God incarnate in a thirsty land

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?[1]

Where is God?

As I write this, I have spent the best part of the last week volunteering in an evacuation centre for the Australian bush fire crisis. As I have listened to the stories, pain, grief and anger of many people suffering at this time, I have been pondering where God is in this disaster.

Somehow, on this last day of Christmas – the season in which we celebrate incarnation (God with us) – the question seems to take on a whole new dimension of relevance.

On Christmas morning this year, my congregation and I listened to the account of Jesus’ birth according to Matthew (Matthew 1.18-2.25). This account, different than its Lukan equivalent, has the holy family needing to flee their homes suddenly, in the dark of night, as danger falls upon them.

In response to the reading, I shared the following with my community:

‘I do not know if God is here today in church. I hope so, but I don’t know. What I do know is that the God of incarnation is with those who have been displaced from their home today. I know that God is in an evacuation centre, right now. I know that God is on Manus Island and Nauru, right now. I know that God is in a homeless shelter, right now, being fed by those volunteering their time.’

Of course, there is nothing particularly radical about this reflection. Indeed, the famous passage of the sheep and goats from Matthew 25, which I have quoted at the beginning of this post, says much the same thing:

And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”[2]

Yet, this very same passage has also led me into a much deeper reflection this week, as I have sat in the stench of smoke and listened to the prayers for rain ring off the deafening walls of evacuation halls. And, as those prayers have fallen off tired lips, despairing eyes have turned skyward, seeking to catch a glimpse of God, or the first cloud on the horizon, or, perhaps, both.

I wonder how many of us, even subconsciously, fall into resentment of a god who sits in the clouds and continues to withhold from us the precious rain that would provide the only true relief to this troubled continent?

But, for me, this week, a very different picture of God has come to mind.

For, as I and others have stared upward, the wisdom of the first peoples of this land has invited us to look below our feet.

Indeed, each time I have felt despair beginning to overwhelm me, the closing words of Lisa Jacobsen’s poem There Are Stones that Sing have echoed in my head as a healing balm:

The churches are almost empty or sold,
as if they’ve reached their tipping point,
and from the pulpits, god slid out.

And all that fanciful gold leaf
on heaven’s floor was incinerated
by our telescopes, whose lenses caught
it in their scope. And bits of tattered
god fell down.

I’ve heard that âme (‘soul’ in French)
is the name of a wooden chip,
very exposed and vulnerable,
that violin makers insert into
the bodies of their instruments
to further enhance the sound.
So maybe that’s where god
lives now.

If you ask a priest, he’ll point up.
If you ask black fellas, they’ll point down
to stones that sing and rivers
vibrating underground. [3]

Our land is thirsty. Our land cries out for water as the cracks of drought and scars of fire mark the horizon. You can hear it cry out – its pain mingled with the exhaustion of those fleeing the coast right now.

But it was only upon remembering the wisdom of indigenous spirituality – the image of God with and through the land – that I suddenly heard Matthew 25 speak afresh to this Australian summer of hell.

I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink[4]

And so, I wonder, what does it do to our theology to finally understand God not as a sky-king in the clouds, granting or withholding rain as some plaything or punishment, but instead as the very one who is thirsting with the earth?

Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”[5]

I wonder how our Christmas might feel different when we discover God through the summer dust under our feet, feeling no less desperate than us as the clouds refuse to grace us with their precious cargo?

Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”[6]

I wonder how such a discovery might affect our prayers: moving us beyond petition to the sky towards confession to the earth.

God who thirsts,
forgive us for not seeing you.

Forgive us for not seeing you through the precious gift of creation,
affirmed through incarnation,
and brought to devastation,
by our lack of consideration for the land.

Forgive us for not seeing you in the stranger at our door,
who came, seeking something more,
but was locked away offshore,
because we did not know before, what it was to have no home.

But as the flames engulf us now,
and all hope at last seems lost:
We give thanks, that you are not among the clouds,
but here with us,
God who thirsts.

[1] Matthew 25.37, NRSV.

[2] Matthew 25.40, NRSV.

[3] Lisa Jacobsen, There Are Stones that Sing In South in the World (Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2014).

[4] Matthew 25.42, NRSV.

[5] Matthew 25.44, NRSV.

[6] Matthew 25.45, NRSV.

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