Walking With & By Faith

Ezekiel 17: 22-24; II Cor 5: 6-10; Mark 4: 26-34

Well, it’s good to know that after some 2000 years of history Saint Paul still manages to find his way into public debate as we heard this past week when it comes to families being separated at the border.  He, probably more than anyone else in Scripture, is the most misinterpreted and abused writer in the Bible.  His writings have a way of being weaponized in order to defend things that aren’t intended, all in the name of God.

Paul, though, writes much more from a mystical point of view following his conversion, which makes him so misunderstood.  He, maybe only second to John, have the ability to do what many of the other writers cannot, that being able to stand in the tension.  Paul understands the reality of his own day and the many struggles that are faced, injustices and abuses, but he always keeps an eye on the prize.  He doesn’t see it as either or but rather sees both as long as we live on this earth and does everything try to stand in that place of tension because he understands the consequences when you don’t.

Here’s a guy, writing to Corinth today, who comes to a place where he understands the necessity of the law, body, ego, how every you want to describe it, but also love.  Paul lived a life separated from love and made the law into his own god.  It’s what made him so callous and just a ruthless leader, leading to the murder of early Christians and charging others with murdering them.  He was ruthless because there was no heart.  It’s not that Paul then miraculous abandons the law.  Again, he understand the value and it’s necessity while here but it must be held in tension with the heart, with love, otherwise the leaders to become ruthless.  In the end, he knows, that love wins out because that’s the prize he keeps his eye on and that all else will pass away.  We are, for Paul, all citizens in exile seeking shelter, seeking a home.  We, as a country, can learn something much deeper from Paul in the way we live our lives.  We want to say we’re a country of laws, and it is necessary; but when it becomes a god in and of itself, we too become ruthless towards people.  It’s part of our history and continues to be a part of our history to this day.  There are tremendous implications when we separate from the heart, from love, from God.  Paul stands in that tension and we must as well.  The same is true without the law.  We stand for nothing and have no principle.  Paul reminds his community that both are necessary.  He speaks to the elites of his own day and to ours.  They tried to exclude the poor and those deemed less worthy or a threat to their way of life.  We’re told so well today, walk by faith and not by sight.

It’s the underlying message of the gospel today as well as the farmer, in a nonsensical kind of way, tosses seeds everywhere, which to the naked eye seems wasteful.  However, that’s not necessarily the point.  The farmer knows better than anyone about what happens in places that cannot be seen with the eye.  Now I’m not talking about the corporate farmers of our day.  Rather, these guys knew the land better than anything.  They kept their ear to the ground and learned to have utter trust and faith.  Once the seeds fall into the darkened earth it’s beyond the control of the farmer.  As a matter of fact, if the farmer tries to control it we know the result.  There’s no produce in order for him and his family to live.  He does to the earth that which Paul did to the people.  We become even ruthless towards the earth, thinking it’s our and we can control it.  Yet, deep down lies the heart of God, beating in the depths of the darkness making something happen that just can’t be seen.  The farmer knows it takes trust, it takes a great deal of faith, and a great deal of patience when you walk through the darkness of the earth.  Yet, it’s where God does God’s best work.  To the eye it seems foolish what the farmer does.  To the eye it seems as if we should be able to control this the way we want.  To the eye we become disconnected from our heart and without the heart there is no love and certainly no God.

Paul probably consistently turns over in his grave.  It’s not only politicians, but also religious leaders, who take things out of context, use scripture as a weapon, and allow politics to define faith and God rather than allowing just the opposite.  That’s the brilliance of Paul.  He doesn’t avoid the realities of his own time.  He understands the injustices, the abuses, and everything else because that was his life!  He knows it and lived it.  Now, though, he stands in that tension of this life while waiting the unfolding of the kingdom, the tension of law and love, the tension of mind and heart because he knows the implications when not.  Paul sees as God sees and helps to redefine what is in that context all while trusting what cannot be seen.  For Paul, you have no other choice but to walk through the darkened earth and all that comes with it, the chaos, the fear, the anxiety, because it’s only in the unknown where the farmer learns to trust and to have faith, even the size of a mustard seed.

We pray not only for ourselves but for our country and world that like Paul, we reconnect with our heart, with love, with God, to soften where we have become callous and ruthless towards others while not losing what it is we believe and defines us.  Like Paul, we need to learn to live in that place of tension and to trust and have patience that so many that have gone before us, God will see us through and new life will grow from the darkness and the cedar will once again bloom.  The more we separate, exclude, fear, live in anxiety, and begin to believe that it’s about only what we see with our eyes, we literally lose sight of what is most important, what we cannot see and yet always at work deep within us for we are called, as Paul tells Corinth, to walk by faith and not by sight.  We are called to trust what we cannot see and like the farmer, keep our hearts and ears close to the ground for when the Lord has spoken, so will the Lord do.  We pray for the grace to walk by faith and not by sight, even if it means walking in the darkest of days.

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Kingdom Dwellers

Ezekiel 34: 11-12, 15-17; I Cor 15: 20-26, 28; Matthew 25: 31-46

All year we’ve heard from Matthew’s gospel and today we come to what many consider to be the culmination of what he was all about in his writing, the Judgment of Nations.  Keep in mind it’s not about individual judgment as we’ve often associated.  For Matthew, the other gospel writers, and Paul in today’s second reading, salvation was not an individual sport.  It was about the collective salvation and their own seeking of the common good in this life.  It, of course, has been overly politicized over the years and many times rightly so when we neglect people in need for one reason or another, but that’s not necessarily the context in which Matthew writes nor the lens we need to read it.

If we had to sum up Matthew’s approach to his community, as one he often struggled with, fearing division and its demise following the destruction of the Temple, it would be a journey of interior change and how we handle change in our lives and how our experience of God changes.  If you know anything about Israel’s history you know the destruction of the Temple seems to almost be a regular occurrence for them.  It wasn’t just the center of their faith life but was also the center of politics and economics so everything was intertwined.  With that being the case, it should be no surprise that it is destroyed over time.  However, just like it is today, when they all become intertwined in that way it’s without a doubt that God is going to come third in line, and so, in some sense, Matthew tries to lead the community to a much harder change, an interior change, to recognize that there’s something bigger than the Temple and that an encounter with God can happen, often times even more, beyond the temple dwellers.

From the beginning of the gospel, if we recall from Advent and Christmas last year, Mary and Joseph were on the run, refugees.  The Magi come on their own journey and return differently because of the encounter with the Christ, something is changed interiorly in their lives.  Throughout the gospel the disciples are being led outside of Jerusalem to experience the Christ in the acts of healing and forgiving, rather than something you go to they are being led to be an embodiment of that love that takes on flesh and they find their true strength from within.  It’s what makes Jesus so dangerous to the Pharisees and other temple dwellers.  As disciples, the Temple has it’s place but they aren’t meant to dwell there.  Rather, they’re kingdom dwellers with the Spirit of God going with them into these encounters.  This God that Matthew portrays to us and that we’re called to embrace can no longer be confined to a particular time and space.  At that point it’s not God anyway.  Rather this God cannot be contained and is going to lead them to the places of discomfort and uncertainty to learn to put their trust not in the Temple as has been their history, but the temple of the Holy Spirit acting within the community and each other.

It is new, of course, for the people in first century but even new for us at times.  However, the message has been a part of Israel’s history, even at the burning bush when God is revealed in name and that they mustn’t get hung up on the location of these events.  When they do that it begins the gradual confinement of God to a time and space and we find ourselves living in the past.  It’s where the prophets have tried to lead the people, over and over again, but with great resistance even costing them their lives at times.  They too get hung up on the temple dwellers and thinking that God can somehow be confined to that space.  Yet, with this enmeshment of faith, politics, and economics, the question really should be, as it was in the parable of the talents as well as the wise and foolish virgins as to who is the master they’re serving.

Ezekiel, in today’s first reading was one such prophet.  If you read it in its larger context you know that he’s going after them for this very thing, their own corruption.  Israel once again finds itself in exile during the time of the Babylonian Exile and they’re not being cared for.  The people responsible, the shepherds of the time, were not taking care of the needs of the lost, the strayed, the injured and sick.  They had become their own gods in some sense, temple dwellers themselves rather than seeing beyond and being moved to the place of discomfort in their lives.  When you have it all and you’re on top, even in our own time, it seems as if there really is no need for this God.  I’m quite fine with the gods I can hold onto, that bring me comfort, that keep me safe, rather than leading me outward while being inwardly changed. It’s the opportunity to not only encounter God in a different way but to learn of myself in a new way and light.  It’s not about changing others.  It’s about allowing ourselves to be changed, our hearts to be changed by going to the very place we fear.  It’s the story of Mary and Joseph.  It was the Magi.  It’s the embodiment of love.  It’s the journey Matthew has invited us into this past year.

So it brings us to the culmination of his gospel and the judgment of nations.  Needless to say we have often failed at embodying love.  We have allowed ourselves to be temple dwellers while often enmeshing faith, politics, and economics, while neglecting sometime our very own rather than surrendering it all to the true God.  Like Israel in all its history, when the three become enmeshed, God, without a doubt, will become confined and the other two will take their place as the gods of our time.  We all fall prey to it and all find ourselves as sheep and goats.  But for Matthew, it meant something more.  It meant an embodiment of that love and not just loving neighbor.  Rather, being one with neighbor in the sick, the poor, the refugee, the imprisoned, the stranger. 

Every one of us is good at making ourselves comfortable.  For Matthew, our faith is quite the opposite.  We’re not called to be temple dwellers where we grow comfortable and safe, confining God to our particular time and space.  There’s a place for it but it resides in something bigger than time and space.  Rather, kingdom dwellers where we seek the eternal, the Christ, with prayer always on our lips for a change of heart.  It’s what it’s all about.  It’s messy.  It’s hard.  It’s frightening.  Yet, with Mary and Joseph leading the way for Matthew, we’re called to go out and encounter the living God and to be that embodiment of love that we’ve witnessed through the eyes of Matthew this year.

 

Pushing Through the Pain

Isaiah 35: 4-7a; James 2: 1-5; Mark 7: 31-37

“Be strong, fear not!” are the words we hear from Isaiah today, a message of hope to people Israel as they push through and return from Exile. Yet, it’s a message that doesn’t always seem to jive with the reality of what we see in our world. It’s hard to forget, and maybe we’re not supposed to, the image of that young Syrian boy washed up on the shore, dead, fleeing for life. Or closer to home, a young ten year old shot this week in the city, among many others who have been shot and or killed over these past months…it seems difficult to have hope in the face of so much suffering. We somehow think that politics will, in some way, take care of these problems, fix them, make them go away, and yet we can see how far that goes. These aren’t political problems but rather deep human suffering that can’t be fixed, only healed.

Like any of us, when we find ourselves in such desperation, and maybe that’s the hard thing for people like us who live pretty comfortably, to be at wits end with life, trying to survive, to imagine what it must be like. Yet, we are all designed to know deep down that there’s something more to life. This can’t be it. There’s got to be something more to it all than such suffering. So people flee for somewhere else and something more, hoping for a better life and willing to risk it all for that, even to the point of death. Most of us don’t know such desperation nor suffering in that way.

It’s so often the motivation for people Israel, now finding themselves moving out of exile in today’s first reading from Isaiah. Even in the midst of believing God had abandoned them. Somehow God had driven them into such destruction. Somehow God didn’t care. Yet they lived with that hope that Isaiah speaks of today. There is that internal drive within them that carries them on and through some of the darkest moments and days of their lives. How can they ever forget the experience? They keep pushing through, fear not, be strong, that internal drive that takes them through the pain and into life, back to the place they call home. So often we hear Pope Francis say go to the place of the pain, the place of suffering. Now we know we must do it in our own lives as well, but he encourages us to go to it in our world. It’s not only the other who will be healed, it’s us who are changed and transformed.

It’s way too easy for us to separate ourselves from the pain of the world and our own pain for that matter. It’s so easy for us to say, all of what we see going on around us and the world, is not our problem. Yet, if another suffers, we all suffer. How can we not be so moved when we see that young boy lying on the shoreline? How can we not be so moved when we hear of ten year olds and teens being shot and or murdered in this city? Maybe it’s not them that are in exile but me and you. Maybe it’s us who are self-reliant. Maybe it’s us who, comparatively speaking, live pretty well. Maybe it’s us who are self-sufficient and without such great needs. Maybe it’s all of us that contribute and turn a blind eye to our own participation in corrupt systems that perpetuate so much of the suffering in our world and lives. Those who suffer and live in desperation have nowhere else to turn but to a power much larger than themselves, praying to pass through into the life that God calls them to now. We’ll do anything to avoid it and turn away from it rather than to learn as people Israel, to go straight into the eye of the storm of our lives and the lives around us in order to heal the other and ourselves. God wants to use that pain to bring not only us but others to life.

Jesus goes out of his way to seek out the deaf man with a speech impediment in today’s gospel. If you check out the geography lesson at the beginning of the gospel today you’ll find that he goes nearly thirty miles out of his way to reach this place of pain, to go to this place of suffering. We must keep in mind the life that this guy would have led at that time. He too would have been isolated and not a part of the community. He was seen as having something wrong with him. It’s almost as if Jesus was honing in on his pain, his own exile, separated from the community, wanting to bring him into life. He literally, as the reading tells us, touches with his hand and finger the very place that hurts to make whole again. This guy is not only one who needs physical healing but spiritually and internally as well. But again, who is it really that lives in exile; is it not again the one who turns a blind eye and have exiled him from the community?

James certainly seems to say it quite plainly and openly in today’s second reading and challenges us to recognize where we are separating those who are suffering in our lives and world. When we exile those who are poor and suffering we exile ourselves. As he says, it says more about us than it does the poor. It’s our own judgment. When we can’t confront the pain in our own lives it’s increasingly difficult to walk through it with others. James challenges us to do so in this reading today. Like people Israel and so many others in our world, there is hope in that we will pass through into life.

We will do anything to detour and separate the suffering of our lives and that of the world. We simply try to politicize it and make it someone else’s problem. Yet, the more we choose to do it that way the more we exile ourselves. That has consistently been the message of Pope Francis and I’m sure it will be when he comes here in a few weeks. There will always be that part of us that tells us there’s got to be something better but to get there, oh, it can be so painful, to the point of losing our very lives. Yet, that’s where we are led, to the place of healing through the place of pain which leads, exactly where God has always wanted us, the place of life. In the face of such adversity and suffering in our world, we pray we continue to not turn a blind eye or a deaf heart, but rather dive into the suffering of our lives and world. We will not only be changed but the world with change with us.

The Greatest of These

Exodus 22: 20-26; Matthew 22: 34-40

Which commandment in the law is the greatest? After weeks of contention between Jesus and the authorities, we finally settle down this weekend with a rather easy question posed by the Sadducees as to which law is the greatest. Love God and neighbor as yourself. Plain and simple…yet, I dare say, so often in our lives these two responses are read somewhat independent of one another rather than recognizing them in mutuality with one another. We shouldn’t dare utter the words of loving God if we hold contempt, hatred or judgment toward anyone; yes, anyone.

Rather ironic that this reading would come up on the weekend I returned from the Holy Land. One of our first experiences in Israel was fighting going on between the Muslims and Jews. I still have a hard time understanding how after all these years there could still be so much fighting over such a small piece of land! Although we weren’t in any danger, we found ourselves looking on from the Garden of Gethsemane, hearing the yelling and tear gas being shot. A simple commandment, so it seems, to love God and neighbor, not always a living reality in the holy land or in our own lives as well.

The first reading takes us back a few centuries and speaks of the people as being orphans and aliens and how God hears their cry when they are wronged. The Lord makes the point that the Israelites should know better than to allow hatred and contempt and judgment to grow and linger in their hearts because it is also their story and know what it’s like to be alienated and distanced. They know what it is like to be driven out into the desert, searching their way and trying to find the gift of the Promised Land, which seems so far from their reality. Yet, they are allowing it to grow in their hearts. The greatest commandment is on the brink of violation and they will once again find themselves wandering in their own darkness.

If we are honest with ourselves and can see the big picture on life, we are all aliens and orphans, so often lost and finding our way back to God. We become bogged down, so often, by the things of this world thinking they are so important and the end of the world if things don’t go our way, but everything of this world shall pass because we are aliens and orphans living our way to oneness with God for all eternity into the new Jerusalem, for all that will remain is faith, hope, and love and the greatest of these is love…love of God and neighbor.

Yet, the fighting continues beyond and within. We can’t see beyond differences. We can’t accept that we don’t hold the measuring stick for the rest of humanity. We get hung up on little things that bruise our ego and in the larger scheme of things, don’t really matter. We fear anything that is different than what we know. We allow contempt and hatred and judgment to grow within leading us out to the desert of our own lives, seeking a way back, seeking a love that deep down we once knew and have slowly forgotten. Yet, all I can do is work at it, push through the challenges, grow and so often painfully, and be faithful to loving God and neighbor. I certainly don’t always get it right and I certainly don’t do it like God does for me or you, but I am aware that they go hand-in-hand and is a mutual relationship of loving God and neighbor as myself.

Yes, simple words to recite but we know not as easy to live. All we can do is to pray for the grace to let go of what binds and holds us back from accepting that love that is already there for me and you and strive to live it faithfully day in and day out for faith, hope, and love shall remain, and truly, the greatest of these is love.