What Matters Most

Malachi 1: 14–2: 2, 8-10; I Thess 2: 7-9, 13; Matthew 23: 1-12

If you follow what we call, the opioid crisis, you may have heard last week from Chris Christie mentioning that over the span of three weeks, this country loses as many people to overdose as we did back on 9/11/01.  That’s every three weeks and yet we have plenty of money to try to make us safer and secure but we can’t seem to find it within ourselves to deal with this continuing growing problem.  Maybe because it’s a problem that lies beneath the surface and can’t always see with our eyes.  We’re much better at reacting to what we see rather than dealing with the interior, unseen.  Just think about it, though.  If there are that many who are trying to mask themselves think about the amount of pain that is hidden in plain sight.  We somehow think that taking away the heroin, the pain pills, the guns, or whatever else will solve all our problems but all it does is tackle the seen and rarely pushes us to deal with the pain below the surface that leads us down the path of opioids or other means.

It’s the challenge Jesus often faces with the Pharisees, as he does again today.  Keep in mind, the Pharisees weren’t bad people.  They were well-intentioned and whether we care to admit it or not, there’s a Pharisee in all of us.  They seem to only care about how things are seen with the eyes, how they look, and keeping people distracted by what might be less important.  Along comes this Jesus who doesn’t seem to need them so much, despite the relationship with the Pharisees being one of need and dependency.  Jesus, rather, encounters the people where they are and with what matters most, their pain and suffering.  He’s not the least concerned about how things look, titles, being seen, or having the attention on himself, all he cares about is so often zoning in on the pain, not by medicating or numbing it, but entering into with the one who suffers.  It’s a radical approach to faith as they had known it.  The approach of the Pharisee is one of superiority and allowing yourself to be seen as “good” and blaming others for your problems.  For Jesus, it’s about going below the surface and bringing about radical change that can only come by a holy encounter in pain.

In the words of Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians, it’s a God who is like a mother who nurses and cares for her children’s hunger and need.  It wasn’t about being seen or about who’s in and who’s out.  No, rather for Paul it too was about this radical healing that needed to happen in people’s lives.  More often than not Paul would go after the communities for separating themselves from what mattered most even what was seen with their very eyes.  Their focus tended to be on themselves rather than the poor and people dying in the streets and encountering them in those very places.  Paul uses that image today to remind us of this God who doesn’t care about what we have or our bank accounts or how we are seen in the public eye.  Rather, it is that mother, as he tells us, who cares for her children’s very needs, needs that are so often not noticed on the surface but internally, as if instinctual, a deeper pain and hunger.

For the prophets it was no different just as with Malachi in today’s first reading.  He too uses language of a parent but now rather a God who is a faithful father.  Malachi is going after the priests who too had lost sight of what was most important.  They were much too worried about the Temple, in some ways as we often do, the façade of the building.  Somehow as long as things look good and fine on the surface we can ignore the deeper problems in our lives, city, and country.  All along, though, we become eaten alive by our pain that continues to lead us further into a virtual life that eases and numbs the pain rather than seeking that holy encounter within the pain so that it may be transformed and we may live life more fully.  They were no different than us, focusing on what separates us and divides us rather than the deeper issues facing our community, city and country.

When Matthew writes this gospel he too was worried about his own community.  That presence of the strong Pharisee was separating and dividing his community and he worried that they’d come apart.  Matthew worried how fear had crept in and was eating away at the community as he tried to unite them around the one who knew their pain, the Christ.  That Pharisee within each of us will always look for the short-term solution to our pain, turning to opioids, heroin, pain pills, guns, or whatever our choice is all that we can continue to function in our lives and world while being eaten within ourselves by our pain that keeps being pushed down and numbed.  It’s so easy to get caught up in the less important things that we see with our eyes rather than to be led to the unseen, the pain within our own hearts, that prevents us from loving in the way that Jesus has loved, like the nursing mother and the faithful father.

The amount of pain that exists in this city and country is even hard to imagine and in the short-term it appears we’ll continue to avoid and numb as long as we look strong and secure.  But deep down we know there is more, in the unseen parts of our heart lies a deeper pain that desires more than anything a holy encounter and a radical healing so we too can focus on what matters most, the lives we are called to go out to as missionary disciples, not to separate and divide but to gather together around the Cross of the Christ where radical healing, in our most vulnerable state, is brought forth.

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A Changed Vision

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

The first reading today from the Book of Genesis probably sounds rather bizarre to us, especially if you’re a parent or grandparent. I can’t image anyone wanting to be in Abraham’s position today as he prepares to sacrifice his son Isaac. What makes it even more bizarre is we know the back story and the waiting and questioning that Abraham and Sarah did in their lives in wanting to give birth and now here he is about to do something that we’d consider quite crazy! The obvious connection between this reading and Jesus is of course the sacrifice of the son and the Son. Yet, like in our own lives, it’s often not about the obvious; there’s often something deeper going on in our lives that is beyond words and understanding and maybe by means of reflection, can we ask ourselves if we’re willing to give up and sacrifice what’s most important to us?

Again, think of the context of their lives, Abraham and Sarah. Think about how they struggled in life and with God, how they would question and wonder and doubt what it is that God was doing in their lives, working on them constantly. When they learn that they were to give birth to a son they laugh in the face of God! When they can finally let go of the doubts and how they thought God should act and what God should do in their lives, somehow shorting them of something they felt they should have in the birth of a child, the Spirit begins to break through in their lives. The same thing happens with Abraham in this reading today. He think he understands what God is calling him to do, again, in his own need to grow and change over time and in life, is being called to see and hear and listen from a different point of view. In that moment, the Spirit breaks through his life and his soul begins to expand, “countless as the stars in the sky and sands of the seashore”. Once again, Abraham is invited into a deeper place, a more radical place in his own life in becoming the father of faith and living the will of God.

The disciples will get there eventually. Their own vision and hearing is still limited to what they are being called to, despite the invitation that they are given in today’s Gospel. The glory is revealed before their very eyes and yet they are warned not to tell others of the experience. Jesus knows quite well that they aren’t there yet and it would be from a place of authenticity yet because their vision and their own ego and thought pattern of who God is and who and what it means to be the Christ; they remain limited in the midst of the unlimited. It won’t be until their own interior lives are rocked by the Cross that their own vision and hearing begins to change and the transfiguration will begin to make sense, not as something seen beyond them but rather something that unfolds within them and to live the more radical life of love that God calls them to in their lives. They have to come down off the mountain and out of their heads in order to not just think who this God should be but to experience the God they will come to know. Sometimes the most important thing we have to give up and sacrifice is the way we think, our opinions, our judgments that we hold onto, even the ones that we hold about God before we can embrace that radical life that we are called to as disciples.

As we continue this journey through the lenten season, we pray for a breaking through in our own lives and in our own journey as individuals and a community. Lent, and these readings, are a good reminder of how limited we can become or allow ourselves to be limited, avoiding a change in our own vision of life and God or our inability to hear that voice of God calling us to come down off our own mountains that we create for ourselves and delve deeply into our humanity and to see the divine within, straight to the Cross of Calvary, leading us to a more meaningful life, one filled joy, a life with an expansion of soul as Abraham experiences when never growing weary of God who remains faithful through it all, always trying to break into the world and into our sufferings in order to bring life and love, for as Paul tells us today, nothing can separate us from that love. God calls us to that more radical way of living, a life filled with love and meaning; a love that leads us to even sacrifice what we have deemed most important to us and, in turn, a love that expands from the stars of the sky to the sands of the seashore.

Built into a Spiritual Powerhouse

Acts 6: 1-7; 1Peter 2: 4-9; John 14: 1-12

We have an ongoing joke, as well as call each other out on it, to the infamous phrase, “We’ve always done it that way.”  Now we may never utter those words, but we speak it with our actions a lot of the time.  Yet, if we are to allow ourselves to become the “spiritual powerhouse” that Peter speaks of in today’s Second Reading, we must learn to let things go.  That can even be said of the way we pray.  If we continue to only pray the way we did as kids, we’re probably doing something wrong or frustrated with our prayer life and God, but “we’ve always done it that way” has a way to take hold of our hearts like none other.  In order to become that spiritual powerhouse as individuals and as a community, we must accept change as a part of who we are.  Just think about your own relationships.  Those who are married or long term relationships know that change is necessary; it’s what make the relationship grow. The same it true with our relationship with God and our desire to become a “spiritual powerhouse.”

It’s what’s going on in the first reading as they new leaders are chosen.  There’s a disagreement that sets up between the Hellenists and the Hebrews.  There are people who’s needs are not being met, but the Hebrews were quite content in maintenance and status quo, keep doing what we’re doing; whereas the Hellenists were seen as progressive in their own way and demanding change because life was changing and the community was changing and new needs were arising.  They could no longer keep doing the same thing over and over.  It’s unfortunate that we only hear Acts during the Easter Season because they can teach us a great deal of how a community changes and grows and needs to let go, especially of the past, in order to move forward and to become as Peter says, that “spiritual powerhouse.”  We must first recognize the “stumbling stone” within our own lives.  What do we continue to hold onto that keeps us in that mindset of “we’ve always done it that way”?  Until the desire to become the spiritual powerhouse that God wants for us to become outweighs the desire to hold onto something, to the known, we will fight God and letting go and trusting and in reality, faith.

Jesus tells the disciples that when you grow in trust and faith and let things go, you can do great things.  As a matter of fact, he says, out of the mouth of Jesus, you can even do greater things because it’s no longer you but the Father, God, working through you that accomplishes greatness.  Whether we like it or not, those words are a part of us, “we’ve always done it that way” and it’s hard to break because we are much more satisfied with the comfortable and what is known rather than stepping out into something new and to the unknown.  Yet, to truly become that spiritual powerhouse, as individuals and a community, we must do just that…recognize the humiliation that it is a part of us, that stumbling stone, and begin to open ourselves up to the Kingdom that God wants to create, not the one we settle for so often in life.  We pray for the courage to become that spiritual powerhouse and ultimately, to change the world by God working through and in us!

Seeking the Lost

Luke 15: 1-32

A baseball player by the name of Cory Brand (from the movie Home Run) has the potential of being one of the greatest in the game.  His problem, though, is he’s become a liability to the team and in many ways, to himself.  He has a history, like all of us, and his has much darkness to it as well.  It follows him around like his shadow and results in living a life of rage, anger, and alcoholism.  It eventually costs him his dream and will force him to finally confront the darkness, the lost places within his own life; the ones that so often just need to be loved.  He will have to seek out the relationships, the hardships, the hurts, and all that comes with the dark history before he can truly begin to find his potential and purpose in life.

Seeking out the lost is what this gospel today is all about.  Taken in its totality, it is often referred to as the “lost and found” gospel with the lost sheep, the crazy story of the lost coin, and of course, the parable of the two lost sons, both lost in their own way.  In hearing this gospel and these parables that are being told to the scribes and pharisees who are complaining that Jesus is “eating with sinners”, you could imagine that with each passing parable, their blood is boiling, reaching a climax with the older son, which in many ways is the pharisee in each of us…quick to judge, holding grudges, jealous, thinking we know better, resentful, thinking others don’t “deserve” the father’s love.  We really are all these characters, not only the older, but the younger as well who runs from his problems and wishes his father dead, like he’s not even there.  Can’t we see ourselves in these two sons and their lostness?  What is often lost in us is what we don’t want to see about ourselves, the fleeting younger son and the resentful elder are both there.

The main point of the stories though, of all three, are how the main characters go out seeking those lost parts to try to reconcile and bring wholeness back into the “fold”.  The shepherd seeks the sheep, the woman, in probably the most absurd of the stories in our day and age when none of us would look for a lost coin, and the father who literally goes out to try to bring back the lost sons, successful in at least one.  The father doesn’t do it by trying to coerce or convince these brothers that they need to come home, but rather confronts the lost parts of his life with love to where they want to come home.  Rather than running from our lostness or growing more and more resentful, the father in us must go out seeking those lost parts with love.  It is often love that has been missing in those lost parts and only love that can bring about that healing and reconciliation that can bring about the wholeness and holiness in our lives.

Like Cory, and these sons, we often have to hit rock bottom.  Our painful history will follow us wherever we go until we are willing to confront it with love.  The more we hate on it and run from it, the more bitter and resentful, and disconnected we become in life.  We desire that wholeness and holiness, but it can only come by seeking out the lost within our own lives and to love it.  When we can confront our own lostness with love, the call in seeking out the lost in the community will bring about new meaning and purpose.  Today we pray that we may have the courage to tackle our own history and the lostness of it.  That’s the thing, it’s exactly in those places in our lives that God is leading us and where grace is most abundant.  We can run or avoid, but like Cory, it will follow us like our own shadow.  To reach our fullest potential and to become what God has created us to be, we must seek that wholeness and holiness that comes from the abundant love and grace of a father seeking out his lost children, for that is who we are.