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.

Hungering For More

Wisdom 7: 7-11; Hebrews 4: 12-13; Mark 10: 17-30

We live in a time often referred to as the “Information Age”.  We all have little gadgets in our pockets that we can pull out and find a wealth of knowledge, information, useless facts, and you name it, all at our fingertips.  It’s become something like an extra appendage of ours as we carry them around, always in contact and answers without any kind of wait.  Yet, there’s a downside to it all.  We have, in many ways, lost a sense of mystery or the unknown, when we would have to wait for information or news and now it comes with just a click.  We’ve also lost a sense of truth and depth.  Ironically, the truth seems to always be the people I agree with and yet a deeper sense of truth is gone.  The very thing that was supposed to keep us connected has in many ways made us even less so, leaving us with a deeper hunger and thirst for something more out of life, a deeper sense of truth, wisdom, and connectivity.  All of us, as well, who learned computers early on learned first hand that they are binary, the ones and zeros, and nothing more.  That too feeds into the great divide that exists and separation that exists.  We never have to leave our corners but it also leaves us wanting more of the wrong thing rather than truth, wisdom, connectivity that can only come by allowing us to grow more deeply in our humanity rather than trying to make ourselves into computers.

Solomon, in the Book of Wisdom, points the way with such beauty.  Like us, he looked for satisfaction out of all the ways of the world, through power, position, wealth, possessions, even health as he points out today.  Yet, nothing seemed to satisfy the deeper longing in his heart.  All of the ways of the world simply seemed to pass and he was left all the more hungry for something out of life.  He takes the turn inward, growing in relation to the living word of God, and his life begins to change.  He begins to grow more deeply into the truth and wisdom that he desired, spelling it out for us today in such beautiful feminine language.  Solomon learns, as we all do, that the only way to wisdom isn’t through knowledge and information, nor even the ways of the world.  Rather, for Solomon it was growing more deeply into his own humanity, learning the nuances of life rather than the binary ways of the world, connecting with the deeper places within his heart and soul.  It wasn’t by accumulating anything, but rather learning to let it go and creating space for the true God and Solomon grows into one of the great wisdom figures.

It was the same for the writer of Hebrews and the community in which he writes.  This is a community that had grown stagnate and drifting away from its mission and purpose.  They had lost sight of their own deeper humanity and connectivity and had grown bored with the word, no longer capable of hearing and listening and being moved by the Word.  The writer reminds them and us that the true Word is living and effective, sometimes even when we aren’t expecting it, cutting us like a two-edged sword.  A relationship with the Word is the only one that can cut through the hardening that begins to happen in our lives or even the numbing that takes place by staring at screens, objectifying our humanity rather than growing more deeply into it.  Ultimately, it’s our own thirst for knowledge and thinking we need to know and accumulating information that leaves us hungering for more while feeling empty.  It begins the slow process of disconnecting us from our hearts.

Of course, we then come to the pinnacle with the story of the rich man in today’s gospel.  Here’s a man who had everything.  He had wealth.  He had power.  He had position.  Heck, he even thought he was perfect in the eyes of God and was in a very binary way.  He had the life so many dream of.  Yet, despite literally having it all, including a knowledge of this God, it wasn’t enough.  He was left feeling empty and still wanting more out of life.  He settled for hiding behind his own screen per se, when it came to God, rather than entering into relationship.  His way of thinking and this desire for perfection, often associated with being right and superior, became an obstacle towards God.  All we know is as the story is told that he leaves sad.  There is a deep sadness that hangs over this man and he walks away.  He’s sad because he couldn’t give up his possessions.  He was even more sad because he recognized that they also would never satisfy that longing within.  After an encounter with the living Word in Jesus, he doesn’t feel all warm and fuzzy, but rather a deep sadness of what his life had become and yet feels trapped within by his own choosing.  We never know if that Word finally penetrates his heart and moves him to a deeper place in his own humanity and to enter into relations with the most vulnerable, the poor.  It was easier to keep them at a distance.  Yet, the two-edged sword cuts him straight through where it needs to, straight through his heart.  Wisdom and truth aren’t found by accumulating knowledge, information, or wealth of any kind, rather, by letting go and for him, that seemed impossible.

It feels impossible for all of us.  We become possessed by our possessions, whatever they may be.  It may be easier to keep staring at a screen and keep accumulating information, but it will keep falling short and leaving us wanting more in life.  We desire that deeper wisdom and truth, that sense of connectivity and intimacy, but it’s not going to come in the ways we’re told of the world.  Rather, it comes through relationship with the living Word and through our relationships with others.  It comes through getting it wrong and failing more often than trying to present ourselves as perfect.  It comes with growing more deeply into our own humanity where we learn to see the other as ourselves rather than separate from.  Our hearts are easily hardened.  The heart of a nation and the heart of the world often stand frigid, resulting in the divisions and wars and continued poverty, sacrificing our humanity for worldly powers.  As with the rich man in today’s gospel, the choices are all placed in our hands as well.  Will we allow our possessions, whether wealth, information, phones, knowledge, or whatever, continue to possess us, captivating all our attention, leaving us hungering and thirsting for more out of life or will we allow ourselves to be possessed by the living Word, cutting through our hearts?  It comes with great price and cost but the promise of life eternal will always move us towards the truth, the wisdom, and the connectivity we truly desire and leave us fulfilled in this life and the life to come.

However…

Deut 4: 1-2, 6-8; James 1: 17-18, 21-22, 27; Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

If you want a snapshot of one of the underlying currents shaping up not only in the Church but also in our political system, look no further than our readings this morning.  Whether we care to admit it or not, purity codes and rules are ingrained in all of us but when they’re heightened to the institutional level, it only magnifies the reality.  We certainly see it in our two political parties where it’s all about being cleansed of anyone that thinks, believes, lives, or anything else differently than what is prescribed, and both are at fault for this.  It leads to us deeming the other as evil.  But the same is true in the Church.  There are battle lines drawn that go much deeper than abuse and now it’s all playing out on the world stage.  Yet, we never heed the warning that is presented to us through that very same Scripture.

Moses lays it out for Israel today in our first reading.  There is a place for purity codes, rules, laws, ritual, however you want to describe it.  For Israel it gave them a way to worship this God that has blessed them and continues to provide for them.  Unfortunately our reading ends there today.  It ends with the advantages to their fidelity to this God that always remains faithful to them.  The next word, though, if the reading were to continue is “however…”.  As much as Moses saw the value it in, it doesn’t come without warning.  The reading goes on to warn them of creating idols of the codes, rules, rituals, that it becomes more about that than it does about God.  It’s ingrained in us that way because we like to hold onto things, feel certain, and to know and all of this does it for us.  However, the more we hold onto these human traditions, as Jesus says, the more burdensome they become and end up becoming an obstacle for moving forward.  Its Moses’ warning to them and yet they don’t learn from their own history.  They’d rather toss out history.

The result is that when we get to the time of Jesus centuries later, it becomes like our government and Church, bloated by what we’d call bureaucracy.  Despite the warning from Moses about adding onto these traditions and the burden it would place on often the most disadvantaged, they did it anyway, which is where Jesus enters today.  He’s not there to chastise the codes, the rituals, or anything else, but rather that they had done exactly what Moses warned them of.  They made the laws, codes, rituals, into their own gods and then it misses the point.  All they become are idols that allow them to cling and hold onto, creating a burden on others.  The poor and marginalized often did not have the means to uphold these traditions and so of course they’d be attacked by the ruling class.  Yet, as we’ve seen in these weeks, they too become exposed in their own hypocrisy as Jesus points out today.  They miss the point.  It becomes about something other than God and the change of heart and simply about all the externals.  It’s about making ourselves look good before God with the hope of his love and to pour his grace on thee.  Heck, some will go on and use Jesus against it all when that wasn’t his point in the first place.  Jesus tries to lead them to live their lives from the inside out.  The rituals and codes are to be lived inside out, rooted in love.  When that become absent, well, we end up with what we have in our political system and our Church.

James, though, may say it the best.  He tells us today that religion is most pure when it’s about caring for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.  For James it’s about both, as it was for Jesus.  For James, and for Jesus for that matter, it’s about a change of heart, a conversion of heart.  If that’s missing from the equation, well, none of this really matters in the end anyway.  It becomes more about us.  More about holding on.  More about the gods we create for ourselves.  It becomes about certainty and knowing which only creates an unnecessary burden because we can’t live that way, none of us.  Those that do and think they can, hypocrites as Jesus says today.  It’s not about eliminating others, but rather finding a way to reconcile and bring the two halves together to create one, to move forward rather than this continuous running into a brick wall.

We have a real problem on our hands and again, we’d be a lot better off if we’d learn from our history, both as a country and as a Church.  Yet, when all of this is so deeply ingrained, it only proves all the more that we’re missing the point.  It’s about our ideologies.  It’s about our team.  Heck, it’s about winning and when it’s about that we all lose.  All of us.  And maybe we need to.  It seemed to be the only way Israel learned despite the warning.  It seemed to be the only way the early communities learned despite the warning.  We too have been warned.  There is nothing wrong with purity codes, rules, laws, rituals.  It is but one half of the equation.  It’s the substance that we seek and will nourish.  It’s the substance that will change our hearts and open us up to greater depths of love.  It is only allowing ourselves to fall into mystery that will do it for us, into the great unknown, despite our desire to cling to what we see and know and think we can be certain of in life.  It’s our thinking more than anything and that’s all it is.  As Moses reminds, however, there’s something more important.

‘Thoughts and Prayers’

Proverbs 9: 1-6; Eph 5: 15-20; John 6: 51-58

“Watch carefully how to live, not as foolish persons but as wise, making the most of the opportunity, because the days are evil.  Therefore, do not continue in ignorance (and I’d add, arrogance), but try to understand what is the will of the Lord.”  Ephesians 5: 15-17

You know, I didn’t know how I was going to preach today.  Quite honestly, I didn’t know who would show up.  Once again this Church gave us a thousand reasons to jump ship again. If you’ve been on the fence, well, good-bye, gone goes another generation. Yet, here we are, and maybe those of us who are here recognize that there’s more to all of this than the institution.  Maybe we understand, as we sang today, that our firm foundation is in something, or for that matter, someone else, in God, in Christ crucified, in the heart of Jesus.  You know I’m a Scranton guy so it’s been a little more personal.  The bishop who accepted me into formation was listed.  Heck, the bishop that ordained me, on the list for covering up and concealing and for what and to protect what.

Yet, what do we get, thoughts and prayers.  Our hearts go out to victims.  Thoughts and prayers?  Where have we heard that before.  Oh yeah, politicians every time there’s a tragedy.  Empty words.  Politicians who get caught with their hand in the cookie jar.  Politicians who are sorry for getting caught more than for what they had done.  Politicians who’d rather use prayer to push something away and to continue to live in denial that something needs to change.  Thought and prayers.  All the while that abuse of power continues to persist.  Sure there’s been a lot that has been put in place since 2002 but it hasn’t dealt with the heart of these issues and the abuse of power.  What do you end up with?  Just as Paul says, ignorance and arrogance on our part, failing people along the way.

I’ve been criticized over the years for not speaking on moral issues like this and here’s why.  Our foundation is not in morality nor is it in dogma. For that matter, our morality has been hijacked by politicians that it’s nearly impossible anyway without become one of them. Our foundation is in relationship with God, with Christ crucified, with the heart of Jesus.  Now you’re going to hear people say that the Church will carry on, and that’s true, it’s been through many scandals and crises in its history.  But like all the rest it still remains true that when it arises, it arises for the fact that the institution disconnects from its heart.  It disconnects from the heart of Jesus and ignorance and arrogance continue to persist.  I don’t preach it because I know full well it’s not our foundation and I can never live up to it.  None of us can!  Ever!  And if you want to preach high and almighty, do as I say and not as I do, you’re bound to fall and fall hard.  And for what?  To sacrifice one’s soul and one’s heart?  To protect what?  Quite frankly, it needs to fall a part just as much as our political system does.  They no longer serve the people but rather power.  Our firm foundation is in relationship with God, in Christ crucified, in the heart of Jesus that is always calling us to come home, to seek mercy, forgiveness, and love.  When we lose that, well, this is what we end up with, more of the same, ignorance and arrogance.  Thoughts and prayers.  It’s not enough.

The readings all touch upon it.  Today from the Book of Proverbs, Solomon compares lady wisdom with fools.  Now lady wisdom, as we heard today, has a sense of openness.  There’s freedom.  Lady wisdom is welcoming of all to the table and does not exclude or exude force upon people.  Lady wisdom finds power within that relationship with God.  Now we didn’t continue the reading today, but if you read on Solomon will compare that with following a fool.  Don’t follow a fool Solomon says.  A fool knows nothing and yet is enticing.  A fool looks to take advantage of one who is naïve and lacks sense.  A fool is unstable and senseless, all about themselves.  A fool cares only about self-interest, that same power that is abused.  There’s a difference.  Lady wisdom is more than just thoughts and prayers.  Lady wisdom understands the one who’s been abused and taken advantage of, welcoming all to the table, especially those who recognize that need.

Jesus personifies Lady wisdom as we’ve been hearing in the sixth chapter of John the past month.  You know, the one thing that gives hope is that it is often the crowd that begins to understand who this Jesus is.  They may not necessarily know what the words mean.  They may not necessarily know what he’s all about, but they do know there’s something different about him than who he’s often compared, to the Pharisees of his day.  They recognize he’s feeding them with something that is nourishing rather than the stones of the Pharisees.  It’s the Pharisees that want to fight Jesus because he becomes a threat to their power, ironically.  He threatens their control over the people who are also, do as I say, not as I do, holding people to a standard that no one is capable of!  Of course, it will lead to his death.  He becomes the scapegoat simply for gravitating to the poor, the abused, the disadvantaged.  Even he recognizes that it’s impossible for the heart of a Pharisee to be converted in their own ignorance and arrogance.

And it’s no different today.  What do we do, and this you will see as well because I’ve already seen it out there?  We scapegoat.  Well, if we get rid of this one it’ll take care of the problem.  If we get rid of gay people all will be well.  If we dump Vatican II it’ll fix everything.  If we get rid of whomever lacks the purity somehow it’ll make it all right.  Wrong.  That’s denial.  That’s trying to live with a 1950 Church in the year 2018.  We must return to the foundation.  Without a foundation we fall.  When the storms arise, and they always arise, we run.  Honestly, running is easy.  It’s much harder to weather a storm.  It’s much easier to blame.  It’s much easier to live in denial and offer our thoughts and prayers than to change.

Now, there’s only so much I can do as an insider in this institution, and I’m well aware of that.  However, it doesn’t mean I stop fighting.  I will continue to fight, especially for the younger priests who are going to have to live with this ongoing mess.  However, the real power is with you.  It’s with you.  What do the Pharisees as well as any institution or political system want you to believe, that you’re powerless.  You’re not.  You have the power to force institutions to change, including this one.  You have the power to push institutions to move beyond denial, beyond thoughts and prayers.  If you’re here today you already know where and who the foundation is, the one who continues to feed us with life-giving bread rather than stones of shame and guilt.  It’s all of you that need to push us forward.

And so we pray for God’s grace this day for more than thoughts and prayers.  We pray for God’s grace to return to the foundation that, never, no never, forsakes, as the hymn goes.  We pray for this Church and all of us to return to the heart of Jesus in these moments.  As I said, it’s too easy to leave and run.  The disciples did it.  Heck, we’ll hear it in John’s gospel shortly as well because it’s too hard.  We’re more than an institution when we put relationship first and allow all else to flow from the source.  We’ve had enough thoughts and prayers.  We’ve certainly had enough ignorance and arrogance.  We pray that we take Lady Wisdom’s advice to us today, to open the doors, to be vulnerable in the face of adversity, to lay aside old ways of thinking, and to personify Wisdom in the heart of Jesus.  It is this relationship with God, with Christ crucified, with the heart of Jesus that will change us and move us forward while returning us to what matters most.

Napping for Answers

I Kings 19: 4-8; John 6: 41-51

I think Elijah has the right idea.  Go find yourself a tree and take a nap.  You can’t beat it.  Unfortunately, even in his sleep he can’t seem to outrun life nor God, being nagged to eat for the journey.  I suppose it can seem rather extreme, praying for death and all.  He’s got a lot going on in his life that he isn’t able to make sense out of in the moment.  Maybe we wouldn’t go to that extent, but I bet we can all relate to him.  Most of us knows what it’s like to be pushed to wits end where we just can’t take anymore, where life seems overwhelming and we can’t possibly take anymore and so we do the same thing, we run away.  We all have our ways of running away.  Yet, like him, life, God, has a way of catching up with us even in those moments of escape.  The very fact that he ends up at a broom tree reminds us that God still has a hand.  It’s one of the few green trees in the desert because of its deep roots, pointing Elijah in the direction of life.  Elijah may not necessarily be having a crisis of faith but he’s certainly having a crisis of vocation, of meaning, of what his purpose is and this call of his in relation to God as prophet.  A nap under a tree seems inviting with all that going on.

Elijah finds himself under attack and on the run from the King and the King’s wife, Jezebel.  She wants him dead for him exposing all the false gods of their time.  Now it’s easy for us to say that we have no such gods in our lives but we’d be lying to ourselves.  They’re often associated with control, fear, boxing in, power as a means to make ourselves feel safe and secure.  They often make us comfortable because they’ve been faithful, but they’re not God.  So here’s Elijah bringing all of this to awareness and then finds himself, by the people who appear to have the most to lose, wanting him dead.  Any one of us would run at that point.  Here’s one of the unique things about Elijah’s story, though.  So many of the others we encounter in Scripture seem to be thrust back into what they’re running from, like Jonah, spit onto shore.  That’s not what happens to Elijah.  He isn’t told to go back and confront Jezebel.  Rather, this God specifically gives Elijah the freedom to wander and to get lost in order that he may be found.  He will wander for forty days and nights we hear today in order to be found.  It is the storied history of Israel of themselves wandering in the desert in order to be found, faithful God every step of the way.

We are probably most familiar with the wandering that will take Elijah to the place where he will finally encounter this mysterious God.  God doesn’t come in the earthquake or anything drastic, but rather in the quiet whisper in Elijah’s heart.  All the angst that he continues to encounter, ironically often in his moments of sleep as we hear today, Elijah finally begins to grow more deeply into the vocation in which God calls him and yet wouldn’t have unfolded for him if he didn’t first have that immediate confrontation with death, leading to him fleeing to the desert, and growing into that freedom given by God to become lost and to wander in order to be found.  We can all relate in those moments of our own lives.  We’ll either cling to what was or we’ll allow ourselves to learn to trust what we cannot hear and yet speaks in the gentleness of our own hearts.

The same crisis is unfolding with the followers of Jesus in today’s gospel from John.  We’re now halfway through the Bread of Life discourse and we now see signs of cracks happening in not just the Pharisees, who we have become accustomed to antagonizing Jesus, but his very followers.  Like Elijah they’re confronted with who this God is and what Jesus is revealing about that God and their inability to grasp it all.  Like Elijah in those waning moments, they don’t want to listen.  They don’t want to hear the truth and they don’t have the capability to listen to what he is saying about this God.  Like Jezebel, they have in their minds who God is and what that all means, neatly packaged, safe and secure, and now all of a sudden, things are changing and scales are falling from their eyes and hearts.  The very fact that they can’t even repeat what it was that Jesus says, changing the words, gives us proof that they don’t want to listen.  In some ways the story ends sadly as the weeks go on because they just can’t handle the truth.  Many will be led to a crisis of faith, vocation, meaning, however you want to describe it.  Like the God that Elijah encounters, though, they too will be given that same freedom to wander and to allow themselves to become lost in order to be found.  There will be that period of wandering in the desert themselves where they will learn to surrender all that they have clung to in order to experience God in a new way, a deeper way, and once again find meaning in their call as followers.

If there is one thing we can say for sure it’s that there are many that find themselves lost and wandering these days.  There are many seemingly wanting to flee life because they find themselves at wits end.  We quickly want to try to find answers and create new boxes to neatly package it all up for ourselves, but that’s not faith.  More often than not we’re led to crises ourselves, wandering and lost in order to be found.  It may be forty days and forty nights, but all along, as with Elijah, God’s hand is there leading us to the broom tree, to the quiet whisper, and ultimately to that place of peace with ourselves and what it is that gives us meaning, nourished through this great mystery we call faith.  It’s why we return to this table weekly to be fed and nourished for the journey is long and tiresome.  We pray, these days, for the grace to embrace the freedom that God gave to Elijah and the followers of Jesus to become lost and to wander.  None of us has all the answers, we can never really be sure, we can cling to our institutionalized gods all we want, but none of it will ever move us to that place of freedom to grow more deeply into our own call.  Becoming lost and finding ourselves wandering is sometimes the greatest gift that can be given to us because we learn what really matters.  It’s only then that we allow ourselves to be found by this God who has already been there every step of the way, leading us to freedom and to greater depths of love and mystery.

Convergence

acadia

“Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods.  Wash your spirit clean.”  John Muir

“The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”  Jacques Yves Cousteau

Mountains and Seas, unlike most other natural realities, have a way of pulling us out of ourselves and often moving us to the needed and necessary perspective on life.  For me, Maine has become the home of where the two converge into one, where climbing can lead to some of the deepest places and the depths of the sea move you to some of the highest reaching points of discovery, all at the same moment.  Even upon departure there’s a sadness that overcomes in that, with the return to the world of life and work, where depth and heights are all but a mystery, stagnant, and even discouraged, the longing and call to nature never leaves, that, as Cousteau points out, casts a spell and captivates forever.  Nature has the ability to seduce us in ways unlike much else, pointing to greater depths and heights that often can only be left to the imagination.

A great deal has been written about nature depravity that has become the norm in our culture.  The days of spending our summer’s as kids outdoors and using our imaginations has all but dissipated with time.  The use of electronics, structured play, and all the rest may have progressed us as a people, but the long-term impact of cutting ourselves off from what is most important and what provides us meaning in our lives will be hard to recover in the generations that follow.  Despite the relentlessness that nature can have on us, as we see through the extremes of weather plaguing the globe, its ability to show compassion and care for the wanderer and seeker isn’t to be overlooked.

Climbing a mountain or spending that week in the woods along the endless shoreline, resurrects that child within to expand the imagination and open the heart to new possibility.  Even in watching others hiking along side at times, it was fascinating to see that much of it was about accomplishing another task, just as we do in our work lives, in order to move onto the next mountain or the path that follows, rather than allowing ourselves to stop and be in the moment, allowing the natural world to speak to and with our souls.  More often than not it speaks a language that remains foreign to us, not dictated by ourselves but by the eternal and the unearthed creation in which we share and walk, hand in hand.

Over time the line and all that separates begins to fall away like scales from the eyes, noticing the intricacy of a freshly spun web, the movement of the fog that seems all too real in life at times, the fallen trees that have been given the proper reverence to return to the earth untouched in order to continue the cycle, all of this unfolding before our eyes and within our very beings waiting to be explored and discovered all anew as if seeing it for the first time yet over and over again.  The natural world, in all its beauty and wonder, provides us all with what we are often lacking in our lives, the natural silence in which can only be heard the groans of new birth breaking forth from the earth, mirroring to us the gift that is freely being offered to us in this very moment if we can only allow ourselves to stop, to breathe, to surrender, and to recall from where and whom we have come.  As much as things change, life and death and the perpetual mystery that surrounds remains intact, ever-true and ever-deepening, nature pointing the way to the naturalness of it all.

It was, though, the guide while whale watching, that reminded us all that we only but see the surface with any of it.  What lies beneath the sea remains unexplored and ever-expanding.  Her reminder to all, whether it was heard or not, is true of each of us.  We only see what our eyes allow us to see in any given moment while so much remains undiscovered.  We trust that what is unseen is there and contains much life but our own fears prevent us from embarking.  The mountains of Acadia, as breathless as the are to see, pale in comparison to what lies beneath in the depths of the earth and sea that continues to call us forth.  Noise, life, distractions, success, accomplishments, and all the rest act as faithful guards to the unexplored.  I don’t have the time.  I’m busy with work.  I can’t get away.  Excuse and excuse, at our own doing, keeps us safe from going to such places and not closing the gap between nature and ourselves, and even more so, closing the gap between me and myself and you and yourself.  Nature opens the door to another world, a world of possibility and healing, a world in which we desperately want to hide, or for that matter, avoid.

It doesn’t take long to begin to feel that loss when, after being immersed for days, we return to life and what often feels so unnatural.  The beckoning and longing only seem to deepen and yearn all the more as the days and years march on.  In these moments of my own life I’m not sure I could even stop myself from making that time to return in order to be found once again, breathing a sigh of relief that all is right with the world again and again, freely falling into the hands that wait.  Until then, the memories remain of the light dancing off the water, waves crashing against the sea, stumbles and falls, tears and joy, of all that the natural world continues to provide for me and so many others that feel that deprivation.  If anything, it stands as a safe place, a place that only wants you to be you and nothing else and where nothing else matters.  It allows us to stand naked, unashamed and unafraid, in all our own highs and lows, light and darkness, and even the glimpses of the shadows that provide shelter.  When the mountains and sea converge into one the consequence is a convergence in our own lives, standing in the tension of life and death, what stays and goes, while continuing to walk on and through, allowing mystery to be revealed step by step.

Love’s Acceptance

Acts 10: 34, 37-43; I Cor 5: 6-8; John 20: 1-9

If you spend any time surfing the internet, you know full well that you can find someone out there who’d have an argument for something you want to believe, even if it’s not true; actually most likely not true.  We call them conspiracy theories.  They’re nothing new but we have certainly lived through many of them.  It seemed as if the birther movement would never end.  How about George Bush being responsible for the events of 9/11?  Of course, every time there’s a school shooting there’s always some conspiracy out there that somehow there’s a mastermind behind all of this working the ropes.  It says something about our faith when we succumb to much of it and how fragile it can be at times.  So when we don’t agree with reality or prefer to think that reality isn’t reality, when we can’t accept it, then we’ll just create a new one that agrees with how we think things should be, avoiding reality itself.  What’s worse is that now we have virtual reality.  When we’re totally dissatisfied we can just create a new one through technology in order to avoid what is.  We avoid our own pain and suffering and then also avoid it in others.  It creates a false sense of life and almost instills a sense of paranoia.

They’re nothing new, though.  Even what we celebrate today had many conspiracy theories surrounding it and they come out in the characters we encounter through the Easter season.  One of them is uttered from the mouth of Mary of Magdala this morning that “they have stolen the body”.  Just as the political and religious authorities conspired for the death of Jesus that we marked on Good Friday, they will now conspire once again to cast doubt and fear into the heart of the followers that somehow what had taken place actually didn’t take place.  When they conspired towards his death they thought they had their problem under control.  They thought that if he can be contained in this way and then simply get rid of it, they can maintain their sense of control and the illusion of power.  They can continue to oppress the people in this way and suppress them at the hand of authority.  They knew, though, that if word continues to spread and takes on flesh that Christ had been raised, it would spread like wildfire and so conspiracy theories are born in order to control the fire.

We hear, though, throughout this season from Acts of the Apostles that it just can’t be contained.  That this gift of life and the Spirit was not going to be contained by fear.  It doesn’t mean that they don’t suffer nor face great pains as a community.  We hear that throughout the early days.  But they learn to accept the eternal life now which dispels all fear.  Over time, and through this process of conversion of heart, the words of Jesus and the Word made flesh, becomes who they are; they make it their own and they become unstoppable.  They will certainly be tested and challenged by the authorities, but the embodiment of the love freely given will change them forever.  Whenever they find themselves doubting and questioning or even beginning to believe the conspiracies over their experience, they will once again be drawn into this mystery of life and death.  That’s what they ultimately learn in relationship with Christ.  You have to embrace it in its entirety.  You cannot have life without death.  They go hand in hand.  We want to separate and feel it can’t touch us, but surrender, sacrifice, and letting go needs to be a part of who we are if we are to become a community of love.  When we separate mystery in that way, we begin to create alternate realities and virtual realities in order to avoid what we most dislike, the fact that we can’t have it all and that we’re not immortal.  The more we avoid it, the more problems will continue to mount here and across the globe.

Paul reminds us in his letter to Corinth today that if we are to become this community of love then we need to leave things behind.  We need to leave behind bitterness and malice.  We need to leave behind our fear and our confusion.  We need to leave behind our paranoia and conspiracies that we cling to and learn to accept reality for what it is and only then can we begin to change.  It’s the encounter with the divine love and our participation in that divine love that changes us and allows us to move from simple lip service to a changed heart.  It’s easy to say I believe in God or I believe Jesus is risen from the dead.  It’s a whole other reality when we embody it.  For John, it comes down to that, back to the beginning of the gospel when the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us.

That’s what it’s all about.  Problems continue to mount.  Poverty continues to spread.  Homelessness is everywhere.  Injustice happens here and abroad.  Yet, the fragility of our faith often prevents us from falling into the pain and suffering of the world and to bring about its transformation through love.  Only love can do that.  Fear won’t do it.  Conspiracies won’t do it.  Virtual reality won’t do it.  Paranoia won’t do it.  Only love and it’s a love that is freely given.  When the disciples head to the tomb and find it empty on Easter, it doesn’t move them from a place of darkness right away.  But something begins to stir within them, deep within them, and they know they can never go back.  They can no longer live in an alternate reality and they’ll know deep down that the conspiracies are simply words rooted in fear, fear of change fear of the authentic power of Christ crucified now raised from the dead.

As we enter into these 50 days of Easter, we pray for the grace to have that same movement in our own lives.  Like them, we often want proof with our own eyes.  We want to see it.  Well, none of us can prove anything like that and that’s certainly not the message John conveys in his gospel.  For John, it’s a deeper sense of knowing that we truly long for in life, a knowing that can only be embodied and not simply words that can sound shallow.  John wants us to move towards a deeper faith, embodied within a changed heart.  That’s the community of love that is being offered and the only way to live more deeply in the reality of our own pain and suffering, offering us hope of not an alternate reality or a virtual reality, but a reality rooted in hope and love, a reality rooted in Easter.  We pray this day that we may become that community of love in order to cast out all fear and darkness from our lives, the community, and the world.