A Liberated Critic

Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11; 2Peter 3: 8-14; Mark 1: 1-8

The Advent Season raises up this rather peculiar character this week and next, John the Baptist.  He really is one of the more complex characters we encounter.  There is this rather hipster vibe that he portrays by what he wears and eats and just wandering out in the wild, the desert.  Yet, at the same time, he comes off as this rather fire and brimstone kind of guy, together just making him complex and very much a paradox to himself.  He is one of the great prophets, along with Isaiah, whom we hear from this season, pointing us, often, right into the desert.

The one thing about the Baptist, though, is that there is a sense of freedom and liberation about him.  In these very brief encounters, despite his strong words, it comes from a place within.  He even mentions today that one mightier than I is to come and he shows that in his words and actions.  He remains grounded as a prophet in the eternal Christ, giving him the freedom and integrity to be who he is, despite the hesitation of the leaders towards him at that time.  In John’s Gospel he’ll go onto say that I must decrease and he must increase, in reference to the Christ. 

We all have that prophetic voice within but all too often it becomes separated from the Christ leading more to a rather self-critical voice instead.  We all know what that’s like and have seen it in ourselves and others when it’s more about criticizing but not coming from a deeper place.  It is part of Israel’s storied history as it is ours.  If they are consistent with anything it’s separating themselves from the Eternal and they end up becoming their own worst enemy.  Here they are, again, moving out of Exile, a second exodus for Israel, and they quickly begin to return to their old ways.  They resort to their own critical voice and despite being led from exile remain far from free nor liberated from what it had done to them.  They become the source of discrimination, war, and oppression, clinging to an institutionalized god who no longer serves.  As a matter of fact, when we cling to the critical thoughts that aren’t grounded in the Christ, they begin to strangle the divine and squelch the voice of the Spirit working within.  Israel remains symbolic of our own story as individuals and nation.

Then there is the Baptist.  As I said, a rather peculiar fellow that we encounter and yet often feared by the religious and political leaders because of this liberating element to him.  More often than not they don’t like what he has to say.  They become his greatest critics, and as we know, eventually leads to his beheading.  Even that becomes symbolic of cutting off that place where so many of the self-critical thoughts come from.  That wasn’t the case with the Baptist though.  It’s what they never understood about him.  His prophetic voice wasn’t coming simply from some heady place.  It was coming from deep within his very foundation.  What appeared to them as fearful thoughts was actually the eternal working through the Baptist from deep within his heart and soul.  That’s the freedom and liberation that this complex character exemplified.  For John, this message of repentance, of totally turning around and looking at life differently, being grounded in the eternal is what it’s all about.  John never forgot his own place and it wasn’t the Christ.  One mightier than I is to come.  I must decrease and he must increase.  It’s the mantra of the season.

And so we have these two great prophets pointing the way to freedom and a deeper way of life, an about-face to be liberated for the eternal.  The avenue to that freedom, though, is through the desert.  Isaiah tells us “In the desert prepare the way”.  Other than when he’s jailed all we know of the Baptist is through this desert experience.  Many throughout our history have physically gone to the desert to experience the wildness of their own hearts and souls, to see what they were already feeling within.  Maybe that’s why so many are drawn to the Baptist at that time.  It becomes symbolic of the soul’s journey for so many in Scripture, the vast, wide, emptiness that we often fear becomes the place of transformation, freedom, awareness of our own critical voice and liberation from within.  Our lives and the about face is from being led from the external world to the interior world which holds the eternal.  This is what makes Isaiah and the Baptist who they are.  It’s what separates them, so often, from activists even of our own day.  It comes from the depths of their souls and they know it as truth, as the eternal.

Peter reminds us in the second reading today, thankfully, that God remains patient with us through this process of transformation.  The more the eternal is freed up from the strangle of the critical and we become aware that the critical is not God, the more we begin to experience not the institutionalized god we have come to know but rather the God of mystery and freedom, and true freedom at that.  Like Israel we can say we’re free all we want but if we’re still holding on from within we haven’t experienced the divine in that way.  Peter reminds us that what is not of God will all be dissolved anyway so why not open ourselves up to mystery and to the unknown God.  Be eager for peace.

As we continue this Advent journey and encounter these redeemed prophetic voices of Isaiah and the Baptist, we pray for the awareness in our own lives of that critical voice that is still in need of being liberated.  God desires so much more for each of us and yet we tend to settle for much less.  When we move from being led by that critical voice to being led by and with love, our lives are changed forever.  We, like the Baptist, are complex creatures often in need of love and redemption more than anything.  This season we’re invited into the desert of our own souls, with a very patient God, where a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day, to experience our lives and how we see ourselves and the world in a very different way.  No longer grounded in criticism, control, and fear, the institutionalized gods we create in our lives, but rather the God of love, freedom, and liberation, pointed to us by the Baptist himself.

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Meaningful Wandering

Isaiah 63: 16-17, 19; 64: 2-7; Mark 13: 33-37

Although no expert other than what I’ve studied in Christian classics, I do know that one of the main themes in the writing of Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings trilogy is that of wandering. Tolkien saw wandering as a journey in and of itself and necessary, even if we don’t particularly care for it or if it feels lost. He is the one that coined the phrase, “Not all those who wander are lost.” If you’ve read or watched any of the stories you know the characters are often on the move from one place to another, often facing obstacles, at times wanting to give up and questioning the purpose of it all. Yet, they remain persistent in the pursuit of what he’d consider the idyllic or archetypal king, just as we do during this season as we seek that idyllic king in the birth of the Christ at Christmas. Wandering, even as the Magi will do, is necessary in order to create the space necessary for something new to begin to take shape.
The same is true for people Israel. As a matter of fact, they have made an art out of it as part of their history and the same is true when we hear from Isaiah today and will through these weeks of Advent. They find themselves on the backend of the Babylonian Exile, a life of bondage and enslavement, and as they return home they return thinking they can pick up where they left off, that home would be the home they had always known, despite history telling them otherwise. More often than not they believe it is God that wanders from them, abandoning them in their hour of need, but Isaiah in his lament towards God, speaks of how they find themselves in this position that they have been all but familiar with of wandering from what they have known and still creating space for what is new.
However, they hold onto the expectations of returning to normalcy and they return with the expectation that the way they’ve experienced God before would once again be the same. They wanted to return to what was, but after years of exile and now wandering themselves they begin to see that that’s not true and they can’t return home in the way they left. Home was no longer home for Israel. They feel lost and alone. Isaiah, though, at the very end of his lament reminds them of who this God is, the one who has seen them through the Red Sea and the one that has once again brought them out of exile to return a changed people. He uses the image of a God who is like a potter and the people his clay. And like the potter and his clay, it’s always being reformed into something new, softening the edges, molding it into a new masterpiece. It is a finished product that is never finished but refined as they turn their faith and trust to the one that has remained steadfast and faithful, this God of mystery that leads them from what had been known into the great unknown. Like Tolkien, Israel searches for that idyllic king and not always recognizing that it is them that are being called to change and to become.
The same is true of Mark’s community as we now switch gears from Matthew’s Gospel. Mark is very bare bones compared to Matthew and very much focuses on his community in Rome and learning how to hope even in the midst of suffering, just as it often was with Israel. Mark’s community was in constant tension with Nero who was a tyrant and bully towards them. They were often to blame as a minority for all wrong-doing and so they consistently felt the wrath of him and his people. It was a city that lived in fear of what he was capable of at that time and Mark’s community was an easy target. Today we hear near the end of the Gospel as Jesus’ death is soon imminent. Much of this chapter is filled with this ominous language that seems more like doomsday. But that was the reality in which they lived. It wasn’t so much God that they feared coming in the dark of night or early morning, it was the political leaders of the time under Nero and so they had to be at watch and aware while resisting the fear that was imposed upon them. Needless to say, this often led the community to feel like they had no home, wandering aimlessly and suffering at the hands of others. The language we hear was a message of hope for Mark’s community, as Isaiah was today, for faithful followers of the way who had no home and needed to continue to trust this faithful God who has seen them through and is constantly molding them into something new. They find themselves wandering from what had been to a new life being formed even through their suffering.
As we begin this rather brief Advent season, we come mindful of our own wandering. In many ways, in the world we live, we seem to always find ourselves in transition from what has been known and yet wait with anticipation for what the newness is that God is inviting us into and to trust entering into the unknown. We too seek that idyllic king who is always molding and forming us, more often than not when we find ourselves wandering and waiting; not necessarily lost but often feeling that way. We pray for the grace to wander as a people, in our very hearts and souls that are being called to be cleansed of our old way of thinking in order for that space to be created for the embodiment of love at Christmas. It’s hard. It’s painful. And at times we want to go back to what was, clinging to our old gods. In moments of grace, though, we are invited to let go and surrender as we wander while opening ourselves to the gift of new life and the embodiment of God’s word in our lives, changing us forever and yet still being molded and formed into something new and unknown.

Kingdom Dwellers

Ezekiel 34: 11-12, 15-17; I Cor 15: 20-26, 28; Matthew 25: 31-46

All year we’ve heard from Matthew’s gospel and today we come to what many consider to be the culmination of what he was all about in his writing, the Judgment of Nations.  Keep in mind it’s not about individual judgment as we’ve often associated.  For Matthew, the other gospel writers, and Paul in today’s second reading, salvation was not an individual sport.  It was about the collective salvation and their own seeking of the common good in this life.  It, of course, has been overly politicized over the years and many times rightly so when we neglect people in need for one reason or another, but that’s not necessarily the context in which Matthew writes nor the lens we need to read it.

If we had to sum up Matthew’s approach to his community, as one he often struggled with, fearing division and its demise following the destruction of the Temple, it would be a journey of interior change and how we handle change in our lives and how our experience of God changes.  If you know anything about Israel’s history you know the destruction of the Temple seems to almost be a regular occurrence for them.  It wasn’t just the center of their faith life but was also the center of politics and economics so everything was intertwined.  With that being the case, it should be no surprise that it is destroyed over time.  However, just like it is today, when they all become intertwined in that way it’s without a doubt that God is going to come third in line, and so, in some sense, Matthew tries to lead the community to a much harder change, an interior change, to recognize that there’s something bigger than the Temple and that an encounter with God can happen, often times even more, beyond the temple dwellers.

From the beginning of the gospel, if we recall from Advent and Christmas last year, Mary and Joseph were on the run, refugees.  The Magi come on their own journey and return differently because of the encounter with the Christ, something is changed interiorly in their lives.  Throughout the gospel the disciples are being led outside of Jerusalem to experience the Christ in the acts of healing and forgiving, rather than something you go to they are being led to be an embodiment of that love that takes on flesh and they find their true strength from within.  It’s what makes Jesus so dangerous to the Pharisees and other temple dwellers.  As disciples, the Temple has it’s place but they aren’t meant to dwell there.  Rather, they’re kingdom dwellers with the Spirit of God going with them into these encounters.  This God that Matthew portrays to us and that we’re called to embrace can no longer be confined to a particular time and space.  At that point it’s not God anyway.  Rather this God cannot be contained and is going to lead them to the places of discomfort and uncertainty to learn to put their trust not in the Temple as has been their history, but the temple of the Holy Spirit acting within the community and each other.

It is new, of course, for the people in first century but even new for us at times.  However, the message has been a part of Israel’s history, even at the burning bush when God is revealed in name and that they mustn’t get hung up on the location of these events.  When they do that it begins the gradual confinement of God to a time and space and we find ourselves living in the past.  It’s where the prophets have tried to lead the people, over and over again, but with great resistance even costing them their lives at times.  They too get hung up on the temple dwellers and thinking that God can somehow be confined to that space.  Yet, with this enmeshment of faith, politics, and economics, the question really should be, as it was in the parable of the talents as well as the wise and foolish virgins as to who is the master they’re serving.

Ezekiel, in today’s first reading was one such prophet.  If you read it in its larger context you know that he’s going after them for this very thing, their own corruption.  Israel once again finds itself in exile during the time of the Babylonian Exile and they’re not being cared for.  The people responsible, the shepherds of the time, were not taking care of the needs of the lost, the strayed, the injured and sick.  They had become their own gods in some sense, temple dwellers themselves rather than seeing beyond and being moved to the place of discomfort in their lives.  When you have it all and you’re on top, even in our own time, it seems as if there really is no need for this God.  I’m quite fine with the gods I can hold onto, that bring me comfort, that keep me safe, rather than leading me outward while being inwardly changed. It’s the opportunity to not only encounter God in a different way but to learn of myself in a new way and light.  It’s not about changing others.  It’s about allowing ourselves to be changed, our hearts to be changed by going to the very place we fear.  It’s the story of Mary and Joseph.  It was the Magi.  It’s the embodiment of love.  It’s the journey Matthew has invited us into this past year.

So it brings us to the culmination of his gospel and the judgment of nations.  Needless to say we have often failed at embodying love.  We have allowed ourselves to be temple dwellers while often enmeshing faith, politics, and economics, while neglecting sometime our very own rather than surrendering it all to the true God.  Like Israel in all its history, when the three become enmeshed, God, without a doubt, will become confined and the other two will take their place as the gods of our time.  We all fall prey to it and all find ourselves as sheep and goats.  But for Matthew, it meant something more.  It meant an embodiment of that love and not just loving neighbor.  Rather, being one with neighbor in the sick, the poor, the refugee, the imprisoned, the stranger. 

Every one of us is good at making ourselves comfortable.  For Matthew, our faith is quite the opposite.  We’re not called to be temple dwellers where we grow comfortable and safe, confining God to our particular time and space.  There’s a place for it but it resides in something bigger than time and space.  Rather, kingdom dwellers where we seek the eternal, the Christ, with prayer always on our lips for a change of heart.  It’s what it’s all about.  It’s messy.  It’s hard.  It’s frightening.  Yet, with Mary and Joseph leading the way for Matthew, we’re called to go out and encounter the living God and to be that embodiment of love that we’ve witnessed through the eyes of Matthew this year.

 

The Predictably Unpredictable Master

The parable of the talents is now the second of the three in this chapter of Matthew.  Last week we heard the parable of the wise and foolish virgins and then next week will be the culmination of Jesus’ teaching in this gospel in the judgment of the nations.  It’s the final teaching of Jesus before the real event as to what this all means and what it has to tell them about who this God and who this Jesus really is and what he’s all about.  Like the other two parables this one is filled, like our lives, with many contradictions that are hidden in plain sight.

Our natural inclination, as I’ve said before, is to automatically try to identify who’s who in these parables that Jesus offers us.  It’s almost as if we have to identify roles so we know where we fit and somehow feel comfortable with it, knowing who’s who.  However, that would leave us in a bit of a predicament with calling God the master of the story, considering what we know about the master according to the one who was given one talent.  Even the master makes a pre-judgment about the guy by only giving one, according to his ability.  But this same guy then reveals the identity of the master by telling us that he’s demanding, a lie and a cheat and pretty much leaves them to their own accord by leaving.  Now I can’t necessarily say that’s how I would identify God, and yet, when we rush to judgment and trying fill in the blanks, it’s the God we’re left with.  But maybe that’s Jesus point.

Let’s look at the other two who obviously were very successful in turning the talents into great wealth.  According to our standard today we’re talking millions of dollars, more money than we know what to do with.  They make this money by becoming the likeness of the master and his success which means they too become demanding along with liars and cheats.  It was common knowledge in that time.  Also common thinking, as it often is to this very day, that wealth and this accumulation of it was how they viewed God.  The more I had the more somehow God has blessed me and graced my life, as if grace and blessing can somehow be quantified.  Today we’d call it the prosperity gospel.  The more I have the more God must love me and well, if I don’t it’s probably my own fault.  You see, God is not the master in this sense.  The master is a god but they serve the master of success of wealth and power.  It stands in total contradiction to what they are about to witness about the true Master facing the passion, death, and resurrection.  Yet, we’ve adopted in our own churches serving the wrong master at times.  It may bring us joy, as we hear, but it’s a fleeting joy, not the joy that comes through the true Master, the eternal.

That does, though, leave the third one hanging out there.  Mindful of all we know of Jesus and all the stories we’ve heard from Matthew this year wouldn’t it make sense that he’d be drawn to this final character of the parable.  You can almost imagine him huddled over out of fear seeking the Lord of life.  But the master of success in the parable has already made a judgment about him, just as the Pharisees have done about anyone that has not been somehow blessed by God, by not having.  Here’s a guy who even stands up to the master of success, facing him with a sense of authenticity and courage, humbling confronting the master and just as the Pharisees do, he’s tossed into the darkness.  He comes with nothing and leaves with nothing.  Isn’t that just how our lives are designed?  We always want more and the more is never enough.  Success for the true Master is more about less being more, it’s about coming as we are, with nothing, in humility and with authenticity standing up to the many masters we serve.

That is what’s behind this rather unusual proverb we hear in the first reading.  What the heck does the ideal wife have to do with talents and all the rest in the gospel?  What makes her the ideal is that she’s not there to serve the master in her husband.  Rather, she’s mindful of the true master and does all she does in the name of that Master.  The proverb tells us that she finds all the superficialities as fleeting, charm and beauty are simply joys that will pass.  She keeps her eye on her one God.  She is a woman that fears the Lord in its truest sense, a hope and joy that is eternal and she finds that through serving the true Master, as we’d say, in Christ, through the grace to trust and have a deeper sense of faith that transcends what the world offers her, which at that time was not a great deal.

Paul reminds us through his letter to the Thessalonians today that the moment comes in all of our lives, like a thief in the night, when we’re questioned and when we should begin to question the master that it is that we are serving.  He tells us when it arises in us it’s like labor pains, a painful experience when we are awakened to the reality that we’ve been serving our own master rather than the Master.  It will not only be what master we decide to serve but also what we do with it.  Do we continue to seek fleeting joy and the instant gratification in our lives or do we look for more?  Ironically, when we look for more it’s often less that can fill.  The more we try to fill ourselves with our own masters the more empty we become, lacking meaning and purpose in our lives.

We are now just over a month away from when our lives become all about the “more”.  We’ll need more gifts, cards, parties, stuff to have ourselves a successful Christmas.  Yet, we’ve probably all been in that place, that, when all is said and done we feel empty and unfulfilled.  More often than not it’s because we’ve spent our times serving the wrong master and then we’re faced with the holiday blues.  We pray this day for the grace to become aware or maybe even just to begin to ask ourselves who is the master we serve in our lives.  The master we serve says a lot about the God we choose to serve.  This god of success and prosperity is so tempting in our lives and yet often comes at great cost.  Maybe not in the moment but at some point it happens.  The true Master calls us to a life of humility, faith and trust.  The more we keep our eye and heart on the true Master the more we begin to realize that we don’t need much, that less is often more.  It’s a God of deep mystery that we are invited to fall into, as the ideal wife does in Proverbs, trusting in the promise of the eternal joy that arrives when we finally let go of our own masters and learn to trust the fall into the true Master of our lives, the eternal Christ.

 

Foolish Wisdom

Wisdom 6: 12-16; I Thess 4: 13-18; Matthew 25: 1-13

I don’t need to convince anyone here that we live in rather hostile times. How else do you describe what we witnessed this past week in the church shooting in Texas when someone feels they can just walk in and obliterate people. Or even here in Baltimore. We’re not even at the end of the year and the death toll due to violence has exceeded 300. It’s hard to comprehend. There also seems to be an increase in stories of accusations of assault against people. That’s just the actions of people. It doesn’t take into account the hostility we experience with the vile that often comes out of mouths and plastered on social media and other outlets. How can any of us deny this surge in hostility. It seems and feels as if there is this great upheaval taking place in politics, Church, and other facets of our lives that it seems to feed into that hostility. As much as we want to seek this sense of permanence and cling to it, there just isn’t other than what we seem to fear the most, death.
Matthew’s community which we’ve heard from all year was not much different. The reasons for such hostility may or may not have been different but he consistently worried about the community and whether it would survive. There were strong divisions between Jews, the Messianic Jews, who would go on to become Christians, as well as pagan and more secular people, all of which felt that they held the mantle of truth and found ways to hold it over the others. Matthew consistently tries to move the community to this deeper reality of who they are and despite differences in beliefs, way of life, knowledge, or anything else, there is something that binds them all. But when they and we get caught up in our tribes, our way of thinking, thinking we hold this mantle of truth and complete knowledge, hostility arises and there is less and less space for others, and quite frankly, the Other.
In these final three weeks of the liturgical year Matthew will once again make this push to this deeper reality by the telling of parables. We hear the parable of the virgins this week, followed by the talents, and climaxing with the sheep and goats on the final Sunday. Today, though, is this parable that appears to be filled with contradictions. There are these so-called wise virgins who appear on the surface to be given some kind of reward for their presence. However, their actions don’t speak great volumes in terms of wisdom. No sooner it is announced that the bridegroom is arriving, the foolish virgins seek help from the wise virgins, and yet, they want nothing to do with them. They shut them off and only worry about themselves rather than help the one in need. Go buy your own stuff and worry about yourself they are told. They go about their business only to lock the door behind them as they enter the party only to shut themselves off as some form of protection from the outside elements. It doesn’t sound like great wisdom.
But remember, this is how they envisioned God and now Jesus plays on words and uses stories to point out what they miss. The only other image that sounds so stark in Scripture is the closing of the tomb, death, cutting off from everyone else. Yet, there they were. Like today, it’s about insiders outsiders, the better than and less than, who holds the mantle and who doesn’t, who’s wise and who’s a fool. Yet, in the process, the parable reveals something about them and their own understanding of God and themselves. In the seeking of wisdom, one must first learn to embrace death and a reality and a part of who we are. It is in letting go that we begin to realize that maybe the best any of us can do is accept the fact that I may have some wisdom but I could be a damn fool all at the same time, ready and yet not ready. Like the parable, we tend to be filled with such contradictions. But for the Pharisees and their understanding of God, it was all about how it appeared and if we don’t move to that deeper reality we never really see that I am both wise and foolish, living and dying with each passing breath.
We hear in that first reading today from Wisdom that our lives are about seeking that gift of wisdom and the eternal. As a matter of fact, seeking wisdom leads us to the eternal. When we feel we carry this mantle of truth and certainty, there’s not much room for wisdom and for that matter, the other. Wisdom, and our ability to let go, leads us from a life of hostility to a life of hospitality, where we have space for the other, and quite frankly, we’re free to be ourselves. There is great wisdom in accepting that I am not all-knowing and I don’t carry the mantle of truth because it frees me to be myself and unlike the Pharisees, don’t feel the need to try to be someone other than I really am, both wise and foolish all at the same time.
Quite frankly, there is some wisdom found even in the foolish virgins if we’re willing to look a little deeper. They come empty, with nothing holding them back. They ask for help when needed, even in despair. Yet, they find themselves rejected, but not rejected by God but by who they thought God was, the Pharisee who felt it was their duty to guard the door and judge who comes and who doesn’t. So they’re not rejected by God but rather by us. We will hear this now these next weeks in our own seeking of wisdom and learning to let go of these images of God that no longer work in our lives and hinder us from going deeper in our lives. The hostility that arises with Jesus isn’t because of lack of knowledge or wisdom. He certainly proves himself in that way. The hostility comes when he shows hospitality to the excluded, the outsiders, the foolish ones as they were known. Jesus shows us a God who has space for both the wise and the fool.
As we make this journey together, as Paul reminds us today, we seek that wisdom, the eternal, that frees us to be who we are, often contradictory in our own lives and yet still loved by God. When we can begin to accept that about ourselves we become less hostile towards others, learn to respond with love, and honestly, become even more dangerous in such a hostile world because we are set free to love as God loves, the wise and the fool. Quite frankly, it’s all we can really ask for in this life. We pray for the grace to accept and to be aware of this deeper reality in our own lives, that we are both wise and fool, ready and not ready, open and closed, all at the same time. And yet, infinitely still loved by God in our fullness.

 

Illusionary Violence

Shortly after the shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, I received an email asking if we, as a parish, are prepared if something like this were ever to happen.  Now first, I’m not sure anything can prepare you for something like this, other than possibly a sniper attack in a war zone or consistent trauma in your life; but secondly, I’m not convinced I want to be prepared for something like that.  I can certainly understand, from a logical and rational point of view, but it also feels, as someone who is supposed to trust deeply in this higher being we call God, that it’s giving into fear, which is antithetical to the consistent message of Jesus in the gospel proclaimed every Sunday not to fear.

Safety and Security may be the two greatest illusions we hold onto and quickly buy into when we react to horrific acts like this.  Our immediate response is more guns or at times, build walls, anything that’s going to give us the false sense of security that we desire to make us feel safe.  We pad ourselves in whatever way possible, building a fortress in order to appeal to what our eyes can see, “I’m safe now”, but deep down, in the unseen, the heart of the matter continues to exist.  It never quite strikes at the deepest fear we cling to, which is death, but in those moments our automatic response is to consume more of what we know rather than sit with the unknown reality that all who are hurting are left with in their lives.  The consistent underlying message when giving into fear is that I will do everything possible to avoid what really could have been me.  It very well could have been me or anyone else sitting in that church on Sunday or a movie theater or a classroom or at a concert or whatever the next setting will be, knowing full well that there, unfortunately, will be another, and each time it is me.

More often than I’d like, including less than a month ago, I have written on this blog the continuous struggle with violence that we witness and perpetrate in our lives.  Violence goes beyond the horrific acts of gun violence as well as other means that we have all too often witnessed in this country, a consistent reminder that there’s a problem.  More often than not, though, we’ve bought into the culture of violence, through our words and actions.  These men, and yes, it is consistently men as well, are a mere microcosm of the deeper issue that continues to spread throughout the country.  We consume it daily through news outlets and social media and many times spread it ourselves.  We consume it in our conversations, in our gossip, in our lack of respect for human life and all creation.  The simple reaction to our problems is to blame and invoke violence against the other, feeding into the death of the soul of a nation, bankrupted of any moral standing, putting guns, walls, drugs, things, before the very dignity of the very person that is most impacted.

Now I’m not one to necessarily always buy into the understanding that we are all divided.  Unfortunately, division sells and sells big.  Fear is such a deeply rooted reality in our hearts and souls that we appear attracted to it and drawn into it consistently, quickly buying into any fix as to take away the eternal pain of separation while building up a false narrative of the kingdom.  Our problem, as consumers, is that over time we’re lulled into believing it all, even if we know deep down that things aren’t right.  In our own infatuation of the illusion of safety and security we will find a way to cling to anything that is known and certain, often to avoid the fear that only continues to grow exponentially, leaving us in a frenzy.  It happens in us as individuals but collectively as a country as well, mindful that that illusion was shattered in this country after the events of 9/11.  Since then, violence has spiraled, divisions have been set in place, even if they are illusions, extremes have positioned themselves, all feeding into this fear while the rest of the world watches and waits, looking from a place a part from us, understanding our hurt and pain in a way we know not and seem to refuse to look at and consistently find ways to avoid.  We have grown a part from ourselves and each other, now leaving us with more violence than our hearts are often able to bear.

I honestly cannot imagine what it was like in that church on Sunday and maybe I don’t want to either.  My guess is it started like any other Sunday, people catching up with one another, asking about family and friends who may be sick, the small chit-chat that happens on a typical Sunday morning.  There were no thoughts of feeling unsafe, no thoughts of what separates and divides people.  They were a community that gathered under a common purpose and with God at the forefront.  In an instant, lives were changed forever and many eternally.  It wasn’t long after that the predicted responses would begin and hurting lives would once again be turned into politics and more violence, separating and dividing.  We hear about guns don’t kill people, good people need guns, if the government makes any changes they’ll take away all our guns, as we know best, it’s all or nothing, benefiting corporations, feeding a consumer culture rooted in fear, safety and security.  We react and lives are left shattered in the process.

I have no answer even though it seems like I write about this so regularly anymore.  I’m not sure there really are answers when we don’t even know the right questions to ask.  Conversations are directed from backstage, inciting fear, and without even thinking, we give into it so quickly, again, believing what we are told and so often afraid to go to the depths of our own being to evaluate what’s most important to us.  We will never have the safety and security that we think or believe we should have.  It’s a mere illusion and an illusion that is fed by a consumer culture.  More than anything, we need to learn to have a patient trust in the slow workings of God in our lives. 

There is so much healing that needs to happen in our lives, not just the hundreds whose lives have been shattered by traumatic violence that goes beyond the city, but each of us who find blaming the other individual or group for our problems, throwing tantrums in trying to get our way.  Not only do we need healing but we need to grow up and accept responsibility for ourselves and each other.  We do this not by continuously buying into these illusions that feed our own fears, but in learning to embrace the paradox and mystery of life and death.  Our lives are not comprised of only half the mystery, the half we like while living in fear of the other.  Rather, with each passing breath in every given moment a gift is being given to live, but at the same time to let go and trust in the unseen power of God.  For all who have faced such trauma and are reeling in the grief of loss while they still cling to life, it’s all they have, and quite frankly, it’s all any of us really have.

What Matters Most

Malachi 1: 14–2: 2, 8-10; I Thess 2: 7-9, 13; Matthew 23: 1-12

If you follow what we call, the opioid crisis, you may have heard last week from Chris Christie mentioning that over the span of three weeks, this country loses as many people to overdose as we did back on 9/11/01.  That’s every three weeks and yet we have plenty of money to try to make us safer and secure but we can’t seem to find it within ourselves to deal with this continuing growing problem.  Maybe because it’s a problem that lies beneath the surface and can’t always see with our eyes.  We’re much better at reacting to what we see rather than dealing with the interior, unseen.  Just think about it, though.  If there are that many who are trying to mask themselves think about the amount of pain that is hidden in plain sight.  We somehow think that taking away the heroin, the pain pills, the guns, or whatever else will solve all our problems but all it does is tackle the seen and rarely pushes us to deal with the pain below the surface that leads us down the path of opioids or other means.

It’s the challenge Jesus often faces with the Pharisees, as he does again today.  Keep in mind, the Pharisees weren’t bad people.  They were well-intentioned and whether we care to admit it or not, there’s a Pharisee in all of us.  They seem to only care about how things are seen with the eyes, how they look, and keeping people distracted by what might be less important.  Along comes this Jesus who doesn’t seem to need them so much, despite the relationship with the Pharisees being one of need and dependency.  Jesus, rather, encounters the people where they are and with what matters most, their pain and suffering.  He’s not the least concerned about how things look, titles, being seen, or having the attention on himself, all he cares about is so often zoning in on the pain, not by medicating or numbing it, but entering into with the one who suffers.  It’s a radical approach to faith as they had known it.  The approach of the Pharisee is one of superiority and allowing yourself to be seen as “good” and blaming others for your problems.  For Jesus, it’s about going below the surface and bringing about radical change that can only come by a holy encounter in pain.

In the words of Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians, it’s a God who is like a mother who nurses and cares for her children’s hunger and need.  It wasn’t about being seen or about who’s in and who’s out.  No, rather for Paul it too was about this radical healing that needed to happen in people’s lives.  More often than not Paul would go after the communities for separating themselves from what mattered most even what was seen with their very eyes.  Their focus tended to be on themselves rather than the poor and people dying in the streets and encountering them in those very places.  Paul uses that image today to remind us of this God who doesn’t care about what we have or our bank accounts or how we are seen in the public eye.  Rather, it is that mother, as he tells us, who cares for her children’s very needs, needs that are so often not noticed on the surface but internally, as if instinctual, a deeper pain and hunger.

For the prophets it was no different just as with Malachi in today’s first reading.  He too uses language of a parent but now rather a God who is a faithful father.  Malachi is going after the priests who too had lost sight of what was most important.  They were much too worried about the Temple, in some ways as we often do, the façade of the building.  Somehow as long as things look good and fine on the surface we can ignore the deeper problems in our lives, city, and country.  All along, though, we become eaten alive by our pain that continues to lead us further into a virtual life that eases and numbs the pain rather than seeking that holy encounter within the pain so that it may be transformed and we may live life more fully.  They were no different than us, focusing on what separates us and divides us rather than the deeper issues facing our community, city and country.

When Matthew writes this gospel he too was worried about his own community.  That presence of the strong Pharisee was separating and dividing his community and he worried that they’d come apart.  Matthew worried how fear had crept in and was eating away at the community as he tried to unite them around the one who knew their pain, the Christ.  That Pharisee within each of us will always look for the short-term solution to our pain, turning to opioids, heroin, pain pills, guns, or whatever our choice is all that we can continue to function in our lives and world while being eaten within ourselves by our pain that keeps being pushed down and numbed.  It’s so easy to get caught up in the less important things that we see with our eyes rather than to be led to the unseen, the pain within our own hearts, that prevents us from loving in the way that Jesus has loved, like the nursing mother and the faithful father.

The amount of pain that exists in this city and country is even hard to imagine and in the short-term it appears we’ll continue to avoid and numb as long as we look strong and secure.  But deep down we know there is more, in the unseen parts of our heart lies a deeper pain that desires more than anything a holy encounter and a radical healing so we too can focus on what matters most, the lives we are called to go out to as missionary disciples, not to separate and divide but to gather together around the Cross of the Christ where radical healing, in our most vulnerable state, is brought forth.