. Millions of years old. Treasures, buried in ancient fields. Pearls beyond price.
Like us, too. Like the reality of who we are, buried beneath all the layers of our sin. Our real selves, which only God can expose.
“Our universe is constantly evolving,” Jean Vanier writes. “The old order gives way to a new order and this in its turn crumbles when the next order appears. It is no different in our lives in the movement from birth to death.” Vanier is the contemporary Catholic theologian who founded the L’Arche movement, communities where ordinarily abled and developmentally disabled adults live and pray together. I think that he is a saint.
“Change of one sort [he says] is the essence of life, so there will always be the loneliness and insecurity that come with change. When we refuse to accept that loneliness and insecurity are part of life, when we refuse to accept that they are the price of change, we close the door on many possibilities for ourselves, our lives become lessened, we are less than fully human. If we try to prevent, or ignore, the movement of life, we run the risk of falling into the inevitable depression that we must accompany an impossible goal.”
I think that this is what’s behind the behavior of the people at the hotel, their efforts to look younger and act younger than they really are, their gambling and their drunknessness. The fear of loneliness. The fear of reality. And I know this because it’s true for me. It’s true for all of us. Sin is the refusal to accept the reality of change--the reality of loss--of loss that can give way to gain, to great freedom and joy, if first we surrender our arrogance and our pride.
All things work together for good, all the cycles of geologic time, all the violent changes. There’s an order to all this, a logic and a beauty, and in that order every little thing matters, every little thing counts. The leaves imprinted on the rocks. The bones emerging from the earth.
The thing that’s impossible to believe but that is true is that the God who created this great and unimaginable universe cares for each of us with infinite regard. Each of us individually. We are the treasure, each one of us. We are the pearl. And the lost coin, and the lost sheep. The scriptures are full of this paradox, of vastness and of tenderness somehow connected and combined. We are tiny. We are of infinite value. Both somehow.
“Oh Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. / Before the mountains were brought forth, / or ever you had formed the earth and the world, / you are God.”
This is Psalm 90. “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, /
or like a watch in the night. / You sweep us away, we are like a dream, / like grass that is renewed in the morning, / and in the evening withers and fades.” And yet how does this beautiful psalm end? With a nonsequitor, in a way. Illogically. But not illogically, from the perspective of faith. It ends by affirming God’s regard for each of us individually, even and especially in our smallness and our vulnerability. “Make us glad,” the Psalmist sings. “Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.” And “prosper the work of our hands.” And again, repeated, “O prosper the work of our hands.” As if our hands matter, as if our work matters to the God who made all the universe. But it does. Somehow it does.
Loneliness is a part of life. It comes when we move from one stage to another, and we are always moving from one stage to another. But we don’t have to fear it. We don’t have to try to escape it. We don’t have to hide. Because on the other side of this loneliness is a great and unshakeable joy. On the other side of this is the conviction that all things work together for good. Because they do. They do.