Remembering to Forget

Deut 8: 2-3, 14-16; I Cor 10: 16-17; John 6: 51-58

There’s a rather obscure movie out right now, or at least I think so, called Dean.  The basic crux of the story is about a young man and his father who just keep clashing with one another because of this nagging grief that they share for the loss of their mother and wife.  They both have very different ways of dealing with what life has given them and neither understands the other.  Long and short of it, without even knowing it, separate themselves from one another to deal with their loss before they can once again come to a deeper understanding of their own relationship with one another and remember the love they have and share.  Quite honestly, it would be true of all of us here.  These deepest parts of ourselves, love, loss, grief, hunger, desire, all of them run so deep within us and often need to be found in our own way before we begin to see the oneness we have with the other and a shared love.

These two weeks now we’ve heard different versions of the story of the exodus of people Israel.  Today’s account comes to us from Deuteronomy.  The very first word out of Moses’ mouth today is simply to remember.  For the people today it was about this deepest hunger in their lives that they continue to seek out and to fill.  Much of their time, as it is with us, is forgetting who we really are in life and in our deepest self and love.  Israel was no different.  And, of course, over time, you begin to believe that you’re something other than you are.  You no longer remember.  For them it has been about their experience in the desert and the experience of slavery in Egypt.  They’ve thought God had abandoned them and somehow rejected them over time, punishing them for some reason.  But Moses simply reminds them today to remember.  It’s almost as if, as Moses points out, that they had to have this experience of the desert and to come into awareness of this deeper hunger in their lives before they can begin to remember once again.  So much, not only in their lives, must be forgotten and let go of before they can begin to question and remember and once again come together as community, more deeply rooted in their truest begin, in love.

Some who followed Jesus in those early days had similar experiences.  Shortly following today’s reading many will begin to disperse and fall away from Jesus.  They hear what he says, often taking it literally, and realize they just can’t do it.  Even in their own experience of separation from doesn’t necessarily lead them to the deeper places of their own lives.  They want to believe, as we often do, what we see and exactly what we hear in words.  But that’s not the Jesus we encounter in today’s Gospel or who we encounter in this Eucharist week in and week out.  In his own way, John through Jesus and Christ through him is trying to move them to a place of remember their deeper identity as well.  As if, what speaks to us in this Eucharist can only somehow communicate with the deepest parts of ourselves.  It’s hard because we want to stay on the surface and go with what we feel, but this remembering takes us deeper than all of that.

Paul consistently tries to lead communities to that deeper place of understanding in their own lives.  They find other ways to separate themselves but in ways that often lead to divisions within their communities.  Even today, the larger context is to warn them about having more than one God.  That too is easy for us in our own process of forgetting not what we need to let go of, but forgetting that deeper love that we are.  We begin to satisfy those deepest longings and hungers within ourselves with something other than God, creating gods for ourselves, often fooling ourselves into believing that it will somehow satisfy, forgetting what is most important to us.

Over time all of this that we celebrate begins to be forgotten on the deeper levels.  We become more about worshipping, distancing ourselves not only from the drama of our lives but the drama that unfolds before us here.  We, over time, find ways to separate ourselves while this God, as it was for Israel, continues to offer manna, food that will satisfy, even in our desert experiences.  Yeah, in some ways I stand before you in a privileged position.  I stand at this altar celebrating the highs and lows of life, even my own.  I know the stories that flow through this table and Eucharist.  I have seen it unfold, trying to lead others in their deepest grief, their unsatisfied longings, and all the rest, to a place of remembering.  No matter what we may be experiencing in our own life, this Eucharist we celebrate and share it stands as a reminder of who we are and the life we are called to, a life of not simply worshipping this God, but allowing ourselves to be transformed by this God.  As we move to this Eucharistic celebration, remember.  Remember not only what you are but who you are in your deepest self, love.  In the midst of our own forgetting in life, the Eucharist calls us back to continue to be transformed into this love for an often divided and separated world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Life’s Narrow Gate

John 10: 1-10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resurrection Is

John 20: 1-16

If you were in this church either Thursday or Friday you know that it looks much different this morning than it did then, when we began the Easter celebration. One of the things that struck me here, more than any other place I’ve been, in those days, was the empty tabernacle because it’s unlike any other I’ve seen. We’re kind of used to the golden tabernacle that when it’s opened you can see pretty much all that’s there. But on Thursday night as I sat in the front pew, spending a little time reflecting, I was mesmerized by this one because it’s dark inside and from where I was sitting almost seemed endless. It was like looking into the night sky and if I were to put my hand in there it would just go on forever.

As I was preparing for these days and trying to read and listen to as much as I could about John, looking for new ways to preach these gospels, some of his images in the story of Mary Magdala, in its fullness, began to surface when I saw that empty tabernacle. For John, the Resurrection narratives, the first of which is Mary Magdala who goes onto witness the resurrected Christ by herself, become the fullness of the promise at the beginning of the gospel, the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. It culminates at this narrative in particular, but not limited to Jesus nor Mary Magdala, nor ourselves for that matter.

The first image John will go on to use is that of the garden. This all takes place in the garden. Mary will mistake Jesus as the gardner and gardens appear several times in John’s gospel, just as it does in the front of our altar today, and with good reason for John. Even the garden in the passion is different than in the other gospels, but now, even creation partakes in the resurrection narrative. What John tries to create in this image and symbol is a restored Garden of Eden. That this eternal Christ, now resurrected, restores all of God’s creation to it’s fullness and wholeness. For John, creation too has something to teach us and even goes through it’s own gradual conversion from the changing of seasons, if we can allow ourselves to listen to it and reverence it in the way John displays in this resurrection narrative.

But there’s still that empty tomb, and even for us the few previous days, the empty tabernacle. If you know anything about Israel’s history, you got to know that the Temple was destroyed and rebuilt probably more times that we can count. In that temple, beyond the garden, was the holy of holies, which it’s sacredness was only seen by particular people. There was something beyond the veil that was to be seen by those with sight. Think about what many see when they visit a grave like Mary, Peter, and the other disciple do. We often see death, we see end, we are often caught up in our grief, shame, loneliness, like that endless interior of that tabernacle on the days leading up to today, but today is something different, at least for Mary. For Peter and the other disciple, who are so caught up in their grief and shame, mourning the loss of Jesus, they flee the scene and return to the locked upper room out of fear. But Mary will stay behind and through her tears begins to see something very different and things begin to change very quickly for her as the scene progresses.

Now don’t be foolish into thinking that somehow this event takes away the suffering of the world. We all know it doesn’t. But that also isn’t John’s point and why he is the Easter gospel. For John, it’s all about the process of conversion and moving to a life of joy. For John that path was in stark contrast with the Pharisees and Sadducees as we heard during Lent. For them, they had reduced God to an intellectual construct, just as we often have for centuries as well. Think about our own experience of God and faith. We want scientific proof, we want facts, we want it all proven for us. But that’s the thing, as Mary teaches us here, I can’t and I know nothing I say could change someone’s mind. How Mary stands in contrast has nothing to do with intellect. For Mary, she shows us the way to a lived experience of the Christ must come through the heart. She will weep and then she will hear her name said by the Risen Christ, Mary. From that moment on her life is changed forever. She doesn’t need the other disciples to tell of what they have known or anyone else for that matter, for Mary her heart was moved to tears and her eyes were opened, no longer an endless abyss in the tomb, but a resurrected Christ and an invitation to a new life for Mary. Even the fact that it comes not just with tears but in the hearing of her name is a lesson John tries to teach. Think about how he speaks to his mother at the beginning of the gospel where he calls her woman. It’s not being nasty to her. Rather, she too is invited into the same process. When Lazarus hears his name, he comes out. When Mary Magdala hears her name, she comes out and is changed forever.

For John, as we heard in the weeks of Lent and will now hear for the next fifty days, our lives are about the invitation to conversion, to a change of heart so that we too have an experience of the promise that he gives of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. Like many of the characters in his stories, we know it happens over time and gradually. It’s sometimes much easier to live with the grief, guilt, shame, and absence that we experience in our lives than to allow ourselves to be opened to something new and a lived experience of the eternal Christ, who has been, is, and always will be. Just as the garden, the tomb, Mary, and others are transformed, so can we. It’s the Easter promise. Just as I said on Good Friday that we must look at that day through the lens of Easter, today is no different. Resurrection is and we must look at Easter through the lens of Easter otherwise it loses its power.

We pray for that conversion in our own lives and to notice the moments when Christ is inviting us into the lived experience of our faith. Just as it was for Mary, it’s change our lives forever. A lived experience of the Christ, who was, and is, and always will be, changes us in ways like none other. If this Christ can do what has been done in and through others, just imagine what this same Christ is trying to do to us at this very moment. We, all too often, have pushed the whole experience of resurrection to some life after this one, but what John reminds us is that Resurrection is. And at this very moment, God calls our names and is preparing our hearts to be changed once again and forever.

The Beginning and the End

The Passion According to John

It’s a rather unusual day. Yes it is Good Friday but maybe somewhat providential, if you follow the Church calendar March 25th is actually the day that we normally celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation. It rarely happens that the two coincide and won’t happen again for decades, but here we are today. Of course, that feast gets pushed back until after Easter but there are striking similarities as we mark Good Friday. It’s the day that the beginning and the end, the first and the last, the alpha and the omega, converge into this one event. But there is more. The one that remains consistent through the story is Mary. The angel Gabriel appears and announces the news of the Christ, tells her not to fear, behold the handmaid of the Lord, may it be done to me according to your word. All of that, along with the basic human reactions with fear, that of doubt and questioning what this message is all about.

Then there’s today, Good Friday, and we meet Mary at the foot of the cross. What the heck was that message from Gabriel all about? Is this really what God had planned for His Son? Probably much of what Mary had experienced at the beginning she now encounters at the end, questioning God’s plan and wondering what all of this can mean. It’s easy to say that she knew. She was with him through it all and the disciples were there to follow and heard the stories and the predictions. But, in our deepest grief and loss, none of that seems to matter. All we know is pain and rejection in that moment.

But then there’s also Jesus. How the heck did he get to this point? He too questions from the Garden to the Cross what all of this means and whether it’s necessary in this way. We all know that he didn’t do anything wrong. Even Pilate claims him not to be a criminal. Yet, there he hangs, before his mother, watching in disbelief of the horrific way he is to die. But he seems to have backed everyone into a corner. No one wants to take responsibility. No one wants blood on their hands because they know there’d be an all out revolt among the people. John tells us that Jesus simply is here to testify to the truth. And yet, for those in authority in these institutions, Pilate and the political authority and the Chief Priests and Pharisees want to bear no responsibility for what is to unfold. He becomes a victim of their own game and they manage to turn the people against him. Death is looming. Grief is stricken. The end is beginning for this man, Jesus.

There are many theories as to why this all happens in this way. We’ve heard them all and have come to believe many of them. Sure, there is dying for our sins and setting us free from sin and death. That is all true and part of the truth. But like Pilate and the Pharisees, we also like to end it there, bearing no responsibility for following him all the way, only to find ourselves falling short when we get to the cross. For Mary and the disciples, the message that has been consistent all along has been to follow him. That’s it! And yet, when we become overwhelmed by the darkness of our lives, our inclination is to be like the disciples at this point. We fall back to what we know and we seek to please, going along with the crowd yelling, crucify him! All seems lost. Darkness hangs in the balance now. Mary, may it be done to me, now stands by idly, watching her son die. It can’t be easy. His pain is her pain and her pain is his. Every parent knows what that is like as you watch your sons and daughters suffer in different ways. Is it any wonder we turn away and try, and that’s all we can do, is try to return to a normal life. But normal life is no longer.

It is the beginning and the end. Despite the pain and hardship, Mary and Jesus remain faithful to that command of turning it over to the Father. May it be done to me. And maybe that’s the point. None of us would ever choose to do it ourselves, but rather, only by the grace of God I shall go, not coming up short, but all the way to the cross. It’s so hard to see beyond that threshold that it creates for us. We become victims of our own hurt and suffering that when we’re in that moment, we lose sight of the light and the life that is promised us. Then more than ever is faith necessary and to reconnect to our larger story, the story of the Passover, the story of the great Paschal Mystery. As generations pass it’s easy to disconnect from the lived reality, yet, it is the only way to persevere as we stand at the foot of the cross with Mary, reminded, in faith, of the life to come.

There is something different about this day. It is the beginning and the end, as well as the beginning of the end as we face yet another threshold before us. We imagine ourselves at the foot of the cross with Mary, silently uttering her prayer and the prayer of Jesus, may it be done to me according to your will, not my will but your will be done. In a world plagued by injustice and abuse of power, it truly is only the truth that will set us free, even in the face of such suffering. God suffers with us this day and weaps with us as we continue to try to back God into a corner to do something, anything, so that like Pilate and the Chief Priests, we can stand idly by watching the suffering of our world, not wanting blood on our hands. Yet, we already do when love and mercy escapes us. It is the challenge of Good Friday and an even greater challenge when the beginning and the end converge on this day. All we can do is stand with Mary and pray with Mary that God’s will be done and that my life too may testify to this truth, that, in the end, love and mercy will always endure.

Measuring Success in Transition

As I begin the next ministerial transition in my life, defining success often seems to be the topic of conversation, not only within myself, but I heard a great deal of it over the past few days. There are obvious questions that are asked, “So since you did so well here that means you’re going to a larger parish now?” or even “What did you do wrong that their sending you to the city?” or one of my favorites, “We just got you broken in.” I’m still not exactly sure what that means but I’ve heard it quite frequently. I had to bite my tongue many times in conversations to give people their due and allow them to feel the way they feel. I so often wanted to say, “If it was all about breaking me in then somehow I have failed; both needs to change.” But I didn’t. Again, as much as I wanted to, I knew I needed to give people the opportunity to express themselves in whatever way they chose.

Here’s my take, in many ways I can measure “success” by how I’ve changed in the past years at this assignment. Maybe better questions to ask are, “Have I learned to trust myself, others, and God a little bit more?” or “Have I learned to trust my heart a little more than my head over these years?” another, “Have I learned that there’s a lot more that I don’t know than I do?” still more, “Have I learned to let go of things and not take them so personally?” or “Have I gotten to know myself in a deeper way and accepted, warts and all?” and maybe most importantly, “Have I mirrored it to others?”

Needless to say, I will be spending some time with those questions, but if I even can say yes in the most minimal way, then there has been success. I am a firm believer that, as a leader and even more so, a man, that where I am internally will be reflected in my external environment. I dare say that often what is missing in leadership are people that have an internal structure that acts as guide in creating healthy external structures. It goes back to, “You can’t give what you don’t have.”

As I tried to explain where it was that I was transitioning, I often got blank stares. Some didn’t understand. If you were so successful here, why there? I had expected that some would respond in that way. However, for some time now there has been something deep within me that has been stirring, and when I finally made the decision to pay attention to it, reverence it, and acknowledge that it was real, I grew to trust that this was more about God than it was about me. I don’t even know why, but as I said, sometimes it’s learning to accept that I don’t know it all, even if I think I do at times, and trust God’s lead in taking a leap of faith.

I have been quite successful, in many different ways in each of the assignments that I have accepted. There has been a lot to show for it, just in relationship alone. There are structures that have been put in place, vision set, decisions, both difficult and anxiety-filled, that have been made, and I can sit back and say, well done. And that’s all good. And that’s even great, if I must say so myself! But in the end, ah, ok, but is that what’s most important? For me it’s about changing hearts, even my own at times, it’s about growing up, it’s about growing deeper in love with self, others, and especially Mystery, and learning to integrate it all into a healthy me that helps me to lead and create in a healthy way. At the end of the day, at the end of an assignment and transitioning to the next, knowing and accepting things aren’t perfect but I’ve done my best is sufficient, knowing that it’s time to pass the mantle to the next and allow him to take it to the next level; it’s about trust, trust, trust and learning to surrender control.

Transitions are hard for all of us because it means change, grieving, letting go, and once again facing the unknown. But as I mentioned to pastoral council, in the words of Dr. Seuss himself, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” I am so thankful that those words crossed my path these days because it becomes a mantra for me. Sure there is room for tears, but I can smile because I had the opportunity and even a little success, both seen and unseen!

The End is Upon Us

Malachi 3: 19-20; Luke 21: 5-19

Blazing ovens, earthquakes, famines, war, all of this sounds perfect for those that live with that nagging fear that the end of the world is upon us at this moment, as if it’s all going to come crashing down around us.  Despite the fact that all of these occurrences have happened since the beginning of time and by the time Luke writes this gospel they have already happened.  Yet, we all know that life can change in an instant.  Just ask the people of the Philippines how quickly life can change where it becomes about the basic necessities.  Even in our own lives, the phone rings and death has occurred unexpectedly, cancer, divorce, loss of job, you name it and it happens and when it does it feels like the end of the world.  That’s the thing, it is and this moment will never happen again; but when these events happen in our lives, unfortunately, we often get stuck there and everything about our lives then becomes seen through that lens of hurt and the past dictates how we live, or for that matter, survive in this life.  So often many of these external realties and how we see them are a direct reflection of our interior, spiritual life and are an invitation to go through them.

The message Luke and Malachi were not meant to scare anyone.  As a matter of fact, we so long have viewed them from that lens of dire situation, but for Luke, it was intended to be a message of hope.  At this point in the story the cross is looming large.  It is now in sight and nothing can ever prepare the disciples for what is to come.  It will not only be the living reality in the world, but it is what they will experience at the cross.  When we face such suffering in our lives, where there are no answers and all that we have known has been stripped from us, does it not feel like an earthquake within?  Don’t we too face such famine in our interior lives when we question where God has been and how things can happen?  Doesn’t it feel at times like we are at war with ourselves, an ongoing battle within?  It is even what Jesus faces as he approaches the cross and it is what the disciples will face and will cause them to flee for the pain is too much to bear in their lives.

These readings are really not meant to scare or frighten us in anyway, but rather are an invitation to become aware of the hurt we hold onto from our past.  Am I living in the past, burdened by my own pain and suffering?  It’s easy to become stuck in those places because we don’t want to feel the earthquake or famine, but in reality, often create a living hell for ourselves by not entering into those experiences.  We can do it as individuals but also as a community.  This community has had its share of pain and hardship in the past and our natural inclination is to remain, become stuck, hold onto the past, living an eternal Good Friday rather than going through the pain into new life.  Most importantly in this gospel is the last line, that when we persevere life will be secured.  So often in our lives it seems like the end times and we face real suffering on a regular basis.  When we persevere, though, what seems like an end and finality is really the doorway to new life, to something new in our lives.  These readings aren’t just about the end times, although they have that feel to them, they are about the time ending right now.  When we can grieve our past and our hurts they no longer dictate our lives and where we go; we no longer live in fear of facing the unknown.  When we can feel our way through the earthquakes, famines, and wars within, not avoid them or try to dodge them, but go through them, not only will our interior life and lens by which we look at life change, but all of a sudden, with perseverance, the world around us looks, not about survival, but alive as well.