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.

Paying The Price

I Kings 17: 10-16; Hebrews 9: 24-28; Mark 12: 38-44

As Jesus and the disciples now make their final march towards the ultimate battle and war, at the Cross, which we’ll hear in two weeks on the Feast of Christ the King, the gap between what Jesus calls them to as disciples and how they see things seems all but insurmountable.  Like us, the disciples too are a product of their own experience and their experience tells them that life has more to do with what the scribes, along with the other religious and political leaders, do than it does with Jesus.  All Jesus can do, as he does today, is keep moving them to look at things from a different perspective so that when they do finally face the Cross and the scales begin to fall from their eyes, things will begin to make sense and they will see what Jesus was about all along.  It’s hard to change when our own experience tells us something different than what we’re being invited into.  There’s feeling attached to it, emotion, and all the rest, that as we’ve seen in our own political and even religious institutions, we can overlook facts and truth all for the sake of holding onto what we think.

Yet, when they make that final march to the Cross, things begin to change and the disciples, like ourselves, are given a choice.  They’ve been given a choice all along and consistently reject the way of the Lord, but when their eyes are opened, the choice will become more obvious, do we follow the ways of the Lord, that have been pointed out to us along this journey, or do we continue to consume the ways of the world, often blindly following the political and religious leaders of the day who often feed into that lived experience rather than inviting us into something new, a new way of seeing and a new way of living that isn’t so much about consuming as it is sacrifice.

Jesus, once again today, tries to offer a different perspective by sitting off at a distance with the disciples and simply observe people, people watching as we call it.  He knows he can’t force the disciples to see as he sees, but as we’ve heard throughout Mark’s gospel, tell no one.  He just doesn’t want it to be some secret.  Jesus is aware that they don’t yet understand nor do they see what really matters.  They quickly, as we’ve heard these weeks, become enthralled with power, with honor, with wealth, and once again, the scribes prove it to them.  The temptation is so strong as they watch.  They see how people fall over them and how they manipulate and take advantage of the lesser of their society.  So, as only Jesus can do, he observes and contrasts the scribes with a widow, as we also heard in today’s first reading.  It’s not just because there was something so special about this particular widow.  It’s the fact that any widow of that time has nothing.  It’s not even simply about money.  She has no status and no voice, no nothing.  Yet, she gives the most.  As the scribes consume the honor, the power, the wealth, a particular attraction, this woman finds it all in sacrifice, in the nothing that she has.  That’s the point to the disciples as they look on.  You can have all the given power, honor, and wealth, but it’s not necessarily the way of the Lord.  As much as we love to consume, the way of the Lord is often just the opposite, letting go and sacrificing.

As you know, today we mark the 100th Anniversary of the ending of World War I and also celebrate Veterans Day, others who have gone to the ultimate battle.  If you read about the world wars, you quickly learn that there was also a very different mindset as a country and people.  It wasn’t just the one’s who went off to war who had to sacrifice, and sometimes their entire lives, but there was a call for everyone to sacrifice.  Since the events of 9/11, though, our attitude has been quite different.  After that and beyond it has been consume, consume, consume.  It’s not just things we’ve been challenged to consume, we consume media and social media now that feeds into the lived experience and how we see the world that it becomes harder and harder to change, to let go, to sacrifice.  As a matter of fact, the more we consume the more we think we need and the more we feel anxious when we don’t have it all.  It’s a consumer mindset that is eventually going to do us in and there will be a price.  Like the disciples and their experience of the Cross, it often takes something drastic to move us to change and for the scales to fall from our eyes.  At some point we just can’t consume anymore because it prevents us from dealing with the hurt and pain that resides below the surface.  The widow faced the cross.  Long before Jesus, the widow in the first reading faced the cross.  They knew what was most important, in particular when they were pushed to the point of losing it all.  The harder we cling, the harder it is to let go, especially of our way of thinking.

Over the past few weeks the writer of Hebrews has been pushing us to change our perspective as well, inviting us to step back and look at what really matters.  So often what we see with our eyes is what we think is most important.  Jesus himself will go on and speak about the destruction of the Temple, as it too consumes, becomes bloated, and becomes a source of corruption.  Hebrews keeps pointing us back to the Christ, that it is that relationship that offers salvation.  Don’t cling so hard to what you see because at some point the scales will fall and the questioning and the real choice will be revealed.  It appears, at least in plain sight, that Elijah is all about himself as he approaches the widow who’s at the point of death!  He simply wants food and drink for the journey as she watches her own son die.  Yet, she moves from her own lived experience as widow and still offers a hospitality that by sight seems senseless.  Yet, like Jesus, she finds strength and learns to trust even more deeply in those moments.  Elijah himself will continue to learn as his journey continues just what it means to be prophet.  Like the disciples his time wandering and in the desert will open him to new possibility and to find true power from his own emptiness and longing, sacrificing it all, including his way of thinking, rather than feeding the narrative that had been his lived experience.

At some point, we too are left with the same choice as the disciples as to how we will proceed in life, as individuals and even as community and country.  The more we consume what we think it’s all about, the more the gap grows as it did between Jesus and the disciples.  All Jesus or any of us can continue to do is invite us to look at life from a different perspective and set up the differences as to what’s most important and what we truly value.  Those who have nothing in the gospels point the way towards trust and faith in the God who often cannot be seen with the eyes, especially eyes clouded through our consumption of goods and media and whatever else we think we can’t live without.  Like the disciples, though, a day will come and it always comes, leaving us with the choice as we stand at the Cross and look on.  Do I choose the way of the Lord, which so often demands sacrifice and letting go to begin to see what really matters or will I continue to blindly follow the ways of the world, the political and religious leaders of our day?  It’s a hard choice but God has shown time and time again, there is but one way, the way of the Lord.  Today a rich widow simply points the way by giving of her whole livelihood.  Are we willing to do the same, even if it means sacrificing what we think is most important in our lives?

Anxious Hearts

Deut 18: 15-20; I Cor 7: 32-35; Mark 1: 21-28

This is now the second or third week that Paul has addressed the community of Corinth on anxiety.  Of course, it’s something that remains prevalent in our own culture.  I’m sure there are many here that take medication for it to be able to cope.  Not that doesn’t help many, but it never allows us to get to the heart of the fear and anxiety that Paul speaks of because really the heart of anxiety is fear.  In our day, though, it’s only been magnified by the use of internet and social media and most definitely the 24/7 news cycle that just seems to bombard us at every waking moment about negativity and fear that only feeds into our own “unclean spirits” as Jesus speaks of rather than trusting the true voice of authority in Christ.

It must have been an issue that the community was aware of that they were willing to write it as a question for Paul in their correspondence.  Now it’s easy to get hung up on how Paul tackles this issues with married men, women, virgins, and the works, but we’d miss the point and once again avoid the deeper lying issue in the community and our own lives.  Getting hung up on the relational way or commitment way Paul handles it only become divisive and leads to greater anxiety.  First and foremost is this need to please.  He speaks of husbands trying to please their wives and wives trying to please their husbands and single people trying to please the Lord, but for Paul, it has nothing to with that.  It’s not about pleasing anyone else, our spouse, our boss, and institution or anything.  First and foremost, as he concludes today, it’s about conforming to Christ.  It’s learning to trust that deeper voice that leads to a greater sense of love and peace.  The challenge is, is that it tends to be the quieter of the voices, a hush from the Lord that tends to be overtaken by the noise around us, just as it was for the community of Corinth.

The irony is, they know the voice of the Christ but the more they are bombarded by the noise, fear, anger, and such, the more they begin to believe that’s the voice of authority only feeding in more to the unclean spirits within us.  We all have them and they love to be fed by anything that is going to feed them the lie that we’re something less than we are.  That’s not the prophetic voice that we hear of in today’s readings.  As a matter of fact, Paul will go onto say that that’s nothing but clashing cymbals and such, simply noise that comes from no greater depth.  I could only imagine what Paul would think today in the face of so much negative chatter, noise capturing our attentions, pulling us away from our truest selves, our deepest selves, the voice of authority in Christ that remains and yet often suffocated by the outside world.  It’s what this community of Corinth faced in trying to conform to the culture rather than to the Christ.

Even in today’s first reading, though, we hear of Moses speak of the prophetic voice that is to be raised up, which is more often than not how it happens, it has to rise up from deep within us.  It’s a lot of work, which makes medication and coping the easier answer.  For the community that Moses speaks to today it’s more about trusting fortunetellers and soothsayers that precedes this reading we hear.  They’re looking for guidance and direction from beyond themselves, and like Corinth, often succumb to the fear of believing.  The path to the prophetic voice takes a great deal of patience, and Moses will go onto say, a learning of how to discern these voices that work in our lives and recognize the voices that lead us to further fear and anxiety and learn to turn them off.  They are loud and unruly, often appealing to the worst of our instincts to react to everything that comes our way.  The prophetic voice requires that will rise up as Moses speaks requires silence and the space in order for that voice to grow.

We are only a week out from the disciples being called in Mark’s gospel and today they’re already thrown into the muck of it all.  As much as Mark’s focus is getting them to Jerusalem and the reality of the cross, Jerusalem has a way of finding them on the way.  Here they are, first stop, and it’s the Sabbath and they’re in the synagogue and Jesus is going to dispel the unclean spirits.  This whole process of following for these would-be disciples is about learning to trust the voice of the Christ in the midst of Jerusalem after Jerusalem.  Just like the people of Corinth they’ll slip into that fear and anxiety.  They’ll have to face the controversy of the religious and political authorities that feed on that fear and will try to appeal to their worst instincts, trying to pull them away from the Christ out of fearing rejection.  That need to please will leave them with, as Paul tells us, a divided heart which only leads to greater anxiety.  If it’s the prophetic voice, that voice of authority, it will continue to rise up until it is acknowledged and followed.  It’s what will see them through some of the most difficult times of their lives when Jerusalem is faced head on by the disciples and each of us.

We aren’t much different than these communities.  We’ve allowed the clashing cymbals to be the so-called prophetic voices in our lives, rooted in fear and insecurity.  We want things instantly and love to react to it all, especially the unclean spirits of our day and the amount of negativity that bombards us day in and day out that over time drowns out the voice of truth, love, peace.  It doesn’t mean that it’s easy or we’re naïve about the realities of the world, but the voice of authority, the voice of the Christ, the eternal, leads us to the deeper place, beyond the differences and divisiveness of our day.  Paul knows by experience, as does Moses.  It’s the journey we must be willing to take, to learn to discern the unclean spirits of our own lives that we’ve taken for granted and learned to trust.  They tend to have all the answers and try to convince us that we’re right and often unworthy.  The voice of God, though, is always breaking through, rising up, trying to remind us who we really are.  It’s that voice, and only that voice, that will take away our fear and anxiety and lead us to the fuller life we desire, a life of peace and a deeper awareness of God’s love.

Intimately Beyond

Isaiah 60: 1-6; Matthew 2: 1-12

We come to the final Sunday of the Christmas season and it gets bookended with Matthew’s version of the birth of Christ with the visit of the Magi and the star guiding their way.  Of course, even here we lump them all together to create our very own Charlie Brown Christmas but certainly not the intention of either Matthew or Luke, each having their own reasons as to why the story is told.  I’ve said before that Matthew is very much about change and an interior change that is necessary to be a follower and so there’s very little need to historical evidence of these events but very much when it comes to our spiritual life.

It is the rising of the stars appearance that sets these Magi on this journey to Bethlehem.  Many over the years have tried to give historical evidence even of the star, whether it’s a comet or something, but again, not Matthew’s point.  If we want evidence, facts, or certainty we’ve come to the wrong place.  It was common belief that everyone was given a star by these astrologers upon their birth into this world.  Yet something had to be different about this one that would set the astrologers on such an arduous journey themselves.  It’s rising must have set off an unrest within them that would send them seeking and now stand as the archetypal images of seeking of the more.  Not the more the world tries to offer but the seeking of the Christ that forces us to our knees in homage.  So they set out in search of the rising star.  A star that stands as a guiding principle, a seat of wisdom, of sorts that lies deep within them and yet still unknown.

There is another word we use often in our language that has star at its root.  The word we use is disaster, dis-star, meaning separated from one’s internal guide.  We even speak of our lives or such as a disaster when we feel out of sorts or feeling lost and confused.  Which leads us to the first stop of the Magi, Jerusalem, where they encounter disaster first hand in Herod.  Herod considers himself the center of the world and yet is filled with fear and paranoia when he hears of this rising star coming to the world stage.  Not only Herod, but all of Jerusalem with him, Matthew tells us.  Now certainly they knew what Herod was capable of and would see first hand his destruction and just how much of a disaster he was.  This rising star, not only a threat to Herod’s perceived power but very much to the status quo.  Even though this peace was rooted in fear it’s what they knew and what they could cling to.  They were certain of at least that.

The Magi quickly learn that Jerusalem in not the place of the Christ.  It’s going to be an opportunity for these journeymen to let go of their own perceived idea of the power they sought was not going to come from worldly position.  The most obvious place was the palace in Jerusalem and yet all they find there in the midst of wealth and status was fear, jealousy, secrets, and a guy who was most consumed by himself and the power he acquired through position than in seeking.  Herod himself stands as an archetype of the non-seeker, believing that authority comes from him and external authority.  He thinks it’s enough to send the Magi further to do the work for him.  Yet, as a writer who calls for interior change, Matthew understands that the work is done by ourselves.  We must make the journey ourselves while passing through the doors of death in Jerusalem, just as Jesus does as well.  Matthew mirrors Jesus’ own journey by passing through Jerusalem in order to experience the fullness of life that is promised. 

This all leads to the second journey, the journey into Bethlehem.  Notice that it appears in the writing of the gospel that the star seems to dissipate over Jerusalem and reappears as they begin the second journey.  Now having been stripped of their own expectations, the Magi open themselves and create the space within themselves to encounter the divine.  When they find their true home, not in some palace, but in the poverty of Bethlehem, everything begins to make sense.  They recognize that what they have sought they had all along and simply cast a shadow upon Herod and the status quo.  It was simply revealed to them who Herod really was and the emptiness of his supposed power, holding people hostage in fear and settling for the status quo. 

Mary and Joseph, in Matthew’s gospel are not exempt from making a similar journey.  They too will follow and be led by the rising star into Egypt.  They, and all of Israel, are invited to face their own history.  Egypt stood for everything Herod was, despite being a religious leader.  Egypt was the place of slavery, war, and fear for Israel.  Matthew calls them collectively to take this journey that the Magi do to shed light and to cast a shadow on where it is that they need to change and where they still cling to fear.  Like the infant passing through, the Magi passing through Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph passing through Egypt, and ultimately Jesus passing through Jerusalem, there’s no way around.  The journey to a fuller and free life is through our own Jerusalem.

The journey Matthew calls us to and the encounter with the Christ is a difficult one and arduous at best.  It’s long and it takes us to places we’d often rather not go.  No one wants to admit that we at times clamor for power, fear and are anxious, content with the status quo, want proof and certainty, and yet, everything about this feast and season tells us just the opposite of who we have been created to be.  Like Herod, no one else can do it for us.  Heck, we’re even content with living a disastrous life and settling for it in our Church, city, nation, and world.  It’s what we know and can be sure of, but lacks meaning and purpose and certainly shows how separated we’ve become from our own center.  Our faith and what we celebrate in this season points to freedom and liberation, more often than not, from ourselves.  Letting go of our own expectations, being led to the belly of the beast, and yet pushed even further to encounter what is real.  And in a moment, in a simple encounter, everything makes sense.  The Magi could not go home by the same route just as we cannot when we have this encounter with the Christ.  In that encounter the Magi see, for the first time, the real presence, and finally understand that the Christ has been with them all along this journey, when the divine of within encounters the divine beyond.

As we enter into the fullness of this season and begin to tell the story of how this gift is manifested, we pray for the grace to make the journey.  No one can do it for you and no one can tell you how to get there.  Everyone knows their Jerusalem and their Egypt that they need to encounter.  Slowly, the eternal Christ within begins to reveal what is real and the deeper truth of our own lives.  It takes courage and great grace.  But like the Magi, in our own unsettledness, we’re pushed forward and through so that we to can live the fullness of life.  Matthew desired something more from and for his community after witnessing the horrors of the world.  Our desire is the same.  The Magi point the way into our own Bethlehem, into the vulnerability of a heart that throbs and overflows with union.  When we allow ourselves the opportunity to make the journey we become transformed, liberated from a past that holds us back and clouds our vision in order to be led to a deeper understanding of this mystery that lead us to simply do as the Magi, to fall on our knees in homage recognizing that it was never about us but the Christ that calls us forth to new life.

Love’s Eye

Acts 2: 1-11; I Cor 12: 3-7, 12-13; John 20: 19-23

I was talking to some new pastors this week up at the seminary so of course part of the conversation was on prayer.  It is not only central to us priests but to all of us.  I was surprised when one of them had told me that he didn’t pray.  So, of course, I asked him why, and as surprised as I was to hear that he didn’t pray I wasn’t all surprised by the why because I had heard in many times before.  When I finally sit down to pray, to stop, to quiet down, it seems at that point my mind takes off, a million miles a minute along with all my fears and anxieties, unresolved conflict, and all the rest begin to surface.  That’s the reason why you have to pray in those moments.

I use the example often, now that we are into the summer and it is hurricane season, to imagine a satellite image of a hurricane.  Most have a well-defined eye.  Crazy enough, that’s where you want to be in the hurricane.  It’s the place where the sun shines.  There’s peace and tranquility.  That’s the place of center we take with us into the storm, into the million miles a minute, otherwise the wall collapses and the storm consumes our lives.  This feast we celebrate today at the end of the Easter Season defines our center, that place of peace and tranquility that is hopefully leading us and navigating us through the storms of our own lives, as individuals, community, country, and world.  We certainly know that that’s not always the case.

When the early community begins to form and that we heard of throughout this Easter season from Acts of the Apostles, they too found themselves often trying to find that center and allowing it to be their navigation tool through often tumultuous times.  It was not an easy go for them when community was beginning to form around this new identity in Christ.  Like any community, there is self-interest, there are people that are trying to satisfy their own needs, there are people that are trying to drag us into their own storms, into the chaos of their own lives that will often challenge that center, that navigation tool.

The same was true for Corinth in whom Paul writes today.  It’s a section of that letter that we are all familiar with when he speaks of different gifts but the same spirit being manifested in the life of the community.  He’ll go onto to speak about the different parts yet one body and culminate in the next chapter with his message of love that we are familiar with from weddings.  There was dissension in the ranks of the community because they thought one person’s gift was better than the other, thinking that speaking in tongues was somehow better than the rest.  It created riffs.  Like the world we often find ourselves in today, there was selfish motivation, which of course, at that point, loses its purpose of being a gift in the first place!  One gift is not somehow better than the other, but rather, Paul will go onto say that no matter the gift and no matter the person, at the center of the community, the great navigation tool, will be that of love.  That becomes the eye of the storm and it becomes the navigation tool that the disciples will have to take into the storms that await them on that Easter day.

There seems to be no great Pentecost experience with them when we encounter them in today’s Gospel.  There they are, caught in the midst of a wild storm as the witnessed the death of Jesus, the one who had been their center up to this point.  For John, though, he’s going to want to take us back to the beginning and not to just the beginning of the gospel but back to the beginning of Genesis, when God breathes life into creation.  Here we are now, locked in the upper room, filled with fear and doubt, wondering and questioning, feeling like they’re being consumed by the storm and all that they had known falling down around them, and Jesus appears.  But not to just pick back up where they had left off on Good Friday but to give them a new center that goes deep within them and yet so far beyond them.  Jesus breathes on them, not just into their mouths, but into their very being the gift of the Spirit.  That will become their place of authority, their place of deep love, their own navigation tool as we see them go forward throughout Acts of the Apostles.

As we draw this Easter season to a close today, we pray for that same Spirit to be breathed into us, making us aware of where our center is in life.  Do we find ourselves much more comfortable in the storminess, chaos, fear and anxiety, that at times consumes our lives or are we being led to a place of peace that expands truth and makes space within us for all peoples?  Maybe we’re at a place where we need to quiet down, slow down, even if our minds want to go a million miles an hour.  That’s exactly where that navigation tool is leading us, to expand that place of peace and tranquility within us.  The last thing the world needs is more chaos, fear, and anxiety.  It leads us to reacting to everything that comes our way, sucking us into the storminess of lives and feeling overwhelmed by it all.  Like the disciples, on this day God desires to breathe that life, that Spirit into each of us so rather than being defined by the storminess we become the agents of change by brining that navigation tool, that eye, that deep source of love to an often hurting world to bring about the redemption that is freely given to each of us.