Redeeming History

Isaiah 25: 6-10; Phil 4: 12-14, 19-20; Matt 22: 1-14

If we could take the First Reading from Isaiah and smack it against this gospel from Matthew, we can get somewhat of a continuation of the story of People Israel. We seem to think that everything prior to Jesus is simply “old” and could be forgotten, as if putting the past in the past is enough, but for Israel, their history continued with or without Jesus. If we pull them together, despite being some 800 years apart, we could see not just how far they have come as a people but just how much further they need to go to experience the fullness of the promise of Isaiah in today’s first reading.
Like most of us, Israel struggles with its history. As much as Cross and Resurrection is central to who we are, for Israel, and even for us, it was very much rooted in slavery and freedom and the tension between them that so often defined them. With every step forward into freedom in which they are invited, it seems as if they get stuck, being enslaved in one way or another. It may not show itself in the form of Pharaoh, but it certainly does in the form of the chief priests, elders of the people, and Pharisees, whom Jesus has been telling these rather bizarre parables to the past few weeks. Here he is in the heart of the tension, Jerusalem, with his own death beginning to seem more real. They’ve come a long way but still much further to go until, as Isaiah tells us today, the veil that veils all people is removed and the banquet is no longer an exclusive club for certain members. If anything, more often than not they become enslaved to their own way of thinking that pulls them back into slavery, separating from their heart, with a call once again to freedom.
All that being said, then we have these two parables that Jesus tells us today that seem rather unusual without quite knowing who’s who. As it would be for us, our autoreply would be to associate the king with God. However, if we do that it seems like a rather cruel one at that. We’re dealing with people, though, who were doing just that to others, putting themselves in the place of God, enslaved to the law. It was the chief priests, elders of the people, Pharisees and the like and so in some ways it’s mirroring their own behavior and once again how their history has taken a hold of them. If we could say anything about Jesus, he has a way of raising these things to a surface, not to lead to further death, but rather to be redeemed once again, forgiven, an opportunity for reconciliation.
We often live with this idea, as we do with everything that comes before Jesus, that we can simply put the past behind us. In my experience, I find that my past always finds a way to work its way back into my life, weaving itself in in different ways. Again, not to cast it into the darkness where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth, but raised to the surface for deeper redemption and forgiveness, no longer needing to pretend that it’s somehow no longer relevant, which only leads to deeper enslavement. We can’t just say that everything is in the past, as individuals and as a country, casting it into further darkness. That’s simply denying the pain of the people, often enslaved by that pain that prevents them from moving forward. I could make it look like all is well but deep down living in pain and with an unchanged heart.
That takes us to the second parable of the man not dressed the proper way, in the wedding garment. Again, it would seem rather trite if we were speaking of God, but it is a parable raising to the surface what it is the leaders of the community are doing and how they are acting. It’s not about a garment at all. Rather, it’s about limiting faith to simply making it look like we play the part. It was all about looking good while inflicting pain otherwise, as they so often did. Even at such banquet they’d wait to see who else attended to determine if it was worth them showing up. It was about being seen rather than a change of heart, all the while living in the darkness of the night. Not cast there by God, but by their own doing. For the Pharisees, the chief priests, and elders of the people, the banquet was about exclusion. It was about us versus them. It was about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about winners and losers. They may have come a far way into living into the promise, but still a long way to go where all are invited to the banquet, where there is no more division and separation, where head and heart may be one.
Paul so often exemplifies it and speaks of living in that tension in his own life, quite content with being full or going hungry, having abundance or being in need. For Paul it was not about casting life out into the darkness but embracing life where it is in this moment and not becoming enslaved to his thinking and simply sitting with the choices that lie before him. For Paul it is about surrendering himself over to God consistently, knowing the mercy of God is a necessity and that whatever rises to the surface in his own life is being raised by God for healing and redemption. If we weren’t so quick to react to our own pain and our addicting thoughts, we too can experience that sense of surrender that Paul speaks of and find the healing we need in our own lives, for a change of heart that goes beyond the surface.
The parables we’ve heard these weeks have been quite challenging. They can also be a mirror for us about how far we have come as a people, mindful of our how history, but also how much further we need to go. More often than not we are lured into the life of slavery once again, in many different forms from anger, grudges, and our own inability to see each other as one. We almost prefer to separate and divide rather than sit with our own uncomfortableness with people who may be different than us, people we’ve cast into the darkness who have something to teach us about ourselves, people we think we’ve pushed into slavery but have only cast ourselves into through our own fear and attachment to our thinking.  It was what Matthew feared of his own community, that they’d be pulled apart by these divisions. We pray for the awareness in our own lives, not only recognizing how far we have come in our lives, individually and collectively, but just how far we still need to go to experience the fulfillment of the promise. Our past will always find a way to creep into our lives, holding us back, but in such moments, as Paul tells us, when we can sit with it rather than cast aside or react to, we can finally move to a place of redemption and forgiveness through and in Love. In those moments, glimpses of the promise are revealed where all are truly welcome at this banquet and all are seen as brother and sister.

 

Advertisements

Nature’s Groaning Call

Isaiah 5: 1-7; Philippians 4: 6-9; Matthew 21: 33-43

Finally, some rain.  When I was out walking this week it felt more like walking through a desert it’s been so warm and extremely dry.  You know, more than anything, nature is used in the bible to often mirror to people what’s going on with us.  There’s been such a violent streak in weather the past month or so but also with us.  It’s as if nature is groaning within, letting us know we have a problem.  Now when I say it has something to mirror to us I don’t mean it in a televangelist kind of way, like Pat Robertson who again went off these weeks not only about weather but about the killings in Las Vegas.  It’s a distorted image of God to think that God somehow wants to smite us, which should make us question whether it’s God at all.  We do enough smiting ourselves. 

So if there’s anything that the tenants of the vineyard do wrong it’s that they cut themselves off, distance themselves from the land.  They begin to think that it’s theirs and they are somehow entitled to it, have the right to it, know better than the landowner, possess and control it.  They no longer need the landowner they can do it quite fine themselves, so they think.  They no longer even recognize the landowner in the slaves that are sent or for that matter, the son, who come in the landowner’s image and likeness.  They don’t see it necessary for themselves so they certainly won’t in the others.  Cutting themselves off from the land not only distances themselves in that way, they separate themselves from the landowner themselves.  It’s about them.  It’s about what they want.  And once the son is sent they believe the landowner is out of the picture all together and they finally have the power they want to possess.

Now they’d all be familiar with the story Jesus tells because it’s pretty much given word for word from the reading from Isaiah today.  Everything is going great for Israel, so they think, until it’s not.  They too separate themselves from the land, each other, and their God, the Creator, but they aren’t aware of it until it’s time for harvesting only to find wild grapes.  It would be no surprise to the audience Jesus has today that the story wasn’t going to turn out in their favor.  If you sow wild grapes, take advantage of the land and try to possess it, no longer seeing it as a gift, then expect wild grapes, expect violence, expect separation and war.  We reap what we sow and if we sow violence and hate, then like the Pharisees and elders of the people voice in today’s gospel, it will lead to a wretched death.  They abandon each other, the land, and well, quite honestly, if we go that far then most likely we’ll abandon the Creator, the landowner as well.  It’s inevitable.

Paul too finds himself separated from the community but not by choice.  He’s imprisoned but not even the walls of prison are going to cut him off from his source of life.  Paul speaks of a very different way of life, one rooted in peace and free of anxiety, a life free of violence.  Despite his own difficulties at this point, Paul continues to return to the source of life, the landowner per se, who allows him to persevere and model a different way of life.  For Paul, it’s all about gift.  It’s not about possessing or owning, nor about rights and entitlement.  For Paul all is gift and it shines through in this very poetic verse we hear today from him.  He sees not only his own life but the life of others, the land, and all he has been given as gift and he a mere steward.  It’s a life that doesn’t forget that he’s connected to someone bigger than himself and he keeps returning to be nourished by the Creator but even as he sees the violence that has ensued against him and humanity in his own time and from his own hands.

Nature has a great deal to teach us and for three weeks now we have found ourselves wandering through the vineyard with Jesus, often with some harsh words.  If we fail as tenants to the land and each other, forgetting our truest identity, it will all be taken away and it will feel like a horrific death and letting go, even feeling violent at times.  Violence just seems to be a part of who we are and what we’re capable of in this life.  We’ve seen that violent streak in nature, reminding us of hearts that hurt and that have become arid.  We’ve allowed ourselves to be separated not only from this Earth but from each other, often feeling no need for the landowner anymore.  We can do it ourselves, thank you.  But we also see what happens when we do.  Now more than ever we need the landowner and to remain closely to the Creator to soften our hurting hearts so that they no longer resort to violence, but rather to be filled with the heart of the Creator, one of love, peace, compassion, and reconciliation for all of God’s creation.

 

God’s Way

Isaiah 55: 6-9; Phil 1: 20-24, 27; Matthew 20: 1-16

This is a rather unusual gospel we hear today and some proof that God really does have a sense of humor as to what we think is important in life.  All of us have been indoctrinated into a capitalist system, everyone of us.  We know what the rules are and what to expect.  We often know how to take advantage of it and when it takes advantage of us, even at the expense of others.  We want what’s fair.  Whoever works the hardest gets the most in return.  Whoever works the least gets their share but not as much as others.  We know the system.  But the passage was never meant to be a critique of such a system.  It was more a critique of the culture.  However, in the age we live, that system of capitalism has creeped its way into religion as well and certainly a part of Christianity in this country.  It’s about winners and losers.  It’s about who’s deserving and not.  It’s about whoever works the hardest should get the most returns.  In other words, we think it’s about us.

But it’s not.  This is where we get it wrong because as much as we feel we might have to prove all of that to our boss, God isn’t our boss.  As a matter of fact, God’s trying to work for us and through us more than anything.  Isaiah tells us today that our ways aren’t necessarily God’s ways and our way of thinking is not necessarily God’s way of thinking.  That we can be thankful for.  At the same time, we feel the plight of the workers who have slaved all day in the heat.  We’ve been there and we’ve seen people get treated better than us and it immediately begins to poke holes in the system.  For Matthew it was the early Jewish community that had been around all along and they were seeing the special treatment of the Gentiles who were converting.  Like most parables, they’re meant to turn things on our heads, to try to see our own lives, including our failings, through the lens as God sees not as we do.

As much as it’s not a critique of the system it is a critique of our lives that have become consumed by the system.  For Jesus, he was constantly butting up against a similar system that divided folks into greater and lesser.  It wasn’t just about the early community feeling this way.  For Jesus, it was the distaste of the Pharisees that he often had to confront.  They saw him hanging with people that they considered less than for one reason or another.  They saw themselves and deserving and entitled and if Jesus wanted to make a difference, he was going to have to hang with those who considered themselves the respectable members of the community, not sinners nor fishermen.  We’re better than that.  We’re deserving of better treatment.  Don’t you know all we do?  God’s not our boss and we have nothing to prove.  We may have to work like that in our lives, but really shouldn’t, but not with God.  Isn’t even funny how the generous landowner makes sure they’re all there to witness the generosity.  No hiding but in the process of this generosity to deeper truth is revealed, hearts that were closed off to seeing each other for who they are rather than what they did or didn’t do.

Even some of the prayers we use at Mass have language like that that just sends the wrong message.  We use words like merit and attain in our opening prayer.  In our language and in this capitalistic system, those words connote a way of thinking that isn’t of God.  As Matthew’s gospel reminds us, this God is an abundantly generous God who is constantly giving when we allow ourselves to be open to the grace, to the forgiveness and love.  Like they did with Jesus, we sometimes become jealous and envious because we think God has somehow blessed others better than ourselves, somehow someone less deserving than ourselves got something and we didn’t.  That’s where the system has infiltrated our faith.  We’ve associated the things we’ve accumulated as somehow a grace from God.  But you know what?  Eventually that’s all taken away when we begin to question what’s most important to us, what we value and we begin to see how little opening we have in our lives for God’s true grace that frees us from the systems that we often make into our own gods.

Paul sees it as a choice.  For Paul it was a matter of life and death and for him, when you choose God you always choose life even if it means martyrdom.  He finds himself in prison, and although we will be freed this time, he knows if the choice is to be martyred he will go with it rather than giving up what he values the most.  For Paul, the simple desire was to be open to the Gospel.  You know, even for Paul the greatest threat was calling to mind and making others aware of how they had become attached to something that was only benefiting a few.  More often than not Paul had to call out his own communities for falling into the traps of the world rather than being open to God’s thinking and God’s way.  For Paul, the choice was easy.  You choose the relationships, the values, love of God and neighbor, over using people for our own gain.  It’s what the system feeds on when be buy into the illusion that all benefit when we know full well it only benefits some and poverty continues to grow.

No, it wasn’t meant to be a critique of the system.  It was a critique on how they treated one another, especially the new folks that come later to the game.  It’s not about us but it is about us and how we become consumed by it in all aspects of our lives, even in the way we see God, the big boss in the sky, cracking the whip, working us to the bone, and so on.  But that’s not God’s way and that’s not God’s thinking.  Thank God.  We pray for the grace to be aware in our own lives of where we are feeding into and buying into the system as it tries to work us to death, somehow proving our worthiness and creating divisions.  My guess is we can never be totally free of it but we can be aware of it.  Once we’re aware, we can finally begin to let go of and be freed of all that our entitlements in life that prevent us from loving neighbor, caring about people, and being open to a generous God who’s always inviting us, as with Paul, a fuller way of life where we value what is most important to us.  Not an accumulation of things but rather a surrender of it all to an experience of life with greater depth and meaning.

 

Unseen Obstacles

Sirach 27: 30–28:7; Matthew 18: 21-35

When I was out at Notre Dame back in July, I had asked the priest who was kind of leading us through the week what he thought was one of the greatest obstacles we faced as a Church.  Now, I can name many already.  We know there are less priests.  We are certainly aware that there are less people coming.  We also know that there is a lack of trust with all institutions but also a feeling that the institution is out of touch with what’s going on.  Again, the list can go on and on as to what kind of obstacles we face, all of which we can see with our own eyes.  But he wasn’t thinking about what we can see.  He was thinking about something much deeper and so I was taken back when he responded to me.  He said he felt the greatest obstacle we face is resentment.  I got to tell you, it has pushed me to look at my own self and where it may be simmering underneath for me.  We’ve all faced it towards the institution but also with priests and people.  So many examples of how it hasn’t gone as planned or it’s not what we thought it would be or should be.  We have somehow been treated unfairly and we deserved better.  All along as it simmers underneath the surface, resentment.

And, boy, do we as Sirach tells us today, love to cling to it.  I don’t know why we hold on as tightly as we do.  If anything, over time it really acts as a cancer in our lives, feeding on itself, and taking a toll on our hearts.  Now Sirach is speaking specifically to friendships that have gone awry.  This isn’t just something that the Church must face, but we see it in marriages, in families, and in our communities that we’re a part of, simmering underneath as we cling for dear life.  Maybe we tell ourselves that we’ll hold the injustice over the other.  Or somehow it gives me power and domination over the other who has wronged me in some way.  I’m going to dangle it over them, holding a grudge, as if that’s somehow going to bring justice.  Any maybe that’s are problem.  We want justice despite Sirach telling us we even have to forgive our neighbor’s injustice.  Justice without mercy and forgiveness only leads to greater anger and resentment simmering underneath. 

Both Sirach and Matthew write to communities that often faced division.  This who section of Matthew that we’ve been listening to for the past few weeks has been on what it means to be community and the necessary tools for a community to grow.  Today we hear this outlandish parable by Jesus about a servant who was given forgiveness but never quite penetrates his being.  He remains a tyrant and unchanged by the king’s gift.  The servant simply feeds the king a line that he wants to hear, that somehow he’ll repay this outrageous amount of money, knowing full well that it will never come to pass.  He simply reacts to the situation to get what he wants and yet is unable to receive the gift.  How do we know?  See how he immediately goes and reacts to his fellow servant.  He does exactly what Sirach tells us today.  He clings to his sin and begins to choke the guy.  His own anger that simmers underneath gets the best of him, unchanged by the king’s mercy.  Whether we like it or not, it’s our story.  We like to do the same thing.  We’ll play nice to get what we want.  We’ll go along with something even if it upsets us for the sake of keeping “the peace”.  Yet, all along, just as it is with the servant, just below the surface anger is feeding itself on resentment.  It has destroyed relationships and communities alike when we don’t allow it to come to the surface, to the light, in order to be transformed.  We’d not only prefer to cling to it but also transmit it to anyone who happens to set us off at the moment.  The king doesn’t need to send him to the tortures.  We do that to ourselves by holding on.

These two readings provide us two images and leave us with a choice.  Sirach gives us the clinched fist and grinding teeth, holding on to what eats away at us from within.  Then there’s Jesus, the freedom that comes with forgiveness.  The thing about forgiveness, though, and I have said this before, I cannot do it myself and nor can you.  It is truly a grace given to us from God, freely given.  We do not have the ability to forget how we have hurt and have been hurt and so through this grace we are set free from what binds our hearts and what it is we cling to.  The other is this.  There must be a mutuality.  There must be an openness on our part and a receptivity on our part to receive that grace otherwise it simply deflects off of us, unable to penetrate our own hurt.  The servant is the perfect example.  If he were able to receive that grace, that gift from the king, he would have in turn shown mercy to his fellow servant.  When we open ourselves to the grace we in turn give the gift away.  That’s grace.

We all cling to things in our lives, unable to be free.  It may be fear, resentment, anger, so often causing depression in people’s lives.  It can be towards the Church, towards me, towards a spouse, and even towards God when we feel we have been wronged and unjustly treated for whatever reason.  In those moments, though, we are invited into a choice as to what we do with it.  Do we allow it to simmer underneath the surface, creating a wedge between us and the other and God or do we surrender it to the Lord?  It’s hard stuff as individuals and hard stuff as a community to deal with the real issues.  It’s easy to speak about the obvious issues and problems we face as Church and community.  It’s a whole other ballgame to talk about the real issue simmering underneath that prevents us from growing as individuals and as community into the grace of God that is being offered us at this very moment.  Cling or be set free.

Mediating Love

Ezekiel 33: 7-9; Romans 13: 8-10; Matthew 18: 15-20

During the 2008 campaign we often heard from Sarah Palin about the “bridge to nowhere”.  It was part of her shtick to prove the point of the ineffectiveness of the federal government, building a bridge that went nowhere just to benefit a few.  There are others like it where you can be driving along and all of a sudden if you try to continue you’d end up hitting a wall.  I tried to think of an example closer to home and all I could come up with is, that if you’re a regular driving around here you know that most of the roads from Homeland are One Way out.  All of it begins to send a message over time as the bridge to nowhere does.  Bridges to nowhere, one way out, walls, it’s what we tend to be good at in our lives.  It should be no surprise that we’d want to build walls rather than deal with the burning issues of our day.  It’s much easier than reconciling our differences and finding common ground.

Building community is no easy task.  Matthew is quite aware of that with all his community faces, including their own divisions, but we also know it from our families and any relationships we have been in and have experienced in their breaking apart.  So often we have to have mediators come in to work with people because we become so attached to being right, to knowing it all, to our certainty, to the other being absolutely wrong, when we know that there is often truth on both sides.  Mediators can often help sort out the truth and sift through the conflicts to find that reconciliation.  It doesn’t mean we always get what we want.  As a matter of fact, there often has to be a willingness to give up and surrender things for the good of the community in order to get to the other side and build bridges that go both ways.  We too often become comfortable building bridges only to those we feel we can tolerate, leading to the bridge to nowhere, to only people we can somewhat agree on, tribal thinking as we often see in our own society and certainly our politics..

Ezekiel was one such mediator.  He saw his role as the watchman of his community.  He had to be the one that stands in the middle, seeking the truth when conflict would arise, when people were abusing power or excluding others.  God reminds him of the immense responsibility that comes with such a task and the consequences when there’s not a willingness to be truthful about what he sees and experiences.  He becomes the one who has a keen sense of awareness in the life of the community to see where bridges between the oppositions can be made and what needs to be let go of in the process.  He’s the one that stands above, watching from the watchtower, to not lead them into the traps of bridges to nowhere, one ways, or walls, but rather to a richer sense of community.

It’s no easy task as we’ve heard from Matthew the past few weeks.  It’s quite the challenge when there is conflict and one can’t see the others perspective and not even willing to understand.  Matthew lays out a plan for dealing with such conflicts to hopefully lead to reconciliation but even he knows that that’s not always possible.  He realizes some will choose to not be a part of the community, such as tax collectors and Gentiles.  Of course, they have their own reasons to separate themselves from the life of the community and quite frankly, many had reasons why they didn’t want them to be a part of the community.  There were plenty that would be considered intolerant of them.  At times it seemed insurmountable to think that a bridge that goes between could ever be built.  However, Matthew, time and again, will remind them that it is no longer the prophet who stands as mediator but Christ who stands as love.  The gap could only be closed when love stands as mediator and we could see the other as brother and sister, as neighbor, no matter color, economic status, place of origin, or whatever other means that we used to build our bridges to nowhere and erect walls.

The heart of the readings is Paul’s letter to the Romans.  He puts it so plainly that we must love our neighbor as ourselves.  Love does no evil, he goes onto say.  When we live our lives and grow community around love, around Christ, it finds ways to move from what is often superficial ways of separating ourselves to uniting us around a single purpose, around a single person in Christ.  Reconciling our differences and conflicts is hard work.  It’s the reason why we live in a world where war is never-ending and a constant state of chaos and conflict.  We get so hung up on our own way of things and thinking we’re right, prideful, that there’s no room for love to break us down and see ourselves as brother and sister, as one with our neighbor.  We don’t choose who gets to be our neighbor, mindful that I am a neighbor just as you are and we’d want to be treated with love and respect as the next one.

Yes, it is all easier said than done.  We do prefer walls and bridges to nowhere, and even one ways out so we determine it all and we use ourselves as the center of our lives, avoiding conflict and settling for less in life.  However, to be community and to call ourselves community, we often have to go where we have conflict and where we have made judgments and misunderstandings of each other to learn to bridge those gaps, just as we have to do in our own lives.  It’s so often what separates and it’s so often the easy way out but it never leads to growing deeper in love and in accepting that love.  We pray today for the grace to be aware of it in our own lives, where we may be avoiding what it is that we struggle with and ask love to build a bridge there as well.  In the end, what we can most offer the community is to not only open ourselves to that love in our own lives but ultimately to become that love to one another, to our brothers and sisters, to our neighbor as ourselves.

Flooded Awakening

Jeremiah 20: 7-9; Romans 12: 1-2; Matthew 16: 21-27

Like most of you, I’m sure, I witnessed many remarkable stories out of Texas this week.  I think it’s just amazing what people can do when they’re pushed to that edge when nothing else matters but life.  You know, it wasn’t just in Texas either.  There were more than 41 million people in South Asia impacted by similar flooding this past week but because of our own devastation we didn’t hear as much about it.  I happened to catch an interview on the Weather Channel from a woman who had lost everything like so many others.  You know, I had it on as background noise as I was doing some work but I came to attention as I listened to her speak.  She had commented about losing everything except a few personal belongings, but it was what she went onto say that struck me.  She said, “You know, I had no idea how blind I had become.  I had no idea how blind I had become to what I thought was important.”  Right there, on the Weather Channel, a witness to a God moment.  First an acknowledgement of her own blindness and then a recognition of what really matters in life, what’s most important.

I don’t know why it is, but as humans it seems to be that we only ever get to that point when we’re pushed to that edge.  For whatever reason, over the course of time, we buy into the lie, into the illusion, that somehow these things can’t and won’t happen to us.  Whether it’s our desire for safety and security in our life and fear of losing it all or maybe buying into the ways of the culture of what it means to be successful, that somehow we need the newest and the best and the biggest.  For whatever reason, as humans, we seem to be lulled into believing that there are more important things that are going to satisfy us, bring us fulfillment, make us happy, and without them nothing else matters.  It’s often only when we lose it all, when it’s washed away in the floods, when we can say just how blind we had become and finally begin to question what’s most important to us, what do we value most in life, the relationships, the people, the life that God has given to us.  Whether we like it or not, it’s going to happen to us and is happening to us, and as Saint Francis would say, it’s best to enter into relationship not only with life but with Sister Death, so that when the ultimate death arrives we can surrender much more easily.

It is the wrestling we do in this life that also encounter in these readings this weekend.  No, not in the form of floods and the loss of all personal belongings, but very much in the sufferings of trying to be true to oneself and living from that place of the divine, from what matters and is valued the most within us.  Jeremiah seemed to perpetually live that with struggle with what it was God was inviting him into and the ways of the world.  He feels that he was somehow duped by God, seduced by this God, into this way of life that has led him to a place of ridicule and being made fun of by others and eventually even threatening his life from the powers that be.  As much as he thinks God has duped him it’s really the ways of the world that dupes!  He tries constantly to live the life that God had planted within him, to the point where he could feel the fire burning within his very being if he doesn’t.  But the people of the world want nothing to do with it as he threatens their own sense of security and success.  No one wants to hear that they may be living a life that is less fulfilling than it can be.  But he realizes if he doesn’t live the life God had given him, he sells his soul in the process and is it worth gaining the whole world for the sacrifice of one’s integrity and one’s authenticity.  As that woman said in that interview, she had no idea how blind she had become.  It’s not even that we want all of it but it happens over time, convincing ourselves over and over again that somehow that will be the trick to my unhappiness or my dissatisfaction in life.  Jeremiah reminds us it is only by being true to the divine calling placed within ourselves.

Paul also speaks of it in today’s second reading reminding the Romans not to conform to the ways of the world.  Jesus reiterates it to the disciples asking them what is most important and what is valued most.  Just last week Peter was given this place of authority in the group, this prominent place among the other disciples and already he’s buying into the what success means of the world.  Somehow he even thinks that Jesus is free of suffering and loss.  He begins to think as we often tell ourselves that it’s not going to happen to us.  Somehow we will be free of suffering in our lives despite the fact that we know one of the only things we can be sure of is that at some point Sister Death will come knocking and is knocking, trying to awaken us from our own blindness and move us to greater depths within ourselves and asking what’s most important, what do we value the most.  The more we give into this false sense of security and success and even this invincibility, the more we separate ourselves from the divine, from the soul, from what matters most to us.

We are being given a graced moment right now.  Sure, we are called to help our brothers and sisters in Texas and throughout the month we’ll be collecting money through the poor box here.  But we also mustn’t forget that they do not walk this suffering alone.  We stand on that edge with the people of Texas, the people of South Asia, and with anyone suffering at this moment we stand with them.  The silver lining in it all for us is that we don’t have to wait.  As Saint Francis testified with his own life, learn to let go of the illusions and lies that the world tries to sell us, that there is something better than the divine indwelling.  It so wants to rob us of it and assure us that it’s the be all and end all, what is most necessary for fulfillment in life.  It will happen to all of us, maybe on in severe flooding, but in the testing of our own mortality, our midlife crises that creep up on us, loss and suffering, all of it seems to be one of the few ways to wake us from our blindness as it did that woman in Texas.  We don’t have to wait in our lives.  The question remains with us no matter what.  It’s a matter if we can be aware of it and even begin to stand on the edge with it, asking ourselves what really matters, what’s most important in our lives and is any of it worth sacrificing our own lives, our own souls for it.

‘Better than This’

Isaiah 22: 19-23; Matthew 16: 13-20

In today’s opening prayer we heard something like, we pray amid all the uncertainties of the world.  Well, I’m not sure where it is we start with that.  It seems as if there is uncertainty and chaos all over the place, around the globe, the country, even Mother Nature seems to be playing a part, but also right outside our front door.  I’ve been here three years now and this was the first summer that I was awakened one night because someone was shot across the street.  I don’t know who he was or what the circumstances are but I’d guess drugs.  It’s the way of life in this stretch of road.  It’s been a rough summer in the city of Baltimore and here in our own neighborhood.  All I can think is, aren’t we better than this?  Aren’t we better than all of this?

You ever notice that’s often our response to realities like this?  It was our response following Charlottesville, following 9/11, after mosques had been blown up, among other things, that somehow we’re better than this.  It is the American way to these situations, somehow we’re better than all of this.  It’s the illusion and persona that we collectively try to project to the world that somehow we’re above these realities even though everyone else knows otherwise.  None of us can really escape it.  It’s a part of who we are but it’s also a way that we separate ourselves from responsibility and connection to those who suffer and hurt, people who walk this street day in and day out.  More often than not we’d prefer the illusion over the reality but the reality is that the guy shot is me and you as well.  In the end those who suffer those most from our thinking that we’re better than this are the poor who often get trampled upon to uphold the illusion and avoid the reality.

It’s where we encounter Shebna in the first reading today from Isaiah.  Shebna is about to be tossed out as the master of the palace because of his lack of responsibility to the people.  Shebna is all about himself and feeds into this power that has been given to him and has abused it.  God’s not going to have anything of it and is now going to toss him and raise up Eliakim.  As with many of these figures we encounter in the prophetic books they let power go to their head and becomes about thinking they’re better than others and somehow above others along the way.  We’re better than that would be his approach to the people and so now he’ll be humbled and stripped of this illusion of power that he has held so tightly.  God will raise up a father figure, one who can tend to the needs of the people and their pain, holding a place of honor in the family.  From the beginning of time we’ve lived with the uncertainties of a changing world and a fallen world clinging to power.  As I said, it’s very much a part of who we are as humans and certainly as Americans.

Then there’s Peter.  He too is given power today as they have this encounter with the Lord.  Upon this rock I’ll build my church, keys of the kingdom and so on.  Needless to say almost instantly it’ll go to Peter’s head and will be knocked down a few in next week’s gospel.  He immediately begins to think that he’s somehow better than and above the rest because of all this recognition from Jesus but despite identifying the Lord in today’s gospel he doesn’t yet realize he is also speaking of his own deepest identity.  Notice that Jesus asks two questions.  First he asks what the crowds have to say about him.  What is the image the persona that he is projecting to this crowd?  They say he’s one of the prophets like Elijah and Jeremiah or John the Baptist.  But then he goes directly to those closest of the followers, those closest to him and asks and Peter responds ‘the Christ’.  It doesn’t put him above them in some way or lording authority over them.  It’s a recognition of the reality of who he really is beyond any illusions and persona that may get in the way.  At the core we are the divine, myself, you, the man shot outside, those peddling drugs, those looking for some sense of belonging in gangs in this city.  At the core we are all the same.  When we think otherwise we begin to separate, distance ourselves, and as we are so good at, the problem is somewhere out there.  The illusion can be so strong and we love to hold it so tightly thinking it’s who we are.  But in the end it separates us from reality and the many uncertainties that we face as a city, a nation, and a globe.  In the end, we all know who it ends up hurting the most.

If there is one thing we can be certain of, the extremes in our politics and even in our Church cling to that illusion in their own way, that somehow they hold the truth entirely, that they are somehow better than.  But they’re not and we’ll never move to a place of healing as a city and nation unless we learn to let go of that illusion and move to the place of our deeper identity.  All our clinging to the illusion is a mere reminder that we continue to search for something, search for God in our lives yet we cling to the wrong thing.  There are countless people suffering in this city and country and beyond and yet we still seem to convince ourselves that we’re better than that.  Our prayer is to allow ourselves to be aware of it in our own life; it happens so naturally.  Then learn to let it go.  Once we can accept reality for what it really is we then can begin to change it for the better, ourselves and as a society.  It’s humbling.  It takes a great deal of patience and acceptance.  It takes a great deal of courage to step out of that illusion and see the other as yourself.  There is always hope.  If we don’t, we’ll continue to separate and buy into the illusion, keeping us out of touch with reality, out of touch with the pain of our brothers and sisters.  The problem is…the problem is…we’re better than this.