‘Better than This’

Isaiah 22: 19-23; Matthew 16: 13-20

In today’s opening prayer we heard something like, we pray amid all the uncertainties of the world.  Well, I’m not sure where it is we start with that.  It seems as if there is uncertainty and chaos all over the place, around the globe, the country, even Mother Nature seems to be playing a part, but also right outside our front door.  I’ve been here three years now and this was the first summer that I was awakened one night because someone was shot across the street.  I don’t know who he was or what the circumstances are but I’d guess drugs.  It’s the way of life in this stretch of road.  It’s been a rough summer in the city of Baltimore and here in our own neighborhood.  All I can think is, aren’t we better than this?  Aren’t we better than all of this?

You ever notice that’s often our response to realities like this?  It was our response following Charlottesville, following 9/11, after mosques had been blown up, among other things, that somehow we’re better than this.  It is the American way to these situations, somehow we’re better than all of this.  It’s the illusion and persona that we collectively try to project to the world that somehow we’re above these realities even though everyone else knows otherwise.  None of us can really escape it.  It’s a part of who we are but it’s also a way that we separate ourselves from responsibility and connection to those who suffer and hurt, people who walk this street day in and day out.  More often than not we’d prefer the illusion over the reality but the reality is that the guy shot is me and you as well.  In the end those who suffer those most from our thinking that we’re better than this are the poor who often get trampled upon to uphold the illusion and avoid the reality.

It’s where we encounter Shebna in the first reading today from Isaiah.  Shebna is about to be tossed out as the master of the palace because of his lack of responsibility to the people.  Shebna is all about himself and feeds into this power that has been given to him and has abused it.  God’s not going to have anything of it and is now going to toss him and raise up Eliakim.  As with many of these figures we encounter in the prophetic books they let power go to their head and becomes about thinking they’re better than others and somehow above others along the way.  We’re better than that would be his approach to the people and so now he’ll be humbled and stripped of this illusion of power that he has held so tightly.  God will raise up a father figure, one who can tend to the needs of the people and their pain, holding a place of honor in the family.  From the beginning of time we’ve lived with the uncertainties of a changing world and a fallen world clinging to power.  As I said, it’s very much a part of who we are as humans and certainly as Americans.

Then there’s Peter.  He too is given power today as they have this encounter with the Lord.  Upon this rock I’ll build my church, keys of the kingdom and so on.  Needless to say almost instantly it’ll go to Peter’s head and will be knocked down a few in next week’s gospel.  He immediately begins to think that he’s somehow better than and above the rest because of all this recognition from Jesus but despite identifying the Lord in today’s gospel he doesn’t yet realize he is also speaking of his own deepest identity.  Notice that Jesus asks two questions.  First he asks what the crowds have to say about him.  What is the image the persona that he is projecting to this crowd?  They say he’s one of the prophets like Elijah and Jeremiah or John the Baptist.  But then he goes directly to those closest of the followers, those closest to him and asks and Peter responds ‘the Christ’.  It doesn’t put him above them in some way or lording authority over them.  It’s a recognition of the reality of who he really is beyond any illusions and persona that may get in the way.  At the core we are the divine, myself, you, the man shot outside, those peddling drugs, those looking for some sense of belonging in gangs in this city.  At the core we are all the same.  When we think otherwise we begin to separate, distance ourselves, and as we are so good at, the problem is somewhere out there.  The illusion can be so strong and we love to hold it so tightly thinking it’s who we are.  But in the end it separates us from reality and the many uncertainties that we face as a city, a nation, and a globe.  In the end, we all know who it ends up hurting the most.

If there is one thing we can be certain of, the extremes in our politics and even in our Church cling to that illusion in their own way, that somehow they hold the truth entirely, that they are somehow better than.  But they’re not and we’ll never move to a place of healing as a city and nation unless we learn to let go of that illusion and move to the place of our deeper identity.  All our clinging to the illusion is a mere reminder that we continue to search for something, search for God in our lives yet we cling to the wrong thing.  There are countless people suffering in this city and country and beyond and yet we still seem to convince ourselves that we’re better than that.  Our prayer is to allow ourselves to be aware of it in our own life; it happens so naturally.  Then learn to let it go.  Once we can accept reality for what it really is we then can begin to change it for the better, ourselves and as a society.  It’s humbling.  It takes a great deal of patience and acceptance.  It takes a great deal of courage to step out of that illusion and see the other as yourself.  There is always hope.  If we don’t, we’ll continue to separate and buy into the illusion, keeping us out of touch with reality, out of touch with the pain of our brothers and sisters.  The problem is…the problem is…we’re better than this.

 

Stay

Acts 1: 1-11; Luke 24: 46-53

If you listen to these gospel stories each week, you know that they all have their own spin on it, Luke included whom we hear from on Ascension this year. They’re writing to specific communities with it’s own issues and concerns and Luke, often though Jesus, has a message he wants to convey. You add in his own history and story, then you also get a gist of his own journey and understanding of who the Christ was and is.

One thing that sets Luke’s version apart, in the end, is that he’s the only one that puts the words in Jesus’ mouth to have the disciples stay in Jerusalem until they are somehow clothed in glory, whatever the heck that means. Matthew and Mark send the disciples back to Galilee and now they will see things differently, through the lens of what it is they have just experienced. But Luke will have none of that. He simply commands that they stay in the city.

Why the heck would they want to do that? Certainly they wouldn’t choose that on their own. Jerusalem, at this point of the story, is a source of much conflict, not much different than it is today. They’re told to stay in the place that has been the place of such grief and loss, having to watch their friend suffer and die upon the cross. They’re told to stay in the place of great fear from the political and religious authorities who now really want the disciples out of the picture. It was one thing when this movement was contained to one person, in Jesus, it’s another when it begins to spread like wildfire through the disciples. Why on earth would he tell them to stay there, a place where life is so fragile and death knocks so closely at their door?

One thing is different about Luke, believing that he was a doctor of sorts, and maybe he understood pain a little different than the other writers. That if all of this was going to make sense, they were going to have to be patient with their struggles and continue to persevere through them. Jerusalem became symbolic in that way for the disciples and what they had witnessed and what they would witness to in their own lives. In our own culture and world, we do everything in our power to medicate ourselves from our pain, whether it’s through prescription drugs or other means, we find ways to avoid the pain and skirt around it. Luke presents a different way to the disciples and to us. He tells us by staying in Jerusalem until we are clothed from on high, we will learn to push through and be pushed through our pain and suffering. It’s the only way that the scandal of the Cross is the glory of the Cross, all at the same time. The city that sits on a hill has been the place of great loss and also the eternal city.

We always run the risk on these feasts to make them into something historical or something that will come later in life, but they are about today. In confronting and staying in Jerusalem today, we begin to see that all the conflict around us, the fear and anxiety, is really within us. It’s why we want to run so fast from it and do everything in our power to avoid it. Ironically, though, it’s the place that we find true power and our greatest gift. Staying in Jerusalem is important for the disciples and for us. They only way we can go out as they do in Acts of the Apostles is because they’ve allowed their Jerusalem and the scandal of the Cross there to be transformed into Glory by staying with it and remaining patient with themselves and this God that continues to reveal in different ways.

This feast isn’t just about the past nor about the future, but first and foremost, about today. It’s about the life that God desires for us today and to, as the opening prayer tells us today, to be led to where the Head had called us to go. Life would be quite dismal if we never moved beyond the cross. It would be depressing and we’d live a life of victimhood. But if we stay long enough, something begins to happen. Our pain is transformed and this space is created. It’s not an abandonment of God or even a withdrawal, but rather a widening of our hearts for something new, a life in the Spirit, that we will celebrate next week on Pentecost.

As we gather on this feast, we gather at many different places in life. So of us remain stuck in the darkness of Jerusalem, living in hope that we will be seen through to the freedom we desire. We know what that’s like. Some of us may find ourselves living in that Spirit and yet still question in my own frail humanity. We know that as well. Wherever we find ourselves, though, we are simply invited as the disciples are today, to stay. To stay with it. Stay with our Jerusalem. When we stay long enough, the message first delivered in Luke’s Gospel will come to fruition in our own, the impossible will begin to happen. Like Mary and Jesus, we will turn our lives and hearts over to this God, who meets us in Jerusalem, with the great desire to cloth us from on high and to lead us into the new creation we call our lives.