Foolish Wisdom

Wisdom 6: 12-16; I Thess 4: 13-18; Matthew 25: 1-13

I don’t need to convince anyone here that we live in rather hostile times. How else do you describe what we witnessed this past week in the church shooting in Texas when someone feels they can just walk in and obliterate people. Or even here in Baltimore. We’re not even at the end of the year and the death toll due to violence has exceeded 300. It’s hard to comprehend. There also seems to be an increase in stories of accusations of assault against people. That’s just the actions of people. It doesn’t take into account the hostility we experience with the vile that often comes out of mouths and plastered on social media and other outlets. How can any of us deny this surge in hostility. It seems and feels as if there is this great upheaval taking place in politics, Church, and other facets of our lives that it seems to feed into that hostility. As much as we want to seek this sense of permanence and cling to it, there just isn’t other than what we seem to fear the most, death.
Matthew’s community which we’ve heard from all year was not much different. The reasons for such hostility may or may not have been different but he consistently worried about the community and whether it would survive. There were strong divisions between Jews, the Messianic Jews, who would go on to become Christians, as well as pagan and more secular people, all of which felt that they held the mantle of truth and found ways to hold it over the others. Matthew consistently tries to move the community to this deeper reality of who they are and despite differences in beliefs, way of life, knowledge, or anything else, there is something that binds them all. But when they and we get caught up in our tribes, our way of thinking, thinking we hold this mantle of truth and complete knowledge, hostility arises and there is less and less space for others, and quite frankly, the Other.
In these final three weeks of the liturgical year Matthew will once again make this push to this deeper reality by the telling of parables. We hear the parable of the virgins this week, followed by the talents, and climaxing with the sheep and goats on the final Sunday. Today, though, is this parable that appears to be filled with contradictions. There are these so-called wise virgins who appear on the surface to be given some kind of reward for their presence. However, their actions don’t speak great volumes in terms of wisdom. No sooner it is announced that the bridegroom is arriving, the foolish virgins seek help from the wise virgins, and yet, they want nothing to do with them. They shut them off and only worry about themselves rather than help the one in need. Go buy your own stuff and worry about yourself they are told. They go about their business only to lock the door behind them as they enter the party only to shut themselves off as some form of protection from the outside elements. It doesn’t sound like great wisdom.
But remember, this is how they envisioned God and now Jesus plays on words and uses stories to point out what they miss. The only other image that sounds so stark in Scripture is the closing of the tomb, death, cutting off from everyone else. Yet, there they were. Like today, it’s about insiders outsiders, the better than and less than, who holds the mantle and who doesn’t, who’s wise and who’s a fool. Yet, in the process, the parable reveals something about them and their own understanding of God and themselves. In the seeking of wisdom, one must first learn to embrace death and a reality and a part of who we are. It is in letting go that we begin to realize that maybe the best any of us can do is accept the fact that I may have some wisdom but I could be a damn fool all at the same time, ready and yet not ready. Like the parable, we tend to be filled with such contradictions. But for the Pharisees and their understanding of God, it was all about how it appeared and if we don’t move to that deeper reality we never really see that I am both wise and foolish, living and dying with each passing breath.
We hear in that first reading today from Wisdom that our lives are about seeking that gift of wisdom and the eternal. As a matter of fact, seeking wisdom leads us to the eternal. When we feel we carry this mantle of truth and certainty, there’s not much room for wisdom and for that matter, the other. Wisdom, and our ability to let go, leads us from a life of hostility to a life of hospitality, where we have space for the other, and quite frankly, we’re free to be ourselves. There is great wisdom in accepting that I am not all-knowing and I don’t carry the mantle of truth because it frees me to be myself and unlike the Pharisees, don’t feel the need to try to be someone other than I really am, both wise and foolish all at the same time.
Quite frankly, there is some wisdom found even in the foolish virgins if we’re willing to look a little deeper. They come empty, with nothing holding them back. They ask for help when needed, even in despair. Yet, they find themselves rejected, but not rejected by God but by who they thought God was, the Pharisee who felt it was their duty to guard the door and judge who comes and who doesn’t. So they’re not rejected by God but rather by us. We will hear this now these next weeks in our own seeking of wisdom and learning to let go of these images of God that no longer work in our lives and hinder us from going deeper in our lives. The hostility that arises with Jesus isn’t because of lack of knowledge or wisdom. He certainly proves himself in that way. The hostility comes when he shows hospitality to the excluded, the outsiders, the foolish ones as they were known. Jesus shows us a God who has space for both the wise and the fool.
As we make this journey together, as Paul reminds us today, we seek that wisdom, the eternal, that frees us to be who we are, often contradictory in our own lives and yet still loved by God. When we can begin to accept that about ourselves we become less hostile towards others, learn to respond with love, and honestly, become even more dangerous in such a hostile world because we are set free to love as God loves, the wise and the fool. Quite frankly, it’s all we can really ask for in this life. We pray for the grace to accept and to be aware of this deeper reality in our own lives, that we are both wise and fool, ready and not ready, open and closed, all at the same time. And yet, infinitely still loved by God in our fullness.

 

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Unseen Obstacles

Sirach 27: 30–28:7; Matthew 18: 21-35

When I was out at Notre Dame back in July, I had asked the priest who was kind of leading us through the week what he thought was one of the greatest obstacles we faced as a Church.  Now, I can name many already.  We know there are less priests.  We are certainly aware that there are less people coming.  We also know that there is a lack of trust with all institutions but also a feeling that the institution is out of touch with what’s going on.  Again, the list can go on and on as to what kind of obstacles we face, all of which we can see with our own eyes.  But he wasn’t thinking about what we can see.  He was thinking about something much deeper and so I was taken back when he responded to me.  He said he felt the greatest obstacle we face is resentment.  I got to tell you, it has pushed me to look at my own self and where it may be simmering underneath for me.  We’ve all faced it towards the institution but also with priests and people.  So many examples of how it hasn’t gone as planned or it’s not what we thought it would be or should be.  We have somehow been treated unfairly and we deserved better.  All along as it simmers underneath the surface, resentment.

And, boy, do we as Sirach tells us today, love to cling to it.  I don’t know why we hold on as tightly as we do.  If anything, over time it really acts as a cancer in our lives, feeding on itself, and taking a toll on our hearts.  Now Sirach is speaking specifically to friendships that have gone awry.  This isn’t just something that the Church must face, but we see it in marriages, in families, and in our communities that we’re a part of, simmering underneath as we cling for dear life.  Maybe we tell ourselves that we’ll hold the injustice over the other.  Or somehow it gives me power and domination over the other who has wronged me in some way.  I’m going to dangle it over them, holding a grudge, as if that’s somehow going to bring justice.  Any maybe that’s are problem.  We want justice despite Sirach telling us we even have to forgive our neighbor’s injustice.  Justice without mercy and forgiveness only leads to greater anger and resentment simmering underneath. 

Both Sirach and Matthew write to communities that often faced division.  This who section of Matthew that we’ve been listening to for the past few weeks has been on what it means to be community and the necessary tools for a community to grow.  Today we hear this outlandish parable by Jesus about a servant who was given forgiveness but never quite penetrates his being.  He remains a tyrant and unchanged by the king’s gift.  The servant simply feeds the king a line that he wants to hear, that somehow he’ll repay this outrageous amount of money, knowing full well that it will never come to pass.  He simply reacts to the situation to get what he wants and yet is unable to receive the gift.  How do we know?  See how he immediately goes and reacts to his fellow servant.  He does exactly what Sirach tells us today.  He clings to his sin and begins to choke the guy.  His own anger that simmers underneath gets the best of him, unchanged by the king’s mercy.  Whether we like it or not, it’s our story.  We like to do the same thing.  We’ll play nice to get what we want.  We’ll go along with something even if it upsets us for the sake of keeping “the peace”.  Yet, all along, just as it is with the servant, just below the surface anger is feeding itself on resentment.  It has destroyed relationships and communities alike when we don’t allow it to come to the surface, to the light, in order to be transformed.  We’d not only prefer to cling to it but also transmit it to anyone who happens to set us off at the moment.  The king doesn’t need to send him to the tortures.  We do that to ourselves by holding on.

These two readings provide us two images and leave us with a choice.  Sirach gives us the clinched fist and grinding teeth, holding on to what eats away at us from within.  Then there’s Jesus, the freedom that comes with forgiveness.  The thing about forgiveness, though, and I have said this before, I cannot do it myself and nor can you.  It is truly a grace given to us from God, freely given.  We do not have the ability to forget how we have hurt and have been hurt and so through this grace we are set free from what binds our hearts and what it is we cling to.  The other is this.  There must be a mutuality.  There must be an openness on our part and a receptivity on our part to receive that grace otherwise it simply deflects off of us, unable to penetrate our own hurt.  The servant is the perfect example.  If he were able to receive that grace, that gift from the king, he would have in turn shown mercy to his fellow servant.  When we open ourselves to the grace we in turn give the gift away.  That’s grace.

We all cling to things in our lives, unable to be free.  It may be fear, resentment, anger, so often causing depression in people’s lives.  It can be towards the Church, towards me, towards a spouse, and even towards God when we feel we have been wronged and unjustly treated for whatever reason.  In those moments, though, we are invited into a choice as to what we do with it.  Do we allow it to simmer underneath the surface, creating a wedge between us and the other and God or do we surrender it to the Lord?  It’s hard stuff as individuals and hard stuff as a community to deal with the real issues.  It’s easy to speak about the obvious issues and problems we face as Church and community.  It’s a whole other ballgame to talk about the real issue simmering underneath that prevents us from growing as individuals and as community into the grace of God that is being offered us at this very moment.  Cling or be set free.

The Capacity for God

I must admit, when I agreed to participate in priestly renewal at Notre Dame this summer, I really had no idea what I was signing up for at that time.  I knew it had a name, the Bishop D’Arcy Program in Priestly Renewal, part of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.  I knew it was free.  I knew it was at Notre Dame, a place I’ve always wanted to visit.  Of course, I also knew it was about priestly renewal.  Even that, though, I probably have my own idea and judgment about what exactly that means and how it can be defined by each of us, based on our own needs and desires.

Shortly after beginning his pontificate, Pope Francis often used the image of the Church as field hospital.  We all know that when it comes to hospitals, there is some knowledge or acceptance on our part that we may be sick, whether something minor or even terminal.  When it comes to Church life and the understanding of the image of field hospital, the second half of the equation is not always known and we often live in denial of the illness or for that matter, blame others for it.  Sometimes when you’re so close to the sickness you become immune or even numb to it, ultimately making you a part of the problem rather than an agent of healing and conversion.  We become blind to the deeper issues that we need to face while trying to band-aid when often surgery is the necessary route, or at least some restful care to regain the capacity to once again thrive.

I know this is all a rather long introduction to my point, but a point that is necessary in understanding what this week at Notre Dame has been for me.  Here’s the thing, those closest to me knew that I was burned out by the end of June, feeling fatigued and simply exhausted.  It was a transition year for me in moving from being pastor of one parish and taking on a second.  Despite the fact that they are a mere mile apart, it, over time, began to take a toll on me, especially interiorly.  My point is, I was in need of that field hospital myself without even knowing it at the time, while being immersed in the day to day routine.  That should have been a sign that a check-up was needed; everything was becoming routine.  I was becoming numb to it all, gradually forgetting why I was a priest in the first place, allowing myself to be pushed to the triage unit, which I was unfamiliar and new to trying to navigate, when, at times, I was the one in need.

Now don’t get me wrong, I never stopped doing what I needed to do, such as celebrating Mass and even having the time for personal prayer, but over the course of time, and after having the time to step away this week, to reflect, to listen, to allowing myself to be ministered to, I began to realize that the clock seemed to be managing me much more than the other way around.  Over time, it was easier to just escape for awhile, knowing that I had reached the bottom within myself, often without the capacity to give or receive, and try to gain enough muster to get through another day and another week, at least until the field hospital opened its doors to me and am once again breathing without a ventilator and no longer feeling like I’m on the brink of death.

One of the dangers of Church life and ministry is to become consumed by the weeds, which Jesus himself uses as metaphor.  Dealing with problems, fires, people, and the multitude of personalities and agendas , and now times two, began to consume me and I didn’t realize how ill I was becoming and in need of that field hospital, to mend wounds, deal with resentment, theologically contextualize the reality, and to reconnect with the larger priesthood that I am a part of and was ordained to for now thirteen years.  The crying child within, overwhelmed by the noise, needed to be cared for and loved.

For the past ten years, I have taught high school juniors not only the need for conversion but also have led them through that process.  Any of us knows that, just because we can lead others doesn’t mean we can always lead ourselves there.  The best leaders are often those that know how to follow.  It requires the help of the field hospital, a team, to lead you back to health and to a deeper understanding of the mystery of the life in which I have felt called and the capacity to fall into that mystery without the feeling of drowning, it’s arch-nemesis which likes to disguise.  There’s no book and no six steps that can bring about the perfect priest or parish, for that matter, (whatever that means anyway), all we can do is continuously allow ourselves to surrender to the mystery of God’s grace and mercy in our lives and through it we are changed, our environments are changed, the lens in which we view life is changed, broadened, and deepened, and ultimately the world begins to change.  The first step, though, is to acknowledge there’s a problem, even when we don’t know what it is and allow ourselves to be checked into the field hospital for care.  It may only require some medicine to sooth the soul, but it at least prevents something more terminal.

Each night I’d end my day down at the Grotto here on campus, often being bit alive by mosquitos, but there nonetheless.  Each night I’d watch people come and go, renewing a sense of wonder in myself as to what brings them there, seeking prayer and understanding, lighting candles for someone or something.  I sat, I listened, even to a young man in tears next to me one evening, knowing that this spot was a field hospital for him, in need of some kind of healing in his life and quite possibly in the life of someone he loved. Each night he’d return and pray, light more candles, making his offering to the Divine Physician. No words were necessary.  Simply a light, some tears, and an openness to the grace at hand.  I suppose the one good thing about field hospitals is that they are 24-7.  At least for the past week, whether at the Grotto, hearing confession with young people, in sessions with other priests, laughter, connecting with some of the people I encountered on campus, or simply walking through this campus, this became the necessary field hospital in my life, first to acknowledge that I had become ill and then to accept the doctors and the Doctor and the care they provided to bring about healing, the capacity to give and receive this mystery, and of course, renewal.

Looking Without Seeing

I Sam 16: 1, 6-7, 10-13; Eph 5: 8-14; John 9: 1-41

Helen Keller, who, of course, was not just blind but also deaf had to overcome the obstacle of thinking that she was somehow deficient because of her limitation in hearing and seeing. Many of us have to do the same thing in different capacities over the course of our lives. She goes onto become a great writer as well as activist and humanitarian, despite what she originally saw as a limitation. In the end, she had commented that there was something even worse than being blind and that was having sight and yet still unable to see. How many times has that function of sight really limited us as well, where we have sight and yet still unable to see.

It’s what Jesus is confronting in today’s gospel with the man born blind who sits on the side of the road, a beggar, as John tells us. Mixed up, though, in this story are all these other conflicts that are important to recognize because they will carry through now until Good Friday, and quite frankly, some even beyond that. Of course, there’s the Pharisees. We’re accustomed to that squabble after hearing it week in and week out. They are the legalists. They see everything through the lens of right and wrong, good and bad, sin and not, and in the end, judge and label everyone according to it. In many ways they end up dehumanizing people and strip them of their dignity because of some standard that they hold that pretty much no one else can match, certainly not a man born blind who is a beggar. Quite honestly, they wouldn’t have the time of day for such a person.

The other squabble is with “the Jews”. We hear that language often in John’s gospel which seems rather odd being that they were all Jewish. Why would they need to be singled out when it encompassed the majority? In today’s language, in these passages they really are the insiders. They view everyone as either insider or outsider and have total disregard for everyone who isn’t part of the in crowd. They grow resentful with Jesus and understand that he’s a Jew like them on some level, but also see him as an outsider and look for every possible way as labeling him as such. They too would have no time for the one they label beggar because he’s not one of them. Ironically, Jesus spends much of his time with them and tries to restore them to their place in the community while restoring their dignity.

There is one other conflict though in this passage and that’s the parents of the blind man. It would seem rather odd, I’d think, for a parent to turn their back on their son, despite his circumstances in life. They deny having anything to do with him regaining his sight because, as John tells us, of fear. Fear holds them back from claiming their own faithfulness to Jesus. As Jews they too would have been with the in crowd and want that sense of belonging. Are they willing to risk it to step out and trust their son in the healing Jesus has brought to his life. It doesn’t seem so.

All that said, the blind man, who happens to be a beggar, has no bearing on the life of the community. He’s an outsider. He’s obviously done something grave that he’s been punished in this way. He’s a nobody and no one wants anything to do with him, except, of course, Jesus. He quickly goes from being a nobody into the one who has the spotlight shining upon him in the middle of all these conflicts that are ensuing. But it takes him time as well. He doesn’t quickly come to an understanding of what has taken place in his life or who this Jesus guy is either. The gospel writer reminds us that he first sees him as a man, then a prophet, then as Lord who has transformed his very life and existence. What he had seen as an obstacle becomes the source of grace in his life.

The same in true for Paul who we hear from in today’s second reading from Ephesians. He uses the image of light and darkness. He had to physically become blind in order to see, knowing his own conversion story. He was a Pharisee as well as an insider and so ingrained in that thinking that he couldn’t see anyone else beyond that limitation. For Paul, if you weren’t an insider, the way he had determined, then there was no place for you. God literally blinds him, even though spiritually he already was, and pushes him to sit in that blindness before he can gain sight and begin to see the other as not someone separate from but one with and not much different than himself. Using his language of today, Paul, and us, are often forced into the darkness of our own lives before God can somehow begin to do something with us. We all have blindspots and darkness as long as we are on this earth, but we also like to avoid them and deny they’re there. The blind man today, along with Jesus, begins to expose those blindspots and yet, they still cannot see as God sees.

It’s where young Samuel is led in today’s first reading. He has no intention on heading to Jesse to anoint a new king. He thought all along that it would be Saul and now fears for his life thinking Saul is going to take his life because of the turn of events. Yet, he goes to Jesse, but once there is still trapped in his own way of seeing. He looks for power, for strength, for someone who can overturn the enemies. This is who he thought should be the next king, but, of course, God has different plans. The writer tells us that Samuel, and for that matter, each of us, see by appearance but God sees the heart. There it is. God knows our story and sees the deepest longings of our hearts.

Our sight has so many limitations. We become blinded by what we see and in turn, label and judge. We see color. We see economic advantages. We see what we don’t have. We see lifestyles that we become envious of. We see people that bring things upon themselves. We see what we wish we had and don’t. We see biases. We see insiders and outsiders. We see, so often the sin of the other and ourselves. It’s hard, as Helen Keller pointed out, to have sight and yet see. The Gospel challenges us to be thrown into the story as the blind man and ask ourselves where we are on our own journey of faith. We all have these conflicts alive within us, the pharisee, the Jew, and even the parental voices that remain, that often hold us back from becoming who we really are in life. When we no longer see them as obstacle but as a source of grace, we’re changed forever. We make the journey of the blind man, of seeing Jesus as man, as prophet, and eventually, as our Lord. We pray for the awareness and acceptance of our own blindspots that prevent us from seeing, not by appearance, but as we heard today, of the heart, as God see us. Like Helen Keller, if we surrender ourselves to the change, transformation, conversation that we are being called to in life, what we have seen simply as limitation opens the door to possibility. I was blind but now I see.

The Need for Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Journey to Redemption

There are many reasons Jesus could go after the Pharisees in the gospel but maybe none more than this image that they tried to project onto the people that somehow they are above the law, somehow they have this all figured out, and in many ways, have mastered life. Now we all know it’s not true, and yet, like them, we still try to do it in our own lives. We’re all guilty of it, guilty of the hypocrisy that Jesus speaks of in today’s gospel as we begin this Lenten season. Everything is not what we see is what Jesus tries to show to the disciples today. They see the actions of the Pharisees and they see the actions of others that they aren’t doing what they’re doing in prayer and fasting because of God but rather what it does for their own image and the persona they want to project.

It’s a tough place to be because we’re all there, and yet, if we follow Jesus’ direction in this gospel to go to that inner place rather than flaunting things and we’re still trying to live this image we’ve created, well, when we go there we’re going to feel the emptiness that comes with it. We find ourselves not wanting to live with ourselves because we know we’re living a lie rather than living from a place of authenticity, a place of integrity. All along, there is as Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians, a God who continues to appeal through us. God doesn’t give up on the people, but rather, even when they sway and get caught up in these images, false selves that are created, God continues to appeal through us to call us back to who we really are. Otherwise, we live with that constant emptiness within ourselves, lonely, knowing we can never live up to the image we have wanted to be or think we are. We live a lie, God appeals, and we’re called back, to our home.

Lent provides us the opportunity to examine our lives and where we still fall short in trying to be someone other than we are, believing the lies we create for ourselves. Ironically, we can’t even hide behind it today on this Ash Wednesday because we will leave here with ash on our heads, only hoping that it can seep through the image and persona we have created for ourselves for it is only through the cross that we are broken through, through the hypocrisy that we’ve created and takes us to the true home, the place of authenticity that we already desire. That mark on our heads not only reminds us of our lives but everyone that gazes upon that cross. We’re all the same in that sense.

There’s something freeing when we can allow ourselves to move to that place, when we finally get dissatisfied with the self we’ve created and think we have to be and allow ourselves to be our best self. That doesn’t mean that we ever get it together. That doesn’t mean that we know it all and life is somehow perfect. That doesn’t mean that somehow we mastered this life that we has been given to us. Rather, as Paul states, salvation comes upon us and our truest self is revealed through the cross, a loved and redeemed sinner. When we can live from that place our lives are more enriched and fulfilled because we no longer need to be something or someone else; we can’t anyway. Finally we can live from the place of a God that continues to appeal through. Lent invites us into that journey, that discovery, that place of conversion and we become who we have always been and always will be, loved and redeemed and yet sinner. What a place of freedom! No longer an image or persona but the real deal. Welcome to the journey. Welcome to Lent.

Encountering a Lamenting God

1Kings 17:10-16; Mark 12: 38-44

There are different ways we can approach this gospel this weekend. There is the obvious contrast between the poor widow and the scribes in the first half and the differences of faith. Of course the scribes are called out once again for their long robes, flashy style, and so often self-serving faith as opposed to the poor widow, whom Jesus describes as giving from her poverty, her whole livelihood. All of that is true and one approach to what’s going on.

The other is from the perspective of Jesus. Bear in mind, we missed a week last week because of All Saints so we skipped Mark’s gospel but he has now entered into Jerusalem so the whole mood is beginning to change as we quickly approach Christ the King in two weeks and wrap up Mark’s gospel for the year. In between his rant on the scribes and the image of the poor widow, Jesus is sandwiched, simply sitting opposite the treasury and observing how the crowds put money into the treasury. As we approach the end of Mark’s gospel, Jesus begins to take a more passive role than he had done before and begins to slow down. Not in the sense of how we understand passive, in terms of doing nothing or not necessarily caring, but rather as suffering with and for the world and for the reality in which he is experiencing, what becomes the norm. In some ways, another approach to the gospel and Jesus is one of lament for what he sees and turns it into a teaching moment for the disciples.

Think about it. He never scolds those putting in money, even if they are giving from their surplus, he’s simply observing it all happen. It’s something we all have a hard time doing because we’d rather react to the situation rather than step back, observe, and respond in a way that brings about grace. So here he is in the middle of it all watching what’s going on. He sees what we’d often see even in our own day, that corruption remains, abuse remains, people taking advantage remains. When humans are involved, there’s going to be suffering, especially if we aren’t observing it in our own life and responding to it in a different way, suffering with the world.

But along comes the poor widow. After all he has seen, she comes along and offers hope in the midst of what he sees going on around him. In the midst of the reality is this woman who shows faith in a different way, from the place of poverty, her own livelihood, where she can trust something deeper and yet bigger than her at work. It’s no longer a message to the larger crowds that are now gathering in Jerusalem, but rather calls his disciples aside to now begin the invitation to a deeper call. They have witnessed all that Jesus has done these past months that we’ve heard in Mark’s gospel. They have seen and witnessed to the healings and so many other things that Jesus has done. But now, as the moment begins to arrive, doing won’t be enough. That’s a good place to start for the disciples. But now, in this place of suffering with and for the world, they will be called to seek a change of mind and heart and to begin to embody the message of Jesus beyond actions.

We can say something similar in this first reading from Kings today where we encounter the other poor widow, that God is the observer, suffering with and for this woman and her son. From there, it seems rather absurd that Elijah would come and make such a demand to be fed and to be given drink. Here’s a woman who’s down to her last meal for her and her son and yet, she goes with it. There was something different about Elijah and this woman. In some sense, they respond from their own place of poverty, of the Spirit calling from within, that God will transform what can be a disastrous situation into a moment of grace for all of them.

Jesus does that with the disciples as well. Despite the fact that he observes all of this going on, Jesus takes what has become the norm and ordinary, what is to be expected, and turns it into a moment of grace for the disciples. As the now come quickly to the reality of the Cross, they are going to be led to their own place of poverty and grow in trust and a deeper faith that goes beyond action and now rather comes from that place of poverty, their own livelihood. As I have said many times, much of these readings aren’t usually about the ordinary and what can be seen, but it is taking the ordinary and the seen and transforming into the extraordinary, into moments of grace. Isn’t that what we experience each time we gather here, in ordinary bread and wine, in ordinary lives like our own?

As we approach these final weeks of the liturgical year, we move toward the Cross with Christ and in Christ, encountering a God who continues to suffer with and for us, lamenting, in what we have often called, the norm, seeking transformation and change. We pray we may step back and observe the evil in our own lives and which we participate, and pray for the abundant grace of the Lord to transform us into His extraordinary grace.