19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: cc Falk Lademann
My dear friends, have you ever seen one of those flimsy-looking bridges that stretch across deep ravines? Perhaps in an action movie. If not in real life. Do you know what they look like? The bridge is usually anchored at opposite ends. And suspended over the space to be crossed. Two anchored ends and a suspended middle. That’s what this kind of bridge looks like. It’s a simple suspension bridge.
And those who have ever tried to cross one will know that it’s not always easy. In fact it can be quite scary. Especially if you’re afraid of heights. And the bridge starts to sway as you cross. Or to sag in the middle. This may be enough to make you decide not to cross over at all. But instead to remain safely on your side of the bridge. And that’s when it becomes helpful to consider the things that make the bridge safe. Apart from the strength of the material from which it is constructed, a lot also depends on how firmly the bridge is fastened at either end. If the ends are securely anchored, then the middle can be safely crossed. With courage and confidence. Instead of fear and trembling.
I wonder if we might not say the same about life. Isn’t life a constant crossing over, from the past, through the present, and into the future? And don’t the confidence and courage that we need to cross the suspended middle that is the present depend very much on how securely anchored we are at either end? On how deeply rooted we are in the memories of our past? On how confidently hopeful we are in our dreams for the future?
And isn’t this also the image that we find in our readings today? The image of a flimsy-looking bridge precariously suspended over a deep ravine? The first reading speaks of how the ancient Israelites, like Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, were able to joyfully take courage in facing the challenges of their own present time. They could do so because they placed their trust in the promises of God. Promises made to them in the past. Promises of a secure future. Ensuring them that God would never forget them. That God would always watch over and protect them. Never allow them to be completely destroyed.
And God proved to the Israelites that their trust was not misplaced. For God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. Helped them to cross safely into the freedom of the Promised Land. This central experience of the Exodus–the night that had been foretold to their ancestors–becomes for the Israelites a consoling memory of God’s fidelity to them in the past. Giving them confidence in the present. And fresh hope for the future. In other words, the first reading describes for us how God called the people of Israel to be something like a simple suspension bridge. To face the challenges of the present with joyful courage. By remaining firmly anchored in their memory of God’s help in the past. As well as in their trust in God’s continued assistance in the future.
The second reading gives a name to this kind of suspended in-between existence. This uncomfortable experience of constant crossing over. From slavery to freedom. From death into life. The letter to the Hebrews calls it faith. Faith expressed in the humble obedience of Abraham to God’s call to uproot his family. To set out on an arduous journey. Without knowing where he was going… Faith that is seen in the surprising ability of Sarah to conceive Isaac. Even though she was well past the age of childbirth… Faith that is revealed in the astonishing readiness of Abraham to sacrifice his only son. The same son through whom God had promised to make him the father of many nations. Abraham’s faith is shown not just in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. But also in his continued belief that God would somehow fulfil the promise to multiply his descendants. Even after Isaac was dead.
In Abraham and Sarah, we see the obedient willingness to keep crossing over. The marvellous ability to courageously allow oneself to be suspended and stretched across the deep ravines of life in the present. It’s not an easy thing to do. How did they manage it? Only by remaining firmly rooted in their memories of God’s fidelity to them in the past. As well as in their trust in God’s promises for the future. This is what faith looks like. This is how it operates. Very much like a suspension bridge.
And isn’t this also what Jesus is talking about in the gospel? When he tells his disciples to stay awake? To be dressed for action? To be ever ready to open the door? The Lord is calling them, and calling us, to always be willing to do what Abraham and Sarah, and all the other great figures of the Bible were called to do. To always be ready to allow ourselves to be stretched across the deep ravines of life in the present. To always be willing to cross over from out of our comfort zones into the unknown. To conquer our fear. And to live a life of faith. But what does this look like in the concrete? What does it mean for us to cross over, to be stretched out, in the present? The answer is probably different for each of us. And yet, when we look at our world today, don’t we see one very obvious way in which this call is being addressed to all?
It’s quite difficult to deny that our world is currently at war. Not a conventional war perhaps. But a war nonetheless. A war that is being fought not just far away. It has already arrived at our doorstep. As witnessed by the report on the front page of today’s issue of the Straits Times. Telling us of the capture of a group of terrorists in Batam, who were planning a rocket attack on Marina Bay. This is war. A war in which the casualties keep mounting with each passing day.
And yet it’s important for us to realise that these casualties are counted not just in human lives. Serious and disturbing though this may be. The casualties of this war are counted also and especially in the rise of fear and insecurity. Of mistrust and suspicion. Of hostility and prejudice directed against those perceived to be different from ourselves. Isn’t this the deep ravine that we Christians are being called to cross over today? To insist on proclaiming the Good News with our lives, by resisting the temptation to avoid and to demonise others. To persevere instead in welcoming the stranger. In praying for those who may persecute us. In reaching out to those who may seem different from us. Isn’t this what faith must look like today?
And yet we should also be realistic. In a global climate of fear and mistrust, this is not an easy thing to do. To adequately meet the challenge, we must keep ourselves rooted in our memory of our past. The same memory we are gathered here to celebrate. The powerful memory of the One who passed over from death into life. In order that we–sinners and enemies though we were–might be saved. We must also remain firmly anchored in our hope for the future. Our trust that the One who is coming at an hour we do not expect will eventually wipe away every tear. Heal every wound. Make all things new. For he comes to reconcile all things in himself.
My dear friends, it is indeed difficult to deny that a deep ravine lies before us. How is God calling us to help to bridge it today?