A Life Exposed

Genesis 22: 1-2, 9-13, 15-18; Romans 8: 31-34; Mark 9: 2-10

The story of Abraham and Isaac that we hear from Genesis today is considered as one of the more bizarre stories we encounter in Scripture.  I mean, who in their right might would kill a child?  Who?  Especially this child and in this story.  We know that this child is all that Abraham and Sarah ever wanted.  They waited until their twilight years before Isaac arrives and now Abraham stands over him, not simply to sacrifice, but as the reading tells us, to slaughter him.  That’s what we hear.  It’s what we see today.  You know that almost half the people killed in Syria this week were children.  Children being slaughtered senselessly and yet here we are.

The story, though, is told in relation to the one that ends up being sacrificed.  It’s the ram that takes the place of Isaac in the story.  As much as Isaac stands as the vulnerable one, the ram comes with great symbolism in Scripture.  The ram represents power and strength.  It’s typically the leaders of the lambs because of it’s horns.  It has a natural sense of power and strength built into its structure.  However, as we hear in the reading today, the very gift of the ram, its horns, becomes its downfall.  All its power and strength gets it stuck in the thicket and so its power leads to its demise.  So what is it that Abraham is sacrificing.  The whole story not only tells us something about him but it also tells us something about the God that he believed in in his life.  Not only who would kill a child but what kind of God would want someone to kill a child.  Yet, there he was and there we are even to this very day.  Even in those early moments God is trying to reveal something more about God and what it is that Abraham needs to sacrifice.

This child and the ram have a message for Abraham as to what that is.  Here he is, about to hand the baton to Isaac, the inheritance, the legacy, the kingdom that has been promised, and yet is about to kill.  Maybe in those moments Abraham had doubts about the whole thing or maybe the eventual sacrifice opens the eyes, that it’s not the vulnerable one that is to be slaughtered but that sense of power and strength that the ram symbolizes.  More often than not, the vulnerable become the easy target, especially if they’re revealing something about ourselves that we’re uncomfortable with in life.  When we begin to feel as if our own power, or perceived power for that matter, are slipping from our fingers, we react against that vulnerability.  Yet, the child has something to expose us to.  That goes for your kids as well.  None of them turn out as you might have wanted but all along they expose us to ourselves.  Yeah, kids are kids, but they view the world in a very different way than ourselves.  They have yet to become jaded or beat down by the world and especially in those moments of great suffering, as was for Isaac, in their cry they expose us to what is most important.  Is it that power and strength that does more harm than good or that place of vulnerability, that child within, that continues to cry out to be loved and nurtured, exposing us to our own shortcomings and our buy-in to the illusion of power.

The same could be said of the disciples in today’s Gospel from Mark.  First thing they want to do after having this vision is set up shop.  They think this is what it’s all about and there’s no need to go any further.  They’re still clamoring for that same power and control.  Heck, as much as they say they won’t tell anyone it’s only a few verses later where they’re fighting with each other about who’s most important and who’s in charge, who it is that carries that horns of that ram.  For them, as it is for us, that sense of power, control, and perceived strength will always be our downfall.  The same will be true for the disciples.  It will not be until they find themselves in the most vulnerable of places, at the foot of the cross, before they begin to put the pieces together and see what this life is all about.  Until then, they’ll fight for power and be blinded by it’s gaze.  They can’t even seem to help themselves.

The Son has a great deal to teach and reveals not only the true to them but exposes them to their own shadow.  The Son, as Isaac does, points out what is often our real intention and our own selfishness.  All of this is why we so often encounter Jesus among the children, the poor, women, the sick and destitute.  They see the world so often from the bottom up because that’s how they lived their lives.  They were told they were worthless and often excluded from society.  Jesus raises them up and in doing so reveals the insecurity of the leaders of that day and the leaders of our own day and their own motivation for power.   The Son and the children have something to teach us and our exposing our own bankrupt culture, crying out for something more.  The question is, are we going to listen?

This season of Lent provides us the space to be challenged in such ways and what it is that we’re sacrificing in our own lives.  Are we sacrificing what is most important and dear to us all for the sake of power and position, agendas in our own lives.  We know the cost and is the cost worth the most vulnerable, the generation that we’re called to pass the baton to.  In faith, we know we will be alright but as I said, when it feels like that power is slipping away and we become exposed for who we really are, what’s left.  Abraham tells us, as does Paul, what’s left is all that matters, the most precious of all, the vulnerable and sacred lives that have been given to us.  We are at a critical point to ask such questions in our lives and world in the way we are to proceed.  Do we continue to seek the illusion of the horns, which will eventually bring us down anyway, or to listen to the powerless son in Isaac and the powerless Son in Christ, pointing us to something more, to that place of vulnerability where a life of faith, surrender, and trust can overflow.

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‘Better than This’

Isaiah 22: 19-23; Matthew 16: 13-20

In today’s opening prayer we heard something like, we pray amid all the uncertainties of the world.  Well, I’m not sure where it is we start with that.  It seems as if there is uncertainty and chaos all over the place, around the globe, the country, even Mother Nature seems to be playing a part, but also right outside our front door.  I’ve been here three years now and this was the first summer that I was awakened one night because someone was shot across the street.  I don’t know who he was or what the circumstances are but I’d guess drugs.  It’s the way of life in this stretch of road.  It’s been a rough summer in the city of Baltimore and here in our own neighborhood.  All I can think is, aren’t we better than this?  Aren’t we better than all of this?

You ever notice that’s often our response to realities like this?  It was our response following Charlottesville, following 9/11, after mosques had been blown up, among other things, that somehow we’re better than this.  It is the American way to these situations, somehow we’re better than all of this.  It’s the illusion and persona that we collectively try to project to the world that somehow we’re above these realities even though everyone else knows otherwise.  None of us can really escape it.  It’s a part of who we are but it’s also a way that we separate ourselves from responsibility and connection to those who suffer and hurt, people who walk this street day in and day out.  More often than not we’d prefer the illusion over the reality but the reality is that the guy shot is me and you as well.  In the end those who suffer those most from our thinking that we’re better than this are the poor who often get trampled upon to uphold the illusion and avoid the reality.

It’s where we encounter Shebna in the first reading today from Isaiah.  Shebna is about to be tossed out as the master of the palace because of his lack of responsibility to the people.  Shebna is all about himself and feeds into this power that has been given to him and has abused it.  God’s not going to have anything of it and is now going to toss him and raise up Eliakim.  As with many of these figures we encounter in the prophetic books they let power go to their head and becomes about thinking they’re better than others and somehow above others along the way.  We’re better than that would be his approach to the people and so now he’ll be humbled and stripped of this illusion of power that he has held so tightly.  God will raise up a father figure, one who can tend to the needs of the people and their pain, holding a place of honor in the family.  From the beginning of time we’ve lived with the uncertainties of a changing world and a fallen world clinging to power.  As I said, it’s very much a part of who we are as humans and certainly as Americans.

Then there’s Peter.  He too is given power today as they have this encounter with the Lord.  Upon this rock I’ll build my church, keys of the kingdom and so on.  Needless to say almost instantly it’ll go to Peter’s head and will be knocked down a few in next week’s gospel.  He immediately begins to think that he’s somehow better than and above the rest because of all this recognition from Jesus but despite identifying the Lord in today’s gospel he doesn’t yet realize he is also speaking of his own deepest identity.  Notice that Jesus asks two questions.  First he asks what the crowds have to say about him.  What is the image the persona that he is projecting to this crowd?  They say he’s one of the prophets like Elijah and Jeremiah or John the Baptist.  But then he goes directly to those closest of the followers, those closest to him and asks and Peter responds ‘the Christ’.  It doesn’t put him above them in some way or lording authority over them.  It’s a recognition of the reality of who he really is beyond any illusions and persona that may get in the way.  At the core we are the divine, myself, you, the man shot outside, those peddling drugs, those looking for some sense of belonging in gangs in this city.  At the core we are all the same.  When we think otherwise we begin to separate, distance ourselves, and as we are so good at, the problem is somewhere out there.  The illusion can be so strong and we love to hold it so tightly thinking it’s who we are.  But in the end it separates us from reality and the many uncertainties that we face as a city, a nation, and a globe.  In the end, we all know who it ends up hurting the most.

If there is one thing we can be certain of, the extremes in our politics and even in our Church cling to that illusion in their own way, that somehow they hold the truth entirely, that they are somehow better than.  But they’re not and we’ll never move to a place of healing as a city and nation unless we learn to let go of that illusion and move to the place of our deeper identity.  All our clinging to the illusion is a mere reminder that we continue to search for something, search for God in our lives yet we cling to the wrong thing.  There are countless people suffering in this city and country and beyond and yet we still seem to convince ourselves that we’re better than that.  Our prayer is to allow ourselves to be aware of it in our own life; it happens so naturally.  Then learn to let it go.  Once we can accept reality for what it really is we then can begin to change it for the better, ourselves and as a society.  It’s humbling.  It takes a great deal of patience and acceptance.  It takes a great deal of courage to step out of that illusion and see the other as yourself.  There is always hope.  If we don’t, we’ll continue to separate and buy into the illusion, keeping us out of touch with reality, out of touch with the pain of our brothers and sisters.  The problem is…the problem is…we’re better than this.

 

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.

No Room in the Inn

Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32

Context of the Prodigal Son is important and the lectionary today gives us a taste of it at the very beginning. It says that tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to listen to Jesus while the Pharisees and scribes were complaining. That context sets up the contrast of what we then proceed to hear in one of the most beloved stories in all of scripture and is certainly a hallmark to Luke’s Gospel. We have the sinners and tax collectors on one side of the story and the stark contrast of the Pharisees on the other, with Jesus, of course, standing in the middle, trying to pull these two sides together; that of the younger son and the elder.

Of course, we have a tendency to focus so much on the one who has been named the prodigal. He’s the one that goes off and lives a life of dissipation, for whatever that means, and a life of total filth, literally with the swine. If there was ever a character that gets caught up in the moment and without a great deal of depth, he’s our guy. He likes to have a good time until he can’t anymore. He comes off as entitled until he can’t anymore. He can come off as lazy and avoiding the family duty of work, literally wishing his father dead and living that way, running off and losing it all. For him, maybe that’s the point, and possibly the link between these two brothers. He has to get to the point where he loses it all, gives it all away, before he can be free to return home. Those of us with a few years on us can simply smile sometimes at that part of the story, of course, unless it’s still a part of our lives or the lives of our children and grandchildren that can cause great anxiety in our lives, still living in hope of their return.

But of course, for most of us, it’s the elder son that should make us a little uneasy in our seats. He’s the one that seems to have it all together. Life has been all about duty. It’s about living this honorable life, or so he thinks and tries to project to the world. Things finally fall into place for him. His brother has left. All his judgments have proven true. There is now nothing that stands between him and his father and the inheritance. Everything is just perfect. Until that moment…the brother returns and all that seems honorable and dutiful begins to seethe from within him. There is no room in this house for the two of them. Not only that, but he witnesses the father’s love, which he thought was about duty and honor, only to witness something much different. The life he tried to project onto the world was no more, a crack in the facade and what do we find? Envy, jealousy, resentment, anger, bitterness. You name it and this guy is holding onto it. Makes you wonder what their relationship was like when they were together or was it even a relationship. This young man had no space within to welcome his brother home and for that matter, his father. He had no space for love. There literally was, no room in the inn, within his heart. He fell for the trap as the Pharisees did, that what they did and their role was their identity and that defined them. When love is presented they have no space for it.

We can go on and on with this passage and there is nothing more you can than to find time to sit with it and sit with these characters. They are us and it is love that Love asks us to make room for within our hearts. Jesus doesn’t hate the Pharisees. All he does is try to move them to a place where they can see that they are something more and they can give up the facade, the image they are holding onto. However, the more we hold onto it, the more all that stuff that the elder son had within continues to grow within us. We want and desire love but we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s about something else. We want and desire relationship and reconciliation but we’ve convinced ourselves that we know better. It’s the story of the scribes and Pharisees. There was no room in the inn at the beginning of the gospel with the birth of Jesus and there still remains no room in the inn. We want to judge the other who sins without recognizing it within ourselves. Somehow their sin is greater than my own!
All these lost and found stories of Luke’s gospel have that same reality and why he says tax collectors and sinners are closer to the Kingdom of God. They’re the ones moving in on Jesus at the beginning of the story. Something within speaks and is luring them in, looking for something more in their lives, looking for love. The Pharisees, the elder son, eh, well, they have what they want and it sure isn’t love. At the center of our lives stands the Father, the Christ, welcoming us home, where there are unlimited rooms and unlimited space. The invitation is always there, but it then rests on us. Do we come running home only to find the Father already coming to meet us or turn our backs once again on the invitation, on love, for something we think will satisfy our deepest longing? Oh, it seems so easy but we know how hard it can be to get to that point of giving it all up, whether it’s the actions that have separated us or the interior muck and illusion we continue to hold onto about ourselves. No matter what, the Father awaits.

Make America Great Again?

Please note…just because I’m using Make America Great Again as the title of this blog, it in no way means I support the candidacy of Donald Trump. This is a spiritual reflection on why I think that slogan works and a deeper meaning behind such a statement. This is simply one perspective on a much more complex issue.

It is said that there is a beginning to everything. Certainly there is a beginning to our lives, a beginning to a relationship and marriage, even a beginning to an end. Something that I have reflected upon greatly these past years is the beginning of that end for the United States, happening on a fateful day back in 2001, September 11th. Any of us alive can remember where we were and what we were doing. I can still remember the silence that night as I walked on the grounds of the seminary, very few cars and no planes flying overhead. There was something distinctly haunting about the whole experience.

If we study the development of human beings, there is nothing that takes a toll more than trauma, to the body and the psyche. We have certainly seen that as part of the cost of war, the ongoing violence in our cities, and terror that is thrown upon us with no warning. Think about the amount of disbelief we had when those planes struck. I can still visualize them slamming into the World Trade Center and the ash heap next to the Pentagon. It was said even then, terror struck at the heart of this country. Of course we now know the other plane was also enroute to similar locations but cut short by courage. Just think about it, the heart of who we are, the epicenter of both the military and finances both struck, and yet we describe that as our heart. Is it really the heart of who we are as people, as country, or better yet, should it be? They’re questions for all of us to reflect upon.

But something happened that day. When trauma hits an individual, as I said, it does something to the psyche and the body. It wants to shut down and the mind wants to keep reliving it, over and over again, an ongoing nightmare. In the span of literally minutes, any illusion we tried to cast upon the world about who we are had been shattered. We were the country that couldn’t be hit, invincible. We were the youngest on the playground, still filled with such innocence. Yet, in those very moments, it all came crashing down and the illusion we portrayed showed its dark side. For a period of time we sat in disbelief but then it became time to react, and we did. We would do anything to try to recreate the illusion of something that was never real in the first place but a persona we felt we needed to portray and one that protected us from any outside harm.

Since then, it has seemed like a patchwork, trying every which way to recreate the illusion rather than collectively allowing ourselves to stop and fall into the question of identity that it opened up for us. We’ve managed to continue to fight wars now for longer than we could have imagined. We’ve also allowed ourselves to be duped into believing we needed to somehow shore up the banks a few years back, for fear of a total collapse. If we can learn anything from our history and certainly of the great empires that have existed over the centuries, is that they all eventually fall. An illusion of greatness and strength, built on realities that will not last, such as war and greed will undoubtably fall, and as usual, just as our faith has tried to teach us, those on the bottom are the ones who are most impacted, the normal everyday folk who work to make ends meet from week to week, scraping pennies together, sending their kids off to war, and for what? To try to defend an illusion that for all intensive purposes, crumbled before our very eyes on that beautiful day in September. Everything we thought we were was no more and all we can do is seek out a new way, a new greatness, one with greater depth, a truer identity and a heart that had gotten lost by divisiveness, darkness, despair, war, and greed, among other things.

In walks Donald Trump and this campaign to make America great again. How can anyone argue against that? But the question we never seem to follow up with is, but what made us great to begin with? Was it winning as he suggests or better yet, strength that we can somehow destroy every enemy out there, a restoration of authority to the rest of the world that we’re back. But is it once again, merely an illusion of what once was. Growing up I think about what made America great. Now growing up in small town Pennsylvania seemed rather vanilla. But I learned of this sense of the melting pot that first established this country. Give me your tired and your poor, yearning to be free. Somehow there was a sense of unity despite and in relation to our diversity. That’s what made us great and different from the rest, our greatest strength.

Times have changed and sure there are still people I meet that want their kids to have it better than them; that too has been part of our greatness. However, I’ve also met a lot more younger people, the next generation, that has a respect for the other and a willingness to seek out the common good for all people, but in particular, the poor. The greatness and strength of a country is often grounded in how it treats the poor. But in the process of trying to rebuild the illusion of what was, we’ve had to play the victim game and with the victim game comes the blame game. We fight and we divide, but all of it comes down to that very question of what makes us great in the first place, and for that matter, what will once again make us great.

There is a struggle for the soul of this country, if we can move beyond the superficialities and our politics that has often taken the place of our moral compass. The illusion wants and lives off of us fighting and reaching for something that could never be attainable and will never fulfill and decide how we go forward. If making us great again is built on more war and the endless pursuit of defeating enemies, greed and the stockpiling of money, then we will once again find ourselves casting an image of a country that just isn’t anymore, and for that matter, never was. If we look at it in terms of development, the United States has reached a critical time. Not in the sense that politicians like to portray it, as an impending apocalypse, but rather as a time to grow up and become no longer the kid on the playground, often bullying others around, but rather a responsible adult who finds strength through its people and the very heart and soul that can give us the true strength, direction, and life we desire. That’s how America can be great.

The election gives us all pause to reflect upon what we want, yet, distracted by smoke and mirrors and clashes of personality that in the end helps no one, certainly not this country nor the world. It’s time for us to grieve what was lost and that’s ok. That’s what adults do. We weep for what was, knowing in faith, that it’s the only way for a new direction to be revealed. I have never lost hope in the country, despite what has unfolded the past years, because I believe with all my heart that this is where we are. And you know what, I’ve been there and so have many others. What I thought made me great as a child no longer seems to fit and no longer works. Scripture tells us through Paul, “When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.” He goes onto say that giving up chilling things challenges me to think about what I value. As a country, it’s time for us to ask the tough questions and not be so glib and quick to react, but rather to reflect on what we really want and desire as a nation. That can only happen when we allow it all to fall away, all that will pass, and seek what lies at the heart of who we are and what we are. Our history has not always been great because we sought greatness through an illusion all too often. At this moment in history, we the people, in order to form a more perfect union, must seek the greater good, the greater strength, that can only come from deep within our very being. Yeah, it is time to make America great again, but it’s time to root it in reality and a strength that comes from our ability to love, not an illusion nor war nor money, but the people that make it up from wherever they have come, seeking a better life, a great life, that only this country can offer.

Seeking Our Truest Self

Isaiah 53: 10-11; Hebrews 4: 14-16; Mark 10: 35-45

One of the central teaching of the writings of Thomas Merton, whom Pope Francis referenced when he spoke to Congress, is what he would call a tension between the true self and the false self. By false self he means, in simple terms, the illusion we create for ourselves of who we think we should be, who we want others to think we are, our ego, it’s a small self that we create that often protects us from being hurt, which itself is an illusion. By true self he means our deepest identity in Christ or as some have put it, the largest conversation our soul can have with the world. Now it’s not that the false self is bad or anything like that; it just is and isn’t all at the same time. He goes onto say that it creates a tension within ourselves that we wrestle with our entire lives and the more we become aware of it, the more we can let it go and recognize our greatest self, our true self, and live from that place. But it’s not just individuals. The community wrestles with this tension. I believe the country continues to wrestle with this reality. And for that matter, if you’ve followed any of the Synod of Bishops in Rome these weeks, it also happens in the Church, asking who we really are about, our truest and deepest self.

I thought of that when I reflected upon this gospel of James and John seeking something that they really aren’t versed in. Really, if they had found that place within, they wouldn’t even ask the question about places of honor because they would know it’s a moot question. But they do, and of course, Jesus doesn’t condemn or belittle them, but like the rich young man last week, continues to love them and lead them to that deeper place, to their true selves. When they stand in opposition to Jesus, it in many ways represents that interior struggle that we encounter in our lives. They too are living with this illusion and it stands face to face with Christ. They have an illusion of who they are in relation to him. They have an illusion about who they think Jesus is. You know, they have all the right answers as the gospels go on in naming his identity. He is the Christ; he is the Savior; he is the Son of God. They got it all right, but they look at it through this illusion of false power that they have created. They think he’s some leader to overthrow the Roman rulers or something of the sorts and they want a piece of that! Of course, it’s not just James and John. Mark reminds us that the other ten become indignant at the two of them for asking, probably because they too had thought about it, mindful that it was just a few weeks ago that they were arguing about who was the greatest! They spend their time fighting an illusion rather than seeking Jesus for who he really is and who they really are.

Merton would say that it is one of the greatest struggles that we must face as adults, letting go of these illusions. It will be an experience of the Cross like no other. It won’t be just what they see as they watch their friend Jesus die up there, nailed to a tree, but rather than interior crisis that they will face through that event that shakes them at their very core. Their eyes will be opened to the true identity of Jesus and for that matter, their truest self and essence as well. Their lives will be changed forever because they then know that not even the suffering of death can defeat life; they will have found what it was they had always looked for and yet always had, all at the same time.

We have a tendency to lump all suffering together and at times, even equate it all with sin. If we stay in that small self, that’s what usually happens because sin then becomes all about morality. Yet, Merton and others would stress that it has more to do with living in that false self and succumbing to someone less than we really are. We hear of the Suffering Servant in the first reading and a God who sympathizes with our weaknesses in the Letter to the Hebrews today. And yes, this God does stand with us in our physical pain and great suffering in that way, but this God also shows us the way to the fullness of life that we desire as individuals and as community. It’s not in seeking that power as James and John do in today’s Gospel. Jesus reminds them and us that when we seek it beyond ourselves, we end up abusing it and lording it over others. That’s not true power. He leads them and us into the recesses of our being. Through the suffering of the Cross, the illusions that we create for ourselves and others are broken open and our true self is revealed. We no longer have to hold onto something that isn’t real in the first place, although it sure does feel like it. We no longer have to live in such a small space but rather recognize the tension within ourselves, let it go, and live freely the life we have been given. We all know we have one chance at this and although this path and way that is taught to us can be very painful, smashing through our illusions, it’s the way to the eternal and the breaking in of the Kingdom in our own lives. Who of us wouldn’t wan that? We pray that the illusions of our own lives are broken open, we stop fighting and holding onto it, and allow ourselves the opportunity to live from a different place of power, our truest self in the depths of our hearts and souls.

The Illusion of Being Satisfied

John 6: 1-15

I’ve had the chance over the past years in ministry to travel to Haiti twice to participate in mission work with different groups and I often think of that experience when I hear this gospel of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. You know the poverty is extreme there and that in no way diminishes the poverty we face right outside our front door, but the extreme of it in Haiti is hard to imagine especially for us Americans. You know, they can go to grocery stores like we do up the street but they don’t buy the same stuff we do. I’ve tried to bring back a staple item there but it always falls apart on me but the best way to describe it is like when little kids make mud pies. That’s exactly what this food looks like and really is that they eat. It’s hard to imagine! It has absolutely no nutritional value but it does one thing. It gives the person the illusion that they are satisfied and full. That’s it; no value but an illusion of being satisfied.

I dare say we don’t go around eating mud or dirt pies but that’s not to say that we aren’t good at feeding that same illusion in our lives. You know, Pope Francis gets criticized a lot because of what he says about consumerism and capitalism, partially because the system is somewhat based on that very lie and illusion. We all know that we have a deeper need to be fed in relationship but at the same time aren’t and so the system preys on that need and feeds that illusion that somehow and in some way, whatever it is that is being sold is somehow going to do the trick and feed what hurts, only leaving us more empty and hurting, hungering and longing for something more. It says a great deal about the addictive society and world in which we live and how we go about feeding it with dirt and mud patties.

As much as I see that experience in Haiti, I also see the people in today’s gospel, clamoring for an experience of Jesus, trying to fill that deeper hunger and longing in their lives, practically crawling over one another to catch a glimpse, to be fed. I also see the people I see on the news who hurt. I see the people outside our front door who are hurting an looking for someone to acknowledge and reverence. I see the people in this city who continue to hurt and longing for something that will feed and nourish, beyond the mud and dirt that are often thrown at them. It’s an atrocity the number of kids that continue to go hungry in this city and this country while so many of us continue to feed the illusions of our own lives, disconnected from the reality of a people who are hurting and longing. Ironically, or maybe providentially, it’s a little boy that appears on the scene of today’s gospel carrying some bread and fish to be multiplied to feed the those who hunger. A problem that seemed overwhelming to the disciples is diminished by the young boy who then reclines and shares. In what we way are we feeding ourselves these days?

Yet, as soon as they are fed, Jesus scurries off in the gospel, up the mountain alone. As is so often the case in John’s gospel, they talk passed one another or yet, Jesus speaks on a deeper level. They thinking they are being fed physically, and they are; then Jesus speaks and blesses and breaks and they are fed on another level as well. This is no mud or dirt pie, this is what feeds forever, with some left over in the end. He scurries off and once again they will seek him out. The emptiness will once again overwhelm and consume as they try to be fed in other ways but nothing will take the place of that day, of that sign, when they were fed in more ways than one, in relationship with one another and with Christ.

These next weeks now we will find ourselves marching through this one chapter in John’s Gospel, the first fifteen versus being today’s on the sign given of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. It’s known as the Bread of Life discourse of this gospel. In the end, some will leave. They won’t like how they are being challenged to think or to question in the way they are being fed and feeding themselves. As is so often the case, we want to maintain the status quo of life; yet, an encounter and relationship with the Bread of life demands something more of us. This relationship is going to demand of us to examine how we are being fed and feeding ourselves. What are the dirt and mud pies in our lives? What has no nutritional and spiritual value, and yet, that longing and hunger within us continues to draw us to other ways and means of satisfying what hurts. Bring it to the table and be healed.

The more we try to feed it with anything else, whatever it may be for us…the latest gadget, alcohol, drugs, the latest and biggest house, money, whatever it may be, if it leads to greater emptiness, it’s time to bring it to the table and let it go. There is but one thing and one person that will sustain us, feed us, nurture us, fill us, and that’s this meal we share and it’s our relationship with Christ in this Eucharist. We all buy into the illusion and will feed the illusion in our lives; we’re human and broken and poured out, but today we pray we may recognize those dirt and mud pies in our lives and demand now something more, something greater, that will sustain and nurture us all the days of our lives.