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.

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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.

 

The Predictably Unpredictable Master

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Millennial Exodus for Meaning

The following are my remarks made at the opening of our pastorate meeting…

Over the past few weeks I’ve had the chance to dialogue with some Millennials who I have met along the way and was telling them about the changes that are taking place in the Church.  Some faithfully practice and others come and go when they can.  At the same time, I’ve learned through them, that they are often the most misunderstood generation that exists and they get blamed for much of what we, older generations, fail to take responsibility for.  Their way of thinking and way of life can be foreign to so many of us, and yet, in many ways, I relate to them in a very different way.  If I had to sum up my experience not only of those who are friends but also whom I have worked with is that more than any other group they seek meaning and purpose in their lives.  They aren’t going to stay at a job or a church forever if it isn’t feeding the deeper hunger of their lives.  Honestly, we’re better at serving stones than bread.  It’s part of the mass exodus that has taken place over the years.  That’s not just the main Institution but the parishes that have been institutionalized as well.

Quite frankly, it’s probably a miracle or at least the grace of God that I have stayed in this institution over the years just knowing how much we haven’t met the younger generations in that way, often because we think it’s still about us.  Instead, we’ve blamed, resented, and projected our own stuff onto them while failing to see, become aware, and accept where we have gone wrong as Church, where we have failed at feeding the ultimate hunger of meaning in people’s lives.  And I include myself in this, we have fought over who can and can’t receive communion, we’ve fought over music and style of liturgy, we’ve fought over empty meetings that have been more about building ourselves up rather than the encounter with the other, and of course, even times and places for mass and other events.  All this while poverty continues to exist and grow, churches empty out because of our pettiness, attaching ourselves to superficiality while returning home empty, yes, even fighting over spaghetti sauce, war persists, hunger persists, murder within the pastorate rises, drugs run rampant up and down York Road, immigrants looking for direction, a school barely hanging on, people persecuted because of color and sexuality, among other things, and yet here we are, all of us, locked in the upper room out of fear, hiding in the comfort of our own space.  More often than not, clinging to what we have known rather than braving the great unknown.  If you want to know why Millennials often don’t show up, well, we typically don’t have to look too far.

If you haven’t realized, and I know many don’t know me beyond the priest, there’s a lot of stuff I just don’t care about, but what I do care about I care very deeply.  I care about people much more than institutions and parish agendas and identities.  I care about souls and the spiritual well-being of people because I know if we’re not healthy in a spiritual way we just won’t be healthy.  We’ll get hung up on the trivialities and have no perspective and larger picture.  I care about people and relationship and meeting people, having coffee with people, talking about faith and certainly preaching about it.  I’m well aware I have other responsibilities and other things happen in the life of a parish, but more than anything, I am about prayer, silence, and leading others to that same place, to find meaning and purpose in their lives.  It’s not that I don’t care about other things, because I do, but I can never quite stop myself from looking for deeper meaning and trying to lead people to the great unknown now so it won’t be as painful later, because it does always come.  I care about leading others to finding deeper meaning and purpose in their lives, through the muck of consumerism, capitalism, and politics which are often the gods we cling to in life.

When I teach, I always remind the students that, more than anything, we cling to what we know.  We like to be certain.  We like things to be black and white.  Yet, the more I have allowed myself to delve into mystery the less I see that as being real.  We, more often than not, find ourselves somewhere in between.  For me, one of the great stories that I use is that of the Exodus and people Israel.  They were miserable with what they were clinging to and yet, no sooner they are led to the unknown to encounter God in a very different way, being led to conversion, they immediately want to go back to what they know despite being miserable.  Heck, they get ticked off at Moses for leading them out of Egypt because they would have rather died to what they had known and clung to than to begin to experience life differently.  Aren’t we very much the same at times?

As we proceed, like Moses, we never quite know the twists and turns that we will encounter, and we have encountered them and will continue to do so, but our faith and trust must transcend what we know and what we cling to, which is often not real in the first place.  Don’t get me wrong.  We can continue doing what we’ve always done, business as usual, but know there are consequences to that as well.  Demographics continue to change, population is shrinking in most of this pastorate and appears to be in the near future.  In other words, we’ll die with it.  We’ll die with it.  As the poet, W.H. Auden, once wrote, “We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die.”  If I have learned anything this past year it’s that both locations have just that, illusions of one another, often deeply rooted in fear and the unknown which only entering into relationship can change.

So here we are, at the crossroads of change.  Like the disciples of Jesus in John’s Gospel, some may high tail it out because of change and what will be asked of them, because something is asked of all of us.  Some of this is personal.  I was close to just breaking down in exhaustion earlier this summer and I cannot continue to do that to myself.  If you read my blog you know that Notre Dame was like a “field hospital” for me and vacation more like respite care.  We currently have seven masses on the weekend and I’m seeking to move it to five.  In relation to the seven and nearly 30 in this vicinity, it’s not that much when we see ourselves as stewards of the liturgy rather than possessors.  I am a believer that less is often better because I can be better, and not allow the celebration that stands at our center to be entered into in drudgery and exhaustion. 

Change is hard and it’s messy.  There have been missteps and there will continue to be mistakes.  There always is when you wander through the desert.  Like the Israelites, our eyes have a way of deceiving us.  Change is also good and one of the few consistencies in our life.  As we enter into this discernment process and dialogue, we pray for the grace to move us to a place of encounter with and through one another.  We pray for the grace of the Spirit to come upon us and lead us to the place of poverty within our soul which often holds the key to so many of our struggles.  One of Pope Francis’ first quotes about the Church was that it is poor and for the poor.  It leads me to the image that we hold so dear, that first Christmas in Bethlehem when poverty took on flesh.  Here we are some 2000 years later, still asking for the grace so that we may be the same in the here and now, in this pastorate, as one people in and through Christ.  That, my friends, is what we’re all about and where we will find fulfillment of the deeper hunger for meaning and purpose in our lives.

 

Gratefully Living Without

Galatians 4: 4-7; Luke 2: 16-21

Like most of you, I spent part of this Christmas week with my family, which includes all the chaos with kids and such but also reflecting back on Christmas past. At one point some of us commented on how much Christmas has changed since we were kids. As you may know, I’m one of six. We were by no means rich but also not living in poverty, but we certainly learned to live without. As a kid, that seems like torture. You always want what is new, bigger, better, more advanced, and so on. But now, I can look back, as I’m sure many others can, and to see that that is a great lesson to learn in life, learning to live without and not having this constant need to be stimulated with the latest gadget. It’s hard to be grateful when I’m never quite satisfied and certainly only plays into the hand of the consumer culture. We can never have enough and yet, in the end, we only find gratitude without.

There’s a lot that stands in contradiction with the stories we hear throughout this Christmas season, including the continuation of the Christmas gospel we hear on January 1st each year. The shepherds finally find their way to Mary and Joseph and the new born babe to share what has been seen and heard. But there they stand at the center, Mary and Joseph, overwhelmed by what has taken place and the enormity of what has unfolded. But the story is really just beginning for them. If they had to carry with them what we have come to expect on Christmas morning they would never be able to make this journey. They really become refugees and go with nothing but what they have and of course, what is most important, the Christ, who will lead them on the way. As a matter of fact, they would face demise if they carried what we carry and maybe that’s the real point of the story. If we keep it at historical level we miss the point as to how their journey is our journey. It’s a journey of faith and trust and learning to take nothing with us along the way. It only slows us down in the first place and quite frankly, if we need to clutter our lives externally, we most likely are doing it internally as well leaving no space in the crib for the Christ. It will even become the message that Jesus conveys to the disciples of taking nothing with them for the journey while learning to trust and have faith in something and someone much bigger than themselves, in the unseen deep within them.

It is a day that we pray for peace, and of course, that’s first making peace with our own lives but we we also celebrate the Motherhood of Mary who ponders all this within her heart. She doesn’t stand demanding anything of anyone. She already has the space within to try to absorb the mystery that has and is unfolding and to be grateful for the real gift that has been given, of Love Incarnate. For today is also a day to give thanks and to be grateful as we begin a new year. But we too must make that space within our hearts to be grateful rather than trying to accumulate more and more. We too must learn to live without and to find God within what seems like nothingness. The journey Mary and Joseph embark on, and we too, demands us to go to that place of poverty. As refugees they must now flee the terror of Herod and head to Egypt only to eventually make their return at another time with an even deeper sense of trust and faith. They allow the Christ to lead them to the place of exile, to foreign land where they are without, only to find what has always been there and leading them along the way, the Savior that walks and meets them in that very place.

It’s what Paul also speaks of in today’s second reading to the Galatians. He speaks of the fullness of time taking on flesh under the law. Now it’s not just law as we understand it, but rather into the suffering of our lives, that place within us that keeps us bound and weighed down by what we carry. Maybe it’s not the Christmas gifts we may or may not have wanted, or the expectations we had of the holiday that weren’t met, but it could be the grief and pain that we continue to carry with us that makes the journey nearly impossible. Again, Mary and Joseph stand as the iconic figures of the season of making this journey while going without and finding the gift in the midst of it all. We so want to find the Christ in the joy and wonderment of the season, and that’s true, but the Christ is more than that. The Christ meets us where we have allowed our hearts to become exiled. This Christmas invites us to that place of poverty and to give thanks for the gift of living without.

As we continue this Christmas season and begin the new year, we pray for the grace to accept the invitation and walk with Mary and Joseph to our own hearts. Maybe we have to drop things and let things go as move along, but they promise us that what we find, that has always been, will satisfy every longing, where we will no longer be nagged by what seems to be never enough in our lives. Ironically, in the gift of going without, in our own nothingness, we learn the greatest gift, the gift of being grateful not just for what we have but for who and whose we are. Happy New Year!

A Weary World Rejoices

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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!

The Call Home

Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11; Luke 3: 15-16, 21-22

In his book, The Road to Character, David Brooks writes that his purpose for the book is that he needed to find his soul. As a political pundit, he believed he had gone so far from who he really is that the writing of the book was going to become the roadmap back to his truest identity. He began to realize that he was living a lie and contributing to the larger problems in politics, some of the time didn’t even believe what he was saying but just saying it because it was his job. He believes, and is often evident in our country, that there is no longer a moral code by which we live, that politics has taken the place and we see where that gets us. It’s divisive and a shallow identity, leading us down the same path that Brooks found in his own life, a loss of identity, a loss of soul.

This feast we celebrate today, the Baptism of the Lord, reveals through Jesus our own truest identity. If we can just believe with our heads and our hearts who we really are, beloved sons and daughters, not only of ourselves, but of everyone, the world can be a much different place. Yet, as much as we are baptized into it as Christians, somehow we forget. We begin to think and believe that we are something other than beloved. We begin to think we’re the color of our skin, our sexuality, the amount of money we have or don’t have, our ideology and politics, and we begin to live our lives that way. It’s a search for identity that takes place in this city and I believe it’s the struggle going on in this country. As time passes, like people Israel, we find ourselves so far away from our center that we have forgotten who we really are and we must go and search.

The struggle for identity is the lifelong struggle and part of salvation history. Israel, whom Isaiah writes of in today’s first reading, struggled themselves as a people. It’s easy, even in our time, to begin to think we are something else. How easy it is to think I’m something else. How could Israel not when their experience has been exodus and exile, their experience is war and violence. When that becomes our reality, we begin to think it’s who we are. We wander. We stray. We find ourselves on the periphery and the fringe, exiled from our truest self. But make note, as we hear in this reading and we heard during Advent, the voice continues to cry out. Even in the midst of the dryness, the desert, the voice continues to call us back to our home, back to the place of humility, this crib that we have come to throughout this season. The voice that cries out in the desert is the voice that proclaims the identity of Jesus, the beloved in which I am well pleased.

It was an identity struggle in today’s gospel today as well. In all the early communities, there was much debate as to who John the Baptist was. Now Luke resolves it by writing him out of the scene all together. Before we hear of Jesus’ baptism John is already taken into custody by Herod, and instead, Jesus is lumped in with the other people who have been baptized. It’s not that Jesus was somehow better than others, but rather, at the deepest core of all of us we remain the same, our truest identity in Christ, beloved sons and daughters. What the magi sought for last week and is revealed in Bethlehem is revealed to the people, to the nations, as the Christ. It’s who we really are as people, and if we believe it with our hearts, our lives our changed, the world is changed.

As we come to the end of this Christmas season, our search for the new born King will continue in ways we may never know. We’ll find ourselves like many of the characters we have met, wandering around the periphery wondering who we really are, realizing we have lost our way, trying to follow the voice of one crying out from the desert of our lives. Christmas doesn’t end here, but continues daily in our faith journey as we continue to seek out our truest identity, to give up living the lie and that which no longer works, to seek the voice that calls from the place of humility, this crib, which reminds us of who we really are, sons and daughters of God. When we believe it with all our being, life is changed forever, just as it did for the world on that first Christmas. We are the sons and daughters of God, beloved and with whom is well pleased.