Miracles on Earth

One of the most unsettling things for someone like me is arriving in an unknown place, containing unknown people, and not knowing quite what to expect when you allow yourself to be open to wherever the Spirit may be leading in life. If there is any attachment to any sense of comfort and consistency, it’s probably the easiest and quickest way to unbalance the equilibrium of life. For an added bonus, take away the comforts of a life once lived, showering regularly and the such, and watch any sense of stability slip through your hands while opening yourself to a whole new experience and a whole new way of life being revealed to and through you.

I suppose it’s the nature of the incarnational God moment in Bethlehem that invites us into such a reality, where the most vulnerable becomes enfleshed in the very human reality, one that has existed from before the beginning of time, when we enter into this world and leave behind the confines of what has nurtured us and fed us in ways that we’d now learn how to do on our own. It’s often a painful process that invites us into becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable of our lives, pushing us to the brink of change and the consistent edge of seeking the unknown ways that God still desires to reveal in and through us. It is at Bethlehem, and the Bethlehem of our own lives, where that process begins to unfold in our hearts and souls, where not only us, but God becomes equal with, bridging the divide that separates the authentic being that we are and are so often stands in the way of living a life more fully in the gift of Bethlehem, that somehow even manages to find a way to conquer even death itself.

This week was my first week here at Bethlehem Farms in West Virginia. It’s rather appropriate knowing my own story these months that I’d find myself back at the beginning, in a place that takes pride in a name that recalls for us the gift given and continues to give in Bethlehem. There was and is nothing neat and fancy about Bethlehem, a child born in a stable, straw strewn with animal dung, odors that spill over into the creases of our bodies, reminding us of our humanity and the gift we share with all God’s creation, that there is nothing that separates and divides but we ourselves at times. It’s often in reconnecting with the most basic elements of who we are in the order of creation where we reconnect with Bethlehem in a more real and profound way, waking at the break of day, chores, daily routines, prayer, and of course, the sharing of meals that makes Bethlehem what it was and is, the heart and soul of who we are in God’s plan.

It’s all the discomforts of walking into those unfamiliar places, raising the awareness of our own shame and guilt for living lives disconnected from one another, from creation, and even from ourselves at times. Bethlehem, and the miracle of Bethlehem, like the celebration of birth in any of God’s creation, is it manages to pull us into the most present moment of our lives, where nothing else matters than what lies before us. The pain of such a journey begins to wane. The wonder and awe, dreams of a life given birth is all that lies before us when we allow ourselves to be open to the voice of God enfleshed in others, nature, the natural world, the animals, and all living creatures that when created were good, even very good.

There’s nothing quite as magical as watching life unfold, especially the lives of young people who have their eyes opened to something beyond the life they have lived. Even in their own experience of Bethlehem we have no idea when they enter the world how their lives will unfold, all we know is that it somehow happened in and through us along the way. It will be their own openness to a different way of life and allowing themselves to be connected in varying ways, where they too can find themselves questioning the ways of the world, seeds planted beyond the beds of a garden, but in the hearts and souls of all who pass through the ravines of Bethlehem, looking for a new way of life, a different way of life, recognizing that there must be something more for them in life beyond the phones, games, and fast-paced world of success that never quite satisfies. Rather, finding the treasure of life and birth in the community gathered in prayer, in work, in meal, all moving towards the common goal of making the world a better place, a more sustainable place, and never quite being satisfied with the comfort, but finding comfort in the discomfort of Bethlehem that is always calling and beckoning to come forth to a new life in and through God. It’s the true miracle of Bethlehem.

Many walked through the bowels of Bethlehem searching for the “king” and a new way of life, somehow believing what it is they’d search for all their life would be found in a far distant land only to find that it lies within, that the gift of Bethlehem is in the birth of joy, compassion, and love in our own hearts. More often than not we will search in similar ways, believing that what it is we seek lies somehow and somewhere beyond us, taking us on a journey, at times, seemingly, thousands of miles away. It’s the nature of who we are as humans to seek what it is we desire beyond ourselves. More than anything we seek love and to be loved, only coming with our own oneness with others, with God, with all of creation, when we finally begin to accept that there is nothing, as Paul writes to the Romans, that can separate us from the love of God.

The journey to Bethlehem is a long one, arduous at times, wanting even to turn around and go home to what was, questioning whether the journey is really worth the time and effort. In the end, as with any birth but certainly the vulnerability that God takes on in becoming flesh, it is only in that journey where we find our deepest purpose and truly what it means to love and to accept that love in return. Love stands as the only bridge to what separates, heart to heart, flesh to flesh, man, woman, and all creation standing together, hand in hand, reminding the world that great things happen in Bethlehem and because of Bethlehem. It’s nothing that any power structure or any powers that be will ever understand, for they live with divided hearts. It’s only in the great humility of Bethlehem where it begins to make sense, that there is more to life, more to a life once lived but now being summoned in different ways, more life-giving ways, that opens to door to a journey to yet another miracle. By the guidance of a night sky and illumined stars, it once again comes to Bethlehem, surrounded by the most obvious and yet most inconspicuous places, in the comfort of the uncomfortable, God once again gives birth.

And They Remembered

We all have events in our lives that we’d rather forget. They’re typically moments of tragedy, heartbreak, loss of all kinds, events that have a way of puncturing our heart and soul to the point that it feels like there is no return. I suppose, at times, there are also moments we’d like to go on forever, as if we could simply stop the clock at one point and relive a moment over and over again. Either way leads to a point of getting stuck, simultaneously fearing the inevitable death and letting go that is necessary in order to step forward. Although our minds may have the ability to hold us hostage to such events, it’s the heart that continues to drag us forward, often unwillingly at times, to the greater depth and meaning that such events have in our lives in order to let go and experience life more fully, conscious of the present moment.

You have to believe that the disciples found themselves in a similar place in their lives, thinking of the many highs and lows that they had in walking the way of the Christ. If they could just somehow get back to the moments of healing and feeding that brought them to the place of humility in their own lives, in awe of a God of such wonder. Now, though, wanting to put behind them the events of the past days of the violence committed against the Christ. It wasn’t just an ending for Jesus, it was an ending for everyone involved with the unfolding of events and the trauma inflicted upon the Christ, all out of fear, power, hate, and illusions held of a God that could only be summed up in words and laws rather than a God, stripped of all dignity, a God who not only calls them to life but a God who understands the human complexity of dealing with death, a dying to self that becomes a necessity to living a life of love and fullness. Before there is any glimpse of dawn, the disciples too would venture where they’d rather not go, into the hallow halls of the hell they’d rather forget and yet become enslaved to before a new day arrives.

Much of the resurrection narratives, such as that of Luke, is accompanied by the words or something similar, “and they remembered”. We hear that when the women appear at the tomb in Luke’s account of the resurrection. As much as they’d like to forget, and in some ways, we do forget the pain that accompanies new life, there’s a remembering that takes place all at the same time. We begin to see the events that impacted us with new perspective, maybe not necessarily happening in the way we really remembered or now as adults don’t seem as traumatic as when we were children. The act of remembering in the resurrection accounts allows for the space within the heart to begin to widen so that the events of the past days of suffering can be put in greater perspective and in new light, slowing becoming free of the binding force of pain. They begin, and certainly by no means taking away the trauma and violence inflicted, to see meaning to the suffering and even their own participation in such violence towards the Christ, not as an act of bowing their heads in shame, but in moments of forgiveness towards one another, to the people they’ve hurt, and to the ones who had done harm towards them. They begin to retell the story through a new lens and with each step “along the way” the fear of their hearts begins to evaporate into the freedom of resurrection.

The School of Love (see previous post) doesn’t allow for the skipping of steps along the way and at times requires the disciples and ourselves to go back and pick up the pieces in our lives that were seemingly missed and forgotten for a variety of reasons. As much as we’d like to forget, our minds have a way of protecting us when we experience pain and trauma that only opens when we ourselves are ready to deal with the infliction. The process of death and resurrection is something that happens over the course of time, a remembering and a letting go that happens in order to have the courage to step forth from the oft self-inflicted tombs we create for ourselves, preventing us from life and love. Once there is movement and momentum towards life and love, though, the true power of the Christ becomes unstoppable and what we see is no longer death and decay, fear and loneliness, but rather hope in the face of adversity, love accompanying loneliness, life leading us through death.

In this continued commemoration, the events seem like utter “nonsense”. None of it makes any sense to the human mind. Faith, unfortunately, has become that all too often, as something I need to understand and comprehend, something certain and that I can cling to in the face of suffering and death. Easter, though, reminds us of just the opposite. When we cling, we cling to death more than anything. We begin to suffocate ourselves and others, as was seen in the chaos that ensues on Good Friday in the praetorium, unable to see, think, or hear as the weight of the Cross bears down on the world. Easter, however, reminds us that there is no need to cling because, more often than not, we cling to what is not real, a false hope, the illusions of pain that accompany past hurts, certainty, comfort, and all the rest that become second-nature in our lives, all of which pointing not to the empty tomb of Easter but rather the one sealed in the darkness of days past.

The passing over from death to life doesn’t lead to death no longer being a part of our life. Rather, it becomes the way to life, the only way to life where the two become one. Easter isn’t simply about some future time that we bank everything on. God wants us to live today, not in fear but rather in love and in peace. Our inability to let go of the past and all that accompanies it will continue to create the very hell we try to avoid in times to come. We become what it is we fear the most. The utter nonsense of Easter invites us to step forth from our comfortable tombs and to see the world in a new way, through a new lens, where we no longer need to fear. Fear will inevitably always lead to control, certainty, dogmatic thinking, illusions, and to the greater suffering we fear the most. However, what we often fear the most is love and through love learn a new way of living. The power of love in resurrection and life transforms us to trust, to let go, to mystery, the stepping whole-heartedly into the unknown, to freedom. What we fear most isn’t really death. As a matter of fact, we become quite comfortable there, trying to forget rather than forgive. Rather, it’s love, because like the disciples, we totally lose control of our lives and finally learn to surrender ourselves and our hearts to something more, to something and someone bigger than ourselves, who’s always summoning us from darkness into the splendor of light. This paschal mystery is not simply about some future life we long for; rather, an invitation to live and to love today and finally remember the greater truth of the resurrected Christ we too are and participate!

Inside Out

Wisdom 2: 12, 17-20; James 3: 16–4: 3; Mark 9: 30-37

One of the themes of Mark’s Gospel is that of “movement”.  The disciples and Jesus are always on the go as the gospel proceeds, at least until the passion when it will come to a screeching halt.  Mark, though, would not be the one to read if you want a geography lesson on this part of the world because they’re all over the place!  But there’s another more profound movement that takes place in Mark’s Gospel and we hear it today, “once they were inside the house”.  There’s a movement from outside to inside with this Gospel and when we hear that they were inside the house our ears should perk up because it usually indicates something important is about to be taught.  It’s not just about being inside the house.  It’s a symbolic move that shifts them to their own interior life, within their hearts, that this message needs to penetrate.  It’s here where what really needs to happen in moving to a changed heart for the disciples and us and where their own interior struggle is revealed.

The crazy thing of the story is that Jesus isn’t even dead yet and they’re already fighting about who’s the greatest, who’s the most important, who has the power, and all the rest.  You could just imagine them bickering about all of it as if they were waiting for that moment.  Yet, there’s Jesus just going along with them until they enter the recesses of their own hearts where the shallowness of the argument begins to reveal itself.  He goes to the extent of bring a child into the center to teach them what this life as a disciple is all about because the child would have no place in society and certainly no standing.  Such as it is with the disciples.  No bickering of greatest and power and who’s the best but rather of service and humility.  When we remain on that level of conflict there is a lack of humility and conflict continues.

It’s what James tells us in today’s second reading.  He goes onto say that we shouldn’t even have to ask ourselves why war, conflict, division, and this clamoring for power exists because even to this day we refuse to do our interior work, to get our own house in order.  All these writers would remind us even to this day that life is about being lived from the inside out; that if we get our own house in order, our own interior life, then there is less need for jealousy and selfish ambition as he tells us today.  As a matter of fact, he’d go onto say that if we have the need to boast about how wise we are, how great we are, how smart we are, and all the rest then it does quite the opposite.  It goes onto show just how empty we can be in our own interior life and how empty the house really is.  Yet, it’s our culture in the Church and certainly in our nation, that we believe that all the externals are in place, we dress the part and play the part, then all is fine, despite the fact that more often than not we’re living a lie.  The more we neglect our own house, our own interior, the more we tend to act upon our jealousies and selfish ambitions.  Quite frankly, it’s easier to live the blame game and blame everyone else for our problems.  Yet, James reminds us they are still there, lurking below the surface in our own homes, our own interior lives.

Solomon, the writer of Wisdom would tell us the same.  He speaks of that wickedness that tends to dominate our interior when we neglect it.  He portrays for us in many ways the image of the true Israelite.  Yet, the wicked ones, who claim power and wisdom, are doing everything to undo him and to expose him as a fraud, not realizing that they are the frauds in it all.  They don’t quite know what to do with themselves because once Solomon does his own work and gets his own house in order, they no longer have control or power over him.  It’s what pushes them to try to undo him and prove him as a fraud.  Yet, Solomon has nothing to prove.  Solomon recognizes his own wickedness and has learned to reconcile it within himself.  War, conflict, division, and all the rest continues to plague us on all levels because we refuse to get our own house in order.  It’s easier to blame and to allow our own “wickedness” to come out towards others, all along emptying of us of the very fullness of life that we desire within our own interior life.  We begin to separate ourselves from our own humanity and cast our sin upon the other.

We need to get our own house in order.  The invitation of Jesus this evening is the invitation to each of us, to come inside the house.  Sure, we often fear that place within ourselves, but it’s the only path towards healing and reconciliation and a change of heart.  The path of discipleship is not only of service but of humility and that humility is revealed in the interior wisdom when we begin the oft painful process of getting our house in order.

We pray for the grace this day to enter the house over and over again, to our own interior lives and confront our own wickedness that torments us as it did the ideal Israelite and will certainly torment the disciples as they face Jerusalem.  The appearance of humility and wisdom is just not enough.  It continues to reveal how bankrupt our culture can become and that culture in turn influences our politics and our Church.  We become what we hate and settle for lies over the stream of wisdom that flows within the house, our very hearts.  We all desire that fullness of life but it will never come by focusing solely on the exterior world of power, success, wealth, and all the rest.  They will only leave us more anxious and empty.  The fullness of life we desire lies within, when we can live our lives from the inside out.

Love’s Friends

Acts 10: 25-26, 34-35, 44-48; I John 4: 7-10; John 15: 9-17

You don’t need to be a biblical scholar to understand that the message of love stands at the very heart of John’s writing.  Between the second reading and the gospel today, a total of eleven verses, the word love appears eighteen times.  It stands as the core of his ethic and what it means to be a community that has Christ at its center.  The past few weeks it’s all we have heard from him is this message of love.

Today, though, he tells it in the context of friendship.  He calls his disciples friends.  Of course, friendship is near and dear to all of us.  More than anything it is our friends that accept us for who we are, warts and all.  There’s no need to hide or mask ourselves in anyway.  There’s no sense of superiority or feeling less than. If there is it really would not be friendship anyway.  Over the course of our lives they tend to be some of the most important people in our lives, accepting us, the first people we call, the ones who walk with us through struggles, the ones who love us in a very unique way, often willing to put our own needs ahead of their own.

It’s a rather unique description that would be used by Jesus in describing his own followers as they prepare to be sent forth into a hostile world.  It’s a radical message for them as a crew who would be familiar with their own tradition knowing that the only one named friend of God in Scripture is Abraham, the father of their faith, and now Jesus using the same language.  He comes down on their level and meets them there while raising them up in line with someone like Abraham.  They are friends.  Of course, it won’t take very long before they find out what this friendship is going to ask of them.  They’re not the best of friends at first, abandoning him in the darkest of times out of fear for their own lives.  Yet, he meets them where they are, in all their imperfections and nonsense, love comes down to them and calls them forth.

We have seen how that plays itself out in the earliest community of Acts of the Apostles these six weeks of Easter now and once again today Peter is confronted with this reality in relation to others.  Peter has just had a miracle done through him so Cornelius believes that he is at an elevated position.  Now, of course, we have put Peter in that position ourselves, and there’s nothing wrong with being a leader, but what Peter doesn’t forget is that it’s not about him.  As a matter of fact, when he gets out of the way, as he did today, his ministry is even more fruitful because he knows it’s not about him and it is only this love and this friendship with Jesus that continues to work in and through Peter to do what he does.  Now it’s not that they always get it right either and we’ve heard that these weeks as well.  They are constantly discerning and figuring it as they go and learning where it is that God’s leading them, but they can only do this by doing what was commanded to them in this farewell discourse of John, by remaining and abiding in their friendship with Jesus and to keep returning to that source of love.

The community at times still falls back to its old ways and old way of thinking.  The other followers of the way can’t seem to understand how the Spirit has come upon the Gentiles in the first reading today.  Israel, like Peter, has had its own struggle with having a somewhat superior status of being the chosen ones of God.  The master/slave relationship that Jesus speaks of was most familiar to them and has influenced them greatly.  It all takes time and returning to that source of love that begins to expand their hearts to understand that it doesn’t matter whether your Jewish, or followers of the Way, the early Christians, Samaritans, or Gentiles, this love far exceeds a particular group of people because the chosen-ness has nothing to do with that and everything to do with who this God is and the expansiveness of that love.  As they grow and deepen in that love it begins to make sense and the normal boundaries and judgments that have separated them begin to dissipate.  The love that transforms their hearts now transforms the world around them.  It only happens, though, when the return, abide, remain, the message that we have heard consistently from Jesus the past few weeks.  You only become love when you return to that source of love and that friendship with Jesus.

As we come ever nearer to the end of the Easter Season we return back to the beginning when we were asked as to what kind of community we’re called to be.  John has reinforced that message of love over and over for us these weeks and calls us to remain and abide in that love.  It’s the only thing that changes and transforms us.  Today, though, he calls it forth through friendship, one of the most valued of all relationships we cherish because we choose this friendship with Jesus.  We come like the disciples, messed up at times, afraid, far from perfect, masks and all at times, but he comes down to us and raises us up to that place of love to transform our hearts where we no longer need to hide from this God but rather enter into friendship in order to abide in love and become that love.

It is only love that will see the disciples through as they are sent forth into the hostile world, a world that remains hostile towards love.  Hostility, fear, war, violence know full well the power of love and will do anything to have us succumb to something less than love.  We go forth to bring that love to a world that doesn’t need more violence, separation, war, and division, but needs to be loved.  It’s the only thing that will transform it.  The more we enter more deeply into friendship with Jesus the more that love transforms our hearts and we become the hands and feet of Christ to those most in need and who are hurting.  We don’t go forth in order to be more of the same.  Rather, we go forth in order to love in a very different way as we are called to be a community of love, of friends, who don’t see ourselves as better than or even inferior towards others, rather as the most humble of ways, as friends.  Friends who share in love and are called to become love.  We pray for the grace to abide and remain in that love so that despite whatever it is we face, the world will be, as it was with Peter, transformed in and through us because we have allowed, over and over again, love to transform us.

“Urgency of the Moment”

It seems as if I have written on this subject more than anything since beginning this blog several years ago.  One because of my own affinity with working with young people and when their lives are cut short senselessly, my heart bleeds for them.  It’s not just a life that ends, but hope, creativity, future, imagination, and so much more that they hadn’t had the chance to share with the world in the fullest.  Secondly, though, is our obsession with violence in our society and culture that we never quite come to grips with, showing our own immaturity on the world stage with the thinking that violence and acts of violence can somehow declare us victor or solve problems, never quite seeing beyond the immediate choice that is made to pull a trigger.

I happened to catch an interview with a Congressman this morning.  His name and location I can’t remember, but his comment has stuck with me throughout the day in reflecting on the events in Parkland, Florida at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.  He had commented that we are an exceptional country.  We have the strongest military.  We have the best people.  He seemed to go on and on about our exceptionalism and yet, it all stands in the face of yet another tragedy.  If we can do ourselves any favors, as a country, we can stop using such language to describe ourselves.

If there is anything I’ve learned, in spending so much time working with people, it’s that if you have to spend time trying to convince others how exceptional you are you probably are not.  When we live with such a mantra, where even our greatest strength is military, over time we convince ourselves of the illusion that somehow we can’t learn from others, that somehow we know better than every other kid on the block and they should look to me to see how to do things.  It casts a glaze over our eyes in the way we see things and prevents us from the possibility and potential of finally looking at ourselves so that we can go more deeply into the real problems we face as a country and society.  When you convince yourself of your exceptionalism there’s no room for growth.  You’ve decided you’ve already reached the promised land and the promised land is right here.

I started looking at the names and faces of the next seventeen people to add to the list of this ongoing violence.  Their smiles.  Imagining their potential.  Their innocence in the face of tragedy, most likely not even knowing what had happened to them with others now trying to pick up pieces that can almost never be brought together again.  It’s the unfortunately reality of such events and honestly, there’s nothing exceptional about it.

I simply wrote yesterday upon hearing the news that I’m grateful that I grew up in a different time when such acts weren’t even imagined.  The tragic reality only fuels the reaction it brings, somehow thinking arming more people, threatening even more violence, is going to somehow resolve the issue.  I couldn’t even begin to fathom a day when I walked into school needing to go through security.  Yet, listening to students speak in interviews, they think nothing of it.  There in lies even more proof that we refuse to look at ourselves.  We’ll simply continue to arm ourselves with our defense, our fear, our lack of compassion and empathy, our ideology, and unfortunately our politics, which more often than not only fuels the problem and is fed through the problem.  The entire system currently feeds on division, which, in and of itself, invokes violence in various ways.

It is rare that empires fall at the hands of outsiders.  More often than not empires fall from within.  They divide themselves and fall.  Quite frankly because they lose their sense of humanity, a logical outcome of thinking your exceptional.  As heinous acts of violence continue to ensue our landscape, roads and bridges collapse, inequality grows more deeply,  schools often failing their students or unable to challenge them, and political divides deepen, debt climbs out of control, there will come a day of reckoning of just what it means to be exceptional or great.  In the end we simply lie to ourselves and over time believe the lie while the world watches.

It’s going to take the young minds and hearts to steer this ship in a new direction, but if we continue to insist on taking such lives, not only in schools but on our own street corners, there will be no future to envision.  The illusion of exceptionalism has been smashed for some time, but the more we cling to it and try to convince ourselves otherwise is yet another day lost to imagining what could be.  When Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 he said, “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all God’s children.  It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.”  Yet, despite the times of great injustice that continue, he still dreamed and so must we.  There is an urgency of this moment in which we are given, either to once again get swallowed up in needing to be exceptional and ignoring our deeper human problems or rising to the occasion as he demanded, to dream a better way of life, not only for ourselves but for the generations who will inherit what we have done. 

There is an urgency in the moment to seek a larger and yet common vision for who we are, that rises above guns, politics, and money.  There is an urgency in the moment because we owe it to the current 17 and the countless others that stand in the cross-hairs of violence each day in this country.  In spite of it all, we must, and must we must, dare to dream lest others die in vain.  We need the necessary freedom to break free from our way of thinking that we have become paralyzed by it all, powerless to change.  We have the gifts and not through the walls of Congress or the White House, but in our very hearts to imagine better days.  It doesn’t mean a naïve look, where all is perfect.  That’s how we got here in the first place.  Rather, a looking at what we have allowed and become through the eyes of humility that we’re not done yet and all we can do is keep our eye on the prize, the promised land.  “This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, ‘My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.  Land where my fathers died.  Land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountain side, let freedom ring.’ And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.”

The Predictably Unpredictable Master

The parable of the talents is now the second of the three in this chapter of Matthew.  Last week we heard the parable of the wise and foolish virgins and then next week will be the culmination of Jesus’ teaching in this gospel in the judgment of the nations.  It’s the final teaching of Jesus before the real event as to what this all means and what it has to tell them about who this God and who this Jesus really is and what he’s all about.  Like the other two parables this one is filled, like our lives, with many contradictions that are hidden in plain sight.

Our natural inclination, as I’ve said before, is to automatically try to identify who’s who in these parables that Jesus offers us.  It’s almost as if we have to identify roles so we know where we fit and somehow feel comfortable with it, knowing who’s who.  However, that would leave us in a bit of a predicament with calling God the master of the story, considering what we know about the master according to the one who was given one talent.  Even the master makes a pre-judgment about the guy by only giving one, according to his ability.  But this same guy then reveals the identity of the master by telling us that he’s demanding, a lie and a cheat and pretty much leaves them to their own accord by leaving.  Now I can’t necessarily say that’s how I would identify God, and yet, when we rush to judgment and trying fill in the blanks, it’s the God we’re left with.  But maybe that’s Jesus point.

Let’s look at the other two who obviously were very successful in turning the talents into great wealth.  According to our standard today we’re talking millions of dollars, more money than we know what to do with.  They make this money by becoming the likeness of the master and his success which means they too become demanding along with liars and cheats.  It was common knowledge in that time.  Also common thinking, as it often is to this very day, that wealth and this accumulation of it was how they viewed God.  The more I had the more somehow God has blessed me and graced my life, as if grace and blessing can somehow be quantified.  Today we’d call it the prosperity gospel.  The more I have the more God must love me and well, if I don’t it’s probably my own fault.  You see, God is not the master in this sense.  The master is a god but they serve the master of success of wealth and power.  It stands in total contradiction to what they are about to witness about the true Master facing the passion, death, and resurrection.  Yet, we’ve adopted in our own churches serving the wrong master at times.  It may bring us joy, as we hear, but it’s a fleeting joy, not the joy that comes through the true Master, the eternal.

That does, though, leave the third one hanging out there.  Mindful of all we know of Jesus and all the stories we’ve heard from Matthew this year wouldn’t it make sense that he’d be drawn to this final character of the parable.  You can almost imagine him huddled over out of fear seeking the Lord of life.  But the master of success in the parable has already made a judgment about him, just as the Pharisees have done about anyone that has not been somehow blessed by God, by not having.  Here’s a guy who even stands up to the master of success, facing him with a sense of authenticity and courage, humbling confronting the master and just as the Pharisees do, he’s tossed into the darkness.  He comes with nothing and leaves with nothing.  Isn’t that just how our lives are designed?  We always want more and the more is never enough.  Success for the true Master is more about less being more, it’s about coming as we are, with nothing, in humility and with authenticity standing up to the many masters we serve.

That is what’s behind this rather unusual proverb we hear in the first reading.  What the heck does the ideal wife have to do with talents and all the rest in the gospel?  What makes her the ideal is that she’s not there to serve the master in her husband.  Rather, she’s mindful of the true master and does all she does in the name of that Master.  The proverb tells us that she finds all the superficialities as fleeting, charm and beauty are simply joys that will pass.  She keeps her eye on her one God.  She is a woman that fears the Lord in its truest sense, a hope and joy that is eternal and she finds that through serving the true Master, as we’d say, in Christ, through the grace to trust and have a deeper sense of faith that transcends what the world offers her, which at that time was not a great deal.

Paul reminds us through his letter to the Thessalonians today that the moment comes in all of our lives, like a thief in the night, when we’re questioned and when we should begin to question the master that it is that we are serving.  He tells us when it arises in us it’s like labor pains, a painful experience when we are awakened to the reality that we’ve been serving our own master rather than the Master.  It will not only be what master we decide to serve but also what we do with it.  Do we continue to seek fleeting joy and the instant gratification in our lives or do we look for more?  Ironically, when we look for more it’s often less that can fill.  The more we try to fill ourselves with our own masters the more empty we become, lacking meaning and purpose in our lives.

We are now just over a month away from when our lives become all about the “more”.  We’ll need more gifts, cards, parties, stuff to have ourselves a successful Christmas.  Yet, we’ve probably all been in that place, that, when all is said and done we feel empty and unfulfilled.  More often than not it’s because we’ve spent our times serving the wrong master and then we’re faced with the holiday blues.  We pray this day for the grace to become aware or maybe even just to begin to ask ourselves who is the master we serve in our lives.  The master we serve says a lot about the God we choose to serve.  This god of success and prosperity is so tempting in our lives and yet often comes at great cost.  Maybe not in the moment but at some point it happens.  The true Master calls us to a life of humility, faith and trust.  The more we keep our eye and heart on the true Master the more we begin to realize that we don’t need much, that less is often more.  It’s a God of deep mystery that we are invited to fall into, as the ideal wife does in Proverbs, trusting in the promise of the eternal joy that arrives when we finally let go of our own masters and learn to trust the fall into the true Master of our lives, the eternal Christ.

 

Fasting for Life

Isaiah 58: 7-10; ICor 2: 1-5; Matthew 5: 13-16

I feel blessed because I’ve had the opportunity to travel to several Third World countries over the years, often with high school students. I still remember the first time I had left the country and had done one of these trips to Honduras. Needless to say, it’s a culture shock when you step off the plane in another country like this and see men standing around in many locations with machine guns. You quickly realize that you’re no longer in the States and are going to be pushed to look at life and people very differently than what we’re used to here. You know, I’m from small town Pennsylvania and I never had an experience of someone of a different color in my life until I had gone to college. My only experience was judgment, stereotype, and fear. That was it; but quickly learned that none of it was true when I began to enter into relationships with others. It didn’t seem to matter color, lifestyle, religion or anything else that is used to separate and put ourselves in a place of superiority.

The one striking thing we’d often push each other on in these different cultures and surroundings was to catch ourselves when we were being over-American. As Americans, we love to fix and we want to help to the point where we want to, in many ways, create “mini-me’s” around the globe. We think we’re the greatest and somehow know how to do this life thing better than anyone else. However, when we want to fix and we want to help, it also puts us in a place of superiority because we know better than “those” people. It automatically puts up a barrier between and prevents relationship. If there’s anything I learned, none of these experiences were about changing anyone else. More often than not, they were about changing me as a person and to let go of my fears and judgements, sometimes even about myself.

At the heart of the first reading today from the prophet Isaiah is about that, about fasting, but not int the way we use that word. Like most things, we water it down to make these things more palatable, like giving up food or something. That’s not the message of Isaiah though. Isaiah’s challenge is a much more radical fasting. He challenges Israel to fast from malicious thought, oppression, false accusation, and as I said, would include, fear and judgment. Israel also has lived with this complex of greatness, but that’s a hard standard to live up to forever. Eventually it begins to crack and Isaiah is inviting them into that place. Like us at times, they want to enter into these relationships thinking their somehow superior and above and thought everyone should be like them. Isaiah says and challenges today, to give it up. To give up that kind of thinking that stands in the way of relationship. He says to go and serve the poor, the hungry, the homeless. In our own day, we’d add refugees which is not a new phenomenon. It’s gone on for some time and we are left wondering what to do with a humanity that is not in need of fixing and helping but of healing and reconciliation. It’s not just about serving for our own need. It’s about a service that challenges us to go to the vulnerable places in our own lives that are in need of healing. It is so often in these relationships that we are pushed to that place.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. But not always. We haven’t as a country and we aren’t always in our daily lives. We can’t ignore our own darkness and the moments when we allow fear to control our lives. The light is the only thing that can help to illumine the darkness of our lives. It is so often that fear and judgement that we hold onto and often define ourselves by that prevents us from stepping out of the dark and entering into relationship with the other. Maybe it’s fear of us being moved to change that prevents us the most. When you think you’re the greatest there’s really no need for change. However, here’s the thing about greatness. You can never be it until you give up and surrender all interest in it. There’s no humility in that type of greatness, only pride that cuts our lives short from where it is that God invites us to grow in these relationships with one another.

Relationships are hard, not only others but with God. They require a great deal of effort on our part and an openness to change, me changing! It is much easier to crawl up into my fear and judgement and lock myself into my own little corner of the world but there’s nothing freeing about that. It is so often in the relationships that we have avoided because of our fear and judgment that have prevented us from an experience of the unknown, of another part of God which is then opened up to us. That’s the real desire of Isaiah and also the desire of Paul in proclaiming the mystery of God. The invitation today is to step beyond our own comfort. Maybe it is in service to someone different than myself that I have feared. The challenge is to not go into it with the intention to fix or someone change to your image and likeness, but low and behold, to maybe, just maybe, allow yourself to be changed. The more we fast from this fear and judgment and even malicious thoughts that Isaiah tells us about today, the more we are opened to hearts that are healed and vulnerable to a greater experience of love. In that we continue to grow into our call in being salt of the earth and light of the world.