Title: Broken visions
Texts: Heb 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Ps 26; Job 1:1, 2:1-10
Date: Oct 4, 2009
Author: Isaac Villegas
How to go on when our world gets turned upside down? How to make sense of our life when everything collapses? How to put one foot in front of the other when nothing makes sense anymore? That’s the story of Job. Everything is taken away, and he can’t do anything but sit there among the ashes (Job 2:8). How do you take another step with the ground is crumbling beneath your feet? Sometimes you can’t. Job can’t.
There was a time when I couldn’t take another step. It all started the summer after High School, a couple months before heading off to my first year in college. I was in Phoenix, Arizona, playing in an All-State soccer game. The best players from all the high school teams in Arizona were on the field—former competitors, former enemies, having a great time kicking the ball around. The fun ended when my ACL snapped in my knee—that’s the ligament that holds the knee together. I rolled around on the ground for a while and then my knee started to swell up like a grapefruit. A month before I was supposed to start playing collegiate soccer, I had reconstructive surgery. That fall, I showed up at my college campus on crutches. I spent my time that year on the stationary bike, not on the soccer field. After a year of rehab, I was ready to give it another go. That fall I made the team again and got to work preparing for the season. Our toughest game came early. Our first game every year was against UCLA. It was our chance to show that our tiny Christian college could compete at the highest level of collegiate soccer. A couple weeks before the match, my coach posted the starting line up in the locker room, and I was on it. I would be starting as a marking back, entrusted to shut down UCLA’s best forward. I was excited and a bit worried at the same time. The coach was taking a risk with me, and I didn’t want to mess it up. At practice, a couple days before the UCLA match, I tore my ACL again. I was just running around, minding my own business, and my knee just snapped. I found myself on the ground, and I couldn’t take another step. I had thought that I was destined for soccer greatness, but that vision shattered when I tore my ACL again. The doctor said I shouldn’t play competitively anymore. Soccer was my life, and, as far as I could see, my future. But not anymore. I had to figure out something else to do with my life.
At the time, this seemed like a tragedy, like my life was falling apart. Now it seems a bit trite, especially when compared to Job’s story or some of your stories. Job loses everything; I just lost my ability to play competitive soccer. I could get on with my life, but it’s hard to imagine how and why Job does. His wife thinks this is in end for Job and tells him what to do: “Curse God and die,” she says (v. 10). But he doesn’t. For some reason, he doesn’t, and I don’t know why—at this point in the story, we don’t know why. How do we go on when our vision for what our world should look like is shattered? How do you take another step when you can no longer see where you should be going?
I wonder if Job’s story sounds more like this one. In the 1880s, the U.S. military finally defeated the once powerful Crow Nation. The Crow people found themselves cut to the ground, their way of life came to an end. When they were in control of their lives, they had visions of success, visions of what it meant to live a good life, visions that guided their stumbling journey into the future. But all that came to an end. The U.S. military shattered they vision and way of life. The Crow Nation could no longer wander their homeland in search of the buffalo. As the white people killed off the roaming buffalo, the Crow people couldn’t imagine how to go on. Without the buffalo, they had no way to live. Hunting the buffalo was their way of life. This is what Plenty Coup, the chief of the Crow Nation, said when the U.S. military killed off the buffalo and ended Crow life as they knew it—he said:
when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere.
After this nothing happened. It was the end. Life ended. Sure, they continued to breath and eat and raise children, but they no longer could say that this life on the reservation was true life, real life, the life that they learned to call life; they could no longer go on and be the Crow Nation while confined to a reservation, without the buffalo. The hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again, said chief Plenty Coups. Like Job, they sat among the ashes of their lives without any way forward. How would they go on?
Other native American nations decided to fight to the bitter end. They prepared for war, for a last stand. They sacrificed the best of their young men as they fought a losing battle against the U.S. Armed forces. They could not imagine any other life than the one they had, and they gave their lives to defending the tribes’ past visions of a good life. The Crow people took a different route. Instead of taking a last stand, instead of defending their past way of life, instead of sacrificing their young men in war, the Crow Nation sent their young men off into the wilderness to dream. In the solitude of the wilderness, they waited for God to reveal a new way forward, a new hope, a new path, something that they couldn’t come up with on their own, something unimaginable, hope beyond any of their past visions.
One young man came back with a dream, a prophetic vision for the people, and they trusted that vision to guide their lives. Now the Crow Nation takes pride in being the only North American tribe that was not defeated by the United States; but instead negotiated a surrender that allowed them to keep some of their native lands. While other tribes were forced on a trail of tears to reservations far away from their native lands, the Crow could keep some of their lands. It wasn’t the future they wanted, but it was a future that let them take another step, in a completely new direction. They trusted a prophetic vision when they couldn’t see any way to go on. It didn’t look like their past hopes and dreams, it wasn’t the future they imagined, it wasn’t a way forward they could control. But they trusted that prophetic dream nonetheless.
Our passage from Hebrews shows us the same kind of breakdown of past visions, and hope for a new one. Like Plenty Coup and the Crow Nation, the author of Hebrews watches as a vision for his people fades away. That vision comes from Psalm 8; it’s a vision of the glorification of his people, a high and lofty vision of what it means to be a part of his tribe. He quotes it for us—in this passage the Psalmist is talking to God, he says: “You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowed them with glory and honor, subjecting all things under their feet” (Ps. 8 quoted in Heb. 2:7-8a). This vision puts humans on top of the world, up with the angels, far above the troubles of the world, and in control of life. The author of Hebrews goes on: “Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside of their control” (Heb. 2:8b).
Control. Control over life, control over what might happen next, control of the present and the future. All of us want this world. It’s a vision we can all jump on board with. It’s a world without pain and suffering, a world without powers that tempt us with sin, a world without evil. But it comes crashing down. The vision collapses. It breaks when it hits the ground, the concrete of life. You can almost feel the author of Hebrews hesitate as he writes about the glorious vision of Psalm 8. He looks up from his paper, puts down his pen, sees the world outside his window, and can’t go on with that vision. Call it realism, the harsh facts of life. He puts that vision on pause and writes, “As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them” (v. 8c). The vision of his and our glorification isn’t true right now. As it is, he says, as it is we aren’t in control. As it is, we seem to be ruled by powers beyond our control. As it is, we don’t know how to go on, we don’t know how to take another step. Like Job, like the Crow Nation, we sit among the ashes, the charred remains of our past visions.
But the author of Hebrews for some reason picks up his pen again, he sees something, maybe a prophetic dream like that young man from the Crow Nation who was sent into the wilderness. The author sees a new vision, a new reality—so he picks up his pen and writes again; after his pause, after his hesitation, this is what he writes: “but we do see Jesus…now crowned with glory…because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (v. 9). The author of Hebrews abandons his earlier vision for our lives. We are not in control. We don’t rule the world. We can’t pull ourselves out of the mess of our lives no matter how much we try to fight for it. As it is, he says, as it is, we are not in control, we are not sovereign, we don’t know how to figure it out, we can’t think of a way out from Job’s ashes. But we do see Jesus. We see a Jesus who suffers with us, who tastes our death, and who invites us into an unimaginable hope, a path beyond our control, a future with him as our guide, our “pioneer,” it says (v. 10).
The good news is that Jesus comes for us, that he calls us sisters and brothers, fellow travelers along the way, companions. The good news is that Jesus doesn’t want to imagine his future without us. He has bound himself to us. His life is wrapped up with ours. We are one flesh with him. That’s what we are about to celebrate at the Lord’s Table—our union with God and each other. When we take the bread and drink from the cup, we come to see our connections, our dependencies, our union. God cannot abandon us, as Catherine said last week. God can no more leave us than he can tear apart his own body. Nothing can separate us from God. Nothing can tear apart our union, our communion.
We are not in control. We are not seated on a heavenly throne, directing the course of history and the path of our lives. Instead, we are invited into the path of Jesus, our pioneer. We are invited into his arms, into his grace, into his rest. And as his body, we are also his arms; we become the people that offer the rest of God; we flesh out God’s grace. Because we know that Christ will come, that Christ does come, and that Christ has come.
(For all the stuff on the Crow Nation, I used Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation)