Our Inadequate Love

Exodus 22: 20-26; I Thess 1: 5-10; Matthew 22: 34-40

One of the new television programs on this Fall is Kevin (Probably) Saves the World.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s about this guy, Kevin, who experiences a meteor hitting the earth and something happens to him where a celestial being, an angel, comes to tell him that he is commissioned to help in saving the world.  Now the town already thinks he’s a little crazy and has a shady history and so sees himself as inadequate for such a task.  As you would expect it’s often not the people that he knows that he’s being called to “save” but rather the people that fall into his lap, the ones he doesn’t like, the ones he thinks are mean, the ones that have isolated themselves for one reason or another and have somehow been shunned.  Needless to say, we can understand his plight and the challenge he faces, knowing that he can’t not accept even if he tries.  He’s going to be called to love in a way that he never thought possible.

It’s easy to forget all of that and Israel’s history is proof of that.  They too have been given the task to love in a deeper way after their experience in Egypt.  In the first reading today we hear from the Book of Exodus a list of social norms that were expected of Israel.  Very first that we hear today not to oppress the alien for they too were once in a foreign land.  They knew what it was like to have the shoe on the other foot, facing fear and oppression.  They knew what it was like to feel helpless and inadequate and they needed to be aware that they didn’t become the oppressor but rather see it as an opportunity to cooperate with God’s plan in “saving” the world.  Many outsiders and people shunned will fall into their presence and they will be challenged over and over again as to how they will love, that as we hear in today’s gospel, it’s not simply about loving God but also neighbor, especially the neighbor we don’t choose.

Paul, too, will go onto to challenge the Thessalonians through the faithfulness of their God.  He will go onto say to them in the next verses that their God is a God who is like a father who has great care for his children, always, no matter life’s circumstances.  They too will be challenged to look at the way they are treating and accepting the downtrodden, the poor, the people that have been shunned, and like Israel, they’ll be challenged to live a life “worthy” of the love that has been freely given to them.  It’s so easy to become about insiders and outsiders and about worshipping a God who’s somewhere out there, beyond the Earth, but that’s not the God that Paul speaks of and encounters.  If they truly want to show love to God they must first learn to love their neighbor.  Not live in fear, not cast people out, or somehow feel inadequate or unworthy of God’s love.  It’s the challenge more than ever in our own world and society.  There’s a lot of talk about God but our love of neighbor often lacks.  We become comfortable in our own lives and our own worlds, unable to go to that place of inadequacy or uncomfortableness that keeps us from falling more deeply in love with God and neighbor.

That makes the Gospel today central to who we are.  Of course, like the past weeks, it happens in the thick of tension between Jesus and the Pharisees and Sadducees.  They’re waiting to trip him up on his words.  Now the question asked was a pretty common question, but they’re asking for a motive that isn’t certainly rooted in love but rather fear.  The other gospels typically have it occur in more pleasant situations but Matthew throws it in as Jesus approaches the Cross.  They ask for the greatest commandment but he couldn’t settle on just one and gives two.  For Jesus the two are so intertwined that they can’t be separated.  Knowing the audience, we know the Pharisees and Sadducees were good at talking a good game but not necessarily living it.  They can do all the God talk they wanted but they lived in fear, especially of those who they had been expected to watch out for.  Like Israel, they have forgotten the love that had and has been given to them by this faithful God.  Of course, like Kevin, they weren’t always in a place to accept that love and so the law become something to cling to.  They could live with loving God but neighbor challenged them to step out of their own comfort zone and to grow into that love more deeply.

Like Kevin, as well as Israel and so many others, we often forget over time the challenge to living from that deeper place in ourselves.  Over and over again he’s told he’s got to go within and seek a change of heart.  More often than not he gets in the way, but when he could finally get out of the way, he learns to love the people he’d least expect to love.  So often our fear, our own lack of awareness and feeling of inadequacy separate us from the other and then so with God.  We hold ourselves back from experiencing and accepting that deeper love that God desires of us so we can then go out and love in a new way.  The world needs no more hate and fear.  It needs no more separation.  We have plenty of that and quite frankly, we’re often comfortable with that.  When we do, though, then we must be careful about how quickly and easily we claim our love of God.  It’s easy to say it in words but a whole other challenge in our neighbor, especially the neighbor we haven’t chosen ourselves but has been given to us as gift in order to grow more deeply in love and to allow ourselves, like Kevin, to be used by God to “save” a fallen world.

 

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\ ˈem-pə-thē \

If you were to look up the word, empathy, in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, you’d find the following:

The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also :the capacity for this”

From time to time I make the mistake of going to comment sections of articles and posts that I happen to be reading.  It doesn’t take long for me to realize that I’ve made a mistake by doing it and yet I do it anyway.  Maybe there’s a part of me that hopes it has changed, that somehow since the last time I made this mistake that the world got a little better and more understanding.  Needless to say it didn’t go so well and was reminiscent of times past.

The one thing I could never quite understand is how people can lash out at others that they don’t even know, complete strangers going after one another because of opposing viewpoints but never making any effort to get to the heart of their own anger and why this is all coming up inside themselves. When I can’t be sensitive to another’s feelings, thoughts, and experience, I simply then project it all onto them, making them the embodiment of the demon that lies within myself, becoming enemies rather than seeking understanding of a person’s view; and that’s all it is, a view.  I’ve been the victim of it myself and I’m sure the projector at times in my life.  It’s a sign of just how unaware we are as a culture and society when we don’t take responsibility for our own baggage and prefer to share the wealth with others.

When it comes to pain and suffering we are often the worst.  We have to look tough, stoic, to others and the world.  It can explain a great deal of the opioid epidemic that has arisen in this country and our constant need to be medicated and numbed.  That pain has been taken advantage of by advertisers, politicians, and drug manufacturers alike, all of whom have benefited from our inability to deal with pain.  Dealing with our own pain, rather than numbing it, is the only answer to the epidemic but also our inability to empathize with others and to understand another person’s experience which is often different from my own.  Pain has a way of sucking us in and yet projecting outward, seemingly that we stand at the center of the world and carry the measuring stick of judgment of all life’s challenges, experiences, and pains, even if I’ve never actually experienced it myself, all in the name of defense of some one or some thing.

As a culture and society we have distanced ourselves from pain and suffering (the cross) so much that we no longer know how to handle it, embrace it, enter into it, feel it.  It’s as if we walk into the ICU of a dying patient or into a funeral home to mourn with a family and we become so uncomfortable that all we know how to do is make trite statements, hollow at best, because of the fear of going to where we hurt and in those very moments, to realize that that person is also me.  The pain of sitting with the uncomfortableness is too overwhelming in those moments that we have to do something with it.  We just can’t bring ourselves to do it and so we project it all outward, onto each other, onto the country, other countries, and to the world.  Heck, for that matter, there are plenty of examples of it in Scripture that, more often than not, we do it to God as well.  It has given us distorted images of each other and the Creator and there are examples of it everywhere, often including our own lives.  Again, if we’re willing to take a step back, become self-aware, and see what I too am doing to the other and this world.  There’s no wiping our hands entirely clean if we’re willing to take responsibility for our own undealt with pain.

It’s probably the easiest way to understand the gospels and Jesus’ own encounter with the Pharisees and other leaders of that time.  They had such venom towards him, mainly because he challenged their way of thinking and understanding of the other.  All they could do is try to divide and conquer, and in the end, they believe they won. They believe, in the short term, they have won the battle with Jesus once he is crucified, a projection of their own disdain for God and human life and the suffering one endures.  It was and is inevitable in the case of Jesus that hatred would appear to be his demise.  Hate, anger, unfinished hurt, always thinks short term in order to protect itself from deeper pain but always fails to see the big picture, avoiding it at all cost.

We see it in war, violence, resentment, hatred, bigotry, racism, disdain, blame, all rooted in this deep fear of our own pain, separating us from the other in isolating fashion.  Little do we know that when we make decisions and choices from such destructive tension, life becomes much more about survival that living life fully.  It’s as if we’re drowning in our own pain and all we can do is cling rather than to take the hand of someone who may look different, live differently, have a different experience of my own, simply because I couldn’t bring myself to admit that I may have been wrong.  When life is about winning and losing we, without a doubt, always lose even if it feels like a short-term win, protecting myself once more while gasping for air until the next attack, the next exposure of my short-coming, my imperfection, my shadow, my own pain that has taken hold of my life.

We have a lot to do in our society, a lot of work in dealing with the deep-seated pain that we continue to hold onto, clouding all our decisions and choices for the future, while at the same time blaming the future for all our problems.  We’re leaving that very future one hell of a mess to clean up if we soon don’t learn to stop, quiet ourselves, and sit in that ICU, sitting with the dying patient, and learn to die with them.  Pain and suffering has so much to teach us and is often the key to living a fuller life when we no longer dance around it but rather jump in, head first, rather than sharing it with the world.  In times when we retreat, isolate, and believe it’s about us first, we can only begin to understand such action when we’ve been there ourselves, wallowing in our own pain and suffering, feeling it’s the only way for us to survive.  I can empathize with that because I’ve been there myself.  It feels like it’s the only answer to the loneliness experienced when we suffer.  The capacity to empathize with the other, the nation, all suffering everywhere, the world, can only come when we’ve done our own work and continue to do our work in life, creating the necessary space in our lives for someone and something more than ourselves.  It’s the task at hand if we are to move forward for the way forward is through.

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.

 

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.

 

Our Separated Humanity

I found today extremely sad.  Yes, to the point of tears sad.  When I turned on the news this morning and heard of the shooting in Las Vegas and then saw some of the footage, I simply found myself in tears.  I was in disbelief, as if something like this just shouldn’t be happening.  And yet it was.  Again.  Not that I was the least bit surprised because I wasn’t.  Violence is the way of life here in Baltimore and other metropolitan areas but also around the globe, but for whatever reason it just struck me today, as if caught off guard.

I happened to catch a former FBI agent speaking on the broadcast, long before much was known about the shooter, other than the fact that he was a male, age 64.  My immediate thought was questioning how someone could reach that age and still harboring so much that he’s willing to take the lives of so many people so callously.  But the expert when on to speak about where he shot them from, the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay, and the significance of the place of power, atop the people, paradoxically, though, magnifying the powerlessness.  I hadn’t thought of that as he tries to get into the mind of this guy.  More than 1200 feet separated himself from the crowd below, amplifying the casualty as bullets reigned down.

More times I can count I have written on this blog about the God problem we have, and I do still believe that to be true.  We find ourselves clinging to so many false gods that have taken the place of God, of mystery, that we find ourselves wandering aimlessly in a darkened world and country.  It’s all true if we could be aware enough in our lives to begin to see that we too are a part of the problem, not just the other that we have demonized.  Thinking about this guy, though, I began to think, as much as we have a God problem, possibly even more striking is the human problem that exists in this land.

There he was, some 32 floors off the ground and entirely separated from humanity below.  Unable to see the trauma being inflicted.  Unable to see the tears nor hear the screams that we’ve had to listen to repetitively through the media.  Now, granted, these are all signs of someone who was experiencing severe psychological problems in his life, seeming to be entirely separated from humanity.  However, the slow process of attaching ourselves to our gods has a similar impact on our own lives.

Think about it.  The more the demand for certainty in our lives and the attachment to the illusion of “being right”, the less capable we have become of empathizing and sympathizing with our fellow brothers and sisters and a whole lot less space for God.  It becomes entirely about having the winning argument, as I’m sure we will witness one again when it comes to the use of guns in our society, and less about the impact so much of what we are doing has upon humanity.  The problem is that we cling so tightly to our certainty that our own eyes become clouded from seeing the tears and pain of the other nor hearing the scream and cry for help as pain reigns down and is reigned down by my own inability to love and to walk this journey with the other.

I can never fully put myself in the place of another human being.  Their story is their story just as mine is mine.  I have suffered greatly in my own life, gradually learning to release the hold of certainty in my own life and through process, trust in faith, in the unseen, in the unknown, making space not only for God but for the other and their story and to hold it as treasure.  We have put ourselves in so many losing situations.  We cling to our symbols, to our institutions, our belongings, our own lives, as if that’s all that matters.  As if that’s all that matters and we can’t care about anything else.  We have a human problem and a God problem who ever so mightily is trying to break through our own lives and to free us from ourselves.  Ourselves.  We cling so tightly and before you know it, we too find ourselves separated from humanity, the humanity of the other and our own, unable to stand with, kneel beside, listen with love, see with care, all because of this distance we have put between ourselves, creating a tension, that, although painful, hopefully leads one day to a new day, a new beginning, a re-creation of our humanity.

It’s a sad day.  It’s been sad days, weeks, months, years, of being torn apart by so much that just doesn’t matter and yet we cling.  We cling to our ideology.  We cling to our certainty.  We cling to a flag.  We cling to a nation that was.  We cling to our guns.  We cling to our rights.  We cling.  It’s what we humans often do best, cling.  Somehow thinking we can’t live without any of it.  Somehow thinking that it’s eternal and never-changing.  We cling to our false gods that over time divide, leaving a gaping hole of pain in the soul of me, you, and a nation, that can only be filled with a God who’s love surpasses all and fulfills all, a God so often unseen and yet so present, gently opening our eyes and hearts to the other and their story.  A story you don’t know.  A story we mustn’t judge.  A story that is unfolding.  A story we must learn to care about in order to understand and in order to close the gap of our own humanity.  It’s the story of the Christ. 

It’s was an extremely sad day but a day in which we are once again invited to enter into the mystery of our own lives, feel the pain of the other, and together we learn to find true freedom from what binds and hurts our hearts and souls as a nation because in the end the story is the same.  It’s a sad day when we can no longer weep for all humanity who suffers because of our inability to put ourselves in their place beyond our symbols and institutions.  The more I am freed of my own gods of judgment, condemnation, and fear, I find myself trusting in all I can trust in, a God who doesn’t reign bullets nor insults down upon humanity but rather love, understanding, and forgiveness. 

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.

 

A Millennial Exodus for Meaning

The following are my remarks made at the opening of our pastorate meeting…

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the chance to dialogue with some Millennials who I have met along the way and was telling them about the changes that are taking place in the Church.  Some faithfully practice and others come and go when they can.  At the same time, I’ve learned through them, that they are often the most misunderstood generation that exists and they get blamed for much of what we, older generations, fail to take responsibility for.  Their way of thinking and way of life can be foreign to so many of us, and yet, in many ways, I relate to them in a very different way.  If I had to sum up my experience not only of those who are friends but also whom I have worked with is that more than any other group they seek meaning and purpose in their lives.  They aren’t going to stay at a job or a church forever if it isn’t feeding the deeper hunger of their lives.  Honestly, we’re better at serving stones than bread.  It’s part of the mass exodus that has taken place over the years.  That’s not just the main Institution but the parishes that have been institutionalized as well.

Quite frankly, it’s probably a miracle or at least the grace of God that I have stayed in this institution over the years just knowing how much we haven’t met the younger generations in that way, often because we think it’s still about us.  Instead, we’ve blamed, resented, and projected our own stuff onto them while failing to see, become aware, and accept where we have gone wrong as Church, where we have failed at feeding the ultimate hunger of meaning in people’s lives.  And I include myself in this, we have fought over who can and can’t receive communion, we’ve fought over music and style of liturgy, we’ve fought over empty meetings that have been more about building ourselves up rather than the encounter with the other, and of course, even times and places for mass and other events.  All this while poverty continues to exist and grow, churches empty out because of our pettiness, attaching ourselves to superficiality while returning home empty, yes, even fighting over spaghetti sauce, war persists, hunger persists, murder within the pastorate rises, drugs run rampant up and down York Road, immigrants looking for direction, a school barely hanging on, people persecuted because of color and sexuality, among other things, and yet here we are, all of us, locked in the upper room out of fear, hiding in the comfort of our own space.  More often than not, clinging to what we have known rather than braving the great unknown.  If you want to know why Millennials often don’t show up, well, we typically don’t have to look too far.

If you haven’t realized, and I know many don’t know me beyond the priest, there’s a lot of stuff I just don’t care about, but what I do care about I care very deeply.  I care about people much more than institutions and parish agendas and identities.  I care about souls and the spiritual well-being of people because I know if we’re not healthy in a spiritual way we just won’t be healthy.  We’ll get hung up on the trivialities and have no perspective and larger picture.  I care about people and relationship and meeting people, having coffee with people, talking about faith and certainly preaching about it.  I’m well aware I have other responsibilities and other things happen in the life of a parish, but more than anything, I am about prayer, silence, and leading others to that same place, to find meaning and purpose in their lives.  It’s not that I don’t care about other things, because I do, but I can never quite stop myself from looking for deeper meaning and trying to lead people to the great unknown now so it won’t be as painful later, because it does always come.  I care about leading others to finding deeper meaning and purpose in their lives, through the muck of consumerism, capitalism, and politics which are often the gods we cling to in life.

When I teach, I always remind the students that, more than anything, we cling to what we know.  We like to be certain.  We like things to be black and white.  Yet, the more I have allowed myself to delve into mystery the less I see that as being real.  We, more often than not, find ourselves somewhere in between.  For me, one of the great stories that I use is that of the Exodus and people Israel.  They were miserable with what they were clinging to and yet, no sooner they are led to the unknown to encounter God in a very different way, being led to conversion, they immediately want to go back to what they know despite being miserable.  Heck, they get ticked off at Moses for leading them out of Egypt because they would have rather died to what they had known and clung to than to begin to experience life differently.  Aren’t we very much the same at times?

As we proceed, like Moses, we never quite know the twists and turns that we will encounter, and we have encountered them and will continue to do so, but our faith and trust must transcend what we know and what we cling to, which is often not real in the first place.  Don’t get me wrong.  We can continue doing what we’ve always done, business as usual, but know there are consequences to that as well.  Demographics continue to change, population is shrinking in most of this pastorate and appears to be in the near future.  In other words, we’ll die with it.  We’ll die with it.  As the poet, W.H. Auden, once wrote, “We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die.”  If I have learned anything this past year it’s that both locations have just that, illusions of one another, often deeply rooted in fear and the unknown which only entering into relationship can change.

So here we are, at the crossroads of change.  Like the disciples of Jesus in John’s Gospel, some may high tail it out because of change and what will be asked of them, because something is asked of all of us.  Some of this is personal.  I was close to just breaking down in exhaustion earlier this summer and I cannot continue to do that to myself.  If you read my blog you know that Notre Dame was like a “field hospital” for me and vacation more like respite care.  We currently have seven masses on the weekend and I’m seeking to move it to five.  In relation to the seven and nearly 30 in this vicinity, it’s not that much when we see ourselves as stewards of the liturgy rather than possessors.  I am a believer that less is often better because I can be better, and not allow the celebration that stands at our center to be entered into in drudgery and exhaustion. 

Change is hard and it’s messy.  There have been missteps and there will continue to be mistakes.  There always is when you wander through the desert.  Like the Israelites, our eyes have a way of deceiving us.  Change is also good and one of the few consistencies in our life.  As we enter into this discernment process and dialogue, we pray for the grace to move us to a place of encounter with and through one another.  We pray for the grace of the Spirit to come upon us and lead us to the place of poverty within our soul which often holds the key to so many of our struggles.  One of Pope Francis’ first quotes about the Church was that it is poor and for the poor.  It leads me to the image that we hold so dear, that first Christmas in Bethlehem when poverty took on flesh.  Here we are some 2000 years later, still asking for the grace so that we may be the same in the here and now, in this pastorate, as one people in and through Christ.  That, my friends, is what we’re all about and where we will find fulfillment of the deeper hunger for meaning and purpose in our lives.