Napping for Answers

I Kings 19: 4-8; John 6: 41-51

I think Elijah has the right idea.  Go find yourself a tree and take a nap.  You can’t beat it.  Unfortunately, even in his sleep he can’t seem to outrun life nor God, being nagged to eat for the journey.  I suppose it can seem rather extreme, praying for death and all.  He’s got a lot going on in his life that he isn’t able to make sense out of in the moment.  Maybe we wouldn’t go to that extent, but I bet we can all relate to him.  Most of us knows what it’s like to be pushed to wits end where we just can’t take anymore, where life seems overwhelming and we can’t possibly take anymore and so we do the same thing, we run away.  We all have our ways of running away.  Yet, like him, life, God, has a way of catching up with us even in those moments of escape.  The very fact that he ends up at a broom tree reminds us that God still has a hand.  It’s one of the few green trees in the desert because of its deep roots, pointing Elijah in the direction of life.  Elijah may not necessarily be having a crisis of faith but he’s certainly having a crisis of vocation, of meaning, of what his purpose is and this call of his in relation to God as prophet.  A nap under a tree seems inviting with all that going on.

Elijah finds himself under attack and on the run from the King and the King’s wife, Jezebel.  She wants him dead for him exposing all the false gods of their time.  Now it’s easy for us to say that we have no such gods in our lives but we’d be lying to ourselves.  They’re often associated with control, fear, boxing in, power as a means to make ourselves feel safe and secure.  They often make us comfortable because they’ve been faithful, but they’re not God.  So here’s Elijah bringing all of this to awareness and then finds himself, by the people who appear to have the most to lose, wanting him dead.  Any one of us would run at that point.  Here’s one of the unique things about Elijah’s story, though.  So many of the others we encounter in Scripture seem to be thrust back into what they’re running from, like Jonah, spit onto shore.  That’s not what happens to Elijah.  He isn’t told to go back and confront Jezebel.  Rather, this God specifically gives Elijah the freedom to wander and to get lost in order that he may be found.  He will wander for forty days and nights we hear today in order to be found.  It is the storied history of Israel of themselves wandering in the desert in order to be found, faithful God every step of the way.

We are probably most familiar with the wandering that will take Elijah to the place where he will finally encounter this mysterious God.  God doesn’t come in the earthquake or anything drastic, but rather in the quiet whisper in Elijah’s heart.  All the angst that he continues to encounter, ironically often in his moments of sleep as we hear today, Elijah finally begins to grow more deeply into the vocation in which God calls him and yet wouldn’t have unfolded for him if he didn’t first have that immediate confrontation with death, leading to him fleeing to the desert, and growing into that freedom given by God to become lost and to wander in order to be found.  We can all relate in those moments of our own lives.  We’ll either cling to what was or we’ll allow ourselves to learn to trust what we cannot hear and yet speaks in the gentleness of our own hearts.

The same crisis is unfolding with the followers of Jesus in today’s gospel from John.  We’re now halfway through the Bread of Life discourse and we now see signs of cracks happening in not just the Pharisees, who we have become accustomed to antagonizing Jesus, but his very followers.  Like Elijah they’re confronted with who this God is and what Jesus is revealing about that God and their inability to grasp it all.  Like Elijah in those waning moments, they don’t want to listen.  They don’t want to hear the truth and they don’t have the capability to listen to what he is saying about this God.  Like Jezebel, they have in their minds who God is and what that all means, neatly packaged, safe and secure, and now all of a sudden, things are changing and scales are falling from their eyes and hearts.  The very fact that they can’t even repeat what it was that Jesus says, changing the words, gives us proof that they don’t want to listen.  In some ways the story ends sadly as the weeks go on because they just can’t handle the truth.  Many will be led to a crisis of faith, vocation, meaning, however you want to describe it.  Like the God that Elijah encounters, though, they too will be given that same freedom to wander and to allow themselves to become lost in order to be found.  There will be that period of wandering in the desert themselves where they will learn to surrender all that they have clung to in order to experience God in a new way, a deeper way, and once again find meaning in their call as followers.

If there is one thing we can say for sure it’s that there are many that find themselves lost and wandering these days.  There are many seemingly wanting to flee life because they find themselves at wits end.  We quickly want to try to find answers and create new boxes to neatly package it all up for ourselves, but that’s not faith.  More often than not we’re led to crises ourselves, wandering and lost in order to be found.  It may be forty days and forty nights, but all along, as with Elijah, God’s hand is there leading us to the broom tree, to the quiet whisper, and ultimately to that place of peace with ourselves and what it is that gives us meaning, nourished through this great mystery we call faith.  It’s why we return to this table weekly to be fed and nourished for the journey is long and tiresome.  We pray, these days, for the grace to embrace the freedom that God gave to Elijah and the followers of Jesus to become lost and to wander.  None of us has all the answers, we can never really be sure, we can cling to our institutionalized gods all we want, but none of it will ever move us to that place of freedom to grow more deeply into our own call.  Becoming lost and finding ourselves wandering is sometimes the greatest gift that can be given to us because we learn what really matters.  It’s only then that we allow ourselves to be found by this God who has already been there every step of the way, leading us to freedom and to greater depths of love and mystery.

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What Matters Most

Malachi 1: 14–2: 2, 8-10; I Thess 2: 7-9, 13; Matthew 23: 1-12

If you follow what we call, the opioid crisis, you may have heard last week from Chris Christie mentioning that over the span of three weeks, this country loses as many people to overdose as we did back on 9/11/01.  That’s every three weeks and yet we have plenty of money to try to make us safer and secure but we can’t seem to find it within ourselves to deal with this continuing growing problem.  Maybe because it’s a problem that lies beneath the surface and can’t always see with our eyes.  We’re much better at reacting to what we see rather than dealing with the interior, unseen.  Just think about it, though.  If there are that many who are trying to mask themselves think about the amount of pain that is hidden in plain sight.  We somehow think that taking away the heroin, the pain pills, the guns, or whatever else will solve all our problems but all it does is tackle the seen and rarely pushes us to deal with the pain below the surface that leads us down the path of opioids or other means.

It’s the challenge Jesus often faces with the Pharisees, as he does again today.  Keep in mind, the Pharisees weren’t bad people.  They were well-intentioned and whether we care to admit it or not, there’s a Pharisee in all of us.  They seem to only care about how things are seen with the eyes, how they look, and keeping people distracted by what might be less important.  Along comes this Jesus who doesn’t seem to need them so much, despite the relationship with the Pharisees being one of need and dependency.  Jesus, rather, encounters the people where they are and with what matters most, their pain and suffering.  He’s not the least concerned about how things look, titles, being seen, or having the attention on himself, all he cares about is so often zoning in on the pain, not by medicating or numbing it, but entering into with the one who suffers.  It’s a radical approach to faith as they had known it.  The approach of the Pharisee is one of superiority and allowing yourself to be seen as “good” and blaming others for your problems.  For Jesus, it’s about going below the surface and bringing about radical change that can only come by a holy encounter in pain.

In the words of Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians, it’s a God who is like a mother who nurses and cares for her children’s hunger and need.  It wasn’t about being seen or about who’s in and who’s out.  No, rather for Paul it too was about this radical healing that needed to happen in people’s lives.  More often than not Paul would go after the communities for separating themselves from what mattered most even what was seen with their very eyes.  Their focus tended to be on themselves rather than the poor and people dying in the streets and encountering them in those very places.  Paul uses that image today to remind us of this God who doesn’t care about what we have or our bank accounts or how we are seen in the public eye.  Rather, it is that mother, as he tells us, who cares for her children’s very needs, needs that are so often not noticed on the surface but internally, as if instinctual, a deeper pain and hunger.

For the prophets it was no different just as with Malachi in today’s first reading.  He too uses language of a parent but now rather a God who is a faithful father.  Malachi is going after the priests who too had lost sight of what was most important.  They were much too worried about the Temple, in some ways as we often do, the façade of the building.  Somehow as long as things look good and fine on the surface we can ignore the deeper problems in our lives, city, and country.  All along, though, we become eaten alive by our pain that continues to lead us further into a virtual life that eases and numbs the pain rather than seeking that holy encounter within the pain so that it may be transformed and we may live life more fully.  They were no different than us, focusing on what separates us and divides us rather than the deeper issues facing our community, city and country.

When Matthew writes this gospel he too was worried about his own community.  That presence of the strong Pharisee was separating and dividing his community and he worried that they’d come apart.  Matthew worried how fear had crept in and was eating away at the community as he tried to unite them around the one who knew their pain, the Christ.  That Pharisee within each of us will always look for the short-term solution to our pain, turning to opioids, heroin, pain pills, guns, or whatever our choice is all that we can continue to function in our lives and world while being eaten within ourselves by our pain that keeps being pushed down and numbed.  It’s so easy to get caught up in the less important things that we see with our eyes rather than to be led to the unseen, the pain within our own hearts, that prevents us from loving in the way that Jesus has loved, like the nursing mother and the faithful father.

The amount of pain that exists in this city and country is even hard to imagine and in the short-term it appears we’ll continue to avoid and numb as long as we look strong and secure.  But deep down we know there is more, in the unseen parts of our heart lies a deeper pain that desires more than anything a holy encounter and a radical healing so we too can focus on what matters most, the lives we are called to go out to as missionary disciples, not to separate and divide but to gather together around the Cross of the Christ where radical healing, in our most vulnerable state, is brought forth.