Jesus has been walking towards Jerusalem for a long time now. I don’t know if his anxiety is rising as each step brings him closer to a dark destiny, or whether he’s just tired of walking. Maybe he has a stone lodged in his sandal or has developed some blisters. Maybe the sun is getting to him. Whatever it may be, it seems the further he walks the more rambling his speech becomes.
The mustard seed analogy I get. It’s brilliant actually, instructing us that faith is about sufficiency not about quantity. But then he goes on about a slave working in the fields all day who is then expected to prepare dinner. Does this servant think he should be praised for simply doing his job? The disciples simply asked Jesus how they could increase their faith and Jesus seems to paint a rather dismal picture of discipleship. “Do you think you should be thanked for following me?” Jesus makes discipleship sounds like a lot of thankless drudgery. But I think what Jesus is driving at is that simply following Jesus in our heads while keeping our hearts safe at home doesn’t work. Simply going through the motions doesn’t reward anyone. Writing cheques simply to live up to an obligation, feeding the poor at Harvest Kitchen just because we told someone in a moment of weakness at church that morning we could help out, is not something Jesus feels needs rewarding. Does the master thank the servant because he did what he was told to do?
So, does obedience have no value? What if obedience means entering into the heart of the master? What if it means learning the ways of the master so in gaining understanding our resolve to do the will of God is strengthened in the face of opposition. What if obedience becomes the way we enter more deeply into the fellowship of God, enriching our intimacy with the living Spirit of grace, love, compassion and forgiveness; as cream enriches coffee? Now this is quite a different thing.
The way Christ lives his life, leaving the security of his home to live among the poor and dispossessed, makes it abundantly clear that obedience directs us to share in the physical, cultural and spiritual poverty of our age. We are to feed the hungry, bring healing to the sick, visit the imprisoned, give to one who has no coat the one off our backs. These are not pleasant places Jesus askes us to enter into. Yet, Jesus is suggesting such obedience may be the only way to foster joy.
I know, it sounds all backwards but we worship a God you has the unique tendency to turn the values of our worlds upside down. Joy is not happiness. We live in a very serious world with very serious worries and concerns. So, from time to time, we like to hold a happy hour, take time to simply take a break from our concerns, share a drink and a joke.
We watch our favourite sit-com, bury ourselves in a book, go to the cottage, have dinner at our favourite restaurant. Anything to distract us from the serious concerns of our lives. A refreshing time so we can get back at it in the morning.
But this “happiness” is only a diversion. We think of joy and being serious, joy and sorrow as separate things. Jesus would suggest that joy is part of being in love. Having joy means discovering the way to ecstatic living. The word ecstatic literally means to move out of a state that is static, a place which is always the same. Places of constant drudgery, constant fear. Places that carry weight to them. Joy means moving out of those places because it is in the places where everything remains the same that one finds death.
Joy springs from intimately belonging to God, the God who brings life out of death and offers to us daily resurrections. Deep belonging comes from deep listening. Actually, obedience in Latin means careful listening, listening with your whole body, so even when people falsely accuse Jesus, and his disciples betray him, and the people he only wanted to love nail him to a cross and spit in his face, Jesus holds on to his deep joy knowing that his obedience to forgiveness and grace, his deep listening to God, brings him into such intimacy with God that no pain, darkness or even the threat of death could make him lose his connection with God.
Jesus is trying to tell us that through obedience, through careful listening to God, through loving the unlovable, offering grace in the face of anger, hope in the tremblings of fear, you will discover a joy which is born out of sorrow. We only need to have the faith the size of a mustard seed to walk through the sorrow to find the joy of redemption.
Last Friday I went to McNally House in Grimsby, a palliative care home. Our friend Will was resting there. At that time, Will was struggling to capture his last breaths of life. The curtains were drawn. The room was as dark as people’s sorrow. The room held a somber atmosphere of heaviness. The sorrow of holding a hand in love, as if trying to keep Will with us, and not let him leave, yet wishing for him to find peace. These are really hard, yet truly holy and sacred moments. Yet in the depths of this heaviness, memories would emerge, smiles would betray the sorrow, and even laughter would enter the room. One wondered, almost guiltily, if we were betraying the gravity of this time mocking the hovering spirit of death. Yet, we were not. We were residing in the ecstatic spirit of God. We found joy because anyone who knew Will knew he spent his life in faithful obedience to his God. The obedience of his life was no empty gesture. This was a man whose obedience had led him to deeply listen to his God, listen with his whole body as his whole life became a witness to God’s unconditional love. Such intimacy with God led him to know that his God would never abandon him, not even in this valley of the shadow of death. As Will once said himself, “I can hardly wait to meet my God!”
This witness of joy touched and strengthened the faith of everyone gathered, and came from knowing, as the old hymn says, “I know where I am going and I know who is going with me.’ Yet, it is only through a faithful obedience to walk through this dark and heavy valley that we were able to experience such true joy. That is how our faith is increased. Not in the separating of ourselves from the poverty of the world but with full body listening to God and walking the roads that lead to Jerusalem with him. It is through these seeds of faith that even the most mundane acts of faith carry with them the extraordinary potential for transforming this world through its pain into the image of the Creator.