Tugging at the curtains
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There's something about us people. We crave intimacy. We want to be close, close to other people and close to God. We do not want to be alone. At its best, intimacy would mean we would be able to stop trying; we could let go; keeping on being alive would not be such a burden that we have to carry in solitude. We could live together. We are designed to be together; people who are totally alone get sick
And yet... we don't want to get too close. Too close to God, or too close to other people, and we might lose control. We might be injured. Perhaps you've seen in others, or recognised in yourself, a kind of longing for intimacy and affirmation all mixed up with a need to control meetings or relationships. It's the outworking of this tussle between craving intimacy... and yet fearing it.
So we often go through life in this uncomfortable space between intimacy and loneliness, burdened by life, and yet terrified of what might happen to us, if we put the burden down and trust someone else. We want someone to love us, but are terrified of what might happen if we let them love us.
It's what drives the misery of a six year old in the playground and the misery of the American president. And it's a dilemma which sits at the centre of religion. Religion seeks intimacy with God; it knows we need God in order even to exist. Religion knows that without God, we are lost, and we have no hope. But religion also puts a curtain around God. It doesn't want to get too close. What might God ask of us? Religion understands there is something terrifying about God; the old folk said that to look upon the face of God was to die. Don't get too close.
Religion does something else. That curtain that shields us from God, is also used to keep the world out. There was a curtain between the people and the Holy of Holies in the Temple. The Holy of Holies was the place where God entered the Creation from "outside of time, of space, [and] of matter." (James Alison Jesus the Forgiving Victim, Essay Six) And, the Temple had walls, and strict rules about who could enter where. We still do.
It's all dressed up as respecting the holiness of God; as not profaning what is sacred. So only the specially trained priest or minister can celebrate Communion, for example. And we know what that leads to; we have it right here. There is a fence— a wall... a curtain... between the holy things of God and the people of God.
And that then evolves— perhaps we should say, devolves... into keeping some people out of the church itself. After all, people who have certain mental illnesses, or who've been in jail, or are a sex worker, or who don't dress well— I mean, if we let them in, what will happen to God!?
And of course we recognise that's a stupid question. We set up barriers, really, not to protect God, but to protect ourselves. We are afraid of difference because, in the end, we are afraid of intimacy.
The New Testament tells us that when "Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last... the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom." That's Mark 15. And Ephesians 2 tells us that Christ "has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us."
But what's all this got to do with Luke 15? Luke 15 is three stories about the same thing. Each story is about how much God loves us; how much God will search for us when we are lost; how we are always welcome to come home to God, even straight out of the pig pen. Indeed, God reminds us (as the elder brothers and sisters) that we are "always with God, and that all that is God's is ours." God will never leave us alone. I remind you that God is saying this even to the older brother, to the one who is having a spoilt brat meltdown. God loves all of us.
But in the first story, God, the shepherd, leaves the flock, the ninety-nine, in the wilderness. It seems God does leave the people of God alone. We could even read that story as saying that once "the lost sheep is found... the shepherd returns to his home — not to the flock! Carrying [the one] sheep, he goes home to celebrate with his friends and neighbours that what has been lost has now been found[, and...] the 99 continue to wander and bleat in the wilderness without a shepherd." (David Henson)
What kind of God is that? What's going on?
Well the reading begins with "all the tax-collectors and sinners ... coming near to listen to [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes... ... grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’"
Tax collectors and sinners is a formulaic way of saying, all the socially unacceptable people. Jesus was already crossing barriers and tugging at the curtains. He was being like the Shepherd, and going out seeking the lost members of society, the outsiders.
The thing is, if we put a fence around God, if we draw the curtains, what really happens is not that we keep God for ourselves, but that we cut ourselves off from God. We can't see God anymore. God is with us always, says the third story in Chapter 15, but when God also goes to be with those who are lost, the ones we too often want to keep out, it can look as though, and feel as if, we are left on our own in the wilderness. It feels like we are deserted. Something about our faith loses its immediacy, its sense of vibrancy, of being genuine.
But not because God has deserted us. It's because we have put up barriers. We have rehung a curtain between God and us.
How do we get back the reality of God? How do we find life and excitement in church? We have to walk out into the real wilderness with Jesus. We have to leave the church. We have to go to the people who won't come here because we've so often put them off— or some other church has. We have to risk the terror of intimacy with real, frightening, different people because it is among them that we find Jesus. And then we will find that Jesus has pulled down the barrier between us and God.
Or you know, we could begin that intimacy thing here; we could stop pretending that life is OK and let people love us and help us. I think some of the most gracious people I have met— people who seem very close to God— have been old folk, or very sick folk, in hospital. When we get there, we can sometimes stop pretending we can do it all ourselves... and we let God back in, and it shows.
The hardest and most liberating thing I have ever done is to practise being close to people. It's still the hardest thing to do; I'm shy; I'm an introvert; people scare me. But it is the only way. Because if we shut ourselves off, we end up like the older brother, blind to God's love for us, and refusing to go into the feast God has for us.
If we refuse to change the way we do church, which is like pulling the curtains more tightly around us, it cuts us off from the new things God is offering us. Like the older brother, all we will be able to see is that we have missed out, and like the older brother, we will not be able to see that we are missing out because of our own attitudes.
And if we refuse to be close to people, it is like pulling the curtains more tightly around us. It will cut us off from the new things God is offering us. But like the older brother, all we will be able to see is that we have missed out, and like the older brother, we will not be able to see that we are missing out because of our own attitudes.
Remember the younger brother. He was an A Grade fool, an arrogant, greedy, selfish fool. And yet the father loved him and embraced him. We have nothing to fear from God. We will not be rejected. Amen
Andrew Prior (2019)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!