Wholly Reconciled

Genesis 2: 18-24; Mark 10: 2-16

Here’s the secret.  It is about divorce and it isn’t, or at least not the way we’ve come to expect.  Regardless, though, it’s a tough message today, especially in a time where if statistics are true, nearly 50% of all marriages end in divorce.  It’s a sad reality that we live with and through.  But if you look closely, the Pharisees and Jesus seem to be talking past one another and speaking of different issues, at least on the surface.  Maybe Jesus is also aware that divorce, like some many other things are merely symptoms of deeper problems that we miss or fail to see.  Yet, Jesus gives clues by his very response to the Pharisees to their question that they pose in order to trip him up.  In the end, Jesus, yet again, exposes them for who they are and the part of themselves that they consistently fail to see.

You see, there are also hints in the readings themselves.  If it was about the Mosaic law in which they question Jesus, then we would have had that as our first reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, but we don’t.  Mark takes us back to the Book of Genesis and so does the Church in the formation of the cycle of readings.  So it’s about divorce, and yet it’s not.  When Jesus responds he tells the Pharisees that the law is there because of the hardness of their hearts.  He doesn’t cast out the law or demonize it in anyway, but rather exposes it for what it lacks, a heart, just like the Pharisees.  He proceeds to then return us to the basics, to the Book of Genesis, male and female God created them, in God’s image and likeness.  A hardened heart and a creation account sets us up for totally missing the point on where the real divorce and separation lies.

You see, male and female God created me.  Male and female God created each of you.  We’ve already been created whole and yet over our lives become fragmented and separated.  There has certainly been enough done on human development that tells us that men have feminine souls and women have masculine souls.  Yet, no matter how much we are told that, our binary way of thinking and acting in this worlds moves us towards separation but it also moves us towards the lie that first leads man to fall in the creation accounts.  The lie is that someone or something out there is going to complete me, is going to make me whole, and so I go searching everywhere else but the interior journey.  It’s what continues to cause war, division, and certainly separation and divorce in all aspects of our lives.  We have certainly seen that play out in the political scene the past few weeks, that when we become separated and divorced from ourselves, it becomes solely about power and nothing else.  It’s why we continue to have immature leaders in the Church and immature leaders in civil government because we are terrible with dealing with how we ourselves have become separated.  It’s all indicative to just how separated and divorced we are, most typically between head and heart.

But that’s the issue with Jesus and the Pharisees and even the disciples in today’s gospel.  It’s why the second part of the gospel is so important when the disciples try to keep the children from coming to him.  It’s always the most vulnerable that are most impacted.  Again, we have seen that play out in our politics.  We try to destroy the most vulnerable in order to satisfy our own sense of power.  It has shown us just how little interior work is done by some of our leaders where they totally disregard the other.  Just like the Pharisees, it points to their own separateness and divorce.  From the very beginning, God made us whole.  The rest of our lives is spent trying to bring the pieces back together and it’s hard work.  Yet, if we don’t learn to reconcile our own masculine and feminine, male and female God created them, we will continue to fall prey to war, violence, division, and this sense of being separate.  When we fail to reconcile all of it within ourselves, we can never move to a place of equality, despite the way in which we were created wholly by God.  Jesus moves to level the playing field and the men that felt they dominated and held the power wanted nothing of it.  They couldn’t see, just as we can’t, our own blindness.

The more we separate from ourselves, from each other, from God’s creation, we can pretty much guarantee that we have separated ourselves from God.  When we do that, we don’t even open ourselves to experiencing God in a fuller way.  God becomes simply about power and justice yet missing mercy and forgiveness.  God becomes about anger and vengeance yet missing loving and compassion.  When we can’t bring them together within ourselves, that we can be both just and merciful and all the rest, then we fail to see that about God as well.  It’s because of the hardness of your hearts and when the heart is hardened, the vulnerable become the target.  Ironically, and paradoxically, that’s precisely where we will find God on our journey.  It’s about divorce and yet it’s not, but really about learning to reconcile our own complexity rather than blaming.

Divorce is a tough subject but it is not limited to those who have literally experienced divorce in their lives.  It’s a reality that plagues all of us from the first time we began separating and becoming fragmented in our lives.  The first time when we learned as children that we had no value for one reason or another, thinking that life was about power and strength but never coupled with mercy and love.  It’s the divorce that plagues all of our hearts and has spilled over on the world stage of politics and Church life.  We have seen it with our eyes.  Yet, people praise it and gather with their tribes.  All it does is show how bankrupt it all is and how little we do to teach people what really matters.  It’s easy to get hung up on divorce and all the rest, but when we’re honest with ourselves, it impacts all of our lives.  Like the gospel reminds us, it is only Christ that pulls it back together, the complexity of our lives.  We’ve seen enough divorce in so many different capacities.  It’s time to reconcile beginning first with myself and yourself.  It’s because of the hardness of our hearts.  It’s time to create the space in our own hearts and lives to begin to reconcile these realities of our lives that have become so splintered and so much about power, leading to deeper divorce and separation.  It’s time for reconciliation.

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Made for TV

Numbers 11: 25-29; James 5: 1-6; Mark 9: 38-48

What a crazy week.  Just when you think things can’t get any crazier we find a new way as we continue this reality TV program that we’re all a part of.  The week started with the conviction of Bill Cosby.  I can’t imagine being in my 80s and now having to spend the rest of my life in prison, and for what.  Of course, as the week continued we found ourselves glued to the television again for the Supreme Court hearings.  I’m not convinced, though, just how much hearing and listening actually went on in that room.  I’m not sure you can say you’re open to hearing the other when your mind is made up and judgment has already been cast.  There was one thing that struck me, though, from the press conference following the conviction of Cosby that I believe transcends much of reality TV.  I believe it was the prosecutor who simply said, “This was a man who hid behind his character.”

All of know that character.  He was America’s dad.  He was funny and loving.  If you didn’t have the best family life he somehow showed the ideal parent and family through his character.  Yet, now we see how hard it is for us to reconcile the character from the real deal and the trauma that he was inflicting upon women.  All too often we prefer the character to the real deal because of what it so often offers us in return.  If you’ve listened to the reading from James the past few weeks, especially today, he has laid it on thick.  These characters become a source of two things for James, power and wealth.  The two most ardent of idols, jealous of all the rest and have a way of taking hold of our lives, and more often than not at the expense of those we have deemed less than ourselves, the powerless.  When they team up, watch out.  James warns that they will lead to the impending doom of humanity when the real God is abandoned and these idols take center stage.

Center stage is where they continue to take and the characters begin to believe that they are untouchable.  It certainly played itself out with Cosby but we were also witnesses to it in these hearings, again, where very little listening and hearing takes place because of power and wealth.  Once we begin to believe that our power is being stripped of us we start to lash out and react in order to hold on more tightly.  I’m not sure what kind of example we leave for future generations when we find elders lashing out and screaming at one another, supposed to be adults yet looking more like characters, clinging to a reality that no longer exists.  If that’s what it means to be a man, well, then I’m embarrassed to be a man.  If you think any of this is about justice, well, we’re sadly mistaken.  Power and wealth, as part of the American way are symbolic of strength and success.  But it’s not the gospel.  It’s not the good news.  It simply makes for good reality TV where division and conflict rule, separating ourselves from one another, making judgement, and no longer seeing the humanity of the other person.  There’s no room for faith nor for God because these gods consume the space.

They are hard readings.  It is, though, the reality of human nature to desire power and to think we can control and contain that power.  It’s certainly what Jesus and Moses both contend with in the first reading and Gospel.  In both situations the Spirit is given and yet, no sooner they witness people outside their “trip” and “group”, they immediately demand it to stop.  They hold the truth.  They have the power.  They believe they control God.  No sooner you believe that, there is no room for God, for Mystery.  It becomes about idols.  Last week the disciples argued about who’s the greatest and today it continues about power and holding onto that power.  It becomes about their place of prestige.  Somehow we believe that if we play the role and live into that character, dress the part, that’s all that matters.  All we do is sell ourselves short and sell our souls for something other than God.  We sell ourselves for power and wealth because we’re convinced and told to believe in the gospel of the Western World that life is about power, success, and wealth.  If we have done all three, we’ve done it well. 

Well, if you believe that, James has a warning for you.  He tells us this morning that that’s what eventually does in the righteous one on the Cross.  It will fatten your heart.  It will lead to condemnation.  It will lead to division and often unnecessary conflict.  Heck, for that matter, it leads to death threats to this day.  That’s what we become.  It shows just how much we have separated ourselves from the other and are being held hostage by our tribes, our camps, whether liberal or conservative or whatever you call yourself.  It’s amazing how we can believe that our group holds the total truth and the other is complete evil.  How have we gotten here?  Well, money and power certainly play a part in this reality TV program.

Yet, true power is shown, over and over, to the disciples and throughout the gospel through the one who is powerless.  The great power arises when the righteous one is nailed to the Cross.  But that doesn’t make for great TV.  It makes us turn our heads in shame.  We don’t want to admit that that’s what we continue to do by clinging to our idols.  More often than not the prophetic voice never rises from within the insiders of a group or tribe.  Each one is too blind to see itself for who it is and its own shortcomings, whether politics or religion.  There needs to be a restoring of humanity, the real humanity, not some character.  We need the space in order to truly hear and listen to the other while being open to what is said, dialoging with one another and not through a screen.  We must first remember that we are brothers and sisters.  We must first remember that we are sons and daughters of God, not of power and wealth.  That may all work well for reality TV, but not so much for the real reality, our lives, which take the hits and the brunt of the pain that it’s causing.  We pray for the grace to have that space in our own hearts and souls to listen and to see the other for who they really are and not some character to be destroyed on a screen.  It’s so easy to hide behind all of these characters, for all of us, but it will never lead to the fullness of life we desire.  It will never bridge the gaps and gaping holes that exist in our politics, Church, and beyond.  It is an acceptance of our own power in our powerlessness where we will find the strength to “cut off” the characters that cause us to sin and inspire the idols of our lives, and rather be who we really are.  It is only there that we see each other as ourselves.

Family Lies

Genesis 3: 9-15; 2Cor 4: 13–5: 1; Mark 3: 20-35

When we hear this gospel and the question of family, it’s important to remember that we’re not reading Matthew or Luke where we hear the narratives of the Holy Family that we have become accustomed to during the Christmas season.  In Mark, who we hear from this weekend, they are nonexistent and so when family is spoken of today it’s a much larger context, we can define them as the human family that sets out with the accusation of him “being out of his mind”.  That said, when it comes to family, it’s not so much as to whether there is dysfunction it’s a matter of the degree of dysfunction within the human family.  Every family has secrets and things they don’t talk about.  No family even wants to give the perception that they are far from perfect all while believing “out there” someone has it better than ourselves, creating a sense of shame and guilt that runs deep where no one can ever speak of the elephant in the room.

We also know, from the nuclear family, that it’s often an outsider who reveals our own insanity to us.  When someone brings home a boyfriend, girlfriend, or just anyone who didn’t grow up within that family, they see things differently.  Now our immediate reaction is to typically judge that person and cast them aside as being “out of his mind” but that’s our own way of avoiding the dysfunction.  What we can do, though, is allow these things to surface and not to judge them or others but rather to allow them to be healed and redeemed.  That’s what God desires of and for the human family.  We can take that a step further also to this city or certainly as a country.  We live in denial of our own history so often.  We prefer not to look at it and avoid it all while the rest of the world already knows.  It’s why we feel so threatened by outsiders.  They have a way of revealing what we don’t like about ourselves and we’ll do anything to destroy, by word or action.  We continue to see it today with families being torn apart, refugees being shunned, anyone that is seen as a threat to our own way of life is disposable.

Jesus, though, becomes the archetypal outsider, living on the edge of the inside.  How quickly people, those in power in particular, feel threatened by his very existence.  Today, it’s the human family.  It’s a very simple question that is asked as to “who is my brother and mother”.  We can come up with obvious answers to those questions but it seems to get clouded by Jesus.  They want to immediately react and say he’s crazy, in the same way we do with people who do heinous acts, to somehow save them from themselves.  But Jesus isn’t simply referring to his immediate family as I said.  He becomes a perceived threat to the way of life for the human family.  So their response to him is to label him crazy.  They don’t want to associate with him or have any parts of him in that sense.  As soon as he begins to threaten the status quo of their lives things are turned upside down.  The very people who thought they were insiders now find themselves on the outside looking in because they don’t feel the need for redemption and refuse to look at their own sin.  It’s a fascinating play on words and turning things upside down, allowing all to surface in order to be redeemed through a God how continues to look out at humanity with great love.

It takes us to one of the most famous passages of Genesis with Adam and Eve doing what they do in the Garden.  They buy into the big lie just as we do.  They are convinced, rather easily, that if they eat from that particular tree in the middle of the garden they can be God.  There would no longer need to God and they can become self-sufficient, just as we often try.  There is, in some sense from God today a level of disappointment with the human family for what they had done and the lie they so easily believed.  God continues to look lovingly upon them as their own sin surfaces to be redeemed and reconciled.  Whereas the human family wants to quickly label God as “out of his mind” God in turn looks lovingly.  It’s not until they realize that they have become lost that they can be sought out and found by Love.  It’s not about becoming God.  Rather, it’s about seeing as God sees and to look at a hurting human family in that same way, in need of love, forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation. 

It’s Paul’s continuous point to the people of Corinth as well, whom we hear from in the second reading.  He reminds them that we have “the same spirit of faith” and that as a community which also had become reliant upon itself and self-sufficient, that it was still God who was working in and through them.  They community was becoming its own judge and determining who was in and who was out, excluding people from the table, mistreating others, and simply seeing with their own eyes rather than the eyes of God.  Paul, of course, knows this better than anyone.  He was the one who judged and deemed who was in and out until his own conversion experience.  Paul had to first find himself lost in order to be found by this God who loved and redeemed him for his own sin, sin which we’d find hard to forgive at times.  Yet, that same God who looked lovingly upon Adam and Eve looked upon Paul and his vision had been restored and he began to look at the human family in a very different way.  Paul sought a more just society, especially for those who were excluded.  Like Jesus, he learned to live on the edge of the inside and never forgetting what it’s like to be the outsider.

The human family can be quite dysfunctional; and is quite often.  It should not surprise us that our government is the same as family and also the Church.  When the human family is involved there will always be problems.  The question is do we live in denial of our own storied history or do we allow it to surface with purpose and meaning, revealing the great lies that we become attached to in order to be redeemed and reconciled, leading to a more just society.  The ones who gather around Jesus in today’s gospel always has space for new faces.  There are no walls, no divisions, nothing that separates, otherwise it’s not God.  We put ourselves on the outside looking in when we make the mistake from the Garden, of thinking we know as God knows, of thinking we can be the judge.  It becomes easier to blame and be victims rather than allow ourselves to be changed when our own sin surfaces.  The Good News, as it always is, just as in the beginning, God still looks lovingly upon us, awaiting our own desire in our lostness to be found.

A Path To Peace

Christmas Narratives continued…

There’s a belief that the problems we face and encounter in our lives are often of the psychological nature, which tells us there are a great deal of issues that encompass a broken humanity.  At the same time, though, it’s believed that the solutions to the problems are spiritual, a matter of the heart, which explains why problems seem to never end and this pursuit of peace seems rather insurmountable.  We’re not very good at matters of the heart.  It’s a challenge with problems and difficulties we face individually and so as a city, a country, and the world, handling heart and soul begins to make us feel helpless in the face of such suffering.  You may have heard Pope Francis mention yesterday on the eve of the New Year that humanity wasted 2017 on war and lies.  When we avoid the matters of the heart the pursuit of peace never seems possible.  It becomes much easier to inflict our pain and hurt onto others.  It’s easier to stay in war and locked in a violent cycle here in Baltimore than it is to do the difficult work of heart and soul that the gospel demands.  And so as we begin the new year we pray for peace but first in our own hearts and souls.

It is a theme that threads through Luke’s gospel even as we hear in the continuation of the Christmas narrative we hear on the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.  She reflects and ponders and holds all these things in her heart.  Luke returns to it throughout the gospel but he’s not meaning the beating heart that keeps us physically alive.  He speaking of the oneness and union of mind, soul, and spirit.  He’s talking about how Mary steps back from all that is happening and allows the space of this mystery to unfold.  There’s no need to react or explain.  There’s no reason to attack their enemies.  Mary and Joseph, for that matter, have found that gift of peace and are at peace with the overwhelming gift which will now see them through the darkness of Herod as we hear on Epiphany on Sunday.  The gift that is given to them is then freely given to anyone who dares open themselves to it being offered.  When we find that peace and become that peace within our own hearts, as Luke describes, not even the harshest reality of war will stop us from facing the broken humanity and to truly work towards peace.

When we fail to seek healing and solutions as a heart matter and rather resort to a shallow political system here in the city as well as the country, we’ll continue to get the same results, trying to solve issues from the same level in which they were created.  Both extremes of the political narrative use fear to control and manipulate, just as Herod and Caesar Augustus did, who Matthew and Luke reference.  They try to bring about a peace that is rooted in fear, as we heard on Christmas.  They thrive on keeping people in the dark, separating and dividing.  At some point we have to face the fact that it no longer works for the people, especially the Joseph and Mary’s of the world, the poorest of the poor.  It no longer brings peace nor the pursuit of the common good.  Like Herod and Caesar Augustus it’s about building their own kingdoms and making politics into a god.  It’s how we have the problems that exist and that’s not the way to solve it.  It’s a matter of the heart.  It’s a matter of the soul that is necessary in these days.  We can’t stand for another year as we did in 2017 here in Baltimore.

It’s easy to pray for peace and we’ll continue to pray for peace on this World Day of Prayer for Peace but we also turn to Mary as our model on this feast of the Mother of God.  She is the one that teaches us to ponder, to reflect, to hold all these things in our hearts.  When we lose that space, as we have as a society and culture, we react and react and react to every blessed thing that is thrown our way and we become part of the problem not part of breathing peace and healing into hearts that hurt.  We become what we hate about the other.  Demonize the other.  Cut off the other.  Fearing what we don’t know and clinging to what we think we do.  We no longer have that space in our own hearts, as individuals, community, city, nation, world, for the sense of mystery that Mary ponders.  We hold on, and hold tightly, to what we know, what we see.

Our problems may be psychological but the solutions are a matter of the heart, are spiritual.  The path to peace is a difficult one.  It lies beneath the surface and is often what we can’t see or know.  It’s what we so often fear.  Yet, if we want that peace we have to work at it, not politically but in prayer, in silence, pondering the healing that is needed and take a contemplative stance towards a hurting world.  The Herod’s of our time can just as much be us if we don’t do our own work and on this feast we turn toward the Mother’s guidance in Mary, to ponder, reflect, and hold this mystery close to who we are that we may seek that oneness and union, not only within our own lives, but in the city and nation.  The pain runs deep in this city and nation and if we’re not willing to do it differently we’ll only perpetuate and mirror 2017 by wasting another year and another chance for the breaking in of the Christ which calls us to a new way, to a changed heart, to an opportunity for hope and peace that is rooted in the Christ, looking up and gazing into his mother’s eyes, pondering what sort of greeting this might be.  If we want peace then it must first begin with me.

Foolish Wisdom

Wisdom 6: 12-16; I Thess 4: 13-18; Matthew 25: 1-13

I don’t need to convince anyone here that we live in rather hostile times. How else do you describe what we witnessed this past week in the church shooting in Texas when someone feels they can just walk in and obliterate people. Or even here in Baltimore. We’re not even at the end of the year and the death toll due to violence has exceeded 300. It’s hard to comprehend. There also seems to be an increase in stories of accusations of assault against people. That’s just the actions of people. It doesn’t take into account the hostility we experience with the vile that often comes out of mouths and plastered on social media and other outlets. How can any of us deny this surge in hostility. It seems and feels as if there is this great upheaval taking place in politics, Church, and other facets of our lives that it seems to feed into that hostility. As much as we want to seek this sense of permanence and cling to it, there just isn’t other than what we seem to fear the most, death.
Matthew’s community which we’ve heard from all year was not much different. The reasons for such hostility may or may not have been different but he consistently worried about the community and whether it would survive. There were strong divisions between Jews, the Messianic Jews, who would go on to become Christians, as well as pagan and more secular people, all of which felt that they held the mantle of truth and found ways to hold it over the others. Matthew consistently tries to move the community to this deeper reality of who they are and despite differences in beliefs, way of life, knowledge, or anything else, there is something that binds them all. But when they and we get caught up in our tribes, our way of thinking, thinking we hold this mantle of truth and complete knowledge, hostility arises and there is less and less space for others, and quite frankly, the Other.
In these final three weeks of the liturgical year Matthew will once again make this push to this deeper reality by the telling of parables. We hear the parable of the virgins this week, followed by the talents, and climaxing with the sheep and goats on the final Sunday. Today, though, is this parable that appears to be filled with contradictions. There are these so-called wise virgins who appear on the surface to be given some kind of reward for their presence. However, their actions don’t speak great volumes in terms of wisdom. No sooner it is announced that the bridegroom is arriving, the foolish virgins seek help from the wise virgins, and yet, they want nothing to do with them. They shut them off and only worry about themselves rather than help the one in need. Go buy your own stuff and worry about yourself they are told. They go about their business only to lock the door behind them as they enter the party only to shut themselves off as some form of protection from the outside elements. It doesn’t sound like great wisdom.
But remember, this is how they envisioned God and now Jesus plays on words and uses stories to point out what they miss. The only other image that sounds so stark in Scripture is the closing of the tomb, death, cutting off from everyone else. Yet, there they were. Like today, it’s about insiders outsiders, the better than and less than, who holds the mantle and who doesn’t, who’s wise and who’s a fool. Yet, in the process, the parable reveals something about them and their own understanding of God and themselves. In the seeking of wisdom, one must first learn to embrace death and a reality and a part of who we are. It is in letting go that we begin to realize that maybe the best any of us can do is accept the fact that I may have some wisdom but I could be a damn fool all at the same time, ready and yet not ready. Like the parable, we tend to be filled with such contradictions. But for the Pharisees and their understanding of God, it was all about how it appeared and if we don’t move to that deeper reality we never really see that I am both wise and foolish, living and dying with each passing breath.
We hear in that first reading today from Wisdom that our lives are about seeking that gift of wisdom and the eternal. As a matter of fact, seeking wisdom leads us to the eternal. When we feel we carry this mantle of truth and certainty, there’s not much room for wisdom and for that matter, the other. Wisdom, and our ability to let go, leads us from a life of hostility to a life of hospitality, where we have space for the other, and quite frankly, we’re free to be ourselves. There is great wisdom in accepting that I am not all-knowing and I don’t carry the mantle of truth because it frees me to be myself and unlike the Pharisees, don’t feel the need to try to be someone other than I really am, both wise and foolish all at the same time.
Quite frankly, there is some wisdom found even in the foolish virgins if we’re willing to look a little deeper. They come empty, with nothing holding them back. They ask for help when needed, even in despair. Yet, they find themselves rejected, but not rejected by God but by who they thought God was, the Pharisee who felt it was their duty to guard the door and judge who comes and who doesn’t. So they’re not rejected by God but rather by us. We will hear this now these next weeks in our own seeking of wisdom and learning to let go of these images of God that no longer work in our lives and hinder us from going deeper in our lives. The hostility that arises with Jesus isn’t because of lack of knowledge or wisdom. He certainly proves himself in that way. The hostility comes when he shows hospitality to the excluded, the outsiders, the foolish ones as they were known. Jesus shows us a God who has space for both the wise and the fool.
As we make this journey together, as Paul reminds us today, we seek that wisdom, the eternal, that frees us to be who we are, often contradictory in our own lives and yet still loved by God. When we can begin to accept that about ourselves we become less hostile towards others, learn to respond with love, and honestly, become even more dangerous in such a hostile world because we are set free to love as God loves, the wise and the fool. Quite frankly, it’s all we can really ask for in this life. We pray for the grace to accept and to be aware of this deeper reality in our own lives, that we are both wise and fool, ready and not ready, open and closed, all at the same time. And yet, infinitely still loved by God in our fullness.

 

Illusionary Violence

Shortly after the shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, I received an email asking if we, as a parish, are prepared if something like this were ever to happen.  Now first, I’m not sure anything can prepare you for something like this, other than possibly a sniper attack in a war zone or consistent trauma in your life; but secondly, I’m not convinced I want to be prepared for something like that.  I can certainly understand, from a logical and rational point of view, but it also feels, as someone who is supposed to trust deeply in this higher being we call God, that it’s giving into fear, which is antithetical to the consistent message of Jesus in the gospel proclaimed every Sunday not to fear.

Safety and Security may be the two greatest illusions we hold onto and quickly buy into when we react to horrific acts like this.  Our immediate response is more guns or at times, build walls, anything that’s going to give us the false sense of security that we desire to make us feel safe.  We pad ourselves in whatever way possible, building a fortress in order to appeal to what our eyes can see, “I’m safe now”, but deep down, in the unseen, the heart of the matter continues to exist.  It never quite strikes at the deepest fear we cling to, which is death, but in those moments our automatic response is to consume more of what we know rather than sit with the unknown reality that all who are hurting are left with in their lives.  The consistent underlying message when giving into fear is that I will do everything possible to avoid what really could have been me.  It very well could have been me or anyone else sitting in that church on Sunday or a movie theater or a classroom or at a concert or whatever the next setting will be, knowing full well that there, unfortunately, will be another, and each time it is me.

More often than I’d like, including less than a month ago, I have written on this blog the continuous struggle with violence that we witness and perpetrate in our lives.  Violence goes beyond the horrific acts of gun violence as well as other means that we have all too often witnessed in this country, a consistent reminder that there’s a problem.  More often than not, though, we’ve bought into the culture of violence, through our words and actions.  These men, and yes, it is consistently men as well, are a mere microcosm of the deeper issue that continues to spread throughout the country.  We consume it daily through news outlets and social media and many times spread it ourselves.  We consume it in our conversations, in our gossip, in our lack of respect for human life and all creation.  The simple reaction to our problems is to blame and invoke violence against the other, feeding into the death of the soul of a nation, bankrupted of any moral standing, putting guns, walls, drugs, things, before the very dignity of the very person that is most impacted.

Now I’m not one to necessarily always buy into the understanding that we are all divided.  Unfortunately, division sells and sells big.  Fear is such a deeply rooted reality in our hearts and souls that we appear attracted to it and drawn into it consistently, quickly buying into any fix as to take away the eternal pain of separation while building up a false narrative of the kingdom.  Our problem, as consumers, is that over time we’re lulled into believing it all, even if we know deep down that things aren’t right.  In our own infatuation of the illusion of safety and security we will find a way to cling to anything that is known and certain, often to avoid the fear that only continues to grow exponentially, leaving us in a frenzy.  It happens in us as individuals but collectively as a country as well, mindful that that illusion was shattered in this country after the events of 9/11.  Since then, violence has spiraled, divisions have been set in place, even if they are illusions, extremes have positioned themselves, all feeding into this fear while the rest of the world watches and waits, looking from a place a part from us, understanding our hurt and pain in a way we know not and seem to refuse to look at and consistently find ways to avoid.  We have grown a part from ourselves and each other, now leaving us with more violence than our hearts are often able to bear.

I honestly cannot imagine what it was like in that church on Sunday and maybe I don’t want to either.  My guess is it started like any other Sunday, people catching up with one another, asking about family and friends who may be sick, the small chit-chat that happens on a typical Sunday morning.  There were no thoughts of feeling unsafe, no thoughts of what separates and divides people.  They were a community that gathered under a common purpose and with God at the forefront.  In an instant, lives were changed forever and many eternally.  It wasn’t long after that the predicted responses would begin and hurting lives would once again be turned into politics and more violence, separating and dividing.  We hear about guns don’t kill people, good people need guns, if the government makes any changes they’ll take away all our guns, as we know best, it’s all or nothing, benefiting corporations, feeding a consumer culture rooted in fear, safety and security.  We react and lives are left shattered in the process.

I have no answer even though it seems like I write about this so regularly anymore.  I’m not sure there really are answers when we don’t even know the right questions to ask.  Conversations are directed from backstage, inciting fear, and without even thinking, we give into it so quickly, again, believing what we are told and so often afraid to go to the depths of our own being to evaluate what’s most important to us.  We will never have the safety and security that we think or believe we should have.  It’s a mere illusion and an illusion that is fed by a consumer culture.  More than anything, we need to learn to have a patient trust in the slow workings of God in our lives. 

There is so much healing that needs to happen in our lives, not just the hundreds whose lives have been shattered by traumatic violence that goes beyond the city, but each of us who find blaming the other individual or group for our problems, throwing tantrums in trying to get our way.  Not only do we need healing but we need to grow up and accept responsibility for ourselves and each other.  We do this not by continuously buying into these illusions that feed our own fears, but in learning to embrace the paradox and mystery of life and death.  Our lives are not comprised of only half the mystery, the half we like while living in fear of the other.  Rather, with each passing breath in every given moment a gift is being given to live, but at the same time to let go and trust in the unseen power of God.  For all who have faced such trauma and are reeling in the grief of loss while they still cling to life, it’s all they have, and quite frankly, it’s all any of us really have.

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.