Kingdom Dwellers

Ezekiel 34: 11-12, 15-17; I Cor 15: 20-26, 28; Matthew 25: 31-46

All year we’ve heard from Matthew’s gospel and today we come to what many consider to be the culmination of what he was all about in his writing, the Judgment of Nations.  Keep in mind it’s not about individual judgment as we’ve often associated.  For Matthew, the other gospel writers, and Paul in today’s second reading, salvation was not an individual sport.  It was about the collective salvation and their own seeking of the common good in this life.  It, of course, has been overly politicized over the years and many times rightly so when we neglect people in need for one reason or another, but that’s not necessarily the context in which Matthew writes nor the lens we need to read it.

If we had to sum up Matthew’s approach to his community, as one he often struggled with, fearing division and its demise following the destruction of the Temple, it would be a journey of interior change and how we handle change in our lives and how our experience of God changes.  If you know anything about Israel’s history you know the destruction of the Temple seems to almost be a regular occurrence for them.  It wasn’t just the center of their faith life but was also the center of politics and economics so everything was intertwined.  With that being the case, it should be no surprise that it is destroyed over time.  However, just like it is today, when they all become intertwined in that way it’s without a doubt that God is going to come third in line, and so, in some sense, Matthew tries to lead the community to a much harder change, an interior change, to recognize that there’s something bigger than the Temple and that an encounter with God can happen, often times even more, beyond the temple dwellers.

From the beginning of the gospel, if we recall from Advent and Christmas last year, Mary and Joseph were on the run, refugees.  The Magi come on their own journey and return differently because of the encounter with the Christ, something is changed interiorly in their lives.  Throughout the gospel the disciples are being led outside of Jerusalem to experience the Christ in the acts of healing and forgiving, rather than something you go to they are being led to be an embodiment of that love that takes on flesh and they find their true strength from within.  It’s what makes Jesus so dangerous to the Pharisees and other temple dwellers.  As disciples, the Temple has it’s place but they aren’t meant to dwell there.  Rather, they’re kingdom dwellers with the Spirit of God going with them into these encounters.  This God that Matthew portrays to us and that we’re called to embrace can no longer be confined to a particular time and space.  At that point it’s not God anyway.  Rather this God cannot be contained and is going to lead them to the places of discomfort and uncertainty to learn to put their trust not in the Temple as has been their history, but the temple of the Holy Spirit acting within the community and each other.

It is new, of course, for the people in first century but even new for us at times.  However, the message has been a part of Israel’s history, even at the burning bush when God is revealed in name and that they mustn’t get hung up on the location of these events.  When they do that it begins the gradual confinement of God to a time and space and we find ourselves living in the past.  It’s where the prophets have tried to lead the people, over and over again, but with great resistance even costing them their lives at times.  They too get hung up on the temple dwellers and thinking that God can somehow be confined to that space.  Yet, with this enmeshment of faith, politics, and economics, the question really should be, as it was in the parable of the talents as well as the wise and foolish virgins as to who is the master they’re serving.

Ezekiel, in today’s first reading was one such prophet.  If you read it in its larger context you know that he’s going after them for this very thing, their own corruption.  Israel once again finds itself in exile during the time of the Babylonian Exile and they’re not being cared for.  The people responsible, the shepherds of the time, were not taking care of the needs of the lost, the strayed, the injured and sick.  They had become their own gods in some sense, temple dwellers themselves rather than seeing beyond and being moved to the place of discomfort in their lives.  When you have it all and you’re on top, even in our own time, it seems as if there really is no need for this God.  I’m quite fine with the gods I can hold onto, that bring me comfort, that keep me safe, rather than leading me outward while being inwardly changed. It’s the opportunity to not only encounter God in a different way but to learn of myself in a new way and light.  It’s not about changing others.  It’s about allowing ourselves to be changed, our hearts to be changed by going to the very place we fear.  It’s the story of Mary and Joseph.  It was the Magi.  It’s the embodiment of love.  It’s the journey Matthew has invited us into this past year.

So it brings us to the culmination of his gospel and the judgment of nations.  Needless to say we have often failed at embodying love.  We have allowed ourselves to be temple dwellers while often enmeshing faith, politics, and economics, while neglecting sometime our very own rather than surrendering it all to the true God.  Like Israel in all its history, when the three become enmeshed, God, without a doubt, will become confined and the other two will take their place as the gods of our time.  We all fall prey to it and all find ourselves as sheep and goats.  But for Matthew, it meant something more.  It meant an embodiment of that love and not just loving neighbor.  Rather, being one with neighbor in the sick, the poor, the refugee, the imprisoned, the stranger. 

Every one of us is good at making ourselves comfortable.  For Matthew, our faith is quite the opposite.  We’re not called to be temple dwellers where we grow comfortable and safe, confining God to our particular time and space.  There’s a place for it but it resides in something bigger than time and space.  Rather, kingdom dwellers where we seek the eternal, the Christ, with prayer always on our lips for a change of heart.  It’s what it’s all about.  It’s messy.  It’s hard.  It’s frightening.  Yet, with Mary and Joseph leading the way for Matthew, we’re called to go out and encounter the living God and to be that embodiment of love that we’ve witnessed through the eyes of Matthew this year.

 

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Turbulent Truth

I Kings 19: 9a, 11-13a; Romans 9: 1-5; Matthew 14: 22-33

If there is one thing we know about Matthew’s community and the community in which he writes it’s that they faced grave persecution.  It may have been worst for them more than anyone and so with persecution comes great fear as these outside influences put pressure on this community and on the followers of the Christ. We’ve unfortunately even made persecution into something pithy as abiding by rules and teaching but for them it was a fear of their own lives and this constant chaos and turbulence. You know, long before there was anything that we call ISIS or even hate groups we are familiar with in our own society, as well as gangs here in the city, there was the Roman authority and the religious zealots of the time of Jesus.  There was nothing merciful about them and they took out anyone that they perceived as a threat to their power.  Just before this gospel today of Peter walking on the water and the feeding of the crowd, John the Baptist is beheaded.  It’s one of the most heart-breaking stories in the gospels and all done out of fear and insecurity of those in power towards the ones who had the true power, the followers who had found freedom in Christ.

This is the context and the reality of Matthew’s community and so all that we hear, including this little snippet today, is somehow a message of hope to that community not to give up and to persevere in the storm.  So he gives us this image of the disciples being sent out onto the Sea of Galilee in the darkest part of the night, by themselves, and now in the midst of a storm.  Remember, this is not some boat that we’d see down in Harbor.  This is a piecemeal that they’d be familiar with and for Matthew, that boat was symbolic of his own community and what they are facing, the constant onslaught of storminess and turbulence from these institutions to somehow conform to them, to give into the fear and to give up the freedom as followers of the Christ.  It’s not just happening on the sea but is happening within them.  Of course, the message of Matthew is not to give up but to keep growing into that freedom and test the waters as Peter does.  But too much can lead to drowning.  Peter gains a little confidence walking on the water and in doing so quickly falls.  Matthew reminds them that they must not only fall on each other for support in these times but first and foremost to trust in the Lord.  Matthew is aware that all this noise from the outside and all the pressure that the community finds itself facing leads to blocking out that voice of the Lord, the quiet whisper deep within.  In that moment of chaos, Peter cries out and the Lord reaches out.  There’s hope in the midst of the violence of their lives and ours in this city as well.

As much as Peter began to drown, Paul finds himself in anguish for similar reasons or at least for what he is witnessing in the Roman community.  He describes himself in today’s reading as someone in anguish.  He has a deep love for this community and now sees the lack of belief and trust in the Lord.  They are giving into the ways of the world as a community and are giving into that fear and that pressure to conform to the ways of the status quo.  Paul often anguishes over being misunderstood by these communities.  He models for them what it means to live into that freedom of living in Christ.  It is what he is bearing witness and it so often seems to go on deaf ears.  Of course, the more he grows into will also lead to his own impending death as a prophetic voice and follower of the Christ.  Paul reminds the community not to give into the fear.  The fear seems to lull us to sleep, leading us to believe that we’re helpless and that there is nothing we can do.  That’s what the Roman authority and the religious zealots thrive on.  We may never change them nor the systems, but that can’t stop us from weathering the storm and not giving into the fear.  Sure, we may be different, but like Paul, we then stand as a witness to true freedom in Christ.

But we still have one more story today and that’s in today’s first reading from First Kings and the prophet Elijah.  We found Peter sinking, Paul in anguish, and now Elijah hiding in fear.  Elijah finds himself on the run.  His life is being threatened by Queen Jezebel after the slaying of the false prophets and now he’s beside himself.  Not only does he think he can hide from her he also tries to run from God and this prophetic call that has been given to him.  Much will also be demanded of him to remain true to himself and the eternal in the midst of much turbulence and violence, including violence against his own life.  But in the process of hiding, the great mount Horeb provides the space for perspective and context of it all.   Like Peter, when he finally begins to surrender his own fear and control, space opens within where he can once again hear the whispering voice of God speaking, assuring him of that presence in the midst of all this exterior noise.  He finds within himself, the eternal, to now go and confront and no longer fear the loss of his own life.

We aren’t much different than any of them in today’s stories.  We are often confronted with a barrage of noise that leads to continuous upheaval in our live, deeper fear of the unknown, and even in our own neighborhood, more violence.  I’ve had out on our front sign for more than a month now that in violence we forget who we are.  We not only forget who we are but we forget whose we are.  As I said, fear has a way of lulling us to sleep and into this deep amnesia.  We begin to believe that we do it on our own and before you know it the absence of mystery and this God becomes more evident.  We too easily give into this fear but as Matthew reminded his community, they are something more than that fear.  They have found that interior freedom needed to no longer be bound by the threat of the Roman authority and religious zealots.  In that sense, they will always be a threat and violence will continue to ensue.  As disciples and followers of the Christ, we are called to be that more and to not forget not only who we truly are but whose we are in Christ.  The call to conversion is for all of us, not to give into the helplessness and powerlessness in the midst of fear and violence, but to step up and be the voice not of fear but rather of love.