School of Love

The Cross is the school of love. –Maximilian Kolbe

Maximilian Kolbe, a man and saint, who suffered and died under the hands of the Nazi regime at Auschwitz, recognized the reality that the greatest conflict one faces lies within our very heart and soul. He, more than most of us, saw the impact of such conflict in the suffering of all under the reign of evil, played out on the grandest scale during the Second World War. He, though, also saw such suffering and the Cross of Christ as a school of love, teaching lessons that can only come through an encounter with love in its deepest form, where the human and divine will intersect and one chooses God, chooses love over the interest of man. For some, seemingly foolish and selfish, but a school and a love that contains all creation, not fought on a battlefield but our “innermost personal selves.”

When we arrive at the climactic scenes of John’s gospel and his version of the passion narratives, we see this battle played out in the school of trial, flowing water and blood, a spirit given over, and with no one more central to the drama than Pilate himself, a man deemed responsible and yet utterly conflicted. Pilate stands as archetype of a darkened power and the ability for power to seduce one into believing that all is held in his very hands, a world dominated by such power. What Pilate doesn’t anticipate, though, is an encounter with love in the Christ in this moment of trial, a school in which Pilate will fail out of in his time, unable to pass the test of love and to triumph the inner self.

Pilate suffers at the same hands as all of us, that with knowledge comes power. It’s not simply knowledge in the way we understand, but the power that comes with knowing and making that knowing into eternal truth. Pilate becomes blinded by such power and knowing, fearing its loss if he were to succumb to the power of love in that encounter. For Pilate, a quick fix to a problem, to rid himself of such problem, is all he can see. He knows of a growing crowd outside the praetorium, a crowd that has grown dissatisfied with truth and the unknown. The movement towards uncertainty rises a sense of anxiety among the people and Pilate for fear of the change that comes with the school of love. In the end, Pilate, in his own conflicted state, chooses fear over love, giving into a growing threat to his identity and power, not wanting to be seen as weak in the face of the people, both political and religious, who stand to swoop in and scoop up the very power that brings down a weak leader, a leader who chooses fear over love. Class failed and the intersection of the human and divine driven to Gabbatha and the ultimate undoing of human power and the revealing of the incomprehensible power of love.

The commemoration of the Lord’s passion and death pushes us to the point of choice in our own lives, choosing the ways of the world which find us confined by our own doing or choosing love, freeing us but at great price. When one encounters love, though, the illusions of power and self are all but destroyed, testified by an “eyewitness” that what first appears the greatest atrocity now stands as the only way to love. The school of love in which Kolbe speaks and witnesses to in his own life didn’t come by crawling cowardly away from the threat of death but rather courageously standing before the crossroads of life and death and choosing life through death, not for his own sake but for that of others. What appears with the eye as a self-serving sacrifice points the way to how we are to live our own lives. We may never encounter such circumstances as that of Kolbe, but the choice to choose love over fear and death is where we are invited every moment of our lives as we to stand between the cut rock of death and the unwavering outpouring of water and blood in new birth.

As the world turns in our own conflicted hearts, choosing fear and love continues to invite us to the intersection of the human and divine through the wood of the Cross. The world stands are our greatest classroom desperately in need of not more fear but a greater sense of love and the depths of love that come through our own suffering in daily choosing to follow love, listen to love, become love in the way we live our lives. It is not hate that stands in opposition to love but fear. It is our own fear of the unknown, something beyond comprehension, fear of the other who threatens my way of life, fear of not knowing, and the ever-increasing anxiety that is brought about by a world that remains repulsed and indifferent towards suffering.

“The Cross is the school of love.” It’s a school where we continue to gather as students to a deeper understanding of this unfolding mystery of suffering and death and the transformational power of love. The cross is not merely an event of centuries ago, seemingly won for us all, but rather the comprehensive exam of a life of faith that thrusts us into the center of the drama of our own lives, lives desiring the heart of the other, lives desiring love. Like Pilate, fear always stands in our way. We cling to what we know and limit this school’s lessons to what we know, to dogmatic certainties, rather than the unfolding and being unfolded ourselves of the layers of our own lives and fear that have kept us from love. An encounter with love changes everything, presumably even for someone like Pilate, even if unbeknownst to him. The school of this Cross and the love poured out shatters all that we have known, opening us to a new way of life, the pouring forth of water and blood and the growing intimacy of standing naked before love itself. The Cross stands as the school of love. What appears as fear, death, power, hatred, and threat can only be overturned by the unfathomable power of love. The school of love always stands ready not to reveal greater light but to cast light upon our own darkness and sin that hinders our own self, a self created for love and to be loved. In the drama of our own lives, the Cross stands ready as our own school, pointing us to the very love our hearts desire. The choice remains, love over fear.

 

Then Come, Follow Me

These words have been with me the past few days in this journey of faith and understanding. Whenever they appear in the Gospels, they are typically preceded by some form of surrender and “letting go” which often does not mean a hill of beans to the disciples until it means everything. The most obvious is always what they can see with their eyes, of giving up possessions, wealth, and all the rest that is demanded of them, but it isn’t until they encounter utter darkness that it begins to mean something all-together different. It changes not only how they see themselves but the very God that calls them. Maybe it’s why we so often avoid the biggest leaps in our lives, knowing that what is demanded of us may be the very life we have grown to embrace over our lifespan, that has given us some form of secure identity in which to cling.

Let’s be real. It’s never easy to give up anything. We can easily convince ourselves in some kind of rational fashion that we can’t live without certain things or people because of some form of attachment that has grown over our way of relating to them. We create for ourselves, a form of dependence, rather than the interdependence that is demanded of us through our way of relating to God and mystery. Once it moves to a point of clinging or dependence, we begin to lose sight of the gift that lies before us, within us, and even beyond us. We create for ourselves our own gods that bring us comfort, certainty, and some form of security that we as humans look for, especially when it feels as if everything else around us is falling away and the world that we had once known ceases to exist.

For the disciples, and I’d say for most of us, it’s our way of thinking, our way of seeing the world, and the very illusions, all of which are too small for us, that become our greatest obstacles and even leads to a deep loneliness with and within ourselves because we live our lives separate from our truest selves, the self in which God created us to be. In an act of rebellion and violence against our truest selves, we choose paths and make choices in life rather than allowing the path to be revealed to and within us which demands way too much trust, faith, and patience that we often just don’t have time for in our lives and in the fast-paced world in which we live. This rebellion, violence, and fighting often manifests itself in the world, but at its core, it’s a fight against ourselves, against the darkness which we avoid within ourselves but see quite clearly in the systems, structures, institutions, and world in which we live. It’s not until we begin to become aware of the fight against when we realize we’re often fighting the wrong battle. It’s not that anything of the world need not change; our systems have become dysfunctional and self-serving. It by no way means, though, that the change first must begin with me, with us.

This is where the rubber meets the road for the disciples and us, when we become aware of what needs to change in our lives, what it is we have been fighting within ourselves, and to learn to love in a more radical way, even the areas in which we most fight and cling. When the disciples finally face that utter darkness, the novelty of what it is they see with their eyes, in which they need to surrender, becomes practically inconsequential to the greater battle which lies within and before them. The layers of life which must be shed, often rooted in fear, becomes the stumbling stone of their lives and our lives if we are to live from that truest place. Rather than identifying with the lifestyle in which they want to fit and what will define them, they choose, in freedom, to step out into the darkness of a life unknown, identified with the deepest sense of mystery. Then come, follow me.

It would be great if the gospel ended for the disciples and us when it is mere possessions that they are asked to give up. It would also be great if it ended, as it appears with our eyes to end, as simply gazing at the Cross and awaiting a day of resurrection. Following me, though, if we follow through with the message, isn’t simply about Jesus doing something for us. It’s only a half-truth. The other half is the demand we avoid and seemingly fail to see out of fear of what is being asked. Unfortunately, it’s what creates the co-dependent systems we find ourselves all too often operating within. The other half demands something of us and yet it feels like everything in those very moments. God can surely lead us to the cross just as Jesus does his disciples. But following doesn’t end at a gaze. Rather, following demands a humiliation we’d rather not encounter, a humiliation that leads straight through the Cross, hanging naked and exposed just as it does for Jesus.

The Mystery that culminates in Holy Week and the continuous call to follow is not a play in which we stand as bystanders, looking on and giving praise for a job well done come the Resurrection. If it is, we’ve missed the point of being true to ourselves and to the very God that has created. This is the violence and rebellion we do against ourselves. The journey of Jesus is our journey as well, not only the truth and the life, but also the way. When we allow ourselves to enter into the drama and the utter darkness, the humiliation of coming out of a life, a thinking, an illusion once lived and clung to only then can the mystery we celebrate and live begin to make sense in a deeper way. Like the disciples, all else become inconsequential to the great surrender that is being asked and demanded in order to live the deeper truth of who we are, rather than settling for a gaze or the role of bystander or victim of a world thrust upon us. Instead, we learn to live from the inside out, and for that matter, upside down.

What precedes, then come, follow me, is consequential to the call of discipleship and the radical love in which God demands. What follows, though, is even more consequential. Giving up what we see with our eyes is often incomparable to what has been buried within our hearts, often avoided out of the very humiliation that now stands before us and the Cross. For the disciples, and us, to truly follow as Jesus demands, we must move beyond a gaze of the Cross to bearing it in our most challenging moments, knowing that He walks and carries it with us. It is the only path to the freedom our hearts desire and the only path to the radical love that the gospel demands for we are created in the very image to love and to be loved, finding our deepest value, worth, and truth, in love. Then, and only then, come, follow me.

Paying The Price

I Kings 17: 10-16; Hebrews 9: 24-28; Mark 12: 38-44

As Jesus and the disciples now make their final march towards the ultimate battle and war, at the Cross, which we’ll hear in two weeks on the Feast of Christ the King, the gap between what Jesus calls them to as disciples and how they see things seems all but insurmountable.  Like us, the disciples too are a product of their own experience and their experience tells them that life has more to do with what the scribes, along with the other religious and political leaders, do than it does with Jesus.  All Jesus can do, as he does today, is keep moving them to look at things from a different perspective so that when they do finally face the Cross and the scales begin to fall from their eyes, things will begin to make sense and they will see what Jesus was about all along.  It’s hard to change when our own experience tells us something different than what we’re being invited into.  There’s feeling attached to it, emotion, and all the rest, that as we’ve seen in our own political and even religious institutions, we can overlook facts and truth all for the sake of holding onto what we think.

Yet, when they make that final march to the Cross, things begin to change and the disciples, like ourselves, are given a choice.  They’ve been given a choice all along and consistently reject the way of the Lord, but when their eyes are opened, the choice will become more obvious, do we follow the ways of the Lord, that have been pointed out to us along this journey, or do we continue to consume the ways of the world, often blindly following the political and religious leaders of the day who often feed into that lived experience rather than inviting us into something new, a new way of seeing and a new way of living that isn’t so much about consuming as it is sacrifice.

Jesus, once again today, tries to offer a different perspective by sitting off at a distance with the disciples and simply observe people, people watching as we call it.  He knows he can’t force the disciples to see as he sees, but as we’ve heard throughout Mark’s gospel, tell no one.  He just doesn’t want it to be some secret.  Jesus is aware that they don’t yet understand nor do they see what really matters.  They quickly, as we’ve heard these weeks, become enthralled with power, with honor, with wealth, and once again, the scribes prove it to them.  The temptation is so strong as they watch.  They see how people fall over them and how they manipulate and take advantage of the lesser of their society.  So, as only Jesus can do, he observes and contrasts the scribes with a widow, as we also heard in today’s first reading.  It’s not just because there was something so special about this particular widow.  It’s the fact that any widow of that time has nothing.  It’s not even simply about money.  She has no status and no voice, no nothing.  Yet, she gives the most.  As the scribes consume the honor, the power, the wealth, a particular attraction, this woman finds it all in sacrifice, in the nothing that she has.  That’s the point to the disciples as they look on.  You can have all the given power, honor, and wealth, but it’s not necessarily the way of the Lord.  As much as we love to consume, the way of the Lord is often just the opposite, letting go and sacrificing.

As you know, today we mark the 100th Anniversary of the ending of World War I and also celebrate Veterans Day, others who have gone to the ultimate battle.  If you read about the world wars, you quickly learn that there was also a very different mindset as a country and people.  It wasn’t just the one’s who went off to war who had to sacrifice, and sometimes their entire lives, but there was a call for everyone to sacrifice.  Since the events of 9/11, though, our attitude has been quite different.  After that and beyond it has been consume, consume, consume.  It’s not just things we’ve been challenged to consume, we consume media and social media now that feeds into the lived experience and how we see the world that it becomes harder and harder to change, to let go, to sacrifice.  As a matter of fact, the more we consume the more we think we need and the more we feel anxious when we don’t have it all.  It’s a consumer mindset that is eventually going to do us in and there will be a price.  Like the disciples and their experience of the Cross, it often takes something drastic to move us to change and for the scales to fall from our eyes.  At some point we just can’t consume anymore because it prevents us from dealing with the hurt and pain that resides below the surface.  The widow faced the cross.  Long before Jesus, the widow in the first reading faced the cross.  They knew what was most important, in particular when they were pushed to the point of losing it all.  The harder we cling, the harder it is to let go, especially of our way of thinking.

Over the past few weeks the writer of Hebrews has been pushing us to change our perspective as well, inviting us to step back and look at what really matters.  So often what we see with our eyes is what we think is most important.  Jesus himself will go on and speak about the destruction of the Temple, as it too consumes, becomes bloated, and becomes a source of corruption.  Hebrews keeps pointing us back to the Christ, that it is that relationship that offers salvation.  Don’t cling so hard to what you see because at some point the scales will fall and the questioning and the real choice will be revealed.  It appears, at least in plain sight, that Elijah is all about himself as he approaches the widow who’s at the point of death!  He simply wants food and drink for the journey as she watches her own son die.  Yet, she moves from her own lived experience as widow and still offers a hospitality that by sight seems senseless.  Yet, like Jesus, she finds strength and learns to trust even more deeply in those moments.  Elijah himself will continue to learn as his journey continues just what it means to be prophet.  Like the disciples his time wandering and in the desert will open him to new possibility and to find true power from his own emptiness and longing, sacrificing it all, including his way of thinking, rather than feeding the narrative that had been his lived experience.

At some point, we too are left with the same choice as the disciples as to how we will proceed in life, as individuals and even as community and country.  The more we consume what we think it’s all about, the more the gap grows as it did between Jesus and the disciples.  All Jesus or any of us can continue to do is invite us to look at life from a different perspective and set up the differences as to what’s most important and what we truly value.  Those who have nothing in the gospels point the way towards trust and faith in the God who often cannot be seen with the eyes, especially eyes clouded through our consumption of goods and media and whatever else we think we can’t live without.  Like the disciples, though, a day will come and it always comes, leaving us with the choice as we stand at the Cross and look on.  Do I choose the way of the Lord, which so often demands sacrifice and letting go to begin to see what really matters or will I continue to blindly follow the ways of the world, the political and religious leaders of our day?  It’s a hard choice but God has shown time and time again, there is but one way, the way of the Lord.  Today a rich widow simply points the way by giving of her whole livelihood.  Are we willing to do the same, even if it means sacrificing what we think is most important in our lives?

Suffering Silence

Isaiah 50: 5-9; Mark 8: 27-35

If you follow Church politics, and it’s really hard not to at the moment, then you know there’s been this debate about Pope Francis being silent on the accusations brought against him, and many others for that matter, except the guy making the accusations.  Now I’m not here to judge whether it’s right or wrong.  I don’t know it all nor all the facts so it’s hard to make such a judgment in the first place.  However, in the age we live we demand answers and justice.  We somehow think we deserve to know it all.  We want to react and overreact to everything without ever taking the time to step back and allow things to sink into the silence.

All that said, it’s important to keep in mind that both have been silent on it, both Pope Francis and the former diplomat who made the accusations.  There is, though, a difference in their silence.  The former diplomat is in hiding, not unlike the disciples on that first Easter when they were locked in the upper room out of fear.  Quite frankly, it’s easy to throw a lot of dirt and then run, but that is a silence rooted in fear.  It leads to secrecy and shame, a silence we’re all too familiar with in our own lives and from the Church for that matter.

There is, though, a silence that accompanies suffering.  It’s a silence we’re often less familiar with because we do everything in our power to avoid it.  It’s a silence that creates space for uncomfortableness, rather than fear and anxiety.  It’s a silence that moves us to deeper places in our own hearts, to a place of freedom, a place where the truth can be revealed.  It’s a silence that requires patience, quite frankly, to simply be in our suffering rather than reacting demanding truth, because, quite frankly, for us, it’s a truth that will never satisfy our own restlessness, other than maybe a few days or so, it’s thinking as humans does rather than as God, as Jesus points out today.

It’s this type of silence that Mark writes about throughout his gospel including what we hear today where he warns them not to tell anyone.  However, it doesn’t take long for Peter, and the others, to start doing the inevitable.  With each passing story there is a small bit of information and fact that is revealed, just as it is today, and they immediately think they know it all.  They think they have all the truth and will begin to abuse it.  They know what they know but they don’t know why and certainly don’t know what they don’t know.  The rest of Mark’s gospel will begin to reveal that mystery until it’s ultimate climax in the paradox of the Cross, the crossing of life and death that will reveal the deeper truth that they desire.  So when Jesus warns Peter today about shooting off his mouth, Mark tells us he looks at all of them to do it, warning the crew about their inevitable sin of not being able to sit with what is revealed and allow the deeper truth to continue to be revealed.  The next scene is the transfiguration in Mark’s Gospel and following that they will begin to argue about who’s the greatest, who’s has higher stature in the group, and so on, unable to allow the pieces of the puzzle to be revealed, step by step, and learning to live into that mystery, into that silence.  It’s painful, and like us, they want nothing to do with any of it.  Yet, it’s the only way for truth to be revealed, a truth that goes beyond facts and knowledge.  That forces us to stay on the surface and never delve into the deeper problems of a broken humanity.

It is also Isaiah’s struggle in the first reading today.  This is a reading we normally hear on Palm Sunday so it accompanies the passion and death of Jesus.  He reveals elements of the suffering servant.  He too, learns to sit in the silence and allow the deeper truth to be revealed in and through him.  Quite honestly, people have had enough with Isaiah at this point.  They’re tired of hearing what he has to say.  Not unlike us, they’re bombarded with it all.  They’re quick to judge, demand stuff, feel abandoned, and getting swallowed up in their own suffering.  Isaiah, though, today tells them that God has given him an ear to hear.  Sure, there is that physical ear he has like the rest of us, but that’s not what he speaks of here.  He speaks of the eyes and ears of his heart.  Our physical ears and eyes are too quick to judge.  They want proof.  They want answers.  They demand justice.  All Isaiah can do, though, is sit with it.  He’s aware they don’t want to hear it.  He learns to sit with the suffering and allow that silence to deepen they mystery and allow that truth to be revealed.

In an age when we are bombarded with noise, silence becomes all the more necessary.  We have politicians that are constantly throwing stuff at us and more often than not out of fear.  They try to manipulate and deceive with perceived facts and truths and all the rest and more often than not because we can’t sit in our own suffering.  We want to share it with the world rather than learning to sit in silence with it.  It’s the only way to transformation and the only way to move to the deeper places in our own hearts in order to experience the real truth.  We can demand and expect all we want, as human beings always do, but only leads to greater dissatisfaction and it’s never enough.  We end up acting upon our fear, our anxiety, our own uncomfortableness in life rather than allowing truth to be revealed.  It is only in the paradox of the cross where the deeper truth is revealed, not in facts or figures, but in Christ crucified.  It’s the piece of knowledge that Peter and the others didn’t want to hear and we often don’t want to hear either.  It really is easier to judge, invoke fear, accuse, demand, react and overreact, but it’s a whole other thing when we can simply sit in the uncomfortableness of the suffering that comes with the silence Jesus demands, for, in playing the long game, it is the only way in which the real truth will rise up and be revealed.

Heart’s Unfolding Mystery

Exodus 20: 1-17; I Cor 1: 22-25; John 2: 13-25

The Cleansing of the Temple that we hear this weekend is not unique to John’s Gospel.  We hear it in all the gospels so there is some historical accuracy to the account, but the other evangelists place it near the end of the story upon Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  We’ll hear that on Palm Sunday from Mark’s Gospel.  John, though, changes it up and places it near the beginning as the gospel opens with the first of three celebrations of Passover.  It’s also rather crazily placed between the Miracle at Cana, the water into wine, just prior to it, and then follows with a rather intimate dialogue with Nicodemus just following this event and so it’s smack in between these stories.  After this great celebration and the sign at Cana it’s as if things get turned upside down.

It’s placement almost seems as if to throw people off.  As they begin to understand who this Jesus is in John’s Gospel, he seems to move which knocks everyone off kilter, almost appearing as if he’s creating these conflicts or certainly this tension where things seem to happen and change occurs.  You know, at first glance there really is nothing wrong with what’s going on at the feast of Passover at the Temple.  It was customary for people to sacrifice animals and so to be sold in that vicinity was common and so Jesus seems to overreact to it all when he shows up in Jerusalem for the feast.  As he makes this move it seems to begin to cast doubt and almost chaos into the lives and hearts of the people he encounters.  But maybe that’s his point all along.

Like any people, but in particular those he encounters today, we gradually become comfortable with what is and we begin to lose sight of the deeper realities that we’re being invited into.  It’s what creates this misunderstanding in this passage and beyond in John’s Gospel.  We become blind and deaf to things, where we can no longer see nor hear beyond the surface of our own hearts.  Gradually it becomes a market place, as the writers note, but in that gradual process of becoming they in turn lose sight of the bigger picture and the deeper reality.  Rather than becoming more like God and participating in that mystery, they become participants in this sham of a market place while their own gods are created.  Christ entering the scene turns it upside down, literally and figuratively, to make them aware of what they have become and invite them to become something more, this deeper lived reality that can only come through Christ.  He will enter into dialogue with them, push them, and be on the move.  Of course, in all he encounters it requires a willingness and an openness on the part of the one encountered to change, to deepen, to see and hear with the heart.

It’s the message Paul conveys over and over again but in particular to the community at Corinth that we hear today.  He reminds us that Jews demand signs and Gentiles wisdom but in the end what they really look for is proof in their own ways.  They want to cling to what they know and to be able to hold onto something rather than enter more deeply into this mystery of faith.  It is, as Paul reminds us, the paradox of the Cross.  It’s the lived reality, as with John, to not become comfortable, because just like the encounters with Christ in that Gospel, God has a way of throwing us off kilter and remind us who’s really in charge of this life and all we can do is enter more deeply into the mystery as it unfolds within and beyond us.

The Ten Commandments, as we know them, come from the passage from Exodus today.  However, what we hear this weekend is much more poetic than what we become accustomed to as kids growing up and the ten rules we’re expected to follow and somehow all is right with God.  But just like the people John introduces us to, we often, over time, lose sight of the deeper meaning and purpose for what we do and are brought back in order to enter into dialogue once again.  This is not to simply remind ourselves of the rules, like the ten commandments, but to enter into relationship with the unfolding mystery that lies within them, their deeper meaning, that the writer tries to convey.  How easily we become blinded by our own lives and our own agendas that we to get stuck which is just another way of casting shadow on sin.

As we continue this Lenten journey and now enter into the Gospel of John, we’re invited into the experience of the cleansing of the Temple and allow ourselves to get knocked off kilter.  We too become comfortable and blinded in our own lives where we can no longer see nor hear the deeper meaning and mystery.  It may lead us into conflicted hearts or even the experience of tension, but as the gospel reminds us, that’s exactly where God works best because it shows an openness on our part to change and to deepen.  We pray for that grace today, in our own misunderstandings as we hear in the gospel, our own comforts, our own blindness, may be torn from under us in order that we may fall freely into this unfolding mystery of the Christ.  It’s what we truly desire and it’s the fullness of life that God continues to promise.

A Life Exposed

Genesis 22: 1-2, 9-13, 15-18; Romans 8: 31-34; Mark 9: 2-10

The story of Abraham and Isaac that we hear from Genesis today is considered as one of the more bizarre stories we encounter in Scripture.  I mean, who in their right might would kill a child?  Who?  Especially this child and in this story.  We know that this child is all that Abraham and Sarah ever wanted.  They waited until their twilight years before Isaac arrives and now Abraham stands over him, not simply to sacrifice, but as the reading tells us, to slaughter him.  That’s what we hear.  It’s what we see today.  You know that almost half the people killed in Syria this week were children.  Children being slaughtered senselessly and yet here we are.

The story, though, is told in relation to the one that ends up being sacrificed.  It’s the ram that takes the place of Isaac in the story.  As much as Isaac stands as the vulnerable one, the ram comes with great symbolism in Scripture.  The ram represents power and strength.  It’s typically the leaders of the lambs because of it’s horns.  It has a natural sense of power and strength built into its structure.  However, as we hear in the reading today, the very gift of the ram, its horns, becomes its downfall.  All its power and strength gets it stuck in the thicket and so its power leads to its demise.  So what is it that Abraham is sacrificing.  The whole story not only tells us something about him but it also tells us something about the God that he believed in in his life.  Not only who would kill a child but what kind of God would want someone to kill a child.  Yet, there he was and there we are even to this very day.  Even in those early moments God is trying to reveal something more about God and what it is that Abraham needs to sacrifice.

This child and the ram have a message for Abraham as to what that is.  Here he is, about to hand the baton to Isaac, the inheritance, the legacy, the kingdom that has been promised, and yet is about to kill.  Maybe in those moments Abraham had doubts about the whole thing or maybe the eventual sacrifice opens the eyes, that it’s not the vulnerable one that is to be slaughtered but that sense of power and strength that the ram symbolizes.  More often than not, the vulnerable become the easy target, especially if they’re revealing something about ourselves that we’re uncomfortable with in life.  When we begin to feel as if our own power, or perceived power for that matter, are slipping from our fingers, we react against that vulnerability.  Yet, the child has something to expose us to.  That goes for your kids as well.  None of them turn out as you might have wanted but all along they expose us to ourselves.  Yeah, kids are kids, but they view the world in a very different way than ourselves.  They have yet to become jaded or beat down by the world and especially in those moments of great suffering, as was for Isaac, in their cry they expose us to what is most important.  Is it that power and strength that does more harm than good or that place of vulnerability, that child within, that continues to cry out to be loved and nurtured, exposing us to our own shortcomings and our buy-in to the illusion of power.

The same could be said of the disciples in today’s Gospel from Mark.  First thing they want to do after having this vision is set up shop.  They think this is what it’s all about and there’s no need to go any further.  They’re still clamoring for that same power and control.  Heck, as much as they say they won’t tell anyone it’s only a few verses later where they’re fighting with each other about who’s most important and who’s in charge, who it is that carries that horns of that ram.  For them, as it is for us, that sense of power, control, and perceived strength will always be our downfall.  The same will be true for the disciples.  It will not be until they find themselves in the most vulnerable of places, at the foot of the cross, before they begin to put the pieces together and see what this life is all about.  Until then, they’ll fight for power and be blinded by it’s gaze.  They can’t even seem to help themselves.

The Son has a great deal to teach and reveals not only the true to them but exposes them to their own shadow.  The Son, as Isaac does, points out what is often our real intention and our own selfishness.  All of this is why we so often encounter Jesus among the children, the poor, women, the sick and destitute.  They see the world so often from the bottom up because that’s how they lived their lives.  They were told they were worthless and often excluded from society.  Jesus raises them up and in doing so reveals the insecurity of the leaders of that day and the leaders of our own day and their own motivation for power.   The Son and the children have something to teach us and our exposing our own bankrupt culture, crying out for something more.  The question is, are we going to listen?

This season of Lent provides us the space to be challenged in such ways and what it is that we’re sacrificing in our own lives.  Are we sacrificing what is most important and dear to us all for the sake of power and position, agendas in our own lives.  We know the cost and is the cost worth the most vulnerable, the generation that we’re called to pass the baton to.  In faith, we know we will be alright but as I said, when it feels like that power is slipping away and we become exposed for who we really are, what’s left.  Abraham tells us, as does Paul, what’s left is all that matters, the most precious of all, the vulnerable and sacred lives that have been given to us.  We are at a critical point to ask such questions in our lives and world in the way we are to proceed.  Do we continue to seek the illusion of the horns, which will eventually bring us down anyway, or to listen to the powerless son in Isaac and the powerless Son in Christ, pointing us to something more, to that place of vulnerability where a life of faith, surrender, and trust can overflow.

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.