Shema Yisra’el

Deut 6: 2-6; Mark 12: 28-34

Even if we tried we couldn’t have chosen better readings than these, summing up the Jewish faith as the Tree of Life Synagogue continues to bury their dead and deal with the tragedy of last weekend.  For our Jewish brothers and sisters and for ourselves, it all comes down to the shema, the great commandment that Moses passes along to Israel today.  It’s a prayer recited three times a day, a consistent reminder to a people throughout the centuries, that, when faced with so many false gods and idols, even to our own day, there is but one God that sees us through this life.  Yet, like many of our own prayers, they tend to be words.  They can come easily off our lips and not have much meaning or while we continue to cling to our own gods that provide us comfort and safety.  It helps to know their meaning and why they stand as so important to people of faith, especially in the face of such tragedy.

Today we hear that context from the Book of Deuteronomy, in our first reading.  It’s Moses that passes the prayer along to his fellow Israelites.  If you can imagine yourself on the cusp of something new, that’s exactly where Israel finds itself in this reading.  After forty years of wandering in the desert they have finally arrived at the threshold of the Promised Land.  They can finally see it with the naked eye, lying just before them, and now there is this pause before passing through.  Of course, like us there is a sense of excitement and anticipation as they prepare to take that last step, but there’s also fear and resistance in facing the unknown, of what lies ahead for them after years of slavery and then wandering in the desert, Moses assures them that before the pass over, they can finally let go of all the other false gods and idols that they’ve had to confront about themselves in these forty years and finally enter into relationship with this one God that has seen them to this point.

It’s bittersweet, though, because as Moses passes on this message, Israel will now be left with a choice.  A choice that can no longer be made by him.  It’s now going to have to be their doing and from their own heart as to whether they trust this God so much that they’re willing to step into the unknown, into the life that has been promised for ages to come.  For Moses, though, it marks the end of the journey.  He never has the opportunity to walk into the Promised Land with them.  He’s taken them as far as he could and will die before they arrive.  It’s as if Moses himself becomes the final stumbling stone for Israel.  He had become their crutch in difficult times.  He’s led them through this, often with trepidation and his own sense of insecurity.  He’s gotten angry at God and at his people.  Despite not crossing over, Moses has already experienced the Promised Land.  He doesn’t need to go to this physical place because he’s already at home in himself and with God, within his very being.  It’s why the words mean so much coming from Moses at this time.  He’s done the journey with them and now they must cross over at their own doing, by affirming their own trust in this God.

Then there’s Jesus, who of course takes it to a new level.  He intertwines the two commandments, and as we’ve heard him say before, he’s well aware of how easy it is for everyone to recite this prayer and not really mean it.  Jesus, the one who manifests the shema now points the way that the same it true for us.  To come to an understanding, as his student does today, we have to make it our own and it is manifested by the way we live our lives, with a sense of integrity, that the prayer isn’t just something we say but rather prove by the way we love our neighbor.  The twist, though, is that we don’t get to choose who our neighbor is.  That doesn’t mean that Israel doesn’t try.  It’s what often causes tension between Jesus and the religious and political leaders of his time.  They want to decide who’s worthy of that love, a conditional love at best.  They want nothing to do with the Samaritans.  They want nothing to do with the Gentiles.  Of course, even when Israel finally passes into the Promised Land, even their immediate response is revenge and vengeance against their enemies.  It will lead them, time and again, into exile because of their own failure to embrace the fullness of love of God and neighbor.  Their false gods that Moses had told them they can finally let go of, find ways of creeping back in, wanting security, safety, fear, territory, and all the rest to rule the day and the prayer becomes words once again.  It’s not to say we don’t experience that tension between what God desires and demands of us through the gospels and our own frail humanity.  That’s a part of our human condition.  It’s when we abandon it and create gods for ourselves when the prayer becomes hallow and shallow, as we so often see in our own time and day.  As much as they desire the freedom that comes with loving in such an unconditional way, they’d prefer their own way and their own gods.

We can say the same of our own society and country.  We love to say how much we love God and how central God is to our lives and what we do.  But does it really?  Aren’t we just simply offering lip service as well?  We cling to false gods and idols in our day and age, reminding us that we find ourselves wandering through the desert as Israel had for forty years.  We want to decide it all rather than learning to trust the God of the unknown, of mystery, of the promise for all ages, the God who strips us of all of our own gods and teaches us what it truly means to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, strength, and all the other ways we translate it, ultimately with our entire being.  Moses points the way.  Jesus points the way and is the way.  Yet, we still want to decide who’s worthy of our love.  We can’t say we’re anti-black, anti-brown, anti-gay, anti-Muslim, anti-Jew, and all the rest, and still have the audacity to utter such words as the shema, of loving God with all our heart, soul, being.  That’s not the God of mystery and promise.  It’s our own god we’ve created for ourselves.  They’re words, and hallow words at best, at that point.  If we love any God, we love our own gods, as Israel did in those forty years, the gods of fear, safety, security, of what was known, of vengeance, and all the others they were forced to confront in those days in order to learn to love in the way God loves, unconditionally.

Like Israel, we’re given a choice as we stand at the cusp.  Our faith reminds us that we’re always on the cusp, the threshold of something new by this God of mystery and unknown.  Israel is given the choice to take that leap of faith, as we are this day and at this time, the leap of faith into the unknown.  Sure, with a sense of anticipation and excitement, but also with fear and trepidation grounding us in our humanity.  Are we going to take that leap of faith or do we run back, as Israel so often did, clinging to our gods and idols of fear, hate, resentment, certainty, safety, security, and all the rest.  All of those gods require so much energy on our part and only lead to a greater gap between each other and with God, trapped wandering in the desert, and without the freedom of love we desire.  The shema, and our own prayer, must be more than words.  Like Moses, it must become a very part of our being, a central part of who we are so that they are no longer simply words, but the very way we live our lives.  Words matter, especially when they’re prayer and a declaration of the one God over all other gods.  We stand at the cusp and are given a choice to love God with all our heart, soul, being, and only then our neighbor, all people, unconditionally, as ourselves.

Love’s Downward Motion

Exodus 12: 1-8, 11-14; John 13: 1-15

This evening marks the beginning of this three day retreat as it was meant to be, when the great feast and the hour that Jesus had anticipated had finally come together.  If you were at the Seder Meal you know it’s true of our Jewish brothers and sisters as well as they prepare for their great feast beginning at sundown tomorrow.  They don’t gather simply to remember with a sense of nostalgia of days gone by, the good old days or anything like that.  Rather, there’s a retelling of the story to make it our own, in this very moment, when once again the great feast and the hour join in the person of the incarnate Love.  We open with this first Easter prayer with the washing of the disciples’ feet as we hear in John’s Gospel.

Jesus seems to move now with great intention towards his own moment just as Israel does in this moment of Passover.  They are to eat with great urgency and intention as they enter into this exodus experience.  As the reading tells us today they find themselves in Egypt without any ability whatsoever to love Pharaoh for what has been inflicted upon this community.  It’s hard to love someone who has brought about so much pain in their lives, living lives of oppression, and the only true desire is freedom, the Promised Land.  The feast and the hour has come for Israel.  Yet, they don’t even quite know what it is that they seek freedom from or for.  No sooner they find themselves freed from the hand of Egypt they want to go back.  They had become comfortable in their own darkness, pain, and hate towards this way of life.  To love seems nearly impossible.

Yet, thousands of years later the Son comes down from heaven and takes on human flesh for that very reason and tonight, for John, it’s where it all begins to align.  Notice with this gathering, unique to John, all are present.  Not only the one who denies Jesus in that hour but the one who denies.  In this very moment Judas becomes the archetypal character in John’s Gospel.  It even seems to be anticipated by Jesus in this moment.  As the pressure seems to mount, Judas falls for the ways of the world and succumbs to the hostility that seems to have been gathering around Jesus leading to the alignment of the great feast and the anticipated hour.

This is precisely the moment John waits for and anticipates.  Not only does God come down from heaven and take on flesh, become human, but now this same God sets in motion this downward trend to his knees to wash the disciples’ feet before taking the paramount downward trend to the depths of the earth when he faces his own impending death.  Yet, no one is excluded.  This love doesn’t seem to have the boundaries that would have been anticipated or expected of God.  Rather, Jesus gathers at table with not only the one who denies but the one who betrays.  Judas stands as the character who represents the hostility and violence of the world, all that is hated, manipulated, coldness, and hatred, and it’s precisely his feet that are washed.  For John, the great gift of God taking on flesh is precisely that, to love in such a way that this love is even extended to the world who has turned on him.  In an act that appears to them to be quite humiliating, in the washing of their feet, stands as an act of humility that gets down in order to transcend the hatred of the world.  That’s the first Easter prayer that we remember, connect with, and are challenged by in this retreat gathering.  It is this great act of love that is to be modeled in service to even the one who has shown hate and hurt.

And so I ask, who is it that you can’t bring yourself to love?  Who?  Is it a loved one who has hurt you and you still have not been able to forgive?  Get down and wash their feet.  Is it someone who has wronged you in life?  Get down and wash their feet?  Is it me or the Church?  Get down and wash their feet.  Is it the President of this country?  Wash his feet.  Is it the teenagers who seem to be challenging the status quo?  Wash their feet.  Is it someone who has betrayed you in this life?  Wash their feet.  John does not necessarily write to a specific community as the other gospel writers but instead writes in a way that challenges a community to become someone else, to become love incarnate and to love in the way that Christ had shown to his disciples.  When we hold onto hatred, anger, resentment, hurt, and certainly our pride, we remain trapped in Egypt under the hand of Pharaoh.  Like Israel, and certainly the community that John anticipated, they often weren’t even aware of what it was they needed to be freed from nor certainly for the purpose in which they had been created as community.

As we enter into this communal celebration of our Easter prayer, the prayer is simply for the desire to love as Jesus loves.  To call to mind all who have hurt us and all who continue to seem to have control over our lives.  In those moments, all the Peter’s and Judas’s of our lives are called to mind, and like Jesus, we stoop down to the depths of our own being, in what can feel like great humiliation, and ask for the grace of humility to be set free in order to love.  Who is it I still am not willing to love in such a way?  Tonight the feast and the hour have arrived and finally arrive for anticipated change in our own lives.  Who is it?  Wash their feet.

Our Inadequate Love

Exodus 22: 20-26; I Thess 1: 5-10; Matthew 22: 34-40

One of the new television programs on this Fall is Kevin (Probably) Saves the World.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s about this guy, Kevin, who experiences a meteor hitting the earth and something happens to him where a celestial being, an angel, comes to tell him that he is commissioned to help in saving the world.  Now the town already thinks he’s a little crazy and has a shady history and so sees himself as inadequate for such a task.  As you would expect it’s often not the people that he knows that he’s being called to “save” but rather the people that fall into his lap, the ones he doesn’t like, the ones he thinks are mean, the ones that have isolated themselves for one reason or another and have somehow been shunned.  Needless to say, we can understand his plight and the challenge he faces, knowing that he can’t not accept even if he tries.  He’s going to be called to love in a way that he never thought possible.

It’s easy to forget all of that and Israel’s history is proof of that.  They too have been given the task to love in a deeper way after their experience in Egypt.  In the first reading today we hear from the Book of Exodus a list of social norms that were expected of Israel.  Very first that we hear today not to oppress the alien for they too were once in a foreign land.  They knew what it was like to have the shoe on the other foot, facing fear and oppression.  They knew what it was like to feel helpless and inadequate and they needed to be aware that they didn’t become the oppressor but rather see it as an opportunity to cooperate with God’s plan in “saving” the world.  Many outsiders and people shunned will fall into their presence and they will be challenged over and over again as to how they will love, that as we hear in today’s gospel, it’s not simply about loving God but also neighbor, especially the neighbor we don’t choose.

Paul, too, will go onto to challenge the Thessalonians through the faithfulness of their God.  He will go onto say to them in the next verses that their God is a God who is like a father who has great care for his children, always, no matter life’s circumstances.  They too will be challenged to look at the way they are treating and accepting the downtrodden, the poor, the people that have been shunned, and like Israel, they’ll be challenged to live a life “worthy” of the love that has been freely given to them.  It’s so easy to become about insiders and outsiders and about worshipping a God who’s somewhere out there, beyond the Earth, but that’s not the God that Paul speaks of and encounters.  If they truly want to show love to God they must first learn to love their neighbor.  Not live in fear, not cast people out, or somehow feel inadequate or unworthy of God’s love.  It’s the challenge more than ever in our own world and society.  There’s a lot of talk about God but our love of neighbor often lacks.  We become comfortable in our own lives and our own worlds, unable to go to that place of inadequacy or uncomfortableness that keeps us from falling more deeply in love with God and neighbor.

That makes the Gospel today central to who we are.  Of course, like the past weeks, it happens in the thick of tension between Jesus and the Pharisees and Sadducees.  They’re waiting to trip him up on his words.  Now the question asked was a pretty common question, but they’re asking for a motive that isn’t certainly rooted in love but rather fear.  The other gospels typically have it occur in more pleasant situations but Matthew throws it in as Jesus approaches the Cross.  They ask for the greatest commandment but he couldn’t settle on just one and gives two.  For Jesus the two are so intertwined that they can’t be separated.  Knowing the audience, we know the Pharisees and Sadducees were good at talking a good game but not necessarily living it.  They can do all the God talk they wanted but they lived in fear, especially of those who they had been expected to watch out for.  Like Israel, they have forgotten the love that had and has been given to them by this faithful God.  Of course, like Kevin, they weren’t always in a place to accept that love and so the law become something to cling to.  They could live with loving God but neighbor challenged them to step out of their own comfort zone and to grow into that love more deeply.

Like Kevin, as well as Israel and so many others, we often forget over time the challenge to living from that deeper place in ourselves.  Over and over again he’s told he’s got to go within and seek a change of heart.  More often than not he gets in the way, but when he could finally get out of the way, he learns to love the people he’d least expect to love.  So often our fear, our own lack of awareness and feeling of inadequacy separate us from the other and then so with God.  We hold ourselves back from experiencing and accepting that deeper love that God desires of us so we can then go out and love in a new way.  The world needs no more hate and fear.  It needs no more separation.  We have plenty of that and quite frankly, we’re often comfortable with that.  When we do, though, then we must be careful about how quickly and easily we claim our love of God.  It’s easy to say it in words but a whole other challenge in our neighbor, especially the neighbor we haven’t chosen ourselves but has been given to us as gift in order to grow more deeply in love and to allow ourselves, like Kevin, to be used by God to “save” a fallen world.

 

Nature’s Groaning Call

Isaiah 5: 1-7; Philippians 4: 6-9; Matthew 21: 33-43

Finally, some rain.  When I was out walking this week it felt more like walking through a desert it’s been so warm and extremely dry.  You know, more than anything, nature is used in the bible to often mirror to people what’s going on with us.  There’s been such a violent streak in weather the past month or so but also with us.  It’s as if nature is groaning within, letting us know we have a problem.  Now when I say it has something to mirror to us I don’t mean it in a televangelist kind of way, like Pat Robertson who again went off these weeks not only about weather but about the killings in Las Vegas.  It’s a distorted image of God to think that God somehow wants to smite us, which should make us question whether it’s God at all.  We do enough smiting ourselves. 

So if there’s anything that the tenants of the vineyard do wrong it’s that they cut themselves off, distance themselves from the land.  They begin to think that it’s theirs and they are somehow entitled to it, have the right to it, know better than the landowner, possess and control it.  They no longer need the landowner they can do it quite fine themselves, so they think.  They no longer even recognize the landowner in the slaves that are sent or for that matter, the son, who come in the landowner’s image and likeness.  They don’t see it necessary for themselves so they certainly won’t in the others.  Cutting themselves off from the land not only distances themselves in that way, they separate themselves from the landowner themselves.  It’s about them.  It’s about what they want.  And once the son is sent they believe the landowner is out of the picture all together and they finally have the power they want to possess.

Now they’d all be familiar with the story Jesus tells because it’s pretty much given word for word from the reading from Isaiah today.  Everything is going great for Israel, so they think, until it’s not.  They too separate themselves from the land, each other, and their God, the Creator, but they aren’t aware of it until it’s time for harvesting only to find wild grapes.  It would be no surprise to the audience Jesus has today that the story wasn’t going to turn out in their favor.  If you sow wild grapes, take advantage of the land and try to possess it, no longer seeing it as a gift, then expect wild grapes, expect violence, expect separation and war.  We reap what we sow and if we sow violence and hate, then like the Pharisees and elders of the people voice in today’s gospel, it will lead to a wretched death.  They abandon each other, the land, and well, quite honestly, if we go that far then most likely we’ll abandon the Creator, the landowner as well.  It’s inevitable.

Paul too finds himself separated from the community but not by choice.  He’s imprisoned but not even the walls of prison are going to cut him off from his source of life.  Paul speaks of a very different way of life, one rooted in peace and free of anxiety, a life free of violence.  Despite his own difficulties at this point, Paul continues to return to the source of life, the landowner per se, who allows him to persevere and model a different way of life.  For Paul, it’s all about gift.  It’s not about possessing or owning, nor about rights and entitlement.  For Paul all is gift and it shines through in this very poetic verse we hear today from him.  He sees not only his own life but the life of others, the land, and all he has been given as gift and he a mere steward.  It’s a life that doesn’t forget that he’s connected to someone bigger than himself and he keeps returning to be nourished by the Creator but even as he sees the violence that has ensued against him and humanity in his own time and from his own hands.

Nature has a great deal to teach us and for three weeks now we have found ourselves wandering through the vineyard with Jesus, often with some harsh words.  If we fail as tenants to the land and each other, forgetting our truest identity, it will all be taken away and it will feel like a horrific death and letting go, even feeling violent at times.  Violence just seems to be a part of who we are and what we’re capable of in this life.  We’ve seen that violent streak in nature, reminding us of hearts that hurt and that have become arid.  We’ve allowed ourselves to be separated not only from this Earth but from each other, often feeling no need for the landowner anymore.  We can do it ourselves, thank you.  But we also see what happens when we do.  Now more than ever we need the landowner and to remain closely to the Creator to soften our hurting hearts so that they no longer resort to violence, but rather to be filled with the heart of the Creator, one of love, peace, compassion, and reconciliation for all of God’s creation.

 

Necessary Tears

“Jesus wept.”  John 11:35

Jesus wept.  It’s dubbed as the shortest verse in all of Scripture and despite its size has a way of packing a wallop to the crowds that are gathered at that moment.  It comes as the story builds around the death of Lazarus, his friend, and the questioning of the crowds as to whether Jesus is who he says he is now that he has finally met his match in death.  Sure he could heal the blind man but death has a hold that stands as much greater than blindness or so it would seem.  In that gatherings of jeers, anger, and spite, Jesus weeps.  He weeps.

Of course, though, that is what is seen with the eyes, tears falling down his face.  But tears are never just tears.  Frequently they come from a much deeper place within, a place of our own pain and loneliness.  Once again, he is misunderstood by the crowds and followers.  Once again, he is doubted.  Once again, he sees the lack of faith.  Once again, they can’t seem to get past their own judgment of what they have seen with their own eyes and move to greater depths within themselves.  When we do, we weep with Jesus for many of the same reasons.

More than once this past week I have been told to be angry.  At times, screamed at by people telling me to be outraged.  I’ve had it told to me on Facebook.  I’ve had it told to me through the news.  Heck, I’ve pretty much had it shown to me by the President and other political figures, be angry, and be angry for a reason.  After some time I began to think maybe I should be angry.  Maybe I should start screaming like so many on television are these days, at one another and with one another, with no path to understanding or even an inkling of listening to each other.  Yet, all I feel is sadness and tears, like weeping.  For everyone.

To this day I am most struck by the image of the young men in Charlottesville on Friday evening who had surrounded a gathering of ministers, practically holding them hostage, carrying flames with the looks of rage on their faces.  In symbolic fashion, holding hostage their own hearts from being moved and changed.  The last thing this situation needed was more anger, I thought.  I began to wonder how men of such a young age could be harboring such strong feelings of anger and fear in their lives, knowing full well that that is what I was witnessing with my eyes.  Deep down, though, anger and fear are merely masks, symptoms, of a much deeper hurt and wound that is often not visible with our eyes, including the hurt in my own life that I’m being invited into to seeking healing and reconciliation.  If I’m not careful and aware, it’s quite easy to react to it when it arises and lash out at the closest target, often the one who has embodied that deeper hurt of mine and where I continue to hold onto it in which I don’t want to look or see within myself.  It’s the human dilemma that we all need to face and confront at different points in our lives, individually and collectively.

As the week wore on, I listened to all the noise less and less and found myself wrestling with this reality in which we find ourselves.  It’s not that I don’t agree that the level of hate and the realities of racism continue to cast a shadow upon us because I do.  As long as there are humans we’ll face all of it.  Often people are simply looking for validation of their experience since so much of what we do and how we act happens on the subconscious level without us even thinking.  Raising awareness means the shifting to the conscious level, which is the only place we can deal with them, otherwise the wounds once again become buried within ourselves and the cycle of violence continues not only in the world but in our own lives, many times without us even being aware of it because it becomes are natural fallback, peeling back the scab over and over again.

If there is one thing I have learned through my own struggles and in facing my own violence toward others and myself is that there is no easy way around it.  My natural inclination is to shut down in the face of it until I can reckon with the reality, a reality which never disappears by not confronting it head on.  Dealing with our past is so often minimalized with, the past is already over, move on, as if I can just will my pain be gone.  I wish it were that easy.  However, the pain has a way of manifesting itself in the same ways, again and again, in our lives.  Rather than trying to tear it down and rid ourselves of it, we are often invited to understand it, allow it to surface, and reverence it with the healing it needs, almost always through tears, weeping for what it was and even for what it was not.

The great risk in life as a part of the human race is to become what it is we hate, when in reality, we often already are exactly that.  We live in this world filled with should have’s and could have’s, living with the disappointment that we’re not more than how we appear before others.  We live with the disappointments often because we deal with the same problems the same way and expect different results each time, casting amnesia upon us in the face of perpetual violence towards our brothers and sisters.  Through the use of our judgments, our own misunderstandings, our labels that denigrate fellow human beings to being monsters of sorts, in the end, gets us nowhere, often only validating the monster within ourselves that we haven’t learned to love.  In some ways, I’d rather live with the moments of loneliness that comes with being misunderstood, as it was for Jesus, rather than use him against another.  I’d rather live with the tears that come with not quickly reacting but first trying to understand the deeper hurt that is being aroused.  I’d much rather weep than fan the flames of anger knowing that there is a deeper pain in the others life than I may never understand.  I’d rather sit in silence and wrestle with it, knowing the expectations then placed upon me to react.  Jesus weeps, sure for the death of his friend Lazarus, as most do when they visit a grave.  But what we see never fully defines the depth of the pain and where it comes from within the other in those moments.  All we see is what we want to see most often despite it just being the tip of the iceberg of one’s life, including for the Christ as he weeps for and with humanity.

More often than not, the path to love and peace, a peace which is a marriage of justice and mercy, will never arrive in our own hearts until we learn to sit, quiet ourselves, doubt, question, and learn to accept even our own selves, short comings and all, which closes the gap between myself and the other.  The war that rages on beyond us as we see it is often the war within that we are invited to confront.  The more we separate, divide, demonize, seek winners and losers, the greater that gap becomes, creating the tribal mentality that Jesus himself often confronts.  I not only separate myself from others but I separate myself from myself.  It deepens the blinders we wear, invoking fear and insecurity in our lives, leaving us wandering through the desert, often unbeknownst to us.  In time, even for Israel, the tears began to arrive, not only for what had been done to them but what they had done to the other through their own pain.  In those moments, glimpses of that promised land that they desired became visible.

As a country, and I’ve written this many times before, we will need to learn to weep and weep bitterly.  Not select people, but each of us, individually and collectively.  America has never been what it was supposed to be and never will.  It’s not the chosen one.  It’s not the city on a hill.  It’s by no means perfect or somehow the greatest, all of which only feeds the illusion that we know better than the rest, avoiding the pain that lies within the heart of a nation.  We are country among 195 or so others.  We are 323 million of approximately 7 billion people on the planet.  And it’s all ok.  When we finally give up the illusions, the blinders, what it is we simply see with our eyes, we begin to see that there is something even greater about us that is not always visible to the naked eye.  As much as our heart continues to beat, it is by no means without pain and hurt.  That is very visible not only in Charlottesville but outside my own window, day in and day out.  There is a story that is dying to be told, from deep within, a story that desires to be free, and will continue to kill if it’s not told.  A human desires to be free.  Lashing out and violence will never lead to what it is we want and desire.  Rather, only through our own ability to weep, for what was and wasn’t, for what is and isn’t.  Yes, it is the shortest verse in the bible but in doing so packs quite the wallop of bringing healing and reconciliation that is desperately needed in my life, your life, this city, and well beyond.  Jesus wept.  For everyone.

Jesus Christ, Public Enemy Number One

Lev 19: 1-2, 17-18; I Cor 3: 16-23; Matthew 5: 38-48

What happens when the solution to our problems no longer works? Honestly, we have to prepare for it because the typical means of dealing with problems, these evils of the world, and so on, it is typically done through violence and fear. What happens when it doesn’t work anymore? Think about it, Jesus himself was public enemy number one. He was hated by the scribes and pharisees, as well as the political authorities of his day. He rattled their cages. He challenged the status quo. He preached this awful message of loving enemies, and yet, he was that person. For it, public enemy number one faces death, death on a cross. Why on earth would be we surprised that we would do the same thing? If we can do it to God, to Jesus, why not get rid of anyone and everything that stands in our way, our enemies. Yet, the message today is to love them.

So where do we begin. We first get rid of anyone with brown skin. We lock up black people. We bar Muslims. We can dump the President. We can get rid of Congress. There’s no need for the Church or any institution for that matter. Now, of course, we can throw in the press and the desire for truth and honesty. Let’s just get rid of everyone and everything that has become an enemy to our way of life. There is so much out there right now trying to open us to a place to look at ourselves and where we need to grow. But then what? When all else is gone, using the image that Jesus uses today, after I hand over my tunic and my cloak as well, I now stand naked, exposed, with no one else to blame for my problems, out of solutions, and after I use both my words and actions to take down the enemy, I’m left with myself and the greatest enemy of all, lying deep within myself, my own hurt and pain that I finally come to realize I can no longer outrun and no longer blame everyone else for in my life. If we’re willing to do it to Jesus, and none of us are innocent in this game, the only one left to destroy so often is myself.

Martin Luther King, Jr, in his sermon on this very passage said most of us live with “a persistent civil war that wages within”. It becomes the easiest of paths and the path of least resistance when we choose violence and hatred. It does make it easier, though, when we remove God from the scene. It’s the challenge that Leviticus faces in the first reading today. The writer speaks and writes of a God that is distant from the world. It’s so often easier to justify our wrongdoing and the bitterness that we hold onto in our hearts. It is so often that Christ within that tries to rattle all of our cages, moving us to a place of freedom in our lives where we can begin to deal with the injustices of the world and of our country. We mustn’t allow the oppressed and those who feel oppressed become the oppressor in return. If we are not living in that place of freedom ourselves, we so often resort to violence, and no, maybe not always physically, but with our gossip and talking about others behind their back. Violence doesn’t come just in the form of war, but often from our own mouths. That civil war becomes a persistent part of our lives when we desire to move to the place where we can love our enemies rather than destroy.

Paul warns of destroying God’s temple, which I am and you are and the community is, with Christ as the head. Paul warns them about taking advantage of those who may feel oppressed in the community of Corinth and beginning to think that somehow it’s about me and what I want rather than recognizing that we become instruments of God’s grace, a God who works through and with and in us. When we keep God at a distance we can put ourselves in that place of power, a power that is so then often abused and so the war begins of trying to take out anyone that stands in my way. Jesus was public enemy number one and if we’ve done it to him, who’s next? What happens when this solution to our problems, the deep hurt and pain we so often want to hold onto, no longer works, when we find ourselves, as individuals and as country, standing naked before the true God and the world, with no one else to blame for our problems, but now exposed for our own pain. It’s a humbling place to stand when we no longer have to fight that civil war and we can learn to love our enemy.

Sure, there are plenty of enemies in our world and plenty of evil at play. But the journey of faith that Jesus invites us into these weeks, leads us to that place of pain and the place of humility when I can finally begin to see that that damn enemy that I have been fighting all along is right within me, looking for attention and to be loved. Jesus understood first-hand, knowing that he was that enemy to so many, or so they thought. If he teaches us anything, it’s that when we allow ourselves to go to that place of pain and ask ourselves why we do hate and why we even desire to have enemies and what it is about them, we can finally hold the mirror to ourselves, individually and collectively, and realize it’s not a solution that we desire, but rather healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, and love. An alcoholic will always think that alcohol is the solution to his problems, but in the end, it’s a destructive end to himself and others. Hurting people will always think that violence and “getting rid of” is the solution to our problems, but in the end, it’s destructive to ourselves and others. Sure it may give an immediate gratification and stroke our ego, but it’s never a long-term reality of the Kingdom that Jesus preaches.

The civil war will only persist in our lives if we don’t first deal with the enemy within ourselves. Otherwise, we continue to project it onto the world, continuing to hate and to hurt. We must live a life of resistance that heals, a resistance that forgives, a resistance that leads to a deeper love. That is why this gospel stands as one of the most difficult and most challenging that we hear all year. It’s not easy to love people around us sometimes let along those whom we have deemed enemy. It’s a sad way to live our lives when we give into such hate and violence. When we resist the temptation, and it will always be a temptation, to retaliate and exact revenge, we finally move to that place of freedom, free of any oppression in our own lives, to then begin to tackle the real problems that exist. Hate leads to more hate. Violence leads to more violence. It’s time to accept the challenge for all of us to hold that mirror up, with public enemy number one looking back, leading us to a place of love, forgiveness, and healing, first in ourselves and then for the salvation of the world.

The Pain of an Orlando Love

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

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

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

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

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