But Still There is More…

I Corinthians 12: 12-30

It’s hard to ignore Paul’s letter to the Corinthians today, not simply because of its length, but we’re at that point where it is truly some of his most poetic writings and a beautiful crescendo to his message to Corinth.  Unfortunately, we’ve picked up nearly three quarters into the letter so it also stands outside of the larger context of his message to this community.  If you go back to the beginning, Paul begins to question who they have become.  There’s a question about the divisiveness in the community and how he has watched it splinter over issues surrounding competition and superiority, so from the beginning he tries to move them to a place of their deeper identity in Christ.  Paul, without a doubt, is very much in touch with the fact that he’s born in that image and likeness and understands what it means to be a person or community to be living in Christ and Corinth has strayed.  It’s become about exclusion, about who has the greatest gift, about a sense of hierarchy, a reminder of Paul of what happens when we don’t move to the deeper places in our lives and become trapped by what we think is important simply with our eyes.

Paul, though, envisions a very different community and struggles with what he has seen.  Paul sees the potential of Corinth but he also sees their own lack of growing in the faith.  They have become content with the way it is, which walls them off from going deeper and also begins the splintering of the community.  Last week we heard him speak of the gifts coming from one Spirit and next week the climactic reading on love, but today he spells it out through the metaphor of the body and the value of all the parts and a warning about cutting off the parts that have been seen as less viable.  If there’s anything we can learn from Paul it is that it is often in the weakest parts of our body that we find the greatest value.  We can often learn the most about ourselves and become whole, as he desires, by looking at what we have chose to ignore, the people we have cut off, the ones we have excluded over time. 

This is the community that has decided to exclude others from this meal.  They have made the point at times to cause scandal in the life of the greater community.  They have, in many ways, done harm to themselves by not cutting others off from them but by that very act, excluding themselves from the larger community, creating not a community that welcomes but rather a community that wants to pick and choose who they deem worth to be a part of them.  In one of the most beautiful of ways, Paul tries to take them back to their core, to who they really are and what it means to say, “in Christ”.  For Paul it means everything to every community that he writes to that we hear throughout the year.  Often what appears to be our greatest weakness, the “cause of our downfall” winds up being the “means of our salvation”.  Their very sin as a community can lead them to their own demise or can be seen as an invitation to reclaiming themselves “in Christ”.  That lies at the heart of what Paul has to say when he writes to these communities, but in particular to the people of Corinth who often just agonized Paul because of what he had witnessed with them.

It’s not to say that Paul thinks any less of all the gifts and all that they contribute to the life of the community.  That would miss his point.  The very next word can be summed in simply by saying, “but”.  All of this is important, but there’s still more.  He will go onto to remind them that if it’s not rooted in love, and if it causes splintering and a community turning in on itself, then it’s not rooted in love, then it’s all for naught.  As a matter of fact, he continues in this section that if you still think it’s about all of this stuff, competing and comparing, putting yourself above others, and all the rest, then you still remain in a childish faith and have not allowed yourself to grow into an adult in the faith.  Read on; it’s right there is writing!  When we continue, as community, as country, or even as individuals, hung up on being right and others wrong, splintering ourselves, then there remains a crisis of faith in the community because you’re missing your deeper identity.  It’s all well and good, but understand it means the death of the community in the end because you will splinter yourself a part that way.  The path forward is to grow in dialogue through our deeper identity, where is a common ground, where there is a mutuality in seeing the other as person, seeing the other as an intricate part of the body and a worthy part of the body.

Paul’s words ring just as true today as they did centuries ago.  Whether it’s our own community, the larger community, or certainly our country.  We fail to take the deeper journey to a more whole life, a holy life.  It had to have broken Paul’s heart along the way as he watched the demise of some of these communities, and more often than not, at their own doing.  He watches them become simply about themselves and losing their deeper identity.  He watches them stunted in their own growth in faith and lack thereof.  For Paul, what matters most is that you remain grounded “in Christ”.  When we allow ourselves to fall into that mystery once again, we not only find ourselves connected as a human race, but the promise made by God long ago remains eternal, the promise of life.

A Reimagined World

Isaiah 62: 1-5; I Cor 12: 4-11; John 2: 1-11

We are all aware that companies and products often try to rebrand or rename themselves in order to put on a new front, typically because of loss of profits and things dying and somehow making it look new and flashy is going to sell it.  Sometimes it works but more often than not it doesn’t and often for good reason.  The Church can be no better at times.  We think making things flashy and attractive is once again going to fill pews.  Well, it hasn’t.  If anything, it drives more away.  Of course, political parties are notorious for spin and rebranding and yet often never change.  There is, as well, the government.  How many different ways do you think we’re going to try to rebrand a wall.  Yet, in the end, a wall is a wall is a wall. 

What makes a company or product successful at it, though, isn’t about rebranding or renaming.  More often than not that is simply about changing the look to make it more appealing.  Companies that succeed change from the inside out.  Apple has certainly learned that over the decades.  They return to their essence, to who they are and what they’re really about, and reimagine themselves into the future, living into the questions of what they’re all about.  The problem, it’s hard work, not only individually but for companies but also as a nation and world, it’s the only way forward.  There is a third way, in some sense, the only way, and that’s to return to the essence, the Inner Beloved for us, and reimagine from that place of center.

It is the challenge that Scripture presents to us as we continue the epiphany readings today, as to how the incarnation manifests in our lives and world.  In some ways, it often appears that God and the prophets try to rebrand Israel.  We hear today that they are going to be given a new name.  They will no longer be known as victims of desolation and forsakenness, but will learn to live into this new reality, this eternal covenant, as delight and espoused.  The risk, as if often is for us, is that Israel, as soon as it returns from exile, is to go back to what they were used to, where they were comfortable.  Like us, they often become their own worst enemy.  It’s easier to go back to old ways than to fall into something new and to trust, to reimagine yourself in the way God sees.  For Israel and for us, that’s the invitation.  Isaiah is bursting at the seams to point them in this direction as to return not to their old ways but to the covenant that God made with them and us from the beginning, to return to love and to reimagine themselves as God’s people.  Their time of being victim and of blaming is over.  Their time of simply trying to change the way things look is done.  It’s time for a new era for Israel, a return to the Inner Beloved who will now expand them beyond the horizon. 

The same is true for Paul as he writes to the people of Corinth.  We’re dealing with a community that as well has slowly, over time, moved themselves into exile, separating themselves from their essence.  They begin to have this internal squabbles, today being that of who has the most important and most popular gift.  Paul, not necessarily caring about the gift, tries to point them to the source of those gifts, that it is of one Spirit that they are given wisdom and discernment and all the rest he recites today.  Throughout the letter he pushes this community, more than most, to remember who they are.  Over time they have forgotten and moved away, separated from their essence as community.  They begin to think it’s about them and they could do it on their own.  So they find themselves clinging to their gifts, which become distorted at that point, rather than continuously returning back, not to the way things were, but to their very essence, to change from within and to live from the inside out.  All of the readings these weeks in particular are about the interior change that is necessary to move beyond ourselves and to live into our essence, to mystery, to love.  That’s how reimaging happens rather than simply changing the front.

John, well, in his masterpiece it’s all about reimagination.  There is no new branding or naming in John’s Gospel, and from the very beginning is going to take the message of the Christ to a new level.  He’s going to deliver a punch that transcends time and space, even to the point of using people and places, like Cana, that don’t exist at the time.  None of that matters with John.  What matters is the journey in to a changed heart.  Maybe it is the fact that he’s writing with decades out from the time of Jesus, giving new perspective, but he delivers a message for the ages.  Even the fact that he doesn’t use the name Mary, like the other gospels, delivers a message to all humanity and not to become attached to what you think or the history of individuals.  Rather, imagine yourself there and hear the message, do as he says.  It is just the beginning of believing for the disciples, as we are told, because the hour has not yet come.  The disciples have not learned, yet, to let go of what was, their old way of thinking and doing, and be opened to new possibility.  John will take them on an imagination ride to a transformed life, a reimaging of what it means to be disciple, seeking first a changed heart and living from the inside out.

It’s a painful process and nothing easy about it.  Rebranding and Renaming may be the easy way out and a short-term fix, but in the end, it is only a life that is reimagined, that is allowed to fall into and to live into mystery, into the Inner Beloved, that we begin to see in a different way, through the lens of love.  That’s when we finally begin to recognize that there is no need for fear nor walls.  There is no need for war and violence.  There is no need to cling to anything in life because the source of life becomes the source of your life.  We can get the latest and greatest and continue to live with the illusion that all will be well, but like the companies that try it, we’ll find ourselves in the same position, still wanting more out of life.  The only path, the third way, is to reimagine ourselves as God’s people.  The gospel and the prophets demand it of us as individuals, as community, as nation, and as world.  It’s what these epiphany weeks are really about, the awakening to a new awareness where all we can do is fall into and live into mystery, the unknown, the Inner Beloved, and pray that it may be done to us in the same way.

Return to the Source

Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11; Luke 3: 15-16, 21-22

As the Christmas Season draws to a close, it culminates with the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord.  Like so many of these other feasts, the risk is always to make this simply an historical event of years past.  I think when we do celebrate any of them, it’s good to return to the source.  I don’t mean return in the sense to going backwards to days when it meant something.  We have a tendency to do that not only in the Church, but in this country as well.  To return to the source is to be able to ask ourselves the meaning behind these events and then interpret them in the day and time in which we live.  It’s how we grow and prevent ourselves as Church to trying to turn back the clock.  Returning to the source of the Baptism of the Lord, just as we did with Epiphany and Christmas itself.

Of course, the source of the baptism is the River Jordan.  Symbolically there is something significant to the Jordan as well as to water itself.  Obviously, we still use it to this very day.  Being plunged into the water, by adults as was typically done and is still encouraged, meant being plunged into the underworld, as water often symbolizes.  It was a descent into the soul to allow our deepest identity to be revealed, so that when we emerge, as Jesus does, we are identified as a beloved son or daughter.  You would literally be held under water until you could barely breathe.  Certainly, we don’t want to go back to something so extreme, but the meaning gets lost in what we do.  It gets lost in simply dropping handfuls of water over the head of a child, not necessarily to emerge a changed person, but to become a part of, to belong to a community.

It becomes, as it is in the Christmas celebration as well as in the gospel, a turning point, a transitional time from our old way of life while taking on and embracing the new way of life now, in Christ.  Luke marks it even greater.  If you listen closely, Luke wants to make an even greater transition and turning point by eliminating John the Baptist from the scene.  We’ve become accustomed in the other gospels to hear of John baptizing Jesus; but not in Luke.  By the time Jesus is baptized Luke has already been imprisoned by Herod.  There was often confusion in the early communities over John because he was such a charismatic preacher.  Luke finally makes the break to remove John from the scene, marking the end of the time of the prophets to the fulfillment of the prophecy in Christ.  The community, gathered with Jesus in the water, take on that new identity now, no longer as followers of John, but an identity in Christ.

This is actually what made these communities such a threat to the many systems of their day.  Their identity and lives were no longer wrapped up in the socio-economic reality of their day or even of family, because of their being plunged into the Jordan and into their own underworld, their soul, they emerge as dangerous people to the systems.  They become freed of their own attachments to them and can no longer be touched by the ways of the world.  You could imagine as these communities then began to grow, as we hear in Luke’s second volume, Acts of the Apostles, they meet tremendous opposition from the religious and political leaders of their day.

Our reading from Isaiah as well marks a rite of passage for Israel.  Like us, they clung to their old ways and becomes known by repeating their same mistakes.  Over time they believe that it is about the social and political norms of their own day, which often leads to war and conflict.  When we pick up today, they are emerging from exile once again.  They are told, though, as this emergence begins to take place, that war is no longer necessary.  The old way of doing things for Jerusalem would no longer suffice and fulfill.  They are, instead, return to their own source, to the one who has led them out of slavery and out of exile.  As a matter of fact, more often than not it’s when we separate from the source when we find ourselves in exile, losing sight of our own deepest identity.  The call for Israel, in this rite of passage, was to return to that source and once again find life, to find comfort and their truest power not in the ways of the world, but in God.

The invitation as we bridge Christmas and Ordinary time is to return to the source of our own lives.  Most of us aren’t given the choice to be baptized, because we have made it more of a belonging and becoming a part of something, but we have the choice to seek, as the opening prayers says today, an inward transformation.  If we find ourselves still clamoring to the socio-political ways of the world, we may find ourselves in exile or feeling like we’re in exile.  We’re invited to be plunged into our very soul and once again reclaim our deepest and truest identity.  The dove reminds us that it is peace we seek, but the wail of a dove also reminds us that inward transformation is a painful process of letting go and being set free from all that binds itself to our heart and soul.  We desire and pray for the grace this day to return to the source, to take the plunge, so that we too may emerge as Christ does today, mindful of who we really are, sons and daughters of God.

 

Love’s Moment

Matthew 2: 1-12

The feast of Epiphany always comes at the right time because we’re finally far enough away from all the expectations that surround Christmas Day itself.  We are given an opportunity to step back as the world has moved on, to look more closely at what the season is truly about and it comes in the form of a timeless story of the Magi in Matthew’s Gospel.  It’s another one of the Christmas stories that has been interpreted, reinterpreted, and even misinterpreted over the years and has managed to maintain a place in the celebration of the season.  Of course, over time they’ve become kings even though there is no mention of kings in the story.  They are, though, the archetypal seekers that Israel would be most familiar, a people that understands the significance of wandering and seeking a given promise.

Here’s the thing about these Magi, though.  They were the experts of their day in reading the stars and understanding the heavens.  They were people who in some sense were other-worldly and connected to the cosmic levels of the universe.  They knew that there was significance in this particular star, that a new king had been born, quite possibly the one that has been long awaited and attached to the very promise that Israel clung to over the centuries.  Yet, despite all of that, the magi, these heavenly experts, got it wrong.  They got it wrong and show up at the wrong location.  Granted, it’s pretty close but it’s still not Bethlehem where the fulfillment of the promise is rooted.

Like the Magi and their own journey towards love, it’s often their greatest gift that becomes their obstacle to love.  All the expertise in the world and even their knowledge that extended beyond the realms of this world didn’t seem to land them where they most desired, their deepest search for love in the newborn King.  The journey, though, doesn’t disappoint them, mindful of Israel’s own journey through the desert, it’s often on the cusp of that moment of crossing over that a final test is introduced.  Do they really desire this gift of love incarnate?  The final test of the magi is getting over themselves and letting go of even their greatest attribute, their knowledge of the stars, in their confrontation with Herod, the lord of their day.  It was the most obvious of places to find themselves in seeking a king.  You go to the seat of power.  Yet in the process of this encounter with fear, the insecurity of worldly power is exposed and their own holding on begins to slip through their fingers and an opening for love begins to change the Magi from within.  It wasn’t simply the birth of Jesus, it was the birth of the kingly power in their own lives, magi with kingly power now being led by love.  Love leads them to Bethlehem not simply to pay homage to the newborn King but to become the very love in which they gaze.  The magi will have no other choice but to go home by a different route because now their lives are moved forward not by expertise and knowledge of the heavenly realms, but by love.  They tap into the greatest of powers and when it meets love in the Christ, their lives are changed forever.

Their stop in Jerusalem can appear as a mistake or simply as a necessary stop on the journey in seeking love, seeking out this newborn King.  The path to Bethlehem always comes through Jerusalem just as the path to Jerusalem is through Bethlehem.  The challenge for us, as it was the magi, is our own discernment in Jerusalem and not overstay our welcome.  We have a tendency in our lives to take up shelter in Jerusalem and setting for something other than what gives us live and manifests that love in our lives.  It’s much easier to cling and attach ourselves to our own “expertise”, whatever that may be.  It gives us a sense of certainty that we can hold onto in the uncertainties of our time.  It, however, often leads to further chaos and becoming trapped in the darkness and mistaking it for the light.  Who knows whether the magi knew for sure in their encounter with Herod but the one definite of the story is that when they do finally encounter love and love their navigational tool, they know they are not to return the same way.  We can’t go back to through the womb just as much as we can’t through the tomb.  They are simply passage ways, albeit it painful passages at times, but they are the path to love and in us sharing in love and becoming that love in our lives.  It is the deepest desire and what we long for the most in life if we can just allow ourselves to get out of our own way and surrender even our greatest gift that we believe defines us to love.

As we enter this final week of the Christmas season, culminating with the Baptism of the Lord next Sunday, what is it we’re seeking in our lives these days?  Are we like the Magi as they enter into Jerusalem, holding onto our own wherewithal, thinking we know the way, mapping out the destination only to come up short?  What is our Jerusalem that we’re being housed in?  It is the most difficult of the journey until it no longer is, until you begin to catch glimpses of the more you desire, you seek.  It is only love that can pull us outside ourselves and yet move us to the deepest places within ourselves, navigating us through the ups and downs of life.  The magi have become timeless because they are so symbolic of our own lives and our spiritual journey.  If we continue to go home by the same route, more often than not we’re clinging and have a sense of being closed off from love, resisting a change of heart.  God finds a way, though, even with the magi.  Even in the face of the horrors and insecurities of Herod, love begins to break through for the Magi.  The desire for change and for more was already there.  In the moment of finally surrendering even the greatest parts of themselves, they realize there’s more and the burning love of the heart will now become the deciding factor.  It’s what we desire and it’s what we seek in our own lives, to love, to be loved, and most certainly, in that very encounter as we do at this altar, to become love and to be changed forever.

Hopeful Longing

Isaiah 9: 1-6; Luke 2: 1-14

creche

“Shepherds quake…at the dawn of redeeming grace.”  Silent Night is marking its 200th Anniversary on this very night.  On a night when the organ had been damaged by flooding, the words of a simple poem, set to guitar chords, has managed to transcend time as an eternal carol.  Silent Night.  Holy Night.  All is calm; well, at least for here, maybe not in your homes.  There is, though, something that is aroused in us in the silence in the night, when our own hearts quake.  There is obviously great joy that is so much a part of this feast.  I myself enjoy the time with nieces and nephews because of the joy, the sense of wonder and mystery that Christmas holds, but also knowing that it passes with time.  There is, along with that joy, often a deep sadness that many experience on this holiday, often associated with family and loss but also, in a way only a mother can know, the separation that takes place upon the birth of a child, setting in motion a deep longing and desire to be one.  This feast, like no other, manages to bring together that sense of great joy and sadness all into one, pointing the way to finding joy in the sadness and pain we may be feeling.

There’s a sadness as well when we look at this creche that has a way of capturing us each year like nothing else.  It’s not just a sadness that comes with what Christmas has become culturally but tied to the sadness of this scene, that like Silent Night, doesn’t find its way into our feast until centuries later, yet, a longing and desire draws us here to this place because in the midst of it all, it reminds us of who we really are.  It draws us in and speaks to us in the silence of the night because at the core of our being, this is who we are and yet we’re not there yet.  Everything about our lives moves us in the direction of becoming this creche, this scene of such peace and joy.  Yet, everything in us, connected with that longing and desire for love and joy, pushes us to resist it all at the same time because we don’t want to go to the place of longing, to our deepest sadness and hurt.  That’s precisely, though, right where we find that joy and peace.

It is where all the prophets lead Israel, as we hear in today’s first reading.  It’s one of the most poetic of all Isaiah’s writings.  But we need to understand, Israel once again finds itself on the brink of war.  Poverty and famine have become a way of life.  A chaotic and corrupt political leadership was the name of the game.  Israel, more often than not, found itself floundering in life, not only feeling as if God had abandoned them in so many of their experiences, but the separation that came from their land and from one another.  The deepest longing and desire of Israel was to be one and at peace but it never seemed to come to fruition.  They have lived through the pain of an enslaved people.  Isaiah, today, speaks of a people that knows darkness and knows it well.  They are a people that knew pain and suffering.  They are a people that knew separation and longing.  But the thing about it is, like us, the more we look beyond ourselves to satisfy it only deepens the pain and loneliness.  Isaiah offers a message of hope in finding the light in the midst of the darkness and not to despair, that what they desire they already have and keep seeking elsewhere. To be a people of faith they must find hope in the darkness of their own lives and trust that life will spring forth.  Long before Jesus is born in this stable, plainly pointing out to us our deepest identity, wrapped in swaddling clothes, Isaiah learned to trust the interior life, the divine indwelling, knowing the presence of God and revealing a message of hope and joy to a people that knew darkness more than anything.

The same is true of Mary and Joseph, as well as the shepherds with hearts that quake.  Mary and Joseph, in giving birth to the Christ, don’t somehow bypass darkness.  Jesus doesn’t come with a blueprint and map as to how they are to proceed in all of this.  The three of them are going to face utter darkness, not always knowing where they are going until they too are exiled.  Their own history and connecting with it, reminds them of the necessary hope as they make this journey.  The shepherds themselves will not make their way somehow to the top of the list in their time.  Rather, they found their deepest selves in that encounter.  In the quaking of their hearts, something begins to move deep in the silence, illuminating their own longing and desire for love and peace.  As we hear in this gospel, Mary and Joseph don’t rebel against the religious and political leaders of their day.  They simply through freedom and choice don’t become like the nations but rather grow into becoming like the one they bear, the Christ.

They will all face unbelievable sadness and pain in this journey.  There’s nothing easy about giving birth and the same is true of a God who tries to birth new life in each of us, leading us to trust the eternal that has already been planted.  All the stories we hear this season will point us in that very direction.  What’s most important is that when we find ourselves in that darkness is not to become consumed by it and be defined by it.  Whether it’s this creche or this altar, we are always being captured by the deepest desire to be love and joy and both remind us of that very truth of our being.  We will never get rid of darkness.  We will never get rid of sin.  For that matter, we will never destroy corruption and abuse of power and all the rest because all of it points to that deepest longing and desire within us.  It begins and ends with Christmas, with this very creche in which defines who we are.  In our very sadness and brokenness as humans, who simply long for joy and love, we learn to find it in that precise place we’d rather avoid.

“Shepherds quake…at the dawn of redeeming grace.”  It’s what Christmas is all about.  In the silent of night, the silent of darkness, a light is illumined, casting light upon our hurt and pain, our deepest longing and desire.  Maybe we find our own hearts quaking this evening, breaking forth and invited to something new, a new sense of wonder, simplicity, and joy, a child-like spirit that reminds us of days long ago.  It’s God breaking in.  It’s God reminding us that we’re something more than this cultural Christmas that also feeds into that deepest longing.  Like Mary and Joseph, we seek the courage to step into that very darkness, that pain, that longing, for it is there that they place their trust and find hope.  We are no different.  The gift awaits us all in that very place within our hearts that quake with the shepherds on this night, this silent night.  Wrapped in swaddling clothes we find a child, we find ourselves, with the dawn of redeeming grace.  Silent Night.  Holy Night.  All is calm.  All is bright.

 

The Promise Realized

Micah 5: 1-4; Hebrews 10: 5-10; Luke 1: 39-45

I’ve been reading this book, God is Young, which is basically an interview that Pope Francis had done with an Italian journalist as a preliminary conversation before the Synod held in October on young people. The basic premise surrounds the question, “How do we move forward?” It seems that we’re rather stuck, not only in the Church world, but certainly as a country and even city, where it seems that we just can’t seem to move beyond this point of separateness. The gist of what Francis tells the journalist is that we have to connect the two generations that often get tossed aside in our world; obviously young people as to whom the synod was dealing with as well as the elderly. The young tend to get disregarded as being naïve and the elderly we don’t have time for or don’t want to deal with the reality of aging. He says, the answer forward is in those two. The young people are the dreamers, the visionaries, the prophetic voices where as the elderly have the lived experience and the wisdom to temper the energy but combined a way forward evolves and unfolds. He pretty much says anyone in between the two have a tendency to become too attached to the systems, whether in terms or religion, politics, or economically, that they don’t want to change and can’t see the necessity and so they try to silence the two that have the necessary vision.

It is, on some level, what unfolds in this dramatic scene in today’s gospel from Luke in the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth. It is the reconciling of the past and future, in the one that is barren with the one who is full of life, the old and the new. Neither has any idea what the other has been through following the announcement of the birth of their children until they have this encounter with one another. In that very moment, two worlds collide with one another and a semblance of peace comes to their hearts, confirming that God has fulfilled the promise of long ago through their very lives. Here are two women at opposite ends of their lives and yet facing similar situations. Mary, in her teens, now faces with trepidation the shaming of a society, casting her aside for having this child under such circumstances and Elizabeth who has lived with the same reality in remaining childless her entire life and now beyond child-bearing age. In this moment, the Christ reconciles these two worlds and a vision unfolds, a vision that Luke has already began to spell out in the telling of these miraculous stories.

As the promise is fulfilled, Mary will go on and proclaim a vision for who this child is to be and a radical image of a God who has delivered the two of them. Mary’s Magnificat will turn the patriarchal God of the past on its head and a fresher and newer understanding of God who becomes incarnate as we will celebrate on Christmas. Luke already begins to point us in that very direction with these two women as the prophetic voices announcing this God of vision. The one would be seen as the prophetic voice, Zechariah, the head of the house, the man, is silenced in the announcement of their pregnancy and the voice of the women are raised in their consistent faith and trust in God, not separated from their lived experience of shame and being voiceless. Before the Christ is born, Luke already begins to point us to a new reality of God of giving voice to the ones who had been cast aside announcing the fulfillment of the promise made from the beginning of time.

You would think that Israel would have greater faith and trust in such a God, certainly symbolized through these two women, knowing their own heritage of a God who has seen the people through exile. Here two woman, one full of life and the other barren, learn to trust not only through their experience, but the experience of their ancestors of past that regardless of their own circumstances, God will see them through, even if not experienced first-hand. They obviously knew that Moses never did, and yet the dream, the promise, the prophetic voice continued to break through reconciling past with a present all in the name of Christ, God’s will.  Israel, to this day, stands as a microcosm of a separated world. The place of life and birth, as Micah proclaims, in Bethlehem, still remains separated from the barren city of Jerusalem by a wall. When we separate the two rather than reconciling we become what we are, a stuck people, clinging to dysfunction rather than trusting a new vision and hope for the human race, for the Church, our country and world.

As we gather for this Fourth Week or day of Advent, we gather mindful that these two women are more than just a story; they are each of us. God has planted within all of us a vision, a dream, a prophetic voice that can get out of control if not tempered by the voice of wisdom gently moving us along, teaching us to trust and let go. As much as it needs to happen in our Church and world in bringing together the ones without a voice, it’s a challenge to each of us individually as well. Their story remains are story as well. Israel, despite it’s own inability to get out of its own way, raises us these two radical women today while silencing the powerful ones of the world, leading us to a place of trust, that the promise given from the beginning of time continues to unfold and be fulfilled in our very lives. Sure we often prefer begin stuck in what we know, but Mary and Elizabeth remind us just how unsatisfying life is lived in that way. The more we keep ourselves open to the unknown, to mystery, to a God of great surprises, that same God will continue to give birth to us through the very same Spirit that has always stood as the great reconciler of dreams and wisdom. The promise given from the beginning is our promise, to have faith and trust and God will see us through. We may not know what it all looks like, but that’s why these two are about trust and the courage to say yes, not just once, but over the course of their lives, gradually opened to the birth of a new God, a new reality, rooted in Mystery.

All I Want for Christmas

Zeph 3: 14-18; Phil 4: 4-7; Luke 3: 10-18

So, nine days left until Christmas.  I don’t feel ready, but that’s nothing new.  There have really been two words that sum up this Advent season.  The first is obviously “expectation”.  That’s what the season is all about.  We speak of the coming of Christ at the end times, in our lives, and of course at Christmas, so that word really is synonymous with Advent.  The other word that we’ve heard these weeks is from Saint Paul who again stresses the word anxiety.  That theme will carry through Christmas when we will hear about fear.  Whether we know it or not the two can be very much entangled with one another.

Expectation, or this sense of longing, has been hijacked by the cultural Christmas and even society in general.  The entire structure is built on an expectation that I’m going to find the right gift to make someone happy.  We all have seen with our own eyes the excitement of kids on Christmas but also how quickly the gift gets tossed aside, dashing our own expectation.  I’m no different.  I spent yesterday on my computer, even telling myself that this is crazy, but it’s so embedded in who we are that we start to feel guilty about not doing it or letting people down and all this stuff, none of which is going to ever satisfy that longing and expectation in our hearts.  More often than not we’re not even aware how we’re being manipulated by it because it’s the only thing we know.  That’s where anxiety then feeds into the unrealistic expectation.  This season, though, is not about happiness, which is fleeting.  Rather, as we hear today, is about joy.  It’s about being satisfied with what we have and even grateful for it, not needing something else “out there” to do the trick.  This false sense of expectation and its accompaniment with anxiety has brought down civilizations all for looking for a “quick fix” to the deepest longing of our hearts as individuals and as a human race.

That’s where Israel finds itself in the first reading today.  It’s the only time we hear from the Prophet Zephaniah.  As a matter of fact, we hear the only positive message that occurs in the book.  Jerusalem finds itself in a rather usual position, about to once again be destroyed.  It is a city that has fallen into disarray and extreme corruption and now stands on the brink of being destroyed by the Babylonians.  As is history of our people, they too look elsewhere to bring some sense of peace to the longing of the people.  It’s a pain that runs deep.  They, like us, convince ourselves that somehow if things were just this way or I had that thing, all would be right in the world.  Israel always wants to look beyond itself rather than journey inward.  It’s how they become corrupt and separated from their purpose as people.  The more they become separated the greater the fear and anxiety get fed and the more the longing deepens.  It’s a perpetual cycle that we all fall prey to as human beings.  It should be no surprise to any of us that there are so many people that suffer from anxiety disorders in one way or another because that’s all we know.  It’s ingrained in our culture but it’s ingrained in the pain that runs through that longing that we anticipate.  In the end, we find ourselves even with expectations of the expectations we hold and the Christmas culture loves it.  It feeds on our weakness as humans knowing we’re going to go looking.

It is expectation that the people have in seeking out John the Baptist as well.  They think maybe finally he’s the one that is going to satisfy that longing.  Yet, he will forever be misunderstood by them because of the expectation of that expectation that they had, that somehow he was the one that was going to undo the systems of his day in the way he preached and spoke.  Again, more often than not we do the same thing.  Who knows if these religious and political systems will ever be undone, knowing that the power associated with that longing is so appealing.  John knew he wasn’t that person and never could be.  All he could do is point the way.  He pointed the way in actions they could take, but it will only be in Christ where they will find that fulfillment.  They won’t find it simply by doing the right thing.  They do it by entering into relationship with the Christ, becoming aware of when they are falling prey otherwise, and once again accept that the longing and expectation lies only with God, with Christ. That’s a decision that John can’t make for them but one they have to make for themselves.  It me and you that have to decide whether we’re going to keep blaming rather than seeking that change of heart within ourselves. More often than not we’d prefer Santa Claus to God and when neither seem to give us what we want, we bail, only leaving us longing for more and seeking it elsewhere. 

We already have what we need and what will give us the peace we desire.  It’s easy for us to say that but much more to allow ourselves to trust it in those moments of longing and expectation.  We allow ourselves to be fed by the fear and anxiety that is thrust upon us by the unrealistic expectations of a culture.  The gift has already been given to each of us, yet it’s not going to stop us from looking, thinking that we need to or the guilt overtakes us.  If we want to pass on to future generations it should be a seeking of joy.  It may not be easy but it’s not so fleeting as happiness.  The whole season is moving us to the same place as Mary, a place of yes to the gift.  A yes to the longing and expectations of our heart, to a God that deeply desires us to be people of life and joy.  It’s right there and so close and yet at times seems so far away.  God has already wrapped it in the most beautiful of paper, awaiting us to say yes to pulling the ribbon and to be opened to the true meaning of the season and a recognition of what will truly fulfill our longings and expectations, all while freeing us of our fear and anxiety, our relationship with Christ and our falling into mystery.

Grounded in Love

Jeremiah 33: 14-16; I Thess 3: 12–4: 2; Luke 21: 25-28, 34-36

Ben Sasse, the Senator from Nebraska, has a new book out entitled, Them:  Why We Hate Each Other—And How To Heal.  For the record I have not read the book, just articles about the book as well as the free sample on my Kindle.  The basic premise, though, for Sasse, is that the problems that divide go much deeper than the political rhetoric that we have become accustomed to hearing.  Rather, he says, that the deeper problem facing American society is loneliness.  Now it may not necessarily be in the way we use that word, but he goes onto say that there has been so much upheaval and uprooted-ness in our society that we no longer have a grounding.  When it comes to technology, our work place, and even our home life, there is so much change that the natural inclination is to turn in on ourselves and the deep pain that often inflicts us.  He says that it leaves us wandering as a people, leading to greater suicide and drug addiction because of this deep loneliness that is leaving us uprooted.  If we understand that, then we can begin to see different situation and the way many react to them, like globalization or even people crossing into this country, we pull back in fear and anxiety because some are left wondering just how much we can change and be uprooted, losing our grounding as people and losing that sense of community that once defined us.

We don’t have to look far, not even into history books, to find this same reality lived out.  The story of wandering and being uprooted is Israel’s story and so ours as well.  As a matter of fact, it’s probably more their story than not.  We often think we’re the first to go through such an upheaval and it’s just not true.  All the prophets we’ll now hear from in Advent and Christmas are going to deliver one message to Israel and that’s of hope.  Wandering became a way of life for them, never at home, always feeling uprooted, and more often than not believing that God has left them to wander.  Jeremiah gives them that same message today.  Here they are, once again in exile and wandering, and it’s gone on longer than they even could have imagined.  They are beginning to despair.  For hundreds of years they were promised of the new King that would sit on the line of David and that would somehow make everything right after war and exile became the name of the game.  Nation stood against nation.  Despair and darkness seemed to rule their hearts.  You could only imagine that even as Jeremiah proclaims this message of hope, that God would root up a new sprout to bring them hope that it would go on deaf ears.  However, exile and wandering is often a necessary part of the journey towards trusting this God that leads them through the darkest moments of their lives.  They may not always know where they are going or what this new way of life looks like, but all they can do is learn to let go of all the rest and trust in this God of mystery.  We mustn’t give into despair otherwise fear too reigns in our hearts.  As Jesus reminds us, tribulations will arise, and they certainly did for Israel, and all one must do is continue to push through in hope and the promise of life will be fulfilled.

It’s also true of the Thessalonians whom Paul writes today.  It’s the earliest of his writings to this community, a community as well that finds itself struggling and trying to find its way.  Paul’s message is quite simple to them today, and to us for that matter.  This is a community that is beginning to see itself fracture, and thinking as insiders and outsiders, us and them, as even Sasse warns us about.  They want to cling to a tradition that no longer serves but rather needs to be recreated.  Paul reminds them today that the deepest roots you have as community is none of that which passes away in this life; rather, it’s love.  Paul reminds them that if they are a community that is rooted in love they will never lose hope in the trial and tribulations that will arise.  The problem is they want to be rooted in their politics or even as Church in dogma and doctrine, but if that’s the case we quickly become uprooted.  None of that can ground us as people and so we’re left wandering when all else begins to fail us.  It begins to feel just as Jesus describes in today’s Gospel, as if everything is in flux and all is being turned upside down and inside out.  It’s a painful process of new life.  Any parent here can tell us just how painful it is to give birth to a child.  It’s no different when God is trying to give birth to a new people, a new nation, a new community that is grounded in something much more, grounded in love.

Advent provides us the time, albeit quick, to pause and recognize our own pain at this time, how it is we may be experiencing that loneliness as well in our lives as God tries to free us to give birth.  Fear and anxiety have a way of taking hold of all of our hearts, but more often than not, our way of thinking is what needs to die.  It not only has to die; it needs to die quite often, in order for new life to take root.  In the process, as Jesus tells us, our heart begin to become drowsy and the darkness of the day begins to set in.  How quickly we want to give into despair when we see all the reactions, but more often than not, it’s because we refuse to deal with the real issues, the underlying pain that exists as a human race and that becomes what we cling to the most.  It’s often the last gasp we have.  In the midst of all of it, just as it is for Israel, we mustn’t lose hope.  It is hope that will give us the grace to continue to push through the new life promised.  It’s a life not only anticipated at Christmas, but a life that God promises us at this point in our life and at this very moment.  We can’t rush it; all we can do is trust.  Israel returns from exile and finds its grounding once again, but now in a deeper way.  My friends, we are invited to the same.  Where are we rooted and even being uprooted in our lives?  Sure it may feel fearful and painful, but the promise of life and the hope of the season will see us to the light of a new day.

Encountering Hope

John 18: 33-37

One of the themes of John’s Gospel, as I see it, is that anyone who comes in contact in a personal and intimate encounter with Jesus has hope of a changed heart.  It appears that there is always possibility, no matter who the person is or their position, something seems to happen in the encounter that surpasses the other gospels.  That includes the encounter we hear today with Pilate.  Unfortunately, because of the other three gospels Pilate has been type-cast and so it’s hard to look at him through a different lens.  He’s simply the enemy who gives into the conspiracies and fears of the religious leaders of the time.  The same is true in John’s Gospel; he’ll wash his hands clean.  But there’s something very different about the encounter with Jesus here today that is unlike the rest.

The tell-tale sign of all of this in John’s Gospel is what often follows the encounters, no matter with whom it takes place.  There’s chaos.  It seems like a rather odd sign that somehow God is at work but after the initial encounter, it appears that lives are turned inside out and upside down.  It appears that what they thought was right no longer is.  It appears that what was considered norm somehow seems to fall away and they all begin to see in a different way, as if a new created order begins to take shape out of the chaos.  This is the real point of John.  The gospel writer takes us back to the beginning of Genesis where God creates a new created order out of the chaos, whenever God speaks.  So, when Jesus speaks, and they listen to his voice, the chaos that ensues turns into a new created order.  It’s not a one-time deal.  There seems to be a need for consecutive encounters before anyone begins to trust that voice of truth but eventually leads to belief.

So today, the one who is seen to have unlimited power, or so he thinks, now has his chance on the stage when Jesus encounters Pilate and vice versa.  Pilate walks into this situation thinking he has the ultimate power and that Jesus is just going to be like the other religious authorities of the time, merely a push-over.  He thinks this is open-shut case until the actual encounter takes place and for the first time, Pilate begins to experience before him true unlimited power.  Like all the other characters in the gospel, his head starts to spin and chaos follows.  He doesn’t know what to make of this guy Jesus who turns the tables and puts him on trial instead, leaving Pilate looking for a way out.  The chaos that Pilate experiences within himself plays itself out with a constant change of scene.  He’s inside the praetorium now and then goes out to the crowd, and goes back and forth not sure who to trust or believe.  It’s as if he keeps returning to the crowd because they feed his power, rooted in fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, reminding him that Jesus threatens it all, fearing to appear weak.  Yet, he keeps returning for more in encounter Jesus.  There’s something appealing about Jesus in this encounter.  Does he trust the screaming voices of fear or trust the voice of God speaking within?

Of course, Pilate succumbs to the fear but we never know how the story really unfolds for him.  He thinks he can wipe his hands clean, but does he really?  He’ll eventually go onto ask his most infamous question, of “what is truth?”  It is often interpreted as Pilate’s finally giving in to the religious authorities but is it possible, for the first time, Pilate shows signs of question and doubt of his own limited power in the face of the unlimited power of God, standing before him.  Pilate gives into the destructive force of chaos but would it change in subsequent encounters with the Lord, if there were more time.  When both the political and religious authorities see themselves as having this unlimited power, fed by fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, they place themselves as the agents of salvation, trusting in worldly power rather than the eternal kingdom that Jesus promises.  Yet, because they can’t see and become blinded by their own power, they see that kingdom manifested in an earthly sense, marked by land boundaries, within their own kingdom, now under threat by this new “king”.  Once again, though, the blindness of power leads to a misunderstanding of Jesus and the kingdom that lies within.  If we look to religious and political leaders as somehow offering us salvation, we too need to check ourselves and our own fears.  It’s the way they preserve their own power, clinging to what was rather than arriving with a sense of openness.

As much as every character that encounters the Lord in the Gospel begins with a sense of hope and the possibility of something, the thought of change scares people back into their own way of thinking.  More often than not Jesus invites, over an over again, to see things differently, to gain a new perspective, even to being led to chaos, to questions and doubts.  That’s the point, though.  If we never question the earthly powers we cling to and all that we think gives us power, we simply become part of the crowd yelling at the top of our lungs to crucify!  We can no longer hear the quiet voice of God, the breaking in of the kingdom within our own hearts, leading us to greater fear, anxiety, and uncertainty.  Quite frankly, it leads us more deeply into chaos, not just in the world but in our own hearts, which is then played out on the world stage.

If there is any semblance of hope for us it’s that in a time when we find our world often spinning out of control, controlled by fear, and the thought of change, unmanageable, it’s that only God can bring a new created order out of such chaos.  If we allow ourselves to step out of the way and trust in the true God, in our own encounters, then change is possible and we don’t need to find ourselves stuck as a country and world.  The chaos and level of uncertainty says more about us as people and this ongoing idea that somehow, whether religious or political, leaders can pull us out of such chaos.  We’re more like Pilate than we’d ever care to admit.  It’s so easy to be allured by the fear and the noise of the crowd and world.  It is only, though, by creative means, that a new created order, through the ultimate power of God found deep within, can lead us out of the chaos, that quite frankly, we created and only God can transform.

Needed Endings

Daniel 12: 1-3; Hebrews 10: 11-14, 18; Mark 13: 24-32

In some of his letters written from prison, German Lutheran theologian, spiritual writer, mystic Dietrich Bonhoeffer, urged his fellow co-conspirators to think and act of future generations.  Despite the fear and anxiety that will be thrust upon you of that age, and our age, the mindset must be forward and for future generations.  He himself had the opportunity to stay here in the States but felt for the sake of his own integrity and the integrity of the message that he must return to Germany during Nazi control and found himself imprisoned and eventual lead to not only his death but the death of several family members.  He knew how the message would be received by those in power, not as a message of hope, as anticipated, but rather feeding into their own fear of the threat of losing power.  When we become trapped in this moment and cannot see beyond or even trust the unknown, fear and anxiety rule the day.  His message was not only timely in the early 1940s as Germany and all of Europe reeled with a World War, but even to our own day.

His message, like that of Mark’s to his own community today, are meant to be messages of hope to people who find themselves waning on their commitment to the common good, future generations, and doing what is right.  There is an onslaught of pressure at this point of the story from not only political but religious authorities of their day who see not only Jesus but his very followers as a threat to the status quo, to what they are most comfortable with, to their way of life that they have deemed to be most fitting.  Fear and anxiety becomes the name of the game, but the message intended by Mark and Daniel, and even Bonhoeffer, was to persevere in the suffering and the darkness that you are experiencing at the moment.  For the sake of future generations, fear cannot move us to give up and become depleted in the mission that is given us by God. 

As Mark and Daniel tell us today, it will certainly feel as if the world is falling a part and feel like all we know is crumbling around us, but it has to.  It has to.  Many things need to die in order for the next generation, which may even have conflicting values, but for the betterment of society.  Instead, like in the time of Jesus, we have political and religious leaders looking more like bumbling fools at times, stumbling through, trying to avoid the pain, often all in order to cling to what was and what was is dying and has to die.  What was can no longer be.  The name of the game with God is surrender, trust, letting go, even learning to die, pushing through the pain, in order to learn to trust the unknown and the unfolding of mystery in our world today.  It’s a message of hope in the face of the many trials and tribulations that we have faced as generations of people.  Yet, every generation, as Jesus tells us today, clings, and all these things will come to pass before they learn to let go.  Do we really want to leave a mess for future generations in the church and country?

Whether we like it or not, things are going to change and many things will die, and need to.  People from other countries are going to come here, as they have for generations.  We need not fear as Bonhoeffer had written.  We need not fear people that are different and that we even perceive as a threat to our way of life.  Our way of life, for that matter, is also dying.  If you know anything about future generations, they live very differently.  They don’t necessarily value what older generations value, even in terms of economics.  At some point the trials and tribulations are only enhanced by our own need to control and to hold on to what was.  We become nostalgic of the past, as if everything was great.  Yet, all generations that have passed have lived through the same trials and tribulations and the same uncertainties that we face in our present day and age.  The more we learn to embrace the reality of life and death, that the two are so intertwined, the more we learn not to cling, but to let go, surrender, even the face of persecution and in the midst of the fear and anxiety that is thrust upon us by political and religious leaders, along with a great deal of our media that continues to feed into the narrative of the end times.

Well, guess what?  The end times are upon us.  They’re always upon us.  We’re always on the threshold being left with a choice to cling to what was, leading us further into despair, or we learn to trust the unknown, trust what is unfolding within and beyond us, the mystery of life and death.  All of creation, as the readings tell us today, knows that process better than any of us.  Despite the horrific loss of life and property in the wild fires of California, it’s all the forest knows.  Fires, despite the loss of life, are the only way forests recreate themselves and foster new growth.  As naturally as creation does it and allows it to be done unto it, here we are, the advanced ones of creation, clinging rather than embracing the freedom of the unknow, opening ourselves to future generations.

Bonhoeffer’s words continue to ring true to this day.  We too have a great deal of fear and anxiety thrust upon us from many different directions.  There is nothing easy about any of it.  His message, though, that in order to think and act in that way, we must learn to walk through the darkness, the pain, the suffering, that comes with letting go and surrendering ourselves over to the will of God.  If we find it as an ominous message rather than the message of hope that was intended, we probably find ourselves clinging in life, as if something is being taken away from us.  The message of hope delivered by these prophetic voices, Daniel, Jesus, Mark, Bonhoeffer, was one of trust in the face of adversity.  It may be painful in the immediate moment, but that more than ever is the time not to fall prey to fear and anxiety.  When we trust, despite the trials and tribulation, life is promised in death.  Sure, it’s hard and we’d rather hold on, but the message of hope is one of life, despite our fears.  Lean in and trust the unknown for the fullness of life awaits.