A Weary World Rejoices

star-of-bethlehem-wallpaper-source_bff

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

A weary world rejoices…it is the night of our dear Savior’s birth

They are the words of the classic Christmas hymn, O Holy Night, which we celebrate this evening and there’s no denying that a weary world it so often seems…

The two great stories that identify us as Christians, tonight, of course, the incarnation of our God, God breaking in and taking on human flesh, and then the death and resurrection that we celebrate at Easter have many similarities to their surroundings as they unfold. If you reflect upon both there is great upheaval and chaos that is going on all around these events. Yet, all those who are so greatly connected to them don’t seem bothered by the fact. There of course is corruption by the political and religious authorities of the time, who all along plot the death of Jesus. There’s fear beyond belief. There’s yet another boot tramped in battle and another cloak rolled in blood as Isaiah tells us this evening. It is a weary world that Jesus encounters from the very beginning. All of it sets the scene for these two great events that define us.

But they also happen in darkness. It’s almost as if God can only seem to do something with people in darkness, when they are most vulnerable. And if that’s true, and it is true, then imaging the great things God is trying to do at this very moment in a world that continues to stand weary, and yet, on this night, manages to rejoice the birth of a Savior. But it doesn’t seem to destroy the darkness. It’s still there. The most vulnerable still are impacted the most by ongoing war and violence of a world plagued by fear. Who can get out of their minds, and maybe we’re not supposed to, the images of the children running for their lives out of Aleppo. Or as we lie down at night, others continue to remain very vulnerable on these very streets of this city, murder and death, night after night. It is a weary world and a weary world that welcomes the birth of the Savior and begins to make space for a God breaking through the weariness of the world.

But it’s us as well who experience such weariness in our own lives. It’s not just beyond us in outlying areas. It’s us when we are most vulnerable as well, as we lie down in the darkness of the night and we can no longer outrun our weariness and weighs upon our hearts and souls. As the day silences it only seems as if the mind begins to race, thinking of what hurts and worries us at this moment, a dying parent, a sick child, an unemployed spouse, a lost soul, all of this arises in the darkness of the night, when we too are most vulnerable for something, for someone, a God breaks through and begins to bring light to a weary load, no longer needing to figure it out on our own but a God who comes to ease and to point us in a new direction in life. It is the night, a night that lies weary.

It is the story of people Israel whom Isaiah speaks to today. They too know weariness and are searching for something and someone. Long before Jesus even enters the scene, Isaiah knows in his very being this Christ. It’s the only explanation for such words of hope to a people who have wandered in darkness and experience boot tramped in battle and cloak rolled in blood. They know ongoing war and violence. They know famine and poverty. And yet, when a new king ascends the throne, this great hymn is sung as if the past is the past and we begin anew. We no longer need to walk in the darkness and become victims of our own vulnerability, for a child is given us and a new leader will rule the earth. Once again, God desperately tries to break into the weariness of the lives of Israel, who so often try to go it alone. And over and over again, leads to further war and violence, famine and poverty. And once again, it is the most vulnerable that are forgotten, the faces of Aleppo that are now ingrained in our minds and hearts. That’s the irony of the story, it is in the most vulnerable places that God breaks in and it’s the place we will try to outrun and avoid. It is so often the place we fear the most.

Somehow, that fear takes hold. There is Herod, as well, who fears that another king has been born. In his own insecurities, someone is going to try to steal his power away from him, which, of course, isn’t power or peace at all, it’s fear that rules the land and Herod’s heart. But what Herod didn’t know because he was so encapsulated by himself, is that this king was different. This king wasn’t looking to ascend to his throne or somehow knock him off. This King wasn’t about ascending at all. This King was one who was descending into the depths of the earth, into the depths of our very being, to the most vulnerable place, our own poverty, our own weariness in order to give us life. Herod had nothing to fear and yet did and there was a price, a heavy price, that would be paid by the most vulnerable of his time.

And so chaos ensued. Darkness covered the earth and never seemed to lift. Yet, in the midst of it all in this couple, Mary and Joseph. Mary gives birth to the Savior as we see in this manger scene and now will have to confront the fear of Herod and their own fear. But they have nothing to fear. Mary doesn’t only give birth to the Savior into the world. Mary allows the incarnation to birth within her. Joseph allows this incarnation to be birthed within him. The shepherds, the most despised of their day, traitors, thieves, robbers, as they were, hear the message of the angels and their souls felt their worth. They too allowed the incarnation to be birthed in them and their lives are forever changed. In the midst of the chaos and darkness, a weary world rejoices for it is in those very moments that God desires to break into our lives, to meet us in our very humanity. Sure we like an Almighty God who ascends to the throne, but first, and most importantly, descends into the weariness of our lives. This is a vulnerable God, a scandalous God, that desires to love the places where we find ourselves most weary and to birth new life, to break into and through our own weariness. It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth and a weary world rejoices.

It is easy for us to get caught up in the nostalgia and sentimentality of the season, and maybe that’s easy for some of us to do. It’s an opportunity to block out the weariness and emptiness of our own lives, the poverty of the soul that desires worth. Yet, it’s not the peace this night provides or desire of us. Because as we gather, chaos still happens. Darkness is still the reality for many. War and violence haven’t stopped simply for Christmas. No, the world remains weary and will be weary, just as our lives very much can be even at a night when we rejoice. The message tonight is of hope, of a God who desires to love so much that is willing to do the unthinkable, a God who’s willing to descend from on high and meet us where we are, to birth us once again, so that we may be the bearers of light to the darkness, to the war-driven streets of Aleppo and Baltimore, and even to our most vulnerable places, where we feel most weary this day, for today we rejoice that our Savior has been born, breaking into our world and lives, and points us to a still more perfect, fulfilling way of life. Merry Christmas!

Healing Divides

2 Kings 5: 14-17; 2 Tim 2: 8-13; Luke 17: 11-19

So often when we hear these healing stories within the gospels, the physical healing taking place almost becomes somewhat secondary to the spiritual healing that takes place. They appear to be so intertwined with one another. But it’s not just the physically wounded one that Jesus tries to heal. If you look at it from the perspective of God, healing is not limited to just a select few. It’s what causes so much of the tension with Jesus, that this God somehow seems to go beyond the boundaries that have been set by the people. Only by the grace of God will that begin to fall away and hearts begin to expand.

On the part of Israel and his Jewish brothers and sisters, Jesus tries to break down their image of who they think God is. They were the chosen people and began to believe it on all levels. They thought somehow the grace of this God was somehow limited to them where everyone else perishes. At times they probably felt that they didn’t even need this God; they had it handled on their own. There’s no doubt that there was contention with the Samaritans. That’s our first hint that this is more than just a physical healing that is going to happen. But the Samaritans as well need healing that goes beyond the physical. They were considered outsiders and often less-than-human, especially one suffering from leprosy. There had to be some feeling, for any of us, that this God had somehow abandoned them. So it all sets the scene for Jesus to bring about healing. For one it is a humbling and for another a raising up. How often does our own pride get in the way, thinking we can do it ourselves?

For Israel, as with Naaman in today’s first reading, there is a need for humility. He too had to get over himself. He just constantly fights with Elisha over what is being asked of him in order to be healed. Again, he had this idea of who God was and couldn’t understand why he was being asked to go into the murky waters of the Jordan to be healed. He couldn’t get over that. He was better than that and was insistent that he deserved better treatment from God. He questioned how this could happen to him in the first place, knowing his place. Yet, there was this one thing that he hated about himself that he couldn’t let go of. But Elisha was persistent as well. Elisha already understands the imminent God.

We see it in his response to the gift Naaman tries to give him. Elisha refuses and not because he somehow doesn’t see himself as being worthy of it. Rather, Elisha knows full well that this healing had nothing to do with him. It was all this God who leads Naaman to the murky waters of the Jordan working within and through him. Elisha the Prophet was an instrument of God’s grace and healing. In turn, Naaman comes through the experience a changed man, humbled by a God manifested in a different way, a new way than he ever could have expected. The very thing he hated about himself becomes the fullness of the grace given by God. Naaman finally opens himself up and God steps into his life.

Yet, there must be an openness on our part if we are going to experience such healing in our lives. We live with such division in our city, our country, and our world, with each side claiming to hold the truth. Yet, they’re all wrong. It’s God who reveals the truth. If we are in need of healing with anything beyond the physical, it’s a healing of God. We have a God problem. Using the imagery that Paul uses today in the second reading, our hearts remain chained. When we close ourselves off to the gospel we remain chained. Here he was in his final days of life, in prison, and yet speaks with such freedom. He has allowed himself to be open to the healing power of God, and even for him, persecutor of the Christians, the boundaries begin to fall away and God expands. Paul stands as a witness to us all of the possibility of conversion in our own lives. When we allow ourselves to be opened in that way, we become agents of change. We become agents of healing as he was and as Elisha was in today’s first reading.

In the time of such division with our politics and beyond, we must seek healing. If we feel we don’t need it, then we pray for an openness to it. We are all in need of healing from the divided lives we often live. It will only be through God that we will find such healing, such reconciliation. We can’t survive much longer as a race if we don’t find a way to seek understanding rather than living in fear and allowing our pride to stand in the way. God desires this healing for us now, at this very moment. As we open ourselves up to this healing, we begin to change the world. We become the agents of change. We become the agents of healing. It’s what this city, this country, and this world need now more than ever and God has us primed for such a healing in this very moment of our lives.

Humbling Connectedness

Sirach 3: 17-18, 20, 28-29; Hebrews 12: 18-19, 22-24; Luke 14: 1, 7-14

I don’t need to tell you that Jesus has this tendency to create tension wherever he goes. It’s as if conflict follows him into all these different situations. Today is no different. He stands, as the writer of Hebrews tells us today, the Mediator, between these two opposing realities.

There’s first the reality of the Pharisees. They are the center of religious power and a power that often went far beyond religion. They saw themselves in many ways as gods and the keeper of the law. Here he is in the leading Pharisees house on the Sabbath so naturally there’s going to be tension. He heals a guy which already counts as a strike against him and then begins to observe the actions of the Pharisees, who, on many levels, are oblivious to what’s going on and how their actions appear and speak to others.

Then there’s this other reality that he presents to them through the telling of parables and who should be invited to dinner. It’s the poor, the crippled, the lame, and every other outcast of society. It’s the people that have been ostracized by the pharisees for one reason or another. Yet, they are the ones that Mediator raises up in humility. So what makes their reality so unique? I’m not saying everyone because they too are human but the difference often comes in this deep connectedness that they have that goes beyond the community that they’ve been ostracized from, a deeper connection with what is bigger than themselves. They’ve had to learn because of their lives to have faith and put trust in the One that is bigger than themselves, as opposed to the pharisees whom often saw themselves as the ones that are bigger than the other.

All of this is the realities that Jesus steps into as Mediator and tries to find another way, a third way as it is often called, to bring together these opposing opposites. But we know not only from the time of Jesus but our own time as well that it just doesn’t seem to happen. When the people in authority and who hold the power are put into such a position they don’t want to budge. The buckle down and try to hold onto their power, which isn’t even real in the first place. Jesus brings up fear and uncomfortableness in their lives and of course becomes the scapegoat for their fear and uncomfortableness. He is a threat not only to them but to the system, the institution that they represent, and they become self-serving. It’s no longer about the people who are in touch with this deeper reality, it’s about holding on and trying to save something that isn’t real in the first place.

Now we know how it turns out. Eventually these systems even today must die. They know longer have the purpose they once had but that requires all of us to change. The pharisees isn’t just these guys back in the time of Jesus but they are me and they are you. We don’t like things to change but when the system no longer serves the most vulnerable and becomes self-serving, it’s lost it’s purpose. Like them, there is that part of us that wants to hold onto it. It’s the critic in ourselves that will do everything to prevent change and to try to sabotage anything new. When we don’t, we have what we have today, this sense of disconnectedness that exists between the ruling class, as it is with the pharisees, and become blinded by their own behavior, and what’s most importation, this deeper connection that we hold, this inherent dignity that comes from the Eternal Mediator that tries to reconcile these parts of ourselves to makes us whole, as individuals, community, city, and even country.

None of us can deny that the systems are broken in our Church and government. They may have had their place in a time but not anymore. Heck, even a few weeks ago Jesus threw the family institution into the mix as well. All of it is a voice crying out to be heard that is being ignored. Those in power want to continue to keep others at bay, to keep that disconnectedness, creating the violence we see in our own lives and beyond. The readings, though, today speak of humility. Humility is when we become aware of how we have allowed the pharisee in ourselves to lead us and disconnect us from our own humanity and the One bigger than ourselves. It’s is a dying to self and giving up that self for a greater good for the people, especially the most vulnerable. If we don’t take care of those that have been ostracized we have truly lost our way. We pray today for that humility in our lives, in our city, and certainly in this nation.

Pride has quite the way of taking hold of our lives and not wanting to let go, blinding us to those being called to the banquet as Jesus speaks of today. We have become so blinded by that in our own country and our hold to nationalism and other pharisaical ways that we become attached to in our lives. We pray for that humility to be able to sit with the tension in our own lives and to meet the Eternal Mediator in the heart of it all, calling us to let go and to connect with our deeper identity, our inherent dignity in Christ.

Family Trials

Jeremiah 38: 4-6, 8-10; Hebrews 12: 1-4; Luke 12: 49-53

There are no mincing words in today’s gospel. It seems as if there’s no good news as Jesus speaks of division among family, if you believe good news is simply keeping the peace. We must, though, put it in context. For the past several weeks, probably back to the Good Samaritan in mid-July, Jesus has been, in one way or another, attacking different institutions. He doesn’t always do it by judgment directly, but rather through these rather provocative statements and stories which keep inviting the disciples into deeper understanding. He goes after the political authorities. He certainly goes after the religious institution of his day. So why not go down to the most basic of institutions that we all are a part of, family.

The time of Jesus was no different than our own. Institutions, including family, are about keeping the peace rather than seeking peace. Now we all know what that means. It’s about avoiding problems out of fear. There always seems to be the “elephant in the room” that no one is allowed to talk about out of fear how it is going to be seen by the rest of the world. It’s about avoiding these conflicts to grow and become more integrated people; it’s about keeping the peace as we have determined and anyone that tries to disrupt that is so often ostracized.

It should be no surprise to any of us that it would filter up into these larger institutions that we are a part of in this world. We have seen it in the Church over the years and the abuse scandal. It became about protecting the institution rather than the people. We certainly see it with our political parties. You even hear them say it that it’s for the party and not about the good of the country. Institution first before the people that are being impacted by it all. Even if you read any of the DOJ report on Baltimore this week you would have seen more of the same. It’s about protecting the institution rather than the good of the people. These realities are the same realities of the time of Jesus, but over these weeks he’s trying to move the disciples to see differently and hear differently. Today, he takes it to the core, the family, where so much of it begins and we learn our learned responses to dealing with life that we so often have to let go of in order to grow and become the prophetic voices of the disciples.

No one does it better than Jeremiah that we hear in today’s first reading. Who’s he up against? Political class. He’s facing the princes of his day who want him dead. Jeremiah has the conscience the size of the earth and doesn’t always know what to do with it. He struggles greatly trying to be faithful to the word of God in his life. He allows the word to change his heart and then struggles when he finds himself in these situations where he has to speak truth and raise consciousness of the leaders. So what do they do with him? He’s thrown into the cistern. He too is ostracized. They don’t try to reconcile the problems and seek the good. Rather, they blame him and try to get rid of what they think is the problem. King Zedekiah is thrown in the middle of it and is left with a choice. Is he going to keep the peace with the princes or side with Jeremiah. It’s so often advocates for the prophets that frees them and that’s the case for Jeremiah. He’s freed despite the danger that he poses to these institutions because of the interior freedom that Jeremiah continues to seek. That’s the peace that Jesus seeks for his disciples and us.

But there is a great price for living differently in that way. The writer of Hebrews speaks of the suffering that one must undergo in life with Jesus being the model for his disciples. He really isn’t about keeping the peace as we have come to know. Rather, he desires a deeper peace. It’s messy. It’s hard. It comes with great suffering and great cost with the possibility about being thrown into the cistern, sinking in the mud. But when we allow our hearts to be changed by the word and we grow as adults it comes with great freedom as it does for Jeremiah.

Unfortunately, we too continue to live at a time when prophetic voices are silenced. We don’t want to hear it on all levels of institution. We live in great fear so often and sell fear because it becomes the norm. Rather than confronting the real problems that this city faces, this country faces, and this world faces, we try rather to keep the peace and protect something that isn’t even real in the first place! We strive for our own interest rather than seeking a more just society by entering into the messiness of our lives, just as Jesus does for us.

As we continue in prayer today, we pray not only for families that do face great divisions but the divisions that exist on all levels of our lives. Rather than seeking to keep the peace we must enter into the difficult conversations to seek reconciliation in our lives and world. It begins at the most basic level of our lives, the family. We can’t expect change on greater levels if we’re not willing to do it in our own lives. Otherwise we simply blame and continue this cycle of victimhood all at the price of human lives. We pray for peace, not in the way we have come to know, but in the peace that Jesus desires for us; that our hearts may be opened to these words and change the way we see, hear, and love so that the kingdom that Jesus preaches may become a reality, a kingdom of eternal peace.

Neighborly Love

Deut 30: 10-14; Luke 10: 25-37

The gospel we hear today, the Good Samaritan, is one of those passages that is really hard to preach on. We’ve heard it a thousand times and so we know it and then have a tendency to tune it out. It makes it hard to hear it different and it makes it hard to says something different about it as well. Because it’s so familiar, even in our laws, we view it from our own particular lens. All of our lives and our baggage is viewed through the lens of the story. There’s also the backdrop of the revolving door of violence that we once again see in this city and country that really challenges us to look at the question of who is our neighbor and in what ways are we neglecting others. Lastly, there is the backdrop of the gospel itself and what was happening at that time when the story is told and written down that influences why it’s told. So there’s a lot going on to understanding and yet being challenged to hear and live in a new way through the story of the Good Samaritan, bearing in mind all of these backdrops that influence the story. Quite honestly, it would have been a whole lot easier if the story ended after the first question and answer, but Luke, unlike the others, has this way of throwing zingers into the story that make you stop, just as he does by adding the story of the elder son in the Prodigal Son parable.

One of the main backdrops of the gospel itself is this law of what it means to be clean and unclean. As a matter of fact, if you read the gospels through it’s as if they were obsessed with this law. The reality is, according to the law, the priest and the Levite in today’s gospel did nothing wrong. They did what the law had prescribed at crossing the street and avoiding the person that was beat up, robbed, and now half dead. However, their obsession with the law stands in the way of the essence of that very law of loving God and neighbor, as the scholar of the law asks of Jesus. Everything becomes about separation. They learn to separate themselves from the unclean, the impure, what they perceive as wrong and bad, all for the sake of their own self. Their entire relationship with God was tied up in this belief and still is for some, thousands of years later! As long as I separate from it and stay clean then I’m good with God and good with others. If the scholar of the law wasn’t so hung up on tripping Jesus up and winning this argument, he would have left it go at that point rather than posing the real question, then, who is my neighbor. The scholar opens the door and Jesus walks through.

In comes the Samaritan. The one the scholar would have considered the most unclean and the one that is hated enters the scene with the largest heart. There are probably a variety of reasons that we can say on behalf of the Samaritan. The Samaritan really has nothing to lose. Although the Pharisees would try to hold them to their obsession with the law, they don’t. That’s not to say that the Samaritan is perfect. They have their own issues with the Jews but the difference is, the Samaritans are already unclean and on the bottom of the barrel and they really have nothing to lose. The culpability comes on behalf of the Pharisees who are the holders of the law and have the perceived power; the Samaritans, not so much.

The one that really would find themselves in a bind is the one lying on the side of the road, beaten up, robbed, and half dead. They’re most likely a Jew coming from Jerusalem and now they have been cared for by the one hated the most and the one who is unclean, the Samaritan. We can only believe that there would be a crisis of faith on his part as to how to reconcile this obsession with the law and the experience of the essence of the same law by the one who had been separated from the rest. You know, it’s one thing to consider myself neighgor to the one that talks like me, acts like me, talks like me, looks like me, believes like me. But, you got to believe that was never the intention nor the demand of this gospel. Quite frankly, that plays from the place of comfort, from the place of the priest and Levite of ourselves. When we do this, that’s how so much violence continues to happen around us because we continue to separate and divide ourselves and deciding for ourselves who will be our neighbor rather than seeing all, especially those who are hurting the most as our neighbor. We can be complicit in violence simply by our lack of responsibility and empathy towards the other.

In his own farewell discourse today, Moses tries to convey that to the Israelites. They think they can’t do it without him, that somehow he’s the one who takes responsibility for their lives. He says in such a beautiful way that it’s not his responsibility! You don’t need to cross the sea or go up into the sky, the gift to bridge these divides is already within each of you. It’s the responsibility of all of us. We can choose to blame and not take responsibility for our own violence in our lives when we fail to forgive and reconcile or when we choose to cross the street out of fear of the one who may make me unclean, but deep down we’ll start to feel as if something is missing, something is separated and is yearning to return and unite.

We can make this story about what we normally do about going and being kind but what the heck does that mean anyway. The demand of Jesus in this story and overall is not kindness, albeit important, but rather love and mercy. If we continue to separate ourselves, and we do it with this city, that somehow that’s their problem and not ours. No. It’s all our problem because hurt is a human problem. So much violence connotes hurting people, people wanting to be heard, a voice crying out, and if we choose to ignore it, then we are no better than the priest and Levite in today’s gospel. According to the letter of the law, we’ve done nothing wrong, but at our very essence and the essence of our humanity, we are just as culpable because they are our neighbor and our neighbor is us. In what ways am I choosing to separate, often at my own doing and out of a deeply rooted fear, that which I have deemed unclean, impure, bad, or wrong, the Samaritan within myself, that helps me to empathize with the other; not just be kind to neighbor, but to love more deeply all our brothers and sisters, both here and beyond.

Pushing Through the Pain

Isaiah 35: 4-7a; James 2: 1-5; Mark 7: 31-37

“Be strong, fear not!” are the words we hear from Isaiah today, a message of hope to people Israel as they push through and return from Exile. Yet, it’s a message that doesn’t always seem to jive with the reality of what we see in our world. It’s hard to forget, and maybe we’re not supposed to, the image of that young Syrian boy washed up on the shore, dead, fleeing for life. Or closer to home, a young ten year old shot this week in the city, among many others who have been shot and or killed over these past months…it seems difficult to have hope in the face of so much suffering. We somehow think that politics will, in some way, take care of these problems, fix them, make them go away, and yet we can see how far that goes. These aren’t political problems but rather deep human suffering that can’t be fixed, only healed.

Like any of us, when we find ourselves in such desperation, and maybe that’s the hard thing for people like us who live pretty comfortably, to be at wits end with life, trying to survive, to imagine what it must be like. Yet, we are all designed to know deep down that there’s something more to life. This can’t be it. There’s got to be something more to it all than such suffering. So people flee for somewhere else and something more, hoping for a better life and willing to risk it all for that, even to the point of death. Most of us don’t know such desperation nor suffering in that way.

It’s so often the motivation for people Israel, now finding themselves moving out of exile in today’s first reading from Isaiah. Even in the midst of believing God had abandoned them. Somehow God had driven them into such destruction. Somehow God didn’t care. Yet they lived with that hope that Isaiah speaks of today. There is that internal drive within them that carries them on and through some of the darkest moments and days of their lives. How can they ever forget the experience? They keep pushing through, fear not, be strong, that internal drive that takes them through the pain and into life, back to the place they call home. So often we hear Pope Francis say go to the place of the pain, the place of suffering. Now we know we must do it in our own lives as well, but he encourages us to go to it in our world. It’s not only the other who will be healed, it’s us who are changed and transformed.

It’s way too easy for us to separate ourselves from the pain of the world and our own pain for that matter. It’s so easy for us to say, all of what we see going on around us and the world, is not our problem. Yet, if another suffers, we all suffer. How can we not be so moved when we see that young boy lying on the shoreline? How can we not be so moved when we hear of ten year olds and teens being shot and or murdered in this city? Maybe it’s not them that are in exile but me and you. Maybe it’s us who are self-reliant. Maybe it’s us who, comparatively speaking, live pretty well. Maybe it’s us who are self-sufficient and without such great needs. Maybe it’s all of us that contribute and turn a blind eye to our own participation in corrupt systems that perpetuate so much of the suffering in our world and lives. Those who suffer and live in desperation have nowhere else to turn but to a power much larger than themselves, praying to pass through into the life that God calls them to now. We’ll do anything to avoid it and turn away from it rather than to learn as people Israel, to go straight into the eye of the storm of our lives and the lives around us in order to heal the other and ourselves. God wants to use that pain to bring not only us but others to life.

Jesus goes out of his way to seek out the deaf man with a speech impediment in today’s gospel. If you check out the geography lesson at the beginning of the gospel today you’ll find that he goes nearly thirty miles out of his way to reach this place of pain, to go to this place of suffering. We must keep in mind the life that this guy would have led at that time. He too would have been isolated and not a part of the community. He was seen as having something wrong with him. It’s almost as if Jesus was honing in on his pain, his own exile, separated from the community, wanting to bring him into life. He literally, as the reading tells us, touches with his hand and finger the very place that hurts to make whole again. This guy is not only one who needs physical healing but spiritually and internally as well. But again, who is it really that lives in exile; is it not again the one who turns a blind eye and have exiled him from the community?

James certainly seems to say it quite plainly and openly in today’s second reading and challenges us to recognize where we are separating those who are suffering in our lives and world. When we exile those who are poor and suffering we exile ourselves. As he says, it says more about us than it does the poor. It’s our own judgment. When we can’t confront the pain in our own lives it’s increasingly difficult to walk through it with others. James challenges us to do so in this reading today. Like people Israel and so many others in our world, there is hope in that we will pass through into life.

We will do anything to detour and separate the suffering of our lives and that of the world. We simply try to politicize it and make it someone else’s problem. Yet, the more we choose to do it that way the more we exile ourselves. That has consistently been the message of Pope Francis and I’m sure it will be when he comes here in a few weeks. There will always be that part of us that tells us there’s got to be something better but to get there, oh, it can be so painful, to the point of losing our very lives. Yet, that’s where we are led, to the place of healing through the place of pain which leads, exactly where God has always wanted us, the place of life. In the face of such adversity and suffering in our world, we pray we continue to not turn a blind eye or a deaf heart, but rather dive into the suffering of our lives and world. We will not only be changed but the world with change with us.

Great Love in the Midst of Deep Suffering

1 Jn 3: 18-24; John 15: 1-8

Remain in me as I remain in you…and become my disciples.

I wasn’t about to let fear to hold me back from going further down into the city this week. How easy it would have been to remain hunkered down in my house, feeling helpless, and never stepping out the front door and down the street because of fear. Yet, I didn’t want to believe that what I saw on television was true. I didn’t want to believe places burning, national guard in place, people destroying property. I didn’t want to believe it was true, even though I knew it was at least partially true. But I wasn’t going to allow fear to stop me. Heck, as crazy as it is, I was probably more worried that something would happen to my car than to myself. All the times I’ve driven through West Baltimore and other areas, I never really felt unsafe. Uncomfortable, yeah, probably, but never unsafe.

And so I went. And I went a few times after that to different locations, mainly to listen more than anything. On Tuesday evening I found myself driving through the national guard, as surreal as that was. Quite honestly, the only other time I’ve experienced something like that was with the United Nations in the different Third World countries that I’ve done mission trips to over the years, and yet, here it was in my own city and in my backyard. That alone left me anxious, wondering what I was doing and where I was at that time.

At the gathering I had attended, I found myself overwhelmed by it all. I was overwhelmed that this was real and it was happening in this city, even though I am aware of the history of the city and the many issues it’s had over the past decades and beyond. There was a young African American woman that spoke and all I truly remember were the tears and her words, “Where there is deep pain, great love will follow.” I was truly overwhelmed by it all and nearly lost it myself as I looked out over the crowd that had gathered, wondering, disillusioned, hopeful, questioning,still in shock with tension that could be cut with a knife, and this young woman put her finger right on it, where there is deep pain, great love will follow…and she really believes it.

Remain in me as I remain in you…we hear parts of that in today’s Gospel from John and have reflected deeply upon these readings this week. The message is carried over in the second reading as well. More than anything, when there is such deep pain, and I witnessed it and heard it the times I’ve ventured out into the streets, listening and remaining is what we can most offer. In these situations we want to do something and that’s great and often necessary, but to be the peacemakers, the disciples, that we are called to be, we must also learn to sit with the tension and the rawness of reality in order to grow from and through it. Once again it will be quite easy to sweep things under the rug or try to fix them through politics, but what we experience here this week is something much deeper than problems that can be fixed. We must go below the surface of the skin and ask ourselves serious questions and sit with the uncomfortableness of it all to grow as individuals and community. Where there is deep pain, great love will follow; remain in me as I remain in you…and be my disciples.

Along with the deep pain and certainly not disconnected from it all was a sense of hopelessness. When you have nothing to lose, who cares! There’s more than the untimely death of a young man in all of this; although he becomes the catapult for it all. There is racism. There is extreme poverty in this city. There is a lack of jobs, especially for lower income neighborhoods. There is resentment. There is anger. There is the lack of quality education. There is a lack of fathers and men who can mentor and be the non-judgmental figure for young men that have given up hope. There is a drug problem, but that too lies in the surface of deeper hurt, anger, grief, and so much that we hold onto as individuals and community. Yet, where there is deep pain, great love will follow, when we no longer avoid the pain but rather go through it, the narrow path we call the Cross, that leads to that great love.

I question how effective religion has been. When there is so much hopelessness, where is faith? Even in the midst of despair, when we have that grounding in faith and Christ Crucified now raised from the dead and remain in him as he remains in us, we manage to see hope through it all. When we lose that, where then do we turn? We become boxed in to our own little world, overcome by our own pain and grief and never to experience the great love. All too often we are left with politics and activists in it all, which are fine as far as they go, but that’s not what we’re called to, we’re called as the gospel tells us today, to be his disciples. Disciples bring healing. Disciples bring unity, not division and discord. Disciples bring reconciliation. Disciples bring a listening ear and that great love with them where they go, most especially to that place of deep pain and suffering. If we’re afraid to go there we will find ourselves to go down the same path again, not to be transformed, but rather clinging to clanging cymbals, hope that isn’t really hope in the first place, expecting change to happen around us where as disciples, we’re called to seek change to happen to us, all of us.

I leave you with two questions to reflect upon this week in light of all that we have seen and listened to this week. One, where is God in the midst of it all? Even in the deepest pain, God is present. Where did we see God? And second, in what way is God calling me to change, to be healed, to grow in light of these events? That’s sometimes the tougher question to answer for all of us because we don’t always want to admit that we have to change. We can easily disconnect from these events and say they don’t concern me. Well guess what, we all participate in the dysfunction of these systems and as long as we are still breathing, God calls us to grow and change. That’s reality. So, ask yourself, how did I react this week? Where did I overreact or judge? That, my friends, is exactly where God wants to meet us and change us into his disciples. Where there is deep pain, great love will follow. As Christ’s disciples, in a city that hurts and in a world that hurts, we bring that love and we don’t allow fear to stop us and hold us back from being the people and community Christ is calling us to be at this time and the city needs us to be at this time. We are called to bring healing. We are called to be the peacemakers, which is hard work, messy, but in the end, the only way. We are called to bring reconciliation. We are called to bring a listening ear, while remaining in him as he remains in us…now, be my disciples.