The Predictably Unpredictable Master

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Flooded Awakening

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disruptive Blind Spots

Sirach 35: 12-14, 16-18; 2Tim 4: 6-8, 16-18; Luke 18: 9-14

Anyone who drives is well aware of what we call “the blind spot”. We know the havoc it could cause for us as drivers if we are not paying attention to it. It’s our most vulnerable place as drivers and can cause great harm if we forget about it. The same is true, as we know, for Joe Flacco and other quarterbacks. They have their blindside. When his isn’t protected, as we’ve seen a lot recently, he finds himself on his back end more than anything. It’s his vulnerable point and has to be protected and not forgotten.

The same is true for our spiritual life and our lives in general. Like when we drive, it is our most vulnerable place and if evil and sin is going to work its way into our lives that’s precisely where it’s going to happen. Yet, we like to ignore it and are often so unaware of it that it has a tendency to control our lives, sometimes unaware that our lives can even be better than it is. They are our blindspots, our blindside, that can find a way to separate us from ourselves, from others, and from God.

In the stories we hear each week, our blind spot is often represented through the Pharisee. Even when Jesus uses other stories, they’re often about the pharisees and what they can’t see about themselves. However, as we march our way through Luke’s gospel, he seems to be more forward with them, specifically calling the one entering into prayer a Pharisee who finds himself disconnected from the tax collector and from God for that matter. Everything that he wants to point out about others are often his own faults and points of vulnerability and yet becomes blinded by them, presenting himself in a rather conceited way before God. What he does is what we often all try to do, thinking we can trick God into believing that we’re someone other than we really are, as if God is somehow not going to love us or forgive us if God really knows who we are. So what do we do? We created an affront and not always even consciously, but our blind spot is hard at work separating us and leading us to believe we can be someone other than who we are.

Paul knows it all too well. He is the master of the ego and knows all too well what life is like when the blind spot is directing life, often separating us from our own humanity. Yet, today we hear his continuation of his letter to Timothy. He’s imprisoned and nearing the end of his life, using such poetic language to speak about the constant need for turning his life over the Lord, seeking redemption and greater freedom. Everyone has abandoned him at this point because of the challenge he created in their lives. He wasn’t only good at recognizing his own blind spot but calling others out for theirs. They don’t want to hear that. And yet, to move towards holiness and wholeness in our lives, we have to come to the Lord and this Table as we are, entirely. We aren’t going to trick God into believing something about us nor are we going to trick ourselves. This sense that we have to come to the Lord perfect stands as a great obstacle to the good in our lives and an obstacle to holiness and wholeness and leading an authentic life.

Sirach also points out this need to be vulnerable before the Lord as the writer speaks of a God who shows no favorites. It is a God who is partial to the weak and hears the cry of the oppressed, a God not deaf to the orphans, or for that matter as with today’s gospel, a tax collector who acknowledges his own sinfulness and recognizes this deeper need for God’s mercy and forgiveness. It’s someone that realizes they no longer need to hide from God, no longer need to disguise or ignore their blind spot, but rather come to God as they are, in need of mercy and forgiveness. The reversals happen once again where the tax collector upstages the pharisee and God meets humanity at its most vulnerable point, redemption and salvation happens in a moment of oneness and connectedness.

As we come to this Table today, we pray we may be aware as to how we gather. Are we still trying to play games with God, presenting ourselves as “perfect” never allowing ourselves to be changed and transformed by this Eucharist. There is great freedom when we can come to accept that we don’t need to come here perfect but rather only as ourselves, sinners in need of mercy and forgiveness. Why do we want to put that pressure on ourselves to be something we aren’t? It keeps us from growing in relationship with ourselves, with others, and with God. It also becomes an obstacle from living an authentic life. We pray, like when we drive, that we are always aware of that blind spot in our own lives and to know the havoc it could play in our lives. We’re more than that not because of what it wants to tell us, but rather because of who we are, sinners, yet loved and always being called forth to mercy and forgiveness.

Unfinished Business

Acts 5: 27-32, 40-41; John 21: 1-19

After listening to the gospels for these first three weeks of Easter, it’s hard not to sit, scratching my head, wondering what’s going on with these disciples. They never quite seem to get it, despite the fact that John tells us that it’s now the third time the Lord appears! There seems to be this continuous gap for them in that their hearts are being led in a new direction through their experience of the risen Lord and then their lives. I suppose it’s a gap we all deal with in our own lives, that faith is something we do here on Sunday and then go about our business. But with the disciples, it’s supposed to be something different. They have followed and watched and rather than seeking out and following their hearts, they return to what they know; they return to fishing.

But something is different this time around. They come to the Sea of Tiberias with a lot of unfinished business in their lives, they gather with questions, and even continue to gather with fear, maybe not knowing what all of it means. This time, quite frankly, their hearts just aren’t in it. Their hearts have already moved on and yet they remain in what now seems like old hat for the disciples. But even this is different. The gospel tells us that they caught nothing; it seems as if they’ve even lost their touch with fishing, going the whole night and not catching even a single fish, leaving them, I’m sure, with more questions and simply gazing off in the darkened sky, their hearts elsewhere, and now another encounter with the Lord. Before they can embrace the freedom that we hear from them in Acts today, they must first have another encounter with the Lord and begin to grapple with and be freed from, this unfinished business of theirs.

And so there they are. No one questions who’s on the shore because they already know it’s the Lord. The gap between them and him seems immeasurable as they sit on the boat in the water. Here they are aware of the choices that they have made over these days that have led them to this place. They’ve watched all that he has done these years but their hearts never moved until now. They’ve abandoned, they’ve rejected, the’ve fled in fear, they grieve, and now they stand before the Lord once again. Peter remains with his unfinished business of denying the Lord but given the chance to be restored and freed from his own blindness, yet probably still feels the fear of judgment.

It’s amazing how much they change by the time we get to Acts. They’re like new people where their lives have seemed to have caught up with where their hearts had been leading them. They now stand before the very people that feared Jesus and wanted to see him gone. The power of Christ crucified, now raised from the dead, has spread far and wide and so the threat to the Sanhedrin is even greater. All their self-acclaimed power and authority is once again being challenged by these men that now appear fearless, free from all that has held them back in the gospel. They know their lives are at stake but they also know that they have found something greater than the Sanhedrin and anything they try to impose upon the people. But they don’t judge the Sanhedrin because they’ve been there. All they can do is walk away with joy-filled hearts. They knew they had everything to lose at that point, if they didn’t confront their own fear. They would have given into their heads rather than being led by their hearts. The disciples have been changed for good and they can no longer return. Fishing, for them, will take on new meaning.

And so it comes down for us as it does for Peter in today’s gospel about his own commitment to the Lord and this deeper love that he is called to in life. Do you love me, do you love me, do you love me? It’s so easy to answer in the affirmative, but again, Peter understands the unfinished business he believes he has with the Lord and yet it’s not Jesus’ approach. He never interrogates or questions in that way. Rather, he asks him if he loves him more than these, whatever “these” is. Was it these disciples? Or this old way of life? What are the “these” in our own lives that we tend to love more, if we can really call it that. It’s not usually love but rather a fear that so often disguises itself as love. Whether it’s our career, our wealth, our reputation, our fear, our own way of living, or whatever it may be, we all have “these” things in our lives that prevents us from turning our hearts over to the Lord fully. Yeah, the disciples eventually do and it changes them forever. But fear is hard to break in our lives because it so often is all we know. The disciples could try to imitate all that Jesus had done in healing, curing, feeding, and all the rest, but now he’s asking for more.

At this moment, we probably find ourselves somewhere in between the gospel and Acts. We may have the desire for that freedom that they experience in Acts and yet fear continues to hold. It leaves us, like them, with this unfinished business in our own lives. But Jesus is asking more and is leading us to more to a place where it’s not just imitating actions, but rather, having a heart like his. That’s what makes the question to Peter to pivotal and important for him and us. The gospel provides the image for us to sit with in our own lives and allow the Lord to ask us the same. You have to believe Peter came with guilt and shame at what he had done, but the Lord meets him there and invites him to that deeper place, that place of authentic love that will change him forever and that will change us forever as well!

No Going Back

Ezekiel 2: 2-5; IICor 12: 7-10; Mark 6: 1-6

There’s one thing that the prophets quickly learn, as Jesus does in today’s gospel, you pretty much cannot return home. Most of us can understand it on some level like when we leave home and start to break away, it’s hard to return. It’s hard for others to see us beyond the lens of who we were in their image and who we have become. Jesus meets immediate resistance when he returns, questioning his authority and the wisdom he shares. Like any of the prophets, home has changed for them. Home is no longer defined by the outside relationships of family and friends, but is rather found within. It’s that home that gives the authority and wisdom to say and do has they do to the people.

But it doesn’t come without a fight. That is the consistent theme of the call of the prophets of the Hebrew Scripture. From Ezekiel whom we hear from today to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the rest we hear from throughout the year, there is this ensuing tension with God and the call that is being given. It gets to the point where they almost can’t not do it because it becomes agonizing for them until they can finally surrender to that voice. Like any of us, there is always that desire to conform, go along with the crowd, fit it, be accepted, but to be authentic and live out that call, Ezekiel must move beyond that and grow to accept the call that is being given in going out to Israel. However, despite their hardened hearts and Ezekiel knowing the difficult task that is being placed within and on him, he’s freed up by God reminding him that whether they heed or resist, a prophet has arisen. Their acceptance or denial of his call has no bearing on the fact that he’s being called in this way, to a new way of life and to be this prophetic voice to the people. It’s not that he’s being called to be the doomsday guy or to tell them how to live their lives, but given the gift of the spirit, he sees and hears on a different level. He becomes the voice and eyes of a God who is always present, even in the hardness of their hearts and the messiness of their lives. This is what Ezekiel sees and hears and can’t not be that voice to the people.

Jesus, as I said meets that resistance when he finds that home within himself, just as Ezekiel does. He returns to his native place where you’d think they’d welcome him with open arms and yet is quite the opposite. What do they see? They see a carpenter. They see the son of Mary. They see what and who he used to be, from their own lens, and yet can’t see him for who and what he is now. Even Jesus sees he’s going to get nowhere here in his native place. Their own hardness of heart prevents them from seeing the face of God in their midst. They are probably the ones that needed the miracles the most; yet, their prevented from seeing and experiencing the gift. They question his wisdom and his words. Of course, finding that home within leads us where we don’t want to go, in the face of persecution and hardship, suffering and to the cross. It’s what leads to his impending death on the cross. He too can’t not do what he’s been called to and to be that prophetic voice. But we are all called to that life of mature faith. When we come to this baptismal font we are all anointed priest, prophet, and king. We are all called on this journey in where we too are no longer defined by our exterior relationship and circumstances, our past, but rather find that voice within. That’s how we become the person God has created us to be and to be God’s gift to the world, His instrument.

Paul, too, understands the challenge of that call. He calls it a “thorn in the flesh.” It’s something that is always there. He questions along the way as Ezekiel and the other prophets do. When standing in the face of pain and suffering will I be able to be true to that voice, even if it means confronting the thorn in the flesh in my own life, suffering at the hands of others who can’t accept this call that has been given? It’s not easy being that voice, which is why so many choose otherwise and would rather that voice be silenced within rather than to be true to it, to be authentic. In the end, though, we lose what is most important to us when we do. Paul, like many others, are not willing to give that up once it’s found and will face martyrdom if that’s what it takes to be true to the home that has been found within.

There are many that claim to be prophets in our world. There are many that think they are great defenders of what we believe. Yet, so often it’s empty words if it’s not grounded in something and someone deeper within ourselves. When we continue to try to please others or want acceptance more than authenticity, we will continue to surrender our greatest and most treasured gift, our authentic voice within. We all have one, but like the great prophets that have gone before us, when we settle for something less, God will continue to wrestle as long as we need to, but in the midst of our own suffering that we continuously bring upon ourselves, God’s presence will arise and win out; God always does. We pray that we may find that voice within and remain true to that voice, our own home. It may lead to rejection and other suffering, but we will remain true to ourselves and the true home within will become the home of the many who go without in our world.

Rescued from Myself

Mark 5: 31-42

When we hear these healing stories, which we become accustomed to, we must keep in mind that there is the obvious and the not-so-obvious healings that are taking place. This is a very busy and somewhat chaotic gospel of Jairus and his daughter and sandwiched in between the story of the women that has hemorrhaged for twelve years. This is not to undermine the physical healings that take place or are needed in our own lives. Many people suffer greatly with physical ailments that keep them from functioning fully in life, but the not-so-obvious healing is also that way in our lives at times, growing beneath the surface in our hearts and souls, needing spiritual healing in our lives.

Jairus is one such person in today’s gospel. He’s at the point of desperation as he gets word that his daughter had died, or so it seems. But Jairus is a synagogue official, as Mark tells us, but because of this vulnerable time in his life isn’t going to allow that to stop him from stepping forward to approach Jesus. Now maybe there was some sense of feeling entitled knowing his status, but regardless, imagine how this would be perceived by the the other officials and the scribes and pharisees who are already plotting Jesus’ death. He comes to Jesus with all this baggage, in a moment of desperation, seeking the healing of his daughter who may or may not be dead! Now we don’t know what happens to him beyond this story. All we can do is put ourselves in his place, that now finding this place of authenticity, how can he ever return to what was. Think of it this way, as we sung in the psalm today, Jairus, like me and you, so often need to be rescued from ourselves. When he steps forward from the crowd that gathers and is pushing in on Jesus, Jairus steps out of the role he played, rescued from the pretenses, the judgments, and the expectations of this synagogue official and comes to Jesus in total abandonment, as he is before the Lord and is healed. How can he ever go back? Why would he want to at that point?

The woman who hemorrhaged for twelve years also goes beyond the physical healing, although that is what catapults this encounter. Here’s a woman that has had to live in isolation on the fringes of society throughout these twelve years. Imagine how any of us would feel in that situation, to be driven out of the relational part of our lives? Yet, despite all that had been imposed on her by these same authorities, she too is going to step forward, like Jairus, in her own desperation, to get what she needs the most. Any pretense, judgment, or expectation that had been placed upon her or she has taken on herself, she is rescued from, in her most authentic self before the Lord and is healed. However, through that very act of healing she makes him unclean, taking on her burden, in order that she may go free and goes from being woman to daughter. Relationship is established. Like her, though, we often have to get to that point of desperation in our lives before we can let go and be rescued from ourselves in order to be my most authentic self before the Lord. When I heal, those who are primed become healed. Despite the crowds again pressing in and trying to prevent her from approaching the Lord, her most authentic self breaks through the crowd of pretense and judgment to stand before the Lord.

In the end, the young girls healing seems to be secondary to the rest. Again, it’s not to undermine the physical healings that people pray for and that we all seek out; there is great suffering in that form that needs to be healed by the Lord. However, even that can become an obstacle to the spiritual healing that needs to take place. We begin to identify with our suffering and our hurt, thinking that’s who we are. I am my cancer. I am my addiction. Whatever the case may be; that too needs spiritual healing that goes beyond the physicality of what hurts. The not-so-obvious of our own lives is easy to hide and often needs to reach that same point of desperation before we can finally surrender and we may be rescued from ourselves. It’s a tough thing that we hold onto, ourselves, or the selves that we think we are, for good or for ill. When we allow our authentic selves to stand before the Lord there is movement that takes place and our primary identity shifts from our hurt, our pretenses and judgments, our roles, to our identity in Christ. What is it we need to be rescued from in our lives? What are we holding onto that we know will only be given up if, like the death of his daughter, we are clinging to an unthinkable cliff, hanging onto dear life? When we let go and allow ourselves to be rescued from this hold, we not only step forward healed but we also step forward as the person we were created to be in order to live life fulfilled.

An Authentic Yes

Ezekiel 18: 25-28; Philippians 2: 1-11; Matthew 21: 28-32

As we swing into this section of Matthew’s Gospel we arrive at a scene change. We have now entered Jerusalem and tension begins to mount during Jesus’ final days before his death. The battle lines have already been drawn between Jesus and, well, just about every leader there is, both political and religious. Today we hear the first of five different controversies that are raised and only add to the tension between the camps. The first controversy is where John the Baptist receives the authority to say what he does, and like only Jesus can do, rather than answering the question, tells the unusual and yet obvious story in today’s Gospel.

Needless to say, since it is the first of the controversies, it’s important to remember that it is being told to the opposing “camp” of pharisees, chief priests, and elders of the people and so there is going to be something that trips them up and knock them out of the routine of their lives. It’s also important to know that the second son, the one who answers yes but doesn’t really mean it is the one that culturally would be the one that is accepted. It was best not to dishonor his father like that and so despite knowing that he has no intention on doing what the father has asked, says so anyway; it’s an immediate and expected response.

That’s the hang-up with the passage and the confrontation with the chief priests and elders of the people with Jesus. Most of what they hold others to are simply learned responses. We all have them. From the time we are little kids, we learn ways to protect ourselves from being hurt, from being rejected, from thinking we’re going to hurt others’ feelings, and so this defense of ours keeps us from living in and out of faith; rather we live in fear.

The chief priests, elders of the people, and the pharisees all had these learned responses. Even if they didn’t believe it or understand it, they had everything figured out and all the answers, including a predetermined understanding of God. Everything was viewed through that lens. And so when they now confront Jesus about John the Baptist, it’s a lot easier to understand because they didn’t want to hear what he had to say! They didn’t like it! It challenged them and their thinking. It wasn’t the learned responses that they were used to and what they feel they needed to protect, but rather he spoke and acted out of the divine indwelling. Of course, it ended up costing him his life as well.

We see this all too often in our politics, we see it often in the leadership of our Church, and I thin even was evident in the whole scandal that has hit the NFL the past weeks. All too often, our learned responses are what we think people want to hear or what we want them to hear in order to protect ourselves or the institution. If I speak the truth, I won’t get elected. If I speak the truth, the Church rejects. If I speak the truth, we lose income on football. If we have to work that hard to protect an institution or a symbol, it’s probably living not out of faith and ongoing conversion, but rather out of fear. Yet, we have learned how to get what we want, but as Paul tells us, “humbly regard others as more important than yourselves.”

For the Israelites whom Ezekiel speaks, it’s the blame game. Their learned response, and even ours at times, is to blame everyone else for our problems. It’s never because of the choices we make, or when our yes really doesn’t mean yes. They blame God; they blame the Egyptians; they blame, blame, blame everyone else, and yet, Ezekiel tells them today, the learned responses of life and of childhood must die in order to live. It really is a slap in the face when Jesus raises up the tax collectors and prostitutes but it is them who sought a change of mind and heart. It is them that saw the learned responses of life no longer worked and only led them further into sin and away from life and faith. It is only so long before it catches up with us, our emptiness from living this way, when we seek change in our lives.

My friends, it’s not easy. It takes a great deal of courage to let go of those learned responses and our ego and the fear of somehow being rejected; when in reality, we only end up rejecting ourselves in the process. We choose all too often fear over faith. We pray today for the courage to wake up each day and make our yes mean yes no longer to live out of fear but rather faith. It is a lifelong commitment to seeking conversion in our lives. It is a lifelong commitment to saying yes to faith over fear. It is a lifelong commitment to an authentic way of life.