A Worthy Influence

2 Kings 4: 8-11, 14-16; Romans 6: 3-4, 8-11; Matt 10: 37-42

The connection the Church tries to make with our readings today, particularly the first and gospel, is that of hospitality.  The woman in the first reading is hospitable to Elisha as he passes to and from their town and then link it with the same message in today’s gospel from Jesus. And certainly hospitality is important and learning to be hospitable to one another could do great wonders for all of us.

However, I think we miss the point of the story if we stick to simply what we see and the obvious in these readings.  I don’t need to tell anyone here that in most of these stories the role of being hospitable was that of the woman of the home.  If we stick to that theme all we really do is enforce what is expected of her and in many ways make her small, confining her to a role and some social construct that she is a part of.

Notice in the story that she’s is not referred by any name but is called a woman of influence.  Of course when we hear that word certain things come to mind with people of influence, wealth, power, some kind of authority or whatever the case may be.  But that’s not true in this case.  That would be her husband in that time.  Her influence is something different, a worthy or holy influence.  There’s something different about her connection with Elisha that goes beyond simply being hospitable. 

Elisha has struggled with his own call of being a prophet even though she keeps referring to him as a holy person.  As the story continues, she will receive what Elisha promises, a son.  However, the son dies rather quickly, leaving her as it would any mother, simply beside herself trying to make sense out of all of it.  She will then proceed, with her holy influence, to make her way to Elisha, breaking every social barrier and construct in the way because of this deeper connection.  As much as she affirms his own prophetic call, he in turn, on a deeper level, affirms her own prophetic call, as if the divine is speaking to the divine with the two.  It doesn’t stop her from being hospitable and living the role that is expected of her, but it also doesn’t get in the way of being something more, something bigger.

That’s also the message that Jesus conveys to the apostles today as Matthew continues this understanding of the conditions of discipleship.  Please understand, Jesus is not telling them to somehow hate or not love their parents, their siblings, or anyone for that matter.  This message is about roles, identities, and expectations that they, and us for that matter, grow up with, that often stand in conflict of us going to that deeper place within ourselves.  We all grow up in some type of familial structure and social structure that has helped to define us and our place, just as it was for the disciples, maybe even more so at that time.  The message of Jesus is always about trust and letting go and to begin to identify ourselves through a different lens, through that of the Christ.  That is where we will find our truest identity and where the other relationships them flow.  As the learn to trust this deeper reality and calling, they will do as the woman does in today’s first reading in finding a worthy influence on the world.

That is the message of Paul as well today in the second reading to the Romans.  He reminds them that the Christ dies no more, the eternal, which Paul himself had to seek and find in his own life.  It is no longer about living for his own purpose and what the world calls him to be, in a defined role of sorts, but he now lives for God.  That’s what makes all these characters different and iconic figures for us in our own spiritual lives.  Sure she was hospitable and that alone is a good thing, but she is much more than that as well, just like myself and each of you.

None of it is easy and it is a lifelong process for each of us as we grow into this deeper identity where we learn to speak the divine to the divine.  It’s how we begin to see each other as equal because we are no longer limited by what we see with our eyes, what’s expected of society, or even what we have grown up with in our lives.  At some point all of it makes not only us small but everyone else we limit in the same way.  She was hospitable not because it was her role, but because she did everything in and through the divine, in and through the Christ.  We all have roles but the roles don’t define us as people, as much as we sometimes think they do and make us feel worthy or of influence.  In a worldly way, possibly, but not a worthy or holy influence as exhibited in the readings today.  Our greatest influence we can have on the world will never come with power and money and certainly not our pride.  Rather, it comes when we find that divine within and proceed to live our lives in the same we.  It’s how we find that equality and it’s how we see each other as brother and sister, no longer bound by our eyes and no longer bound by the world but rather a life lived in and through the Christ.  That’s the worthy influence we can and are called to in this world.

Life’s Narrow Gate

John 10: 1-10

One of the final scenes of the movie Up is of Carl, the old guy who is just besides himself, wallowing in his grief.  He lost his wife before they could ever make their way to their dream vacation, Paradise Falls.  It’s all they ever wanted.  Yet, over and over again something happens, life happens, and it never happens and then her life is cut short.  He’s a grieving man who’s lost so much and is now at wits end with the young boy and the bird that have led him down this path that he just doesn’t know what to do.  They have a big fight and go their separate ways, leaving Carl to return to his house.

But something happens at that house that he’s tried to fly to Paradise Falls with balloons.  He begins to look at albums and realizes he didn’t know the whole story.  He was so trapped in his grief and in the way things used to be, his expectations of that dream vacation, that he had lost sight of the bigger picture and realized it was time to let go.  It’s one of the best scenes of the movie because you see him start to throw out the furniture, throw out anything hung on the walls, anything that was nailed down had to go out the door and gradually the house begins to fly once again, not to Paradise Falls as he thought, but a return to this makeshift community that he had grown to love.

It’s what we encounter in today’s Gospel of the Good Shepherd as well.  It’s not the cute, stained glass window good shepherd that we have become accustomed to over the years.  If you go back to the Fourth Sunday of Lent, this is the follow up to the story of the Man Born Blind which ends up in a fight between Jesus and the Pharisees and the staunch insiders that are wound so tight that they too lose sight of the bigger picture.  They think they know it all.  They have their eye on what they think is Paradise Falls, which more often than not was doing things as prescribed in their own way, and yet they grow angry and tired of this Jesus and today is really the continuation of his response to them after he tells them they are the ones that are blind.

Like Carl in Up, as time goes on and they allow things to become attached internally, their vision becomes more narrow.  They become blinded to the true paradise falls, or in John’s case, a return to the Garden of Eden, and the challenge it is to move to such freedom in life.  So once again, even though they still won’t get it, he uses this image of sheep, shepherd, gates, and all the rest which aren’t anything we’re accustomed to in our society.  They best I can come up with is if you’ve ever been to Ireland you can see rows of small stone walls that seem to go on for miles and then every now and then there is this narrow opening.  All the images used by Jesus, though, is taking what they see as derogatory and turning it upside down.  Early followers of the way or of the Christ were often known as sheep, similar to what in our own history we’d refer to people who might live differently or look differently than us might have been referred to as in life.  It appeared that they had blindly followed something that the rest couldn’t quite grasp because of the lack of depth in their own lives.  The followers, these sheep, had been led to the garden, the pasture, this place of freedom which only has one way through, and that’s through the narrow gate.  There’s no jumping over and knocking the wall down.  You can only through the narrow gate.

Like Carl, because of the narrowness of the gate it’s nearly impossible to take anything through with you.  The shepherd literally acts as the gate by lying on the ground and leading them across to this place of freedom.  We become weighed down by our own illusion of what this paradise is that we begin to lose sight like the Pharisees and the staunch insiders.  We begin to think that things can only be done in one way and no other way.  We begin to replace paradise with the American Dream and think it’s about accumulating, the white picket fence, and gathering things that begin to leave us weighed down rather than free to roam about in this life.  But the life and the life more abundantly that Jesus speaks of in this passage has nothing to do with any of it.  We keep trying to get to paradise falls with all our belongings and all we hold onto but end up stuck in life.  The path to a more abundant life that Jesus speaks of is often just the opposite of the American way of life, not about accumulating but about letting go.

One of John’s central themes is to move to this place of a more abundant life.  It’s not easy and it does come only with a passage through that narrow gate.  The path to that more abundant life is by living a life of conversion, of an ever-changing heart that doesn’t allow itself to become weighed down by fear, worry, anxiety, and all else that a life in this culture often leads us to each day.  The great thing about allowing ourselves to enter into this life of conversion is that on some level it gets easier.  The more we learn to let go of in life the less we try to carry through that narrow gate.  What makes the sheep so smart and how Jesus throws it all on its head is that more than anything, sheep trust that one voice, the true voice.  It’s where the Pharisees and the insiders get it wrong.  They worry about how it looks and all the externals of life, but the path John leads us on through the Christ in a dismantling of our interior life, just as it was for Carl.

As we continue this Easter journey on this Good Shepherd Sunday, we pray for the awareness in our lives as to what we still try to carry with us through life.  Where are we being weighed down and are hearts being weighed down by failed expectations, hurts, fears, and all the rest.  Like Carl, and the disciples, we often learn only by going through and not get comfortable with what we think is paradise falls because the Christ promises an even more abundant life when we learn to let go, cease control, and be led through the narrow gate.  We quickly learn, as did Carl, it’s no longer about getting to Paradise Falls.  Rather, it’s about living Paradise Falls in this very moment and quite often in the life of our own community.

The Pain of an Orlando Love

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I must say that by now I feel like I’m running out of things to say when it comes to mass shootings and the loss of so many young lives, senselessly, and the endless bickering that takes place following about things that aren’t even real to begin with; the loss of life begins and ends with agendas and so often the almighty dollar that we end up in a perpetuating cycle of hopelessness and helplessness, or so it seems, unable to make any headway of moving to a deeper place as a human race, to understanding, forgiveness, and love. There never seems to be any headway beyond this sense of my own personal rights toward a seeking of the common good of humanity.

This one, though, is different because of the layers of pain that encircle it and it’s placement in a gay nightclub. It gets tied into the sensitivity of lives that have already often faced the pain of being ostracized and the struggle with “coming out”, a religious extremism that is not limited to Islam but Christianity as well who are ready to attack and yet condone all at the same time, failing to see their own shadow and darkness that looms in their own hearts, failing to go to the depths of their own being to find that there is something, a common bond with all humanity, especially with those who have faced this sense of radical poverty in their own souls, and a deep wound of rejection of the self and even of God for being created in such a way until the redemption of being freed of the layers of guilt and shame that are torn away by the freedom that this same God provides.

As different as it is, there are too many similarities as well. The images of Virginia Tech or of Sandy Hook remained etched in the mind and heart. There is nothing more devastating than a life cut short in the midst of the honeymoon years, years filled with endless possibility. Despite the struggles of human life, and certainly that of this particular community, there remains a sense of hope, a life yet to be lived, dreams and expectations that still have not been cut short or passed into a sense of being jaded. There is an energy that comes with young people that we all wish we could bottle up and release on the days when we’re just not feeling it. We grow resentful of them, knowing at times that our own lives have not always turned out the way we wanted them to and the experience of failed love. If I can’t have it, then no one can, must be the thinking of these men that go and commit such heinous acts. Reality buts up against the extremes of the black and white world we have tried to live, feeling no way out, and in turn a pulse dies and so does everything that goes with it. Lives will never be the same.

Of course, in the midst of it all we want to blame. We seem to function best when we are victims of, often times, circumstances beyond our control, and certainly there is blame to be shared. Unfortunately, the one pulling the trigger can never be held accountable here in this time and space. He now ceases to exist upon his own choosing. Like so many like him, fear runs deep. It’s easier to run from your problems than to confront them and deal with them. Sure it’s the messier way, but deep within all of us there is often that same closet that keeps us contained, keeps our hurt and our pain buried in the corner, unable to face such trauma, unable to imagine the possibility of being freed from it all and thinking this is the only way out, a naive martyrdom. The only way out is death, and unfortunately, not a redemptive death but an endless death, a hell. Of course, I don’t know. I don’t know him or what was going through him, but hell had to be pretty damn close. All we know is that as humans, more than anything, we project our own pain onto the world around us; it seems to us as the easiest way of dealing with it rather than learning to love it for what it is and has been, so often not even close to what the reality really had been but rather an illusion we’ve held onto throughout life.

Then there is Love…”and the greatest of these is love.” There may be no other people who have struggled more with love than the ones who were in Pulse that evening, for everything that has already been said, and yet, in my experience, no other people that know how to love because and in spite of that pain. Over and over again, we have the reminder that there is something stronger than fear and pain, which so often erupt within us as hatred. No, it never brings back the lives that have been lost, now too many too count and even to name. But when we hear their names and see their faces, something deep within us should be moved and unsettled, a love that begins to penetrate the layers of our own hurt, stereotypes, judgments, fears, expectations, and all else that stands in the way of discovering and experiencing a life beyond our own and yet our own more fully. If we can ever move to such a place, the dribble that scales our hearts and eyes that we think is most important begins to fall away and we begin to see the other as something more and yet myself. For it wasn’t just 49 lives that were lost in Pulse that night. It was mine and it was yours, for at our deepest selves we are but one, united in love.