A Life Exposed

Genesis 22: 1-2, 9-13, 15-18; Romans 8: 31-34; Mark 9: 2-10

The story of Abraham and Isaac that we hear from Genesis today is considered as one of the more bizarre stories we encounter in Scripture.  I mean, who in their right might would kill a child?  Who?  Especially this child and in this story.  We know that this child is all that Abraham and Sarah ever wanted.  They waited until their twilight years before Isaac arrives and now Abraham stands over him, not simply to sacrifice, but as the reading tells us, to slaughter him.  That’s what we hear.  It’s what we see today.  You know that almost half the people killed in Syria this week were children.  Children being slaughtered senselessly and yet here we are.

The story, though, is told in relation to the one that ends up being sacrificed.  It’s the ram that takes the place of Isaac in the story.  As much as Isaac stands as the vulnerable one, the ram comes with great symbolism in Scripture.  The ram represents power and strength.  It’s typically the leaders of the lambs because of it’s horns.  It has a natural sense of power and strength built into its structure.  However, as we hear in the reading today, the very gift of the ram, its horns, becomes its downfall.  All its power and strength gets it stuck in the thicket and so its power leads to its demise.  So what is it that Abraham is sacrificing.  The whole story not only tells us something about him but it also tells us something about the God that he believed in in his life.  Not only who would kill a child but what kind of God would want someone to kill a child.  Yet, there he was and there we are even to this very day.  Even in those early moments God is trying to reveal something more about God and what it is that Abraham needs to sacrifice.

This child and the ram have a message for Abraham as to what that is.  Here he is, about to hand the baton to Isaac, the inheritance, the legacy, the kingdom that has been promised, and yet is about to kill.  Maybe in those moments Abraham had doubts about the whole thing or maybe the eventual sacrifice opens the eyes, that it’s not the vulnerable one that is to be slaughtered but that sense of power and strength that the ram symbolizes.  More often than not, the vulnerable become the easy target, especially if they’re revealing something about ourselves that we’re uncomfortable with in life.  When we begin to feel as if our own power, or perceived power for that matter, are slipping from our fingers, we react against that vulnerability.  Yet, the child has something to expose us to.  That goes for your kids as well.  None of them turn out as you might have wanted but all along they expose us to ourselves.  Yeah, kids are kids, but they view the world in a very different way than ourselves.  They have yet to become jaded or beat down by the world and especially in those moments of great suffering, as was for Isaac, in their cry they expose us to what is most important.  Is it that power and strength that does more harm than good or that place of vulnerability, that child within, that continues to cry out to be loved and nurtured, exposing us to our own shortcomings and our buy-in to the illusion of power.

The same could be said of the disciples in today’s Gospel from Mark.  First thing they want to do after having this vision is set up shop.  They think this is what it’s all about and there’s no need to go any further.  They’re still clamoring for that same power and control.  Heck, as much as they say they won’t tell anyone it’s only a few verses later where they’re fighting with each other about who’s most important and who’s in charge, who it is that carries that horns of that ram.  For them, as it is for us, that sense of power, control, and perceived strength will always be our downfall.  The same will be true for the disciples.  It will not be until they find themselves in the most vulnerable of places, at the foot of the cross, before they begin to put the pieces together and see what this life is all about.  Until then, they’ll fight for power and be blinded by it’s gaze.  They can’t even seem to help themselves.

The Son has a great deal to teach and reveals not only the true to them but exposes them to their own shadow.  The Son, as Isaac does, points out what is often our real intention and our own selfishness.  All of this is why we so often encounter Jesus among the children, the poor, women, the sick and destitute.  They see the world so often from the bottom up because that’s how they lived their lives.  They were told they were worthless and often excluded from society.  Jesus raises them up and in doing so reveals the insecurity of the leaders of that day and the leaders of our own day and their own motivation for power.   The Son and the children have something to teach us and our exposing our own bankrupt culture, crying out for something more.  The question is, are we going to listen?

This season of Lent provides us the space to be challenged in such ways and what it is that we’re sacrificing in our own lives.  Are we sacrificing what is most important and dear to us all for the sake of power and position, agendas in our own lives.  We know the cost and is the cost worth the most vulnerable, the generation that we’re called to pass the baton to.  In faith, we know we will be alright but as I said, when it feels like that power is slipping away and we become exposed for who we really are, what’s left.  Abraham tells us, as does Paul, what’s left is all that matters, the most precious of all, the vulnerable and sacred lives that have been given to us.  We are at a critical point to ask such questions in our lives and world in the way we are to proceed.  Do we continue to seek the illusion of the horns, which will eventually bring us down anyway, or to listen to the powerless son in Isaac and the powerless Son in Christ, pointing us to something more, to that place of vulnerability where a life of faith, surrender, and trust can overflow.

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Thrust Into Faith

Genesis 9: 8-15; IPeter 3: 18-22; Mark 1: 12-15

It would be hard for any of us to imagine what the families of the 17 killed in Parkland, FL are going through, or for that matter, any that have been killed in such horrific ways.  How on earth do you return to some semblance of normalcy and begin to pull your life back together again when faced with such trauma?  It would seem impossible because everything you know as normal is no more.  Everything that you knew of life is now clouded by events that took just seconds and minutes to unfold and you can never go back.  Time seems to be clocked now through that experience and all you can really do is push forward.  Push forward.  There’s not much else one can do and hopefully over time begin to rebuild a new sense of normal and a life that now stands in the shadows of such events.

I would think, though, that that’s what Noah experiences himself.  He has now witnessed the destruction of the earth and most of humanity, wiped off the face of the earth.  The natural inclination would be to hunker down inside the ark and stay where he was, wallowing in his own sense of grief and loss and never learning to trust again.  It could have been that in that moment, life comes to a standstill and Noah gives into fear and the sense of loss, ravaged by the hostile flood waters that have consumed the earth.  But Noah wrestles with it and looks for something beyond the destruction and the trauma faced by humanity.  He simply looks for some kind of sign that all will be well and that this God who has pledged commitment and love upon humanity and the earth will once again see them through the hostile waters into a new sense of life.  That doesn’t mean that they forget what has happened.  It’s nearly impossible to forget.  However, to make peace with the events and somehow reconcile with a humanity that has gone astray in order to push forward.  That sign for Noah comes in the form of a rainbow.  How many have lost people and simply wanted a sign reminding us that things are ok?  Noah saw that rainbow and was reminded of the everlasting covenant that God has made not just with Israel but will all humanity.  It seems, even for Noah, that the only way through the hostile waters or the arid desert as Jesus faces is to go through it, often clinging to what was but over time learning to let go, surrender, trust, and deepen the faith in that covenant that God remains.

Like Jesus, the hostile waters or the arid desert are often not of our choosing.  We often don’t get to decide what life throws at us or what the world throws at us.  None of the people or Parkland chose to enter into it.  Mark’s Gospel tells us today that Jesus is literally thrust into the desert.  Mindful that just prior to this is his baptism and his identity is revealed.  From that moment forward it will be challenged.  As Mark tells us, he will have to confront the wild beasts that thrive in the midst of the desert.  However, it’s not just the wild beasts out there that we learn to confront in our lives.  More often than not it’s the wild beasts that live within us that have a way of taking hold of our hearts and lives.  The worst part is, it’s the wild beasts that we tend to believe.  It’s the wild beasts of negativity and the voices that drag us down even deeper into despair that become so believable or are just easier to give into over time.  Yet, like Noah, there is only one way through and that’s pushing through the experience and allowing it to transform us.  It is so often the very place where we learn to trust and find faith in God because in the end, that’s all we really have anyway!  It’s literally all we have, faith and trust. 

There had to come a time when Noah stepped off that ark in order to begin life anew.  He had to pass through the hostile waters, unbeknownst to himself, just as we pass through the waters of baptism.  It’s where we learn to trust and put our faith in this God who has promised life from the very beginning of time and until we pass over from this life.  Our second reading from Peter today tells us of that pledge that God has made, not as a removal of dirt from our body but rather an interior change of heart and to begin our life anew.  Despite the hostilities of the world and our ongoing obsession with violence, witnessing such tragedies as we have this week and the persistent tragedy we see in this city, God still promises life.  Like Noah, it takes a first step off the ark into the ruins in order begin the process of rebuilding life but now through the lens of faith.

As we begin this season of Lent, we begin with that very promise and pledge from God about the eternal life that is given to each of us at this very moment.  We mustn’t find ourselves locked up inside the ark, trying to keep ourselves safe and secure through our illusions.  We mustn’t try to dance around the desert to avoid the aridness and the insecurity that we face in meeting the wild beasts.  More often than not and ready or not, the hostile waters and the arid desert will be thrust upon us and then the choice is ours as to how we proceed.  This season reminds us of the promise of passing through and pushing through the darkest moments of our lives, when we find ourselves unsure and questioning, that somehow life is assured and God will continue to literally pull us through in order to experience that fullness of life.  None of us can go back to what was before these moments.  All any of us can do, and the grace we pray for this Lent, is to trust and find faith in the promise once given and yet unfolding in a God who remains faithful to humanity and all living things.

Silent Presence

Genesis 15: 1-6; 21: 1-3; Hebrews 11: 8-19; Luke 2: 22-40

On this Feast of the Holy Family you’d think we’d hear something from one of them and yet nothing.  Maybe a commercial as to what it’s like to raise this child.  Or maybe some advice when it comes to the woes of being a parent in their day.  There is plenty that they could tell us about what it means to be holy in one way or another and yet nothing.  It seems as if everyone does the talking for them.  But maybe that’s the point and that’s their simple message not only to parents but also to all of us gathered here this day is to simply be silent.  All they could do as they listen and see all that is going on around them, like any new parent, it be present to the moment and try to take it all in as mystery unfolds around and within them.  Their lesson is simply to find that silence and be present to the moment, to presence, to the mystery that has consumed their lives. 

They encounter in this moment today, in the midst of their silence, these great wisdom figures who only appear at this one time and yet have waited patiently for this one singular moment.  Simeon and Anna are not there to tell them what this child is going to do or tell them how the plan is going to unfold and all the expectations that Mary and Joseph should consider.  They’re not their to give advice at all.  What they do, though, is point Mary and Joseph to what is being revealed.  It’s not going to be Mary and Joseph that define who the Christ is going to be.  Rather, the Christ is going to define who they are as parents, just as the eternal Christ has done for Simeon and Anna, illuminating before their eyes a vision of the heartache of letting go of their own self-absorption and their own plan while experiencing the joy of learning to trust and grow in this sense of freedom that comes with faith.  They, Mary and Joseph, now stand on the shoulders of their ancestors, such as Abraham and Sarah, and all they can do is stand in wonder, in silence, and be present by the overwhelming mystery before their very eyes and yet snuggled deep in their hearts.  Their lives are forever changed by this mystery and yet they can present this child knowing full well that they don’t gather alone, but rather in faith with their ancestors who have pointed the way to and for them.

Abraham and Sarah are two who have pointed the way for Mary and Joseph and we hear their own vision in today’s first reading from Genesis and coupled with the Letter to the Hebrews.  I think one of the most important things to take away from this first reading is to know that there are six chapters missing in between the first part of the reading with the vision given to Abram and then the fulfillment of the promise at the end with Sarah giving birth to Isaac.  Life happens in between.  Abraham and Sarah doubt, they question, Abraham tries to fulfill his own idea of the promise, their skeptical, they laugh at God, all this taking place for that child is born.  They too feel they are doing it alone.  They got to figure it out on their own.  Yet, it’s not until they begin to stand on the shoulders of their ancestors can they begin to learn to let go and surrender, to be liberated from their own self-absorption and to be open to seeing God and God’s plan through a different lens.  They too needed to learn to silence their own idea before they can be open to giving birth to a new way of life.  It takes them their entire lives before they can move to such a place.  Those six chapters are crucial to finding their way to the promise and to be able to finally stand in awe and wonder and the mystery unfolding and being birthed in their own lives.  Abraham and Sarah become the wisdom figures with Simeon and Anna that we now stand upon to point us to the way of faith.  In an age where doubt, fear, skepticism are what we put our faith in, these giants point us in a different direction and ask us where our faith lies, even if it means an encounter with the sword that pierces.  The Christ not only illumines who we really are but also points to where we are not and where we still, like Abraham and Sarah, need to learn how to trust, surrender, and grow in faith.

Hebrews spells it out so beautifully in this second reading today.  It would be worth your while to go back and read it in its entirety.  It’s not just Abraham and Sarah, the writer goes through salvation history and how this mystery has unfolded in all of God’s creation. Our ancestors aren’t there to tell us how to live and to give us advice.  No, they’re there to point the way and nothing more or less.  They point the way to mystery, to beyond our doubts and fears, and to stand with us when we go astray, in order to point again back to mystery, back to the Christ child born in us this day.  The reading from Hebrews shows not perfect people; none of us are.  Mary and Joseph doubted themselves as well.  However, they show us in faith what can happen in and with our lives when we learn to trust, step back, and simply stand in awe and wonder of the mystery unfolding in our lives.  It seems as if everyone else knows what Mary and Joseph already believe in their hearts.  The shepherds knew it.  The animals knew it.  All of creation has known it.  And now revealed in the flesh.

Mary and Joseph and the Feast of the Holy Family isn’t here to tell us how to raise our kids.  They’re not here to give advice.  They’re not here to tell us how great our kids are and all that they should do.  That only feeds into our own self-absorption and thinking that our kids are really ours in the first place.  No, like the ancestors that have gone before, we stand on their shoulders as they point the way to a still more perfect way of faith and trust.  Thing will never go the way we plan and will never unfold the way we want it.  That’s simply our own way.  Our ancestors in faith remind us to live life, doubt at times, but always surrender to someone and something bigger than ourselves, the Christ.  The more we can learn to stand in wonder and awe before this mystery that is so enormous and yet intimate at the same time, the more we learn to surrender and to be liberated from our own idea of who this God is, thinking we know, and simply chuckle like Abraham and Sarah that once again God has proved me wrong and in that moment, do as Mary and Joseph, simply be silent and be present to the presence being illuminated before and within.  Maybe on this Feast of the Holy Family it’s the best advice they can ever give.

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.

 

The Predictably Unpredictable Master

The parable of the talents is now the second of the three in this chapter of Matthew.  Last week we heard the parable of the wise and foolish virgins and then next week will be the culmination of Jesus’ teaching in this gospel in the judgment of the nations.  It’s the final teaching of Jesus before the real event as to what this all means and what it has to tell them about who this God and who this Jesus really is and what he’s all about.  Like the other two parables this one is filled, like our lives, with many contradictions that are hidden in plain sight.

Our natural inclination, as I’ve said before, is to automatically try to identify who’s who in these parables that Jesus offers us.  It’s almost as if we have to identify roles so we know where we fit and somehow feel comfortable with it, knowing who’s who.  However, that would leave us in a bit of a predicament with calling God the master of the story, considering what we know about the master according to the one who was given one talent.  Even the master makes a pre-judgment about the guy by only giving one, according to his ability.  But this same guy then reveals the identity of the master by telling us that he’s demanding, a lie and a cheat and pretty much leaves them to their own accord by leaving.  Now I can’t necessarily say that’s how I would identify God, and yet, when we rush to judgment and trying fill in the blanks, it’s the God we’re left with.  But maybe that’s Jesus point.

Let’s look at the other two who obviously were very successful in turning the talents into great wealth.  According to our standard today we’re talking millions of dollars, more money than we know what to do with.  They make this money by becoming the likeness of the master and his success which means they too become demanding along with liars and cheats.  It was common knowledge in that time.  Also common thinking, as it often is to this very day, that wealth and this accumulation of it was how they viewed God.  The more I had the more somehow God has blessed me and graced my life, as if grace and blessing can somehow be quantified.  Today we’d call it the prosperity gospel.  The more I have the more God must love me and well, if I don’t it’s probably my own fault.  You see, God is not the master in this sense.  The master is a god but they serve the master of success of wealth and power.  It stands in total contradiction to what they are about to witness about the true Master facing the passion, death, and resurrection.  Yet, we’ve adopted in our own churches serving the wrong master at times.  It may bring us joy, as we hear, but it’s a fleeting joy, not the joy that comes through the true Master, the eternal.

That does, though, leave the third one hanging out there.  Mindful of all we know of Jesus and all the stories we’ve heard from Matthew this year wouldn’t it make sense that he’d be drawn to this final character of the parable.  You can almost imagine him huddled over out of fear seeking the Lord of life.  But the master of success in the parable has already made a judgment about him, just as the Pharisees have done about anyone that has not been somehow blessed by God, by not having.  Here’s a guy who even stands up to the master of success, facing him with a sense of authenticity and courage, humbling confronting the master and just as the Pharisees do, he’s tossed into the darkness.  He comes with nothing and leaves with nothing.  Isn’t that just how our lives are designed?  We always want more and the more is never enough.  Success for the true Master is more about less being more, it’s about coming as we are, with nothing, in humility and with authenticity standing up to the many masters we serve.

That is what’s behind this rather unusual proverb we hear in the first reading.  What the heck does the ideal wife have to do with talents and all the rest in the gospel?  What makes her the ideal is that she’s not there to serve the master in her husband.  Rather, she’s mindful of the true master and does all she does in the name of that Master.  The proverb tells us that she finds all the superficialities as fleeting, charm and beauty are simply joys that will pass.  She keeps her eye on her one God.  She is a woman that fears the Lord in its truest sense, a hope and joy that is eternal and she finds that through serving the true Master, as we’d say, in Christ, through the grace to trust and have a deeper sense of faith that transcends what the world offers her, which at that time was not a great deal.

Paul reminds us through his letter to the Thessalonians today that the moment comes in all of our lives, like a thief in the night, when we’re questioned and when we should begin to question the master that it is that we are serving.  He tells us when it arises in us it’s like labor pains, a painful experience when we are awakened to the reality that we’ve been serving our own master rather than the Master.  It will not only be what master we decide to serve but also what we do with it.  Do we continue to seek fleeting joy and the instant gratification in our lives or do we look for more?  Ironically, when we look for more it’s often less that can fill.  The more we try to fill ourselves with our own masters the more empty we become, lacking meaning and purpose in our lives.

We are now just over a month away from when our lives become all about the “more”.  We’ll need more gifts, cards, parties, stuff to have ourselves a successful Christmas.  Yet, we’ve probably all been in that place, that, when all is said and done we feel empty and unfulfilled.  More often than not it’s because we’ve spent our times serving the wrong master and then we’re faced with the holiday blues.  We pray this day for the grace to become aware or maybe even just to begin to ask ourselves who is the master we serve in our lives.  The master we serve says a lot about the God we choose to serve.  This god of success and prosperity is so tempting in our lives and yet often comes at great cost.  Maybe not in the moment but at some point it happens.  The true Master calls us to a life of humility, faith and trust.  The more we keep our eye and heart on the true Master the more we begin to realize that we don’t need much, that less is often more.  It’s a God of deep mystery that we are invited to fall into, as the ideal wife does in Proverbs, trusting in the promise of the eternal joy that arrives when we finally let go of our own masters and learn to trust the fall into the true Master of our lives, the eternal Christ.

 

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.

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.