‘Thoughts and Prayers’

Proverbs 9: 1-6; Eph 5: 15-20; John 6: 51-58

“Watch carefully how to live, not as foolish persons but as wise, making the most of the opportunity, because the days are evil.  Therefore, do not continue in ignorance (and I’d add, arrogance), but try to understand what is the will of the Lord.”  Ephesians 5: 15-17

You know, I didn’t know how I was going to preach today.  Quite honestly, I didn’t know who would show up.  Once again this Church gave us a thousand reasons to jump ship again. If you’ve been on the fence, well, good-bye, gone goes another generation. Yet, here we are, and maybe those of us who are here recognize that there’s more to all of this than the institution.  Maybe we understand, as we sang today, that our firm foundation is in something, or for that matter, someone else, in God, in Christ crucified, in the heart of Jesus.  You know I’m a Scranton guy so it’s been a little more personal.  The bishop who accepted me into formation was listed.  Heck, the bishop that ordained me, on the list for covering up and concealing and for what and to protect what.

Yet, what do we get, thoughts and prayers.  Our hearts go out to victims.  Thoughts and prayers?  Where have we heard that before.  Oh yeah, politicians every time there’s a tragedy.  Empty words.  Politicians who get caught with their hand in the cookie jar.  Politicians who are sorry for getting caught more than for what they had done.  Politicians who’d rather use prayer to push something away and to continue to live in denial that something needs to change.  Thought and prayers.  All the while that abuse of power continues to persist.  Sure there’s been a lot that has been put in place since 2002 but it hasn’t dealt with the heart of these issues and the abuse of power.  What do you end up with?  Just as Paul says, ignorance and arrogance on our part, failing people along the way.

I’ve been criticized over the years for not speaking on moral issues like this and here’s why.  Our foundation is not in morality nor is it in dogma. For that matter, our morality has been hijacked by politicians that it’s nearly impossible anyway without become one of them. Our foundation is in relationship with God, with Christ crucified, with the heart of Jesus.  Now you’re going to hear people say that the Church will carry on, and that’s true, it’s been through many scandals and crises in its history.  But like all the rest it still remains true that when it arises, it arises for the fact that the institution disconnects from its heart.  It disconnects from the heart of Jesus and ignorance and arrogance continue to persist.  I don’t preach it because I know full well it’s not our foundation and I can never live up to it.  None of us can!  Ever!  And if you want to preach high and almighty, do as I say and not as I do, you’re bound to fall and fall hard.  And for what?  To sacrifice one’s soul and one’s heart?  To protect what?  Quite frankly, it needs to fall a part just as much as our political system does.  They no longer serve the people but rather power.  Our firm foundation is in relationship with God, in Christ crucified, in the heart of Jesus that is always calling us to come home, to seek mercy, forgiveness, and love.  When we lose that, well, this is what we end up with, more of the same, ignorance and arrogance.  Thoughts and prayers.  It’s not enough.

The readings all touch upon it.  Today from the Book of Proverbs, Solomon compares lady wisdom with fools.  Now lady wisdom, as we heard today, has a sense of openness.  There’s freedom.  Lady wisdom is welcoming of all to the table and does not exclude or exude force upon people.  Lady wisdom finds power within that relationship with God.  Now we didn’t continue the reading today, but if you read on Solomon will compare that with following a fool.  Don’t follow a fool Solomon says.  A fool knows nothing and yet is enticing.  A fool looks to take advantage of one who is naïve and lacks sense.  A fool is unstable and senseless, all about themselves.  A fool cares only about self-interest, that same power that is abused.  There’s a difference.  Lady wisdom is more than just thoughts and prayers.  Lady wisdom understands the one who’s been abused and taken advantage of, welcoming all to the table, especially those who recognize that need.

Jesus personifies Lady wisdom as we’ve been hearing in the sixth chapter of John the past month.  You know, the one thing that gives hope is that it is often the crowd that begins to understand who this Jesus is.  They may not necessarily know what the words mean.  They may not necessarily know what he’s all about, but they do know there’s something different about him than who he’s often compared, to the Pharisees of his day.  They recognize he’s feeding them with something that is nourishing rather than the stones of the Pharisees.  It’s the Pharisees that want to fight Jesus because he becomes a threat to their power, ironically.  He threatens their control over the people who are also, do as I say, not as I do, holding people to a standard that no one is capable of!  Of course, it will lead to his death.  He becomes the scapegoat simply for gravitating to the poor, the abused, the disadvantaged.  Even he recognizes that it’s impossible for the heart of a Pharisee to be converted in their own ignorance and arrogance.

And it’s no different today.  What do we do, and this you will see as well because I’ve already seen it out there?  We scapegoat.  Well, if we get rid of this one it’ll take care of the problem.  If we get rid of gay people all will be well.  If we dump Vatican II it’ll fix everything.  If we get rid of whomever lacks the purity somehow it’ll make it all right.  Wrong.  That’s denial.  That’s trying to live with a 1950 Church in the year 2018.  We must return to the foundation.  Without a foundation we fall.  When the storms arise, and they always arise, we run.  Honestly, running is easy.  It’s much harder to weather a storm.  It’s much easier to blame.  It’s much easier to live in denial and offer our thoughts and prayers than to change.

Now, there’s only so much I can do as an insider in this institution, and I’m well aware of that.  However, it doesn’t mean I stop fighting.  I will continue to fight, especially for the younger priests who are going to have to live with this ongoing mess.  However, the real power is with you.  It’s with you.  What do the Pharisees as well as any institution or political system want you to believe, that you’re powerless.  You’re not.  You have the power to force institutions to change, including this one.  You have the power to push institutions to move beyond denial, beyond thoughts and prayers.  If you’re here today you already know where and who the foundation is, the one who continues to feed us with life-giving bread rather than stones of shame and guilt.  It’s all of you that need to push us forward.

And so we pray for God’s grace this day for more than thoughts and prayers.  We pray for God’s grace to return to the foundation that, never, no never, forsakes, as the hymn goes.  We pray for this Church and all of us to return to the heart of Jesus in these moments.  As I said, it’s too easy to leave and run.  The disciples did it.  Heck, we’ll hear it in John’s gospel shortly as well because it’s too hard.  We’re more than an institution when we put relationship first and allow all else to flow from the source.  We’ve had enough thoughts and prayers.  We’ve certainly had enough ignorance and arrogance.  We pray that we take Lady Wisdom’s advice to us today, to open the doors, to be vulnerable in the face of adversity, to lay aside old ways of thinking, and to personify Wisdom in the heart of Jesus.  It is this relationship with God, with Christ crucified, with the heart of Jesus that will change us and move us forward while returning us to what matters most.

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Will We Ever Learn?

I forced myself to watch the grand jury report from Pennsylvania regarding abuse in the Catholic Church.  I was partially curious as to the findings but also spent many formative years in the Diocese of Scranton, which included a few familiar names to me in the report, most of which I had already known.  At times it was hard to listen, not simply as a priest but as a human being.  At times, listening to how the sacred became scandalized and in people’s lives nearly seemed impossible, a thinking that has often led to denial in the life of the Church.  Anything is possible when it comes to human beings.  I still recall the words of Cardinal Tobin at a conference I attended earlier this summer, “All of us sitting in this room are really only a phone call away from our lives being destroyed even if we had done nothing.”  If that’s not perspective on what we live with I’m not sure what is.

I suppose the other common question is, “Why?”  Sure, there’s the question as to why things happen and why was it allowed to continue.  There are certainly plenty of justifications given by leaders.  Unfortunately, I’m not in a position to answer those questions and even more unfortunately is that those who can answer them still often refuse to answer.  The question, and not only posed by others to myself but the very question that at times weighs on my own heart, is, “Why do you stay?  Why do you keep staying with an institution that has done what it has done, and worse yet, fails to take responsibility?”  All good questions, and quite frankly, not always answers, or at least good answers, especially when it feels as if you’re climbing aboard the Titanic as it finds itself already halfway submerged in frozen water.

I believe there’s always been a part of me that has desired to push for reform from the edge of the inside, as Pope Francis often refers.  It’s just a part of who I am as a person.  I can’t say anything has really surprised me, even Cardinal McCarrick, but instead saddens me more than anything and often angers me that protecting and clinging becomes more important than human life.  I believe when the deacon preached about it a few weeks ago I had commented that I’m not here to tell you how to live.  Quite frankly, I have a hard enough time keeping myself in order than telling others how to make choices and what to do with their lives.  All I can really do is help shed light on situations and then give others the freedom to make choices.  When you believe your “business” is to be the ethical or moral police of the world, well, as it was with the Pharisees, you’re going to fail and the harder you try to prevent it and cover-up, the harder the fall.

Someone had said to me that they don’t want this to happen to the Church, but that ship sailed long ago.  Honestly, the Church has brought it upon herself over the years.  It’s tried to live with the illusion of perfection, which, like it or not, will without a doubt lead to putting yourself above God, and like Adam and Eve, it will always lead to failure after failure until you learn to accept that an illusion is just that, an illusion.  It’s not real.  None of it is real.  You cannot be God or Christ nor put yourself in that position.  Just like the rest of our lives, failure can lead to despair or it can lead to change, transformation, just as our faith teaches.  The problem is we’ve become so disconnected from the heart that we believe policy and new rules and zero tolerance is going to solve all problems.  It won’t.  Sure, it has a place, but all of this, and maybe why I stay connected is, about transforming hearts and leading others to that freedom, just as Moses did, with great difficulty, with people Israel through the desert to the Promised Land.  If we just took time to put aside dogma, teaching, and all the other head stuff, and allow ourselves to be transformed from the inside out we are changed forever and so much of the rest falls into place.  Thank God that God is bigger than the Church.  Thank God.  Otherwise I’d have every reason to despair and toss it aside forever.  Thank God I have been forgiven over and over again for stupid decisions and choices that I have made in my life.  It’s the only way.  When you think you’re simply the agent of forgiveness and fail to remember you need it more than anyone, problems will arise.  And they have.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s deflating and hurtful because as a priest we’re all lumped together, just like every other aggregate.  When things first broke back in 2002 I was still a seminarian so it was different then.  I was still protected from it in some sense.  I lived with, albeit a false hope at the moment, that the Church finally learned its lesson.  It hasn’t entirely.  Sure, some, but there’s more to go.  That’s obvious now.  All of us who continue to remain, though, must hold others accountable.  That I believe now more than ever.  It’s going to take a new generation to begin to dismantle, and it needs a dismantling, of the “old boys club” thinking, which exists not only in the Church, but in politics and many other institutions.  It’s not that men should be banned and shunned.  Rather, men need to grow up and certainly men in the Church need to grow up and become more attuned to their own interior life.  It’s the only way.  Buckling down, turning back the clock, tightening grips may seem like the answer but long-term only makes matters worse.  You can only hold someone under water or in a noose so long before it becomes fatal.  We’d find ourselves where we often find ourselves, reactionary rather than proactive, bound rather than free, hiding rather than open, sick rather than healthy, for it is true, you’re only as sick as your worst secret.  We have all the proof we need on that one.

It isn’t to say anything is new in what has been reported out of Pennsylvania, but the very visceral reaction of people, media, and certainly on social media, shows just how little has been done to change hearts, transform, and reform a sick culture, and that goes for Church and culture at large.  It’s easy to say that it all happened before 2002 but that by no means indicates that the culture has changed for the better.  Like any family that thrives on secrecy, which may seem important at the moment, the longer you sit on it and build on that secrecy, the harder it is to contain it over time.  Eventually the truth is revealed and exposed in and through the light.  If anything, we should be thankful that it is being exposed, but again, as long as it leads to transformation.  The fear always is that we’ll wait it out, let it pass, and we can go on with “business as usual”.  Business.  Yes, that’s often how it feels.  Hopefully it can lead to a return to who we’re really supposed to be, agents of change and transformation, conversion of heart.  The rest means nothing if there’s no foundation to grow on. We become the house on the sand that collapses amid the storm.

I still hope, in God.  I still have faith, in Jesus Christ.  I still love, this journey of conversion and leading others to that place.  It’s why I stay connected, but as I said, more on the edge of the inside.  The more we allow ourselves to be immersed, creating a codependency as is so common, we lose sight of the bigger picture and what really matters and what’s really important.  It’s what allows me to hope, to have faith, and to deepen that love.  As I said at mass a few weeks ago, I hope to see the day when the Church stops living in denial.  Again, don’t get me wrong, many policies were put in place that was necessary, but a lot of what we say still are empty words because policy and doctrine doesn’t change hearts and heal people, God does, pushed often to the edge through our relationships.  Those of us on the front lines of the battle are often all too aware of that.  Hopefully, as the rungs of the ladder are climbed that basic truth isn’t forgotten, less the fall becomes all the more hurtful, painful, and dramatic.  Unfortunately, we’ve become all too familiar with that.  All we can do is live in and with hope that we learn and change and grow out of the ash heap.

Eternal Positioning System (EPS)

Jeremiah 31: 31-34; John 12: 20-33

One of the speakers at the conference I attended at Notre Dame was Nicholas Carr, who has written extensively on technology and the impact it is having on our lives.  Not only how we have become dependent upon it but even how it is changing the way our brains work, and not always for the better.  He had told a story about the use of the GPS which many of us, including myself, rely on daily to get us from one place to another and of course to get to that place as fast as possible with as little time wasted.  He mentioned how that system was introduced to Eskimos in the Arctic Circle who have remained on that land for centuries.  As the Arctic Circle changes with climate change and ice melts, it was thought that this would be a great benefit to them in navigating the changing terrain.

However, over the course of time it became apparent that it had become more of a hindrance.  Whereas for centuries they had trusted that internal voice and their instinct to get them from one place or another they began listening to another voice and over time people began to die!  They were literally falling into the icy waters because they began to listen to a false voice and depending on that voice rather than trusting from within and so they eliminated the use of the GPS in order to save themselves.

That is true of all of us, not just because of GPS but because of our culture and society in which we live.  We begin to trust every other voice, and often being deceived, other than the voice within.  That is the shift that Jeremiah calls forth for the House of Israel who we hear of in today’s first reading.  Jeremiah tries to make the point that this experience of exile in which they find themselves is not necessarily a bad thing.  It may feel that way and they may feel lost and abandoned, but it’s a time to learn to trust that voice within to lead you and navigate you through the difficult of times.  It’s no longer going to be as he says, a God “who took them by the hand” but rather will “place the law within them and write it upon their hearts”.  That’s the real change that is necessary for Israel, and quite frankly, for all of us as well.  The eternal that was first given to man in the beginning is once again being given to trust and the more they listen and trust that voice, the more they are led forward in life and out of this experience of exile.  From the beginning God has placed the eternal GPS within and yet we doubt, we question, we become deceived by the other voices that demand our attention and even convince us that that’s not of God.  Jeremiah reminds us, that’s precisely what leads you to the experience of exile and as crazy as it seems, what will lead you out.  The false promise is exposed for what it is and the real promise is revealed again.

The same is true for the disciples and all who now enter into these tumultuous times in John’s Gospel.  John is well aware of the lie and deceit that people are led to believe and the false promise that it entails.  It sets up this climactic chapter, following the raising of Lazarus, will now lead to the demise of it all.  From this point on everything begins to fall apart for the disciples and they are going to be left with the same choice as Israel, their forefathers, as to the voice in which they will trust and there will be many competing narratives the next two weeks and most of which will come from the place of fear and control.  They’ll hear from Pilate, the religious authorities who very authority is being threatened along with the political rank, gathering the crowds around fear of the truth in Jesus.  What began in the beginning in Genesis when Adam and Eve give credence to the wrong voice, the father of lies, will now come to a head with the eternal Christ.  They have convinced themselves that this cannot possibly be God, and yet, for John, in the mouth of Jesus, reminds us today that it all has to fall away into the depths of the earth in order for new life to come forth.  The events that will unfold, now that the hour has come for Jesus’ purpose, will not only reveal the truth of this God of love but will expose the lie from the beginning and not only the disciples but each of us will be left with that same choice as to which voice to believe and to trust.  The one that promises an absolute quick fix to our problems, the avoidance of suffering, the false promise of a better life or the one that leads to what we too desired from the beginning, the gift of the eternal life here and now and in the age to come.

These next two weeks will provide great opportunity for reflection in our lives and the tumultuous experiences that we often face as well in times of trial and darkness.  It is, though, in the darkened earth that the seed takes root and begins to bear much fruit.  Lies and deceit seem to become a way of life, exposing all of us to confusing and throwing our GPS out of service, leaving us wandering and like Israel, in exile.  Yet, the voices are hard to deny.  They seem so right.  Yet, they begin to drown out the truth and the eternal navigational tool within that tries to lead us through.  These weeks demand of us silence and listening hearts in order to tune back into the voice of the eternal within our hearts.  No one is there to take us by the hand and make the choice for us for we have been given what is necessary.  It’s a matter of once again being called to trust and believe not only that redemption is at hand, but that the one who is the way, the truth, and the life, continues to guarantee the eternal promise that unites the divine within to the eternal, leading us to everlasting life.

“Urgency of the Moment”

It seems as if I have written on this subject more than anything since beginning this blog several years ago.  One because of my own affinity with working with young people and when their lives are cut short senselessly, my heart bleeds for them.  It’s not just a life that ends, but hope, creativity, future, imagination, and so much more that they hadn’t had the chance to share with the world in the fullest.  Secondly, though, is our obsession with violence in our society and culture that we never quite come to grips with, showing our own immaturity on the world stage with the thinking that violence and acts of violence can somehow declare us victor or solve problems, never quite seeing beyond the immediate choice that is made to pull a trigger.

I happened to catch an interview with a Congressman this morning.  His name and location I can’t remember, but his comment has stuck with me throughout the day in reflecting on the events in Parkland, Florida at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.  He had commented that we are an exceptional country.  We have the strongest military.  We have the best people.  He seemed to go on and on about our exceptionalism and yet, it all stands in the face of yet another tragedy.  If we can do ourselves any favors, as a country, we can stop using such language to describe ourselves.

If there is anything I’ve learned, in spending so much time working with people, it’s that if you have to spend time trying to convince others how exceptional you are you probably are not.  When we live with such a mantra, where even our greatest strength is military, over time we convince ourselves of the illusion that somehow we can’t learn from others, that somehow we know better than every other kid on the block and they should look to me to see how to do things.  It casts a glaze over our eyes in the way we see things and prevents us from the possibility and potential of finally looking at ourselves so that we can go more deeply into the real problems we face as a country and society.  When you convince yourself of your exceptionalism there’s no room for growth.  You’ve decided you’ve already reached the promised land and the promised land is right here.

I started looking at the names and faces of the next seventeen people to add to the list of this ongoing violence.  Their smiles.  Imagining their potential.  Their innocence in the face of tragedy, most likely not even knowing what had happened to them with others now trying to pick up pieces that can almost never be brought together again.  It’s the unfortunately reality of such events and honestly, there’s nothing exceptional about it.

I simply wrote yesterday upon hearing the news that I’m grateful that I grew up in a different time when such acts weren’t even imagined.  The tragic reality only fuels the reaction it brings, somehow thinking arming more people, threatening even more violence, is going to somehow resolve the issue.  I couldn’t even begin to fathom a day when I walked into school needing to go through security.  Yet, listening to students speak in interviews, they think nothing of it.  There in lies even more proof that we refuse to look at ourselves.  We’ll simply continue to arm ourselves with our defense, our fear, our lack of compassion and empathy, our ideology, and unfortunately our politics, which more often than not only fuels the problem and is fed through the problem.  The entire system currently feeds on division, which, in and of itself, invokes violence in various ways.

It is rare that empires fall at the hands of outsiders.  More often than not empires fall from within.  They divide themselves and fall.  Quite frankly because they lose their sense of humanity, a logical outcome of thinking your exceptional.  As heinous acts of violence continue to ensue our landscape, roads and bridges collapse, inequality grows more deeply,  schools often failing their students or unable to challenge them, and political divides deepen, debt climbs out of control, there will come a day of reckoning of just what it means to be exceptional or great.  In the end we simply lie to ourselves and over time believe the lie while the world watches.

It’s going to take the young minds and hearts to steer this ship in a new direction, but if we continue to insist on taking such lives, not only in schools but on our own street corners, there will be no future to envision.  The illusion of exceptionalism has been smashed for some time, but the more we cling to it and try to convince ourselves otherwise is yet another day lost to imagining what could be.  When Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 he said, “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all God’s children.  It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.”  Yet, despite the times of great injustice that continue, he still dreamed and so must we.  There is an urgency of this moment in which we are given, either to once again get swallowed up in needing to be exceptional and ignoring our deeper human problems or rising to the occasion as he demanded, to dream a better way of life, not only for ourselves but for the generations who will inherit what we have done. 

There is an urgency in the moment to seek a larger and yet common vision for who we are, that rises above guns, politics, and money.  There is an urgency in the moment because we owe it to the current 17 and the countless others that stand in the cross-hairs of violence each day in this country.  In spite of it all, we must, and must we must, dare to dream lest others die in vain.  We need the necessary freedom to break free from our way of thinking that we have become paralyzed by it all, powerless to change.  We have the gifts and not through the walls of Congress or the White House, but in our very hearts to imagine better days.  It doesn’t mean a naïve look, where all is perfect.  That’s how we got here in the first place.  Rather, a looking at what we have allowed and become through the eyes of humility that we’re not done yet and all we can do is keep our eye on the prize, the promised land.  “This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, ‘My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.  Land where my fathers died.  Land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountain side, let freedom ring.’ And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.”

Meaningful Wandering

Isaiah 63: 16-17, 19; 64: 2-7; Mark 13: 33-37

Although no expert other than what I’ve studied in Christian classics, I do know that one of the main themes in the writing of Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings trilogy is that of wandering. Tolkien saw wandering as a journey in and of itself and necessary, even if we don’t particularly care for it or if it feels lost. He is the one that coined the phrase, “Not all those who wander are lost.” If you’ve read or watched any of the stories you know the characters are often on the move from one place to another, often facing obstacles, at times wanting to give up and questioning the purpose of it all. Yet, they remain persistent in the pursuit of what he’d consider the idyllic or archetypal king, just as we do during this season as we seek that idyllic king in the birth of the Christ at Christmas. Wandering, even as the Magi will do, is necessary in order to create the space necessary for something new to begin to take shape.
The same is true for people Israel. As a matter of fact, they have made an art out of it as part of their history and the same is true when we hear from Isaiah today and will through these weeks of Advent. They find themselves on the backend of the Babylonian Exile, a life of bondage and enslavement, and as they return home they return thinking they can pick up where they left off, that home would be the home they had always known, despite history telling them otherwise. More often than not they believe it is God that wanders from them, abandoning them in their hour of need, but Isaiah in his lament towards God, speaks of how they find themselves in this position that they have been all but familiar with of wandering from what they have known and still creating space for what is new.
However, they hold onto the expectations of returning to normalcy and they return with the expectation that the way they’ve experienced God before would once again be the same. They wanted to return to what was, but after years of exile and now wandering themselves they begin to see that that’s not true and they can’t return home in the way they left. Home was no longer home for Israel. They feel lost and alone. Isaiah, though, at the very end of his lament reminds them of who this God is, the one who has seen them through the Red Sea and the one that has once again brought them out of exile to return a changed people. He uses the image of a God who is like a potter and the people his clay. And like the potter and his clay, it’s always being reformed into something new, softening the edges, molding it into a new masterpiece. It is a finished product that is never finished but refined as they turn their faith and trust to the one that has remained steadfast and faithful, this God of mystery that leads them from what had been known into the great unknown. Like Tolkien, Israel searches for that idyllic king and not always recognizing that it is them that are being called to change and to become.
The same is true of Mark’s community as we now switch gears from Matthew’s Gospel. Mark is very bare bones compared to Matthew and very much focuses on his community in Rome and learning how to hope even in the midst of suffering, just as it often was with Israel. Mark’s community was in constant tension with Nero who was a tyrant and bully towards them. They were often to blame as a minority for all wrong-doing and so they consistently felt the wrath of him and his people. It was a city that lived in fear of what he was capable of at that time and Mark’s community was an easy target. Today we hear near the end of the Gospel as Jesus’ death is soon imminent. Much of this chapter is filled with this ominous language that seems more like doomsday. But that was the reality in which they lived. It wasn’t so much God that they feared coming in the dark of night or early morning, it was the political leaders of the time under Nero and so they had to be at watch and aware while resisting the fear that was imposed upon them. Needless to say, this often led the community to feel like they had no home, wandering aimlessly and suffering at the hands of others. The language we hear was a message of hope for Mark’s community, as Isaiah was today, for faithful followers of the way who had no home and needed to continue to trust this faithful God who has seen them through and is constantly molding them into something new. They find themselves wandering from what had been to a new life being formed even through their suffering.
As we begin this rather brief Advent season, we come mindful of our own wandering. In many ways, in the world we live, we seem to always find ourselves in transition from what has been known and yet wait with anticipation for what the newness is that God is inviting us into and to trust entering into the unknown. We too seek that idyllic king who is always molding and forming us, more often than not when we find ourselves wandering and waiting; not necessarily lost but often feeling that way. We pray for the grace to wander as a people, in our very hearts and souls that are being called to be cleansed of our old way of thinking in order for that space to be created for the embodiment of love at Christmas. It’s hard. It’s painful. And at times we want to go back to what was, clinging to our old gods. In moments of grace, though, we are invited to let go and surrender as we wander while opening ourselves to the gift of new life and the embodiment of God’s word in our lives, changing us forever and yet still being molded and formed into something new and unknown.

Kingdom Dwellers

Ezekiel 34: 11-12, 15-17; I Cor 15: 20-26, 28; Matthew 25: 31-46

All year we’ve heard from Matthew’s gospel and today we come to what many consider to be the culmination of what he was all about in his writing, the Judgment of Nations.  Keep in mind it’s not about individual judgment as we’ve often associated.  For Matthew, the other gospel writers, and Paul in today’s second reading, salvation was not an individual sport.  It was about the collective salvation and their own seeking of the common good in this life.  It, of course, has been overly politicized over the years and many times rightly so when we neglect people in need for one reason or another, but that’s not necessarily the context in which Matthew writes nor the lens we need to read it.

If we had to sum up Matthew’s approach to his community, as one he often struggled with, fearing division and its demise following the destruction of the Temple, it would be a journey of interior change and how we handle change in our lives and how our experience of God changes.  If you know anything about Israel’s history you know the destruction of the Temple seems to almost be a regular occurrence for them.  It wasn’t just the center of their faith life but was also the center of politics and economics so everything was intertwined.  With that being the case, it should be no surprise that it is destroyed over time.  However, just like it is today, when they all become intertwined in that way it’s without a doubt that God is going to come third in line, and so, in some sense, Matthew tries to lead the community to a much harder change, an interior change, to recognize that there’s something bigger than the Temple and that an encounter with God can happen, often times even more, beyond the temple dwellers.

From the beginning of the gospel, if we recall from Advent and Christmas last year, Mary and Joseph were on the run, refugees.  The Magi come on their own journey and return differently because of the encounter with the Christ, something is changed interiorly in their lives.  Throughout the gospel the disciples are being led outside of Jerusalem to experience the Christ in the acts of healing and forgiving, rather than something you go to they are being led to be an embodiment of that love that takes on flesh and they find their true strength from within.  It’s what makes Jesus so dangerous to the Pharisees and other temple dwellers.  As disciples, the Temple has it’s place but they aren’t meant to dwell there.  Rather, they’re kingdom dwellers with the Spirit of God going with them into these encounters.  This God that Matthew portrays to us and that we’re called to embrace can no longer be confined to a particular time and space.  At that point it’s not God anyway.  Rather this God cannot be contained and is going to lead them to the places of discomfort and uncertainty to learn to put their trust not in the Temple as has been their history, but the temple of the Holy Spirit acting within the community and each other.

It is new, of course, for the people in first century but even new for us at times.  However, the message has been a part of Israel’s history, even at the burning bush when God is revealed in name and that they mustn’t get hung up on the location of these events.  When they do that it begins the gradual confinement of God to a time and space and we find ourselves living in the past.  It’s where the prophets have tried to lead the people, over and over again, but with great resistance even costing them their lives at times.  They too get hung up on the temple dwellers and thinking that God can somehow be confined to that space.  Yet, with this enmeshment of faith, politics, and economics, the question really should be, as it was in the parable of the talents as well as the wise and foolish virgins as to who is the master they’re serving.

Ezekiel, in today’s first reading was one such prophet.  If you read it in its larger context you know that he’s going after them for this very thing, their own corruption.  Israel once again finds itself in exile during the time of the Babylonian Exile and they’re not being cared for.  The people responsible, the shepherds of the time, were not taking care of the needs of the lost, the strayed, the injured and sick.  They had become their own gods in some sense, temple dwellers themselves rather than seeing beyond and being moved to the place of discomfort in their lives.  When you have it all and you’re on top, even in our own time, it seems as if there really is no need for this God.  I’m quite fine with the gods I can hold onto, that bring me comfort, that keep me safe, rather than leading me outward while being inwardly changed. It’s the opportunity to not only encounter God in a different way but to learn of myself in a new way and light.  It’s not about changing others.  It’s about allowing ourselves to be changed, our hearts to be changed by going to the very place we fear.  It’s the story of Mary and Joseph.  It was the Magi.  It’s the embodiment of love.  It’s the journey Matthew has invited us into this past year.

So it brings us to the culmination of his gospel and the judgment of nations.  Needless to say we have often failed at embodying love.  We have allowed ourselves to be temple dwellers while often enmeshing faith, politics, and economics, while neglecting sometime our very own rather than surrendering it all to the true God.  Like Israel in all its history, when the three become enmeshed, God, without a doubt, will become confined and the other two will take their place as the gods of our time.  We all fall prey to it and all find ourselves as sheep and goats.  But for Matthew, it meant something more.  It meant an embodiment of that love and not just loving neighbor.  Rather, being one with neighbor in the sick, the poor, the refugee, the imprisoned, the stranger. 

Every one of us is good at making ourselves comfortable.  For Matthew, our faith is quite the opposite.  We’re not called to be temple dwellers where we grow comfortable and safe, confining God to our particular time and space.  There’s a place for it but it resides in something bigger than time and space.  Rather, kingdom dwellers where we seek the eternal, the Christ, with prayer always on our lips for a change of heart.  It’s what it’s all about.  It’s messy.  It’s hard.  It’s frightening.  Yet, with Mary and Joseph leading the way for Matthew, we’re called to go out and encounter the living God and to be that embodiment of love that we’ve witnessed through the eyes of Matthew this year.

 

Our Inadequate Love

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

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

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

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

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

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