God’s construction zone
Several years ago I climbed Africa’s “Shining Mountain,” Kilimanjaro. It hadn’t been on my bucket list. It was a time in my life when the mere thought of bucket lists turned my stomach. I had lost my husband and partner to brain cancer the year before, and the whole concept of a bucket list — things you had to do before you died — seemed a luxury that had cruelly passed me by. I was broken, in pieces, and quite literally, list-less.
So when a friend invited me to join his climbing party, I shrugged — listlessly — and said, “Why not?” One morning a few months later, I found myself at the base of the mountain.
We climbed through the rainforest, steamy and close with the calls of strange birds. We climbed through the alpine meadow. We climbed above the tree line, into a zone where plants hugged the ground, bursting with color from every crevasse and cranny.
Jesus seems to have done a pretty good job of this new creation, because, by the close of Matthew’s Gospel (25:31-46), these disciples — broken, blessed, and repurposed — have become a new creation.
We climbed out of the realm of vegetation entirely, entering the fierce landscape of the summit itself. Here there was nothing but scree, searing sun, and shards of sharp fragments of lava.
Finally, at midnight we made the final ascent. By that time, like the landscape, we ourselves were in pieces, shattered by exhaustion, thin air, and the cold. And as that day dawned, we stood at the summit and surveyed the wreckage we had spent the night climbing through. As I looked at the earth’s curvature gently falling around us, I remember thinking: This whole mountain is one huge mound of broken pieces, shards from something else. And yet, there it was, Africa’s “Shining Mountain,” the highest peak on the continent.
That wasn’t the only high point of the trip, though it certainly scored in terms of elevation. The following week, we visited the school that a member of our climbing party had started in his native village outside of Iringa in central Tanzania. As we arrived, students stood at attention in their classrooms in faded green uniforms to greet us.
Their green jackets and pleated skirts looked worn, but clean, relics from another century. Their desks and chairs looked vaguely like the ones I’d used when I’d been in grade school. Broken and badly in need of repair, they had done hard service for at least that long. The names on the back of the chairs told a story: Anderson, Jenson, Carlson. Those weren’t Tanzanian names. Later the principal proudly explained that the furniture, the uniforms, even the schoolbooks had all been donated by a Minnesota nonprofit — hence the names. Like the mountain, the school had been built on shards, cast-off pieces from somewhere else.
And yet, there it was, in so many ways more magnificent than Kilimanjaro, a school at the end of a red-dirt road, the only opportunity for education beyond third grade for miles around.
A different sort of creation
These images stuck with me, broken as I was, like scraps of an insistent rhyme that at first I could neither shake nor completely make out. But then I started to hear it everywhere: breaking and remaking. Out of the pieces, a new creation.
Backgrounded by the soundtrack of breaking and remaking, another story of creation makes a different kind of sense. This is the story of the creation of the disciples, at least when Matthew rolls the camera, because if you listen to Jesus’ first public sermon, he’s surrounded by wreckage. He makes his recruitment speech to a broken bunch of people: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, … Blessed are those who mourn, … Blessed are the meek, … Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”
These are people who have been broken into pieces by the world’s ways — and yet these are precisely the people whom Jesus blesses and refashions into his disciples. Jesus calls — not by command — by blessing. Out of the pieces, a new creation.
Jesus seems to have done a pretty good job of this new creation, because, by the close of Matthew’s Gospel (25:31-46), these disciples — broken, blessed, and repurposed — have become a new creation: giving food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothes to the naked, comfort to the sick and imprisoned. What I love about this is that these once-shattered disciples are shocked by their own makeovers! They barely recognize themselves: “When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?” These blessed pieces have become a blessing to others without even knowing
The pattern of breaking and remaking is only another way of thinking about cross and resurrection, this time using the body of Christ as the mountain, the school, the broken pieces of our own losses.
Ah! The most terrifying words in scripture may be the words God springs on us at the end: “Behold, I make all things new!” Because the new creation always comes out of the shards of the old creation. Call it divine recycling, if you will, but this is God’s way of working in the world.
Martha E. Stortz is the Bernhard M. Christensen Professor of Religion and Vocation at Augsburg College, Minneapolis. She is a member of Central Lutheran Church (ELCA).