A Liberated Critic

Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11; 2Peter 3: 8-14; Mark 1: 1-8

The Advent Season raises up this rather peculiar character this week and next, John the Baptist.  He really is one of the more complex characters we encounter.  There is this rather hipster vibe that he portrays by what he wears and eats and just wandering out in the wild, the desert.  Yet, at the same time, he comes off as this rather fire and brimstone kind of guy, together just making him complex and very much a paradox to himself.  He is one of the great prophets, along with Isaiah, whom we hear from this season, pointing us, often, right into the desert.

The one thing about the Baptist, though, is that there is a sense of freedom and liberation about him.  In these very brief encounters, despite his strong words, it comes from a place within.  He even mentions today that one mightier than I is to come and he shows that in his words and actions.  He remains grounded as a prophet in the eternal Christ, giving him the freedom and integrity to be who he is, despite the hesitation of the leaders towards him at that time.  In John’s Gospel he’ll go onto say that I must decrease and he must increase, in reference to the Christ. 

We all have that prophetic voice within but all too often it becomes separated from the Christ leading more to a rather self-critical voice instead.  We all know what that’s like and have seen it in ourselves and others when it’s more about criticizing but not coming from a deeper place.  It is part of Israel’s storied history as it is ours.  If they are consistent with anything it’s separating themselves from the Eternal and they end up becoming their own worst enemy.  Here they are, again, moving out of Exile, a second exodus for Israel, and they quickly begin to return to their old ways.  They resort to their own critical voice and despite being led from exile remain far from free nor liberated from what it had done to them.  They become the source of discrimination, war, and oppression, clinging to an institutionalized god who no longer serves.  As a matter of fact, when we cling to the critical thoughts that aren’t grounded in the Christ, they begin to strangle the divine and squelch the voice of the Spirit working within.  Israel remains symbolic of our own story as individuals and nation.

Then there is the Baptist.  As I said, a rather peculiar fellow that we encounter and yet often feared by the religious and political leaders because of this liberating element to him.  More often than not they don’t like what he has to say.  They become his greatest critics, and as we know, eventually leads to his beheading.  Even that becomes symbolic of cutting off that place where so many of the self-critical thoughts come from.  That wasn’t the case with the Baptist though.  It’s what they never understood about him.  His prophetic voice wasn’t coming simply from some heady place.  It was coming from deep within his very foundation.  What appeared to them as fearful thoughts was actually the eternal working through the Baptist from deep within his heart and soul.  That’s the freedom and liberation that this complex character exemplified.  For John, this message of repentance, of totally turning around and looking at life differently, being grounded in the eternal is what it’s all about.  John never forgot his own place and it wasn’t the Christ.  One mightier than I is to come.  I must decrease and he must increase.  It’s the mantra of the season.

And so we have these two great prophets pointing the way to freedom and a deeper way of life, an about-face to be liberated for the eternal.  The avenue to that freedom, though, is through the desert.  Isaiah tells us “In the desert prepare the way”.  Other than when he’s jailed all we know of the Baptist is through this desert experience.  Many throughout our history have physically gone to the desert to experience the wildness of their own hearts and souls, to see what they were already feeling within.  Maybe that’s why so many are drawn to the Baptist at that time.  It becomes symbolic of the soul’s journey for so many in Scripture, the vast, wide, emptiness that we often fear becomes the place of transformation, freedom, awareness of our own critical voice and liberation from within.  Our lives and the about face is from being led from the external world to the interior world which holds the eternal.  This is what makes Isaiah and the Baptist who they are.  It’s what separates them, so often, from activists even of our own day.  It comes from the depths of their souls and they know it as truth, as the eternal.

Peter reminds us in the second reading today, thankfully, that God remains patient with us through this process of transformation.  The more the eternal is freed up from the strangle of the critical and we become aware that the critical is not God, the more we begin to experience not the institutionalized god we have come to know but rather the God of mystery and freedom, and true freedom at that.  Like Israel we can say we’re free all we want but if we’re still holding on from within we haven’t experienced the divine in that way.  Peter reminds us that what is not of God will all be dissolved anyway so why not open ourselves up to mystery and to the unknown God.  Be eager for peace.

As we continue this Advent journey and encounter these redeemed prophetic voices of Isaiah and the Baptist, we pray for the awareness in our own lives of that critical voice that is still in need of being liberated.  God desires so much more for each of us and yet we tend to settle for much less.  When we move from being led by that critical voice to being led by and with love, our lives are changed forever.  We, like the Baptist, are complex creatures often in need of love and redemption more than anything.  This season we’re invited into the desert of our own souls, with a very patient God, where a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day, to experience our lives and how we see ourselves and the world in a very different way.  No longer grounded in criticism, control, and fear, the institutionalized gods we create in our lives, but rather the God of love, freedom, and liberation, pointed to us by the Baptist himself.

Advertisements

Demanding Change

Matthew 17: 1-9

Did you ever wonder about the other nine?  They always seemed to be excluded or left out of some of the best moments in the gospels.  It seems, like today with the Transfiguration, that it’s always Peter, James, and his brother John who get singled out and are given the chance to experience things that the others don’t.  Let’s be real.  The three of them aren’t even the most stellar of candidates to single out.  We know Peter from hearing the stories.  Next week his faith will be tested.  He doubts.  He denies.  He runs away when things get tough.  A little further down this journey the two brothers will be fighting amongst themselves as to who’s the greatest and who should sit at the right and left of the Lord.  More often than not, these three are about power and grabbing for it in ways that never seems to end well.

Even in this gospel that we hear today they are told one thing to do and that’s to keep their mouths shut when they get down to the bottom of the mountain where the other nine are located.  Now, I’m one of six and I can tell you that if three are separated to go experience something that the others don’t, one of two things will happen.  Either they’ll come up quickly to find out what happened since it was a secret or the three will taunt the others that somehow they’re better than because they had something that the others didn’t!  It’s life and it shows where they are at on this journey, still children themselves in faith.  Like most, it won’t be until something is demanded of them before it’s all put to the test and who and what will stand the test of time.

It appears in these instances that Jesus is setting them up to fail, but maybe not fail in the sense that we often understand, but rather setting them up to fall apart and that they will do.  The journey following the transfiguration in the gospels is one on the decline.  Everything has been building to this point and from here on they will go down the mountain literally and figuratively, into Calvary, to the Cross, into their own hearts and souls.  When their lives are demanded of them as the gospels go on, they will fall apart but they have to fall apart in order to once again build community on its true foundation in Christ.  Up to the great test of the cross and their childish faith, not much has been asked of them.  And as we know, even what is asked doesn’t seem to happen, like keeping their mouths shut about these experiences.  It’s about that power that they think they have in their agendas, in their thinking of being better than, in talking about who’s the greatest, probably jealousy and all the rest that we are familiar with in our lives.  Jesus could transfigure all he wants to these three, but at the moment, it doesn’t mean much of anything but can easily be used as an experience to build themselves up.

But the whole event casts a shadow upon them which is when they become fearful.  They become fearful of themselves, more than anything and what this is all going to mean to them as the journey continues.  It’s no wonder why Peter would rather stay here, stay put, because they’ve been given something without having to give anything in return.  Nothing has yet been demanded of them in this journey of faith.  This downward journey of transformation and conversion will eventually push them to change.  We all know that none of us changes easily.  We, like them, are often pushed to the brink, to the cliff, before we will finally surrender and let go, opening ourselves to change and transformation.  It comes, so often, when our own mortality is put on the line before we can finally begin to ask what’s most important, what do we value, what gives us meaning, and quite frankly, what is it that I need to finally let go of in life.

All too often we hold on way to long rather than surrendering to the demand of the gospel to a change of heart, to grow into an adult faith of trust and mystery.  That is what is revealed to them on that mountain in today’s gospel, but for them, not yet.  For them, their center remains outside of them and beyond them and has not yet moved within.  When they are finally confronted with the cross and everything begins to crumble around them, they will be left with the opportunity to mature in their faith and become the disciples the Lord summons them to and quite frankly, promises them from the very beginning.  They will begin to form community around the eternal, around the transfigured Christ.

On this feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, sure, it is about the Lord’s transfiguration before these three would-be disciples, but in the end, it’s about what is going to be demanded of them in their own lives.  If they could stop for a minute, maybe the most important thing that is revealed to them in this shadow is to listen.  If we can learn to listen on a deeper level, beyond all the noise of our lives, the truth and the promise will begin to reveal itself to us.  It will reveal itself to us as individuals but also as community and where it is we need to grow into the promise that is given in this moment.  The day always comes when something is demanded of us and more often than not, it’s giving up what we think has given us life or giving up what we believe has given us life but no longer nourishes and nurtures us.  That’s where true transformation can happen in our lives.  As we listen, what is it we are holding onto in our lives, individually and collectively, that holds us back from the promise.  It is in that space that surrender is being demanded to live a life of faith and trust in the promise shown in the Transfiguration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Humbling Connectedness

Sirach 3: 17-18, 20, 28-29; Hebrews 12: 18-19, 22-24; Luke 14: 1, 7-14

I don’t need to tell you that Jesus has this tendency to create tension wherever he goes. It’s as if conflict follows him into all these different situations. Today is no different. He stands, as the writer of Hebrews tells us today, the Mediator, between these two opposing realities.

There’s first the reality of the Pharisees. They are the center of religious power and a power that often went far beyond religion. They saw themselves in many ways as gods and the keeper of the law. Here he is in the leading Pharisees house on the Sabbath so naturally there’s going to be tension. He heals a guy which already counts as a strike against him and then begins to observe the actions of the Pharisees, who, on many levels, are oblivious to what’s going on and how their actions appear and speak to others.

Then there’s this other reality that he presents to them through the telling of parables and who should be invited to dinner. It’s the poor, the crippled, the lame, and every other outcast of society. It’s the people that have been ostracized by the pharisees for one reason or another. Yet, they are the ones that Mediator raises up in humility. So what makes their reality so unique? I’m not saying everyone because they too are human but the difference often comes in this deep connectedness that they have that goes beyond the community that they’ve been ostracized from, a deeper connection with what is bigger than themselves. They’ve had to learn because of their lives to have faith and put trust in the One that is bigger than themselves, as opposed to the pharisees whom often saw themselves as the ones that are bigger than the other.

All of this is the realities that Jesus steps into as Mediator and tries to find another way, a third way as it is often called, to bring together these opposing opposites. But we know not only from the time of Jesus but our own time as well that it just doesn’t seem to happen. When the people in authority and who hold the power are put into such a position they don’t want to budge. The buckle down and try to hold onto their power, which isn’t even real in the first place. Jesus brings up fear and uncomfortableness in their lives and of course becomes the scapegoat for their fear and uncomfortableness. He is a threat not only to them but to the system, the institution that they represent, and they become self-serving. It’s no longer about the people who are in touch with this deeper reality, it’s about holding on and trying to save something that isn’t real in the first place.

Now we know how it turns out. Eventually these systems even today must die. They know longer have the purpose they once had but that requires all of us to change. The pharisees isn’t just these guys back in the time of Jesus but they are me and they are you. We don’t like things to change but when the system no longer serves the most vulnerable and becomes self-serving, it’s lost it’s purpose. Like them, there is that part of us that wants to hold onto it. It’s the critic in ourselves that will do everything to prevent change and to try to sabotage anything new. When we don’t, we have what we have today, this sense of disconnectedness that exists between the ruling class, as it is with the pharisees, and become blinded by their own behavior, and what’s most importation, this deeper connection that we hold, this inherent dignity that comes from the Eternal Mediator that tries to reconcile these parts of ourselves to makes us whole, as individuals, community, city, and even country.

None of us can deny that the systems are broken in our Church and government. They may have had their place in a time but not anymore. Heck, even a few weeks ago Jesus threw the family institution into the mix as well. All of it is a voice crying out to be heard that is being ignored. Those in power want to continue to keep others at bay, to keep that disconnectedness, creating the violence we see in our own lives and beyond. The readings, though, today speak of humility. Humility is when we become aware of how we have allowed the pharisee in ourselves to lead us and disconnect us from our own humanity and the One bigger than ourselves. It’s is a dying to self and giving up that self for a greater good for the people, especially the most vulnerable. If we don’t take care of those that have been ostracized we have truly lost our way. We pray today for that humility in our lives, in our city, and certainly in this nation.

Pride has quite the way of taking hold of our lives and not wanting to let go, blinding us to those being called to the banquet as Jesus speaks of today. We have become so blinded by that in our own country and our hold to nationalism and other pharisaical ways that we become attached to in our lives. We pray for that humility to be able to sit with the tension in our own lives and to meet the Eternal Mediator in the heart of it all, calling us to let go and to connect with our deeper identity, our inherent dignity in Christ.

The Need for Perspective

Acts 15: 1-2, 22-29; Rev 21: 10-14, 22-23; John 14 23-29

If you ask me, it’s pretty safe to say that we all see life through our own particular lens. We see what we want to see and it takes a lot to break down that vision and find new perspective. For the most part, that lens usually comes from the past. We see through our hurts, where love failed, our rejections, and fears, and so forth that we have a hard time seeing anything new being possible. In our churchy language, it’s as if we see life through the lens of original sin and not the grace of God working in our lives. Jesus tries to give that perspective to the disciples today as we too take a step back to the pre-resurrection section of John’s Gospel, the farewell of Jesus.

However, there may be no more beautiful image of finding that perspective this weekend than the reading from Revelation. The angel takes the writer in spirit to the high mountain to see the eternal Jerusalem. Even goes onto say that there isn’t even need for sun or moon to offer light, simply the glory of God, the grace of God present in his life. It’s an absolutely beautiful image he provides. He receives the bigger picture that will stand as a reminder in the darkness of his own life of something greater and more eternal.

It’s not an easy place to be, though. We’ve all been trapped in darkness, pain, and fear, unable to see beyond it. It taints everything we see and do. It taints our relationships and how we see others. It taints our politics and how we address the many issues in the city, the country, and the world. For good or for ill, and more often than not, ill, it makes us stuck, lacking the perspective we need to move forward. As Revelation points out, it’s only the grace of God that somehow break through, but it often takes something that shakes us at our very core before we move to that place, before we can see with new eyes. It’s not even that the world around us changes, but we do and we see from a different place.

As I said, Jesus tries to provide that perspective with the disciples as we take a step back in the Gospel today. The weight of the world is falling in on them by this point of the story. It’s the Last Supper in John’s Gospel. He tells them not to worry or be afraid. Yeah, easy for him to say and certainly easier said than done. We know what darkness, pain, and loss does to us. It clouds our vision for weeks and months. The same will be true for the disciples. They will see the sin of the Cross and only it’s sin. No matter how much Jesus tries to prepare them for what is to come, when it finally happens, it will make no difference in the immediate moments. All they will see is death and despair. All they will see is fear and hurt, loss. We know that because it’s us as well. It’s not until the grace of God lifts us up and allows the clouded vision to crack before we can begin to gain new perspective into our lives and see the Cross as something more, the darkness of our lives as something more.

As I’ve said throughout this season it isn’t until we get to Acts of the Apostles until we see the fruit of the Spirit in their lives and the grace of God moving them forward. But today, they too find themselves in a sticky situation as they gather for the first council, The Council of Jerusalem. Now for us living in 2016 it seems rather nonsensical to be having conflict over circumcision. I’m mean, who cares. But if we replace that with Baptism, we can see the significance of the gathering. But they too needed a new perspective on how to handle the matter. Does circumcision have any bearing on the grace of God working in your life? Well, not really. God somehow isn’t going to love them more or offer them more because of circumcision. However, that was a significant part of who they were as people. It meant something. So the community gathers and learns to trust this inner voice that we now encounter, the voice of the Spirit that is going to give them that perspective. Their decision carries with it the past but no longer has to be clouded by their past as people. They can see it for what it is and see that there is something bigger driving their lives, the grace of God at work.

More often than not we need perspective. That’s not others opinions. Quite frankly, that just looking at our own sin, darkness, fears, whatever the case may be, through someone else’s tainted lens. We find ourselves stuck as a people and even as communities as well, unable to move forward because the past so often haunts us and choices are made through the past hurts. As this Easter season begins to wind down, we too are invited to take a step back in our own lives, seeking that clearer perspective, to our lives, the struggles we may be facing as people, community, and certainly world. The spirit is willing to take us on that journey to catch a glimpse of the eternal Jerusalem, the Kingdom unfolding in our midsts but it does take a great deal of humility on our part, that, you know what, maybe the way i view things isn’t the best and maybe is tainted by my own darkness, which loves to disguise itself as the light. We already have what we need and what we desire. If we allow the eyes of our hearts to open wide, not through the lens of original sin, but the grace of God working through and within, we will find a whole new world, an eternal world that will always be.

Suspended Between Life & Death

The Passion According to Luke

Like Christmas, we know these passion readings like the back of our hands. We know the characters. We know who does what and who doesn’t do things. They’re all of us and we’re all of them. But each of the passion readings also has something signature to them. For Luke, who’s passion we just heard, it’s two thieves that are crucified with Jesus, one on his left and one on his right. There’s one who clings to death and all that comes with it and there’s one who desires life. Smack down in the middle of it all, Jesus, suspended on the cross.

There we are, caught up between life and death, heaven and earth and all that comes with it. The one who clings to death reviles at Jesus. He holds onto bitterness and the sin of passion, criminal is who he is and who he believes he is. Angry, resentful, clinging to all that is dark, a life of hell. Father, forgive them for they know not what they do, Jesus cries out. It may not be a physical death that we face at this moment, but we’re there. We’re there clinging to these things in our own life, leaving us dissatisfied with life and wanting to return to what was. It’s all I know and I’d rather be miserable than to change, to let go. There we are, clinging to death.

Yet, on the other side, one who too knows he’s a criminal but sees Jesus as something more. Even for a glimmer, he is one with him. Even for a glimmer, he sees himself as something more, never to be satisfied like the other, clinging to something that is no more. He seeks life. He seek freedom. Today you will be with me in Paradise, Jesus exclaims. Despite his sin and his crime, he seeks life, to be set free, crying out to the Lord, hanging along side and yet with him. There we are clinging to death, desiring life, hanging in between, caught up in the tension of life and death, heaven and earth. There Jesus meets us in the reality of our lives.

Yet, in a moment, Jesus commends himself to the Father and breathes his last. Finished and for good. Or so it feels at that moment. Curtains are torn. Earthquakes erupt. Sun is darkened. Is it any wonder why we’d cling to what we know? Is this the path to life? And so there we are suspended between life and death, filled with choice and desiring what gives life.

As we enter Jerusalem and enter into this Holy Week, we are given the chance to use our imaginations and to see ourselves hanging there. We’re all of them. In the very same instant we can be clinging to death and all that leads us into darkness and at the same time desiring life and freedom. This week we enter into that tension of life and death, a tension we call the greatest of mysteries, the Paschal Mystery, that unfolds for us, within us, and all around us, even at this very moment. The choice to live is ours. The choice to allow Christ to meet us in that pain and where it is we cling to death, in our resentment, our anger, our fear. In this holiest of weeks, we seek life, knowing and understanding it may not come in the ways we expect, and until we surrender, life is but a dream and death remains our reality. Yet, suspended in between is our source of life, gently whispering in the messiness of our lives, surrender ourselves to him, breathe our last, and embrace what follows, life eternal.