Digging In

Although I’ve only spent about a week and a half here at Bethlehem Farm, a majority of that time has been spent out in the fields, planting a variety of vegetables, starches, and such. I’ve learned that what it is that is being planted isn’t even all that important as much as the how and why of what it is that is being submerged in the ground for a not so distant future time. There’s a great deal of preparation that is necessary long before anything is even placed in the ground and it’s in that preparation where it’s easy to get lost in thought and prayer, maybe some of the most depth-filled that one could even experience.

You never quite know the obstacles that you’ll face in the preparation. There are a variety of tools and such that help along the way in order to prepare the ground for the planting. They come in all shapes and sizes depending on what it is that you’re trying to extract, because more often than not something needs to be removed from the soil before planting is able. Sometimes the greatest obstacle are those you have no control over, like the weather. The heat of the sun and the unexpected rain that passes through allow you to step back and reassess the process as to how to proceed, knowing that it’s out of my control and yet isn’t an obstacle that necessarily forces you to end the work of the day.

It is, though, what lies beneath that becomes the most challenging in the process, and quite possibly where our own humanity runs straight into its natural counterpart. It’s always what lies beneath the surface that becomes our most challenging aspects of life as well. Let’s just say, I have witnessed a variety of different bugs, inspects, and other creepy crawly things in the ground and quite often running through my fingers in the earth. At times I have wondered what it’s like being them, considering I am intruding on a space that has been there home and now I find myself intruding and turning it upside down. Of course, we’re often participating in the same process, of excavating the earth for future times, for what lies ahead, in order to allow all of us to continue to sustain ourselves on this planet.

However, the creepy crawly things are also within us and often the very places we try to avoid, our most vulnerable or tender places that frighten us. It’s not until someone gets their hands on them where it becomes unsettled and unearthed, witnessing parts of ourselves that we don’t necessarily want to show the world for fear of rejection or not being accepted by others, despite the fact that we all live with the understanding that these creepy crawly things exist in everyone else but somehow think no one knows of our own. It’s not until we find ourselves tilling soil one day when we begin to see more clearly what lies beneath, what we’ve tried to avoid in our lives, when we can no longer run from what it is that frightens us because there it is in our hands, and more importantly, in our very hearts and we find ourselves with tears in our eyes. Somehow the excavating of the earth allows our own heart and soul to be excavated in ways that we never thought possible. All of a sudden we realize that our head just isn’t in the job but our heart lies exposed in the earth in which our hands lie, pulling and tearing apart roots that run so deep and creating space for something new to grow, a new life, a new love, a deeper reality that now exposed in the earth in which we work. There no longer exists a separation.

It’s not easy, but I guess no one ever said that it would be. One day we just show up in a very different place in life, trying to sort out what’s next and never realizing what would become unearthed in these ways, whether it’s a call to simplicity or a more radical way in which to live life, at the heart of all of it is the preparation, the work, the at times, back-breaking grind that never seems to end, only in the end to look out at the end of the day to see what was accomplished and hyper-aware of what it took just to get to the point of dropping a seedling or plant only to wait with great patience for a harvest that is assured. It won’t, though, without the preparation, the time, the effort, and quite possibly most importantly, the love necessary for anything to grow, including ourselves.

Without love nothing grows and the preparation becomes shallow, only breaking the surface without ever getting your hands dirty in the deeper reality of what lies within each of us, a field that desires to be planted with love, nurture, community, hope, trust, faith, and so much more, but without love there is nothing. No one gives up everything for a cause that isn’t rooted in love, especially doing the hard work of reaching into the depths of our own lives and literally touching the creepy crawly things that often frighten us because they have no name, moving us to a new level of intimacy with ourselves, others, and God. Once they’re named and once we find ourselves one with them, we no longer need to fear who or what they are but simply meet them where they are, in their own place, and love them all the more knowing that we till and unearth together, allowing each other to grow. We do it as individuals but more importantly we do it with others that we love. We learn the dance with love and for love in order to confront what lies beneath the surface in our own lives. Only then can we truly look out and see love. Only then can we look out and know the hard work we’ve done, together and in love, in order to hear our Creator remind us, “and it is very good.”

But Still There is More…

I Corinthians 12: 12-30

It’s hard to ignore Paul’s letter to the Corinthians today, not simply because of its length, but we’re at that point where it is truly some of his most poetic writings and a beautiful crescendo to his message to Corinth.  Unfortunately, we’ve picked up nearly three quarters into the letter so it also stands outside of the larger context of his message to this community.  If you go back to the beginning, Paul begins to question who they have become.  There’s a question about the divisiveness in the community and how he has watched it splinter over issues surrounding competition and superiority, so from the beginning he tries to move them to a place of their deeper identity in Christ.  Paul, without a doubt, is very much in touch with the fact that he’s born in that image and likeness and understands what it means to be a person or community to be living in Christ and Corinth has strayed.  It’s become about exclusion, about who has the greatest gift, about a sense of hierarchy, a reminder of Paul of what happens when we don’t move to the deeper places in our lives and become trapped by what we think is important simply with our eyes.

Paul, though, envisions a very different community and struggles with what he has seen.  Paul sees the potential of Corinth but he also sees their own lack of growing in the faith.  They have become content with the way it is, which walls them off from going deeper and also begins the splintering of the community.  Last week we heard him speak of the gifts coming from one Spirit and next week the climactic reading on love, but today he spells it out through the metaphor of the body and the value of all the parts and a warning about cutting off the parts that have been seen as less viable.  If there’s anything we can learn from Paul it is that it is often in the weakest parts of our body that we find the greatest value.  We can often learn the most about ourselves and become whole, as he desires, by looking at what we have chose to ignore, the people we have cut off, the ones we have excluded over time. 

This is the community that has decided to exclude others from this meal.  They have made the point at times to cause scandal in the life of the greater community.  They have, in many ways, done harm to themselves by not cutting others off from them but by that very act, excluding themselves from the larger community, creating not a community that welcomes but rather a community that wants to pick and choose who they deem worth to be a part of them.  In one of the most beautiful of ways, Paul tries to take them back to their core, to who they really are and what it means to say, “in Christ”.  For Paul it means everything to every community that he writes to that we hear throughout the year.  Often what appears to be our greatest weakness, the “cause of our downfall” winds up being the “means of our salvation”.  Their very sin as a community can lead them to their own demise or can be seen as an invitation to reclaiming themselves “in Christ”.  That lies at the heart of what Paul has to say when he writes to these communities, but in particular to the people of Corinth who often just agonized Paul because of what he had witnessed with them.

It’s not to say that Paul thinks any less of all the gifts and all that they contribute to the life of the community.  That would miss his point.  The very next word can be summed in simply by saying, “but”.  All of this is important, but there’s still more.  He will go onto to remind them that if it’s not rooted in love, and if it causes splintering and a community turning in on itself, then it’s not rooted in love, then it’s all for naught.  As a matter of fact, he continues in this section that if you still think it’s about all of this stuff, competing and comparing, putting yourself above others, and all the rest, then you still remain in a childish faith and have not allowed yourself to grow into an adult in the faith.  Read on; it’s right there is writing!  When we continue, as community, as country, or even as individuals, hung up on being right and others wrong, splintering ourselves, then there remains a crisis of faith in the community because you’re missing your deeper identity.  It’s all well and good, but understand it means the death of the community in the end because you will splinter yourself a part that way.  The path forward is to grow in dialogue through our deeper identity, where is a common ground, where there is a mutuality in seeing the other as person, seeing the other as an intricate part of the body and a worthy part of the body.

Paul’s words ring just as true today as they did centuries ago.  Whether it’s our own community, the larger community, or certainly our country.  We fail to take the deeper journey to a more whole life, a holy life.  It had to have broken Paul’s heart along the way as he watched the demise of some of these communities, and more often than not, at their own doing.  He watches them become simply about themselves and losing their deeper identity.  He watches them stunted in their own growth in faith and lack thereof.  For Paul, what matters most is that you remain grounded “in Christ”.  When we allow ourselves to fall into that mystery once again, we not only find ourselves connected as a human race, but the promise made by God long ago remains eternal, the promise of life.

The Promise Realized

Micah 5: 1-4; Hebrews 10: 5-10; Luke 1: 39-45

I’ve been reading this book, God is Young, which is basically an interview that Pope Francis had done with an Italian journalist as a preliminary conversation before the Synod held in October on young people. The basic premise surrounds the question, “How do we move forward?” It seems that we’re rather stuck, not only in the Church world, but certainly as a country and even city, where it seems that we just can’t seem to move beyond this point of separateness. The gist of what Francis tells the journalist is that we have to connect the two generations that often get tossed aside in our world; obviously young people as to whom the synod was dealing with as well as the elderly. The young tend to get disregarded as being naïve and the elderly we don’t have time for or don’t want to deal with the reality of aging. He says, the answer forward is in those two. The young people are the dreamers, the visionaries, the prophetic voices where as the elderly have the lived experience and the wisdom to temper the energy but combined a way forward evolves and unfolds. He pretty much says anyone in between the two have a tendency to become too attached to the systems, whether in terms or religion, politics, or economically, that they don’t want to change and can’t see the necessity and so they try to silence the two that have the necessary vision.

It is, on some level, what unfolds in this dramatic scene in today’s gospel from Luke in the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth. It is the reconciling of the past and future, in the one that is barren with the one who is full of life, the old and the new. Neither has any idea what the other has been through following the announcement of the birth of their children until they have this encounter with one another. In that very moment, two worlds collide with one another and a semblance of peace comes to their hearts, confirming that God has fulfilled the promise of long ago through their very lives. Here are two women at opposite ends of their lives and yet facing similar situations. Mary, in her teens, now faces with trepidation the shaming of a society, casting her aside for having this child under such circumstances and Elizabeth who has lived with the same reality in remaining childless her entire life and now beyond child-bearing age. In this moment, the Christ reconciles these two worlds and a vision unfolds, a vision that Luke has already began to spell out in the telling of these miraculous stories.

As the promise is fulfilled, Mary will go on and proclaim a vision for who this child is to be and a radical image of a God who has delivered the two of them. Mary’s Magnificat will turn the patriarchal God of the past on its head and a fresher and newer understanding of God who becomes incarnate as we will celebrate on Christmas. Luke already begins to point us in that very direction with these two women as the prophetic voices announcing this God of vision. The one would be seen as the prophetic voice, Zechariah, the head of the house, the man, is silenced in the announcement of their pregnancy and the voice of the women are raised in their consistent faith and trust in God, not separated from their lived experience of shame and being voiceless. Before the Christ is born, Luke already begins to point us to a new reality of God of giving voice to the ones who had been cast aside announcing the fulfillment of the promise made from the beginning of time.

You would think that Israel would have greater faith and trust in such a God, certainly symbolized through these two women, knowing their own heritage of a God who has seen the people through exile. Here two woman, one full of life and the other barren, learn to trust not only through their experience, but the experience of their ancestors of past that regardless of their own circumstances, God will see them through, even if not experienced first-hand. They obviously knew that Moses never did, and yet the dream, the promise, the prophetic voice continued to break through reconciling past with a present all in the name of Christ, God’s will.  Israel, to this day, stands as a microcosm of a separated world. The place of life and birth, as Micah proclaims, in Bethlehem, still remains separated from the barren city of Jerusalem by a wall. When we separate the two rather than reconciling we become what we are, a stuck people, clinging to dysfunction rather than trusting a new vision and hope for the human race, for the Church, our country and world.

As we gather for this Fourth Week or day of Advent, we gather mindful that these two women are more than just a story; they are each of us. God has planted within all of us a vision, a dream, a prophetic voice that can get out of control if not tempered by the voice of wisdom gently moving us along, teaching us to trust and let go. As much as it needs to happen in our Church and world in bringing together the ones without a voice, it’s a challenge to each of us individually as well. Their story remains are story as well. Israel, despite it’s own inability to get out of its own way, raises us these two radical women today while silencing the powerful ones of the world, leading us to a place of trust, that the promise given from the beginning of time continues to unfold and be fulfilled in our very lives. Sure we often prefer begin stuck in what we know, but Mary and Elizabeth remind us just how unsatisfying life is lived in that way. The more we keep ourselves open to the unknown, to mystery, to a God of great surprises, that same God will continue to give birth to us through the very same Spirit that has always stood as the great reconciler of dreams and wisdom. The promise given from the beginning is our promise, to have faith and trust and God will see us through. We may not know what it all looks like, but that’s why these two are about trust and the courage to say yes, not just once, but over the course of their lives, gradually opened to the birth of a new God, a new reality, rooted in Mystery.

Community of Love

The Passion of Jesus Christ According to John

I can’t say I’m a fan of shows about lawyers.  It’s not that I have a thing against lawyers, but it often seems that there is some deal of manipulation that takes place in order to convince people of the truth, even if it’s not the truth, simply to make a case.  Of course, it’s not even about television programs like Law & Order or anything like that.  We even see it when we catch any news.  There’s always a “legal expert” who’s going to try to convince you of something, that they know the truth and to cast doubt into the other’s case.  We hear it from Russia probes to “porn stars” and everything in between. It creates this sense of chaos and confusion leaving us with the same question as Pilate in today’s passion, “What is truth?”  It’s hard to tell sometimes.

That is what John seems to create in his account of the passion and death of Jesus that we hear every Good Friday.  It’s hard to determine what really is the truth and there seems to be utter confusion and chaos.  What only reinforces that is this enmeshing of politics and religion.  When the two align against Jesus he doesn’t stand much chance of making it out alive.  It comes down to at that point people’s power that they’re unwilling to surrender and over time, chipping away at any trust they may have of Jesus, invoking fear, confusion, and chaos on the scene.  For John, though, that’s where it all begins.  If you think back to the beginning of the bible as we know it, the creation accounts in Genesis, order is formed out of chaos.  Now, for John, this chaos that ensues towards Jesus’ death, is once again going to create a new order.  Not in the sense of control but in a new creation and new life that will flow from within.

When you think about it, even the charge brought against Jesus would not necessarily warrant death.  The crowd says that he claims to be Son of God.  However, again, from the very beginning, they too are sons and daughters of God but over time begin to sway from trusting that voice of the divine, giving into the fear, chaos, and confusion, and used by the people of power to bring down this guy Jesus.  This new created order that John says community is to become is a community that is once again rooted in that ancient of beliefs, that they are sons and daughters of God but from the beginning are lost from due to sin, due to thinking that they’re more than that, that they are God.  But when there is pressure from the authorities, who try to convince that they hold the truth and will manipulate into believing, it’s the voice of the divine that is crucified.  It is the community that now stands trial as to what and who it is they are going to become in the midst of a hostile world.  Will they follow the ruler of this world or of the Kingdom, as Jesus claims in the Passion account.

All leading to the climactic scene of Jesus on the cross, standing, as John tells us, literally in the middle of the tension and in the middle of all the hostility being cast upon him in these moments.  But unlike ourselves often, Jesus takes it in.  When vinegar and bitterness are placed upon his lips, unlike the other gospels, Jesus drinks.  He consumes the bitterness.  He consumes the anger.  He consumes the fear.  He consumes chaos and confusion.  He consumes all that is thrown at him, appearing that the world has finally won.  There is finally a verdict and the verdict stands with the status quo.  It stands with what we so often choose as well, to destroy the one who is perceived as the problem in order to make ourselves feel better.  It’s so much easier to spew hatred and bitterness upon the world, but Jesus consumes it.  He consumes the bitter herbs that are cast upon him but not to show violence towards the world.  Rather, to transform it.

Yet, it’s still not finished.  When that bitterness is consumed by Christ, and rather than casting judgment upon them and the world, a lance is cast into his side and blood and water flow out.  In that very moment of consumption of all that the world has thrown at Jesus, a new community is formed.  Just as blood and water flow from the womb of the mother, now blood and water flows from the side of Jesus and a community of love is formed.  All the bitterness, chaos, and confusion are transformed and recreated into new life and this community is birthed.  It’s no longer based simply on doctrine.  Even Jesus stands trial for that and nothing can be found against him.  It’s not a community based on ideology or anything else.  Rather, it’s a community of love that flows from the side of Jesus.

We come to this second prayer of Easter as we reflect upon the passion according to John.  John isn’t about a community but shows the path towards a community that is rooted in love.  From a God who humbles and comes down to the earth, to a God who humbles and gets on his knees and washes the feet of the disciples, including Judas, to now a God who points to yet a deeper love and an opportunity to participate in that deeper love by going into the depths of the earth, into the new tomb as John tells us in order to transform all that has died.  Blood and water flow from the womb, blood and water flow from the side, blood and water will flow from the tomb and this new community of love will form.  That’s what John believed to be true of any community that puts the Cross at its center.

As we come to venerate this Cross in a few moments, we come with grateful hearts.  Sure we recognize the sacrifice that has been made for us, redeemed for our sins, but it’s much more than that.  It’s not just about something being done for us.  It’s also about something being done to us and in us John would say.  We can’t stop short in being a community of love.  We must take those final steps, when we find ourselves on trial ourselves and juror at times.  Which voice is going to give us the eternal truth?  Do we form our lives and community around popular opinion and what’s most acceptable or will we take the often more difficult path of trusting the divine.  We too stand at the center of it all and are often left with choices ourselves.  It’s very easy to become consumed by chaos and confusion and to spew the bitterness of our own lives onto others and the world.  It’s easy.  It’s going with the crowd today, so easily convinced.  In that moment the divine is crucified again and again.  Yet, we come with gratitude because God continues to invite us back to this very place and in this moment, calling to mind to our own truest identity, as sons and daughters of God.  If it were only as easy to convince ourselves of that then blood and water would flow from us as well, co-creators in this world.

In the midst of hostility, bitterness, confusion, fear, and chaos, Jesus stands trial.  It’s the alignment of the feast and the hour as we heard last night and that time has finally arrived.  We pray for that grace, in these moments of our own lives, that we too will choose our own bitterness and hostility to be transformed by the divine in order that we may continue to become that community of love that John desired.  It takes a great deal of sacrifice and pain along the way, letting go, and allowing ourselves to be transformed by Love in order to be love.  On this Good Friday we pray for that grace for Love to touch our hearts in a deeper way, through our own chaos and hostility, touching the blood and water as they flow in order to make us a new creation, a community of love.

Anxious Hearts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Than Imitation

Jonah 3: 1-5, 10; I Cor 7: 29-31; Mark 1: 14-20

They make it sound so easy, don’t they?  The disciples that is.  They simply drop everything, the nets, fishing, their father, other others and go on their way.  We can only imagine what the hired workers and the father thought in this moment.  There had to be some anger and a bit of resentment.  Yet, what the disciples don’t know, and often what we don’t know, is that as much as they can come out of the boat and follow Jesus, you can’t take the boat out of them.  That sense of duty, responsibility, guilt, obligation, expectation, or whatever you may call it goes with them.  They simply go from imitating one person, in their father, to trying to imitate Jesus.  That’s why it’s simply the first call of the disciples.  They were primed for it.  There’s a sense of adventure, something new, facing the unknown, and probably thinking, it’s got to be better than fishing.

And so their journey begins.  And sadly, for many, that’s where it ends.  This call of discipleship, as it was for the first disciples, is just the beginning.  Quite frankly, we all grow up imitating adults around us, for good or for ill.  Imitating Jesus shouldn’t be all that hard.  Although, we have trouble even getting that part of the journey down well.  But they’re not Jesus and nor am I or any of you.  I’ve mentioned this the past few weeks now, beginning with the Magi, it’s simply the first call for a reason.  The real call comes later in the story when the rubber hits the road and they are finally left with a choice.  For the Magi, it happens in Jerusalem.  For Jonah, it comes in Ninevah.  For the disciples, like the Magi, it happens in Jerusalem.  Those places become the apex of their first call.  You can’t go much further than death, despair, fear, anxiety, and that’s everything those cities become to each of them and where do they go from there.  That’s the real call and the choice for each of us.

For Jonah, he’s appears a little further along the journey than the disciples.  He’s already been called and in this tiff with God, which, as we all know, leads him to the belly of the whale all because he resists the call to go to Ninevah. You see, that place was everything that was wrong in the eyes of Jonah and others.  They were the enemy.  They were the oppressors.  To him, there was nothing good about the place and low and behold, back to where he started, he ends up on the shore of Ninevah.  He could resist all he wants but God’s going to keep pushing him there until he responds to the second call, which is to pass through the enormously large city, three day journey, through Ninevah.  Now if you read it, it appears that all lived happily ever after.  They repent of their ways.  They actually listen to him.  But, he still resists and becomes angry.  It wasn’t them that needed the message as much as it was him.  He too had a choice.  Was he going to continue to hold onto his own judgments of them and himself and of God and what it meant to be a prophet or was he finally going to surrender to where it was that God was leading him and become the prophetic voice that he was.  Not in comparison to everyone else but he had to become his own person.  In that image of the disciples, he finally had to surrender the boat because it no longer gave life.  That way of thinking and living only led to a resistance to the deeper call, the second call of Jonah, and for that matter, the disciples.

They will have their day.  The next weeks they’ll be living on a high.  They see all the good that Jesus is doing and they want a piece of that action.  Who wouldn’t want to be a part of something new and exciting.  But the sense of urgency and immediacy that Mark adds to the story, and which we’ll hear these weeks, is simply to get them to the real showdown and the real call that is being given to them.  As I said, imitating is easy but can they imitate all the way and surrender it all.  That’s where it becomes a rub for the disciples.  We know it takes them awhile as well, just as it does for us.  They’re immediate response is to go back to Galilee.  And eventually they will have to go back to Galilee but begin to see it in a different light.  They’ll go back to what they know, even if it hasn’t given them life.  They’ll go back to the boat because they think that’s good enough.  They’ll go back to being indentured to their father and the family business all because it got to hard.  Of course, they’ll eventually pass through the second call as the Magi did.  The Magi had to go through Jerusalem before they can reach the Christ in Bethlehem.  It’s one of the most humbling experiences because they learn it’s not about them but about this God who has called them forth not simply to imitate but to become and to be the fullness of who they were created to be.  It’s their greatest gift and it’s why they and Jesus were such a threat to the systems of their day.

Paul may sum it up best though when he speaks about all of this passing by.  We tend to worry about all the wrong things and get caught up the darkness of our day.  As much as this passing through is about us, it’s also about this city, this nation, and this world.  But like the cast of characters, we have to pass through dark times.  We have to pass through fear and anxiety.  We have to pass through our perceived enemies, as it was for Jonah, in order to experience the real call, the second call of discipleship, the choice of what we do in and with those times of our lives.  It’s crucial and life-altering but it’s the demand of the gospel and the fullness of the call of the disciples.

As we continue this journey through the weeks of ordinary time, we may find ourselves in very different places.  Some still trying to imitate, others in the thick of Jerusalem, discerning that call, and yet others on the edge trying to figure things out.  Wherever it may be, the call remains because the call is the eternal.  It will stay and will continue to see us through even the darkest times of our lives and the deepest of troubles all pushing to awaken us to the deeper call within, not just to imitate but rather to be our best selves, our fullest selves.  I know quite well that the boat is a comfortable place.  We all know that.  But it’s not where we’re meant to stay.  At this very moment God looks at us and with the gentlest of voices calls us forth to be the more we were created to be in this world.

A Stable Force

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Isaiah 9: 1-6; Titus 2: 11-14; Luke 2: 1-14

There’s some irony in hearing this familiar gospel from Luke today of Mary and Joseph heading back to the place of origin for the census. The story we heard more than anything this week was about taxes.  Congress passed a bill and it was signed into law.  There’s debate, depending on who you listen to, as to who it benefits.  I don’t know.  But some 2000 years ago Mary and Joseph found themselves in this same familiar place.  The calling of the census by Caesar Augustus was primarily about taxes.  Like always it seems as if money drives everything no matter the point in history.

We do know one thing, though, that Mary and Joseph would not benefit from this taxation and nor would any other poor person of the day. It was to benefit the expansion of the kingdom that Caesar was creating in his own image.  It was a time of peace that was rooted in oppression, fear, and constant instability for the community in which Luke writes this passage. Yet, despite all of it this couple were faithful to this earthly power just as Jesus would go onto say, give to Caesar what is Caesar.  But they were faithful until they no longer could.  They were faithful until it stood in the way of this newfound life in Christ that seemed harmless and yet a threat to powers of the day, when people, as history is turned on its head, no longer have to be defined by the political or even religious authorities of their day.  In the midst of all the instability, Mary and Joseph return to the place of origin, as we all do to seek what they sought, to the stable, the manger, the garden, to once again find that union with the divine.  In the midst of the instability of the day a Stable arises in their midst to bring lasting peace and freedom that can no longer be contained by the earthly powers.

This passage we hear this evening that stands so familiar to us of the birth of the Christ has great spiritual implications more than any other.  As much as we have softened over time, it was a story of hope for Luke’s community that found themselves displaced and in constant turmoil from within and from the political and religious authorities.  There was no space, no room, for another voice beyond Caesar and anyone that tried faced consequences.  There was, as Luke tells us, no room in the Inn.  The external pressures to conform and that contained them would no longer suffice for a God who was to take on flesh.  Rather, Mary and Joseph leave the confines of the Inn and wander into the darkened night, where the community so often found itself, giving birth in a stable.  This is the defining moment for Mary and Joseph as well who realize there’s no turning back at this point.  They have been given a gift and this gift is going to guide them through some of the darkest moments of their lives.  They will not be defined by Caesar and his cronies.  They will no longer be contained by the political and religious authorities of their day.  They, instead, will be led as refugees to unfamiliar land and space only to turn to the Christ as their guide.  They return to the place of their own origin and give birth to a new way of life, wrapped not in the confines of the worldly desires but rather in mystery and the unknown, learning to trust and navigate the given gift.

But long before there was Israel who too found itself in similar situations.  As much as things change over time they also remain the same.  They find themselves again on the cusp of something new.  They were a people that walked in darkness but now illumined by this light.  Israel will learn in its own history, as in ours, that darkness becomes their greatest teacher.  It’s often when they find themselves wandering, fleeing oppressors, facing the unknown and utter darkness, that grace begins to grow.  They too will return to their own place of origin, to the heart of who they are, only to once again become attached and led to the darkness once more, to grown more deeply in faith and trust of this mystery that continues to call them forth.  Like them, we don’t like to be “in the dark” on things.  We want to know.  We want that certainty in our lives.  Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and even the Magi will encounter in the weeks ahead, learn to be sent forth to those very places in their own lives.  As I said, great spiritual implications as to how they and we live our lives.  Our we going to be defined by the confined Inn, cluttered lives we often lead.  Will we simply be identified with our politics and even our religious beliefs.  The radical simplicity of Christmas in a very complex world reminds us that in all our instability, war, poverty, unrest, and all the rest, we’re called to leave it behind, the “worldly desires” and allow the Stable to arise in our own hearts and souls to now be led not from on high and not from these external authorities but rather from within our very hearts and souls where the Christ, from the beginning and always, is being born.

This is what Christmas is about.  Luke turns the story on its head.  Salvation history will not be defined through the eyes of Caesar Augustus, Herod, or any other tyrant of their day, oppressing the people for their own political gain.  Luke reminds us that we live from the inside out and from the bottom up.  The journey now into the great darkness that has seen the great light is a painful one at that, but Mary and Joseph stand as witnesses to the power of the Stable in the midst of the instability of their own lives and ours as well.  Deep within us we know something that goes beyond anything this world offers, all the clutter and noise that distracts us, creating anxiety and instability, turmoil in our lives.  In that very place we’re called to leave it behind on this Christmas, leave the staleness and artificialness of the Inn that has defined to something real, wandering in the darkness of night, to a Stable that holds the eternal and the one who navigates Luke’s community to a new way of life and one for ourselves as well.  We can be defined by the tyrants of our day, the corruption of money, political and religious leaders telling us who we are and what to do but Christmas demands more of us.  Christmas demands us to learn to grown and trust the voice deep within, from a place of mystery and the great unknown, calling us to live our lives identified by the eternal place of origin, a Stable, in the midst of a often unstable world.