Pushed Through

Isaiah 2: 1-5; Romans 13: 11-14; Matthew 24: 37-44

In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr gave what would then be his final speech and sermon in Memphis. It is often referred to as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon and then assassinated the following day. It was often scripture, like the one we hear today from Isaiah about climbing that mountain that inspired such sermons. He used some poetic language in that one along with so many other sermons and prophetic speeches that he had given in his life. One of the images was something along the lines of that it is only in the darkest part of the night that we can truly see the brightest of the stars. For those of us who live in the city that should mean something knowing how much artificial light has a way to swallow up the stars as much as darkness can seem to in our lives. We become reliant on the artificial light that we, at times, begin to believe it’s the true light shining through, almost lulling us into a false trust as we often find ourselves journeying through the darkness.

Now in that speech King was addressing the economic injustices that he so frequently spoke out against, along with racial injustice. Of course, even as a message of hope there were some that could not see beyond their own darkness to embrace a larger heart which will lead to his untimely death. But like the prophetic voices, especially Isaiah whom we will hear from during this season, it was a message of hope that was being delivered. King imagined himself being asked by God as to what period of history he wishes he would have lived. In the end, King said right now. He believed, that despite the darkness of his day, with racial and economic injustices, along with others, that God was trying to break through at this very moment and God was using him to do just that, and to offer hope to people that have become swallowed up by darkness. He does this march through history, beginning with people Israel who knew first hand the plight of suffering and darkness.

Isaiah did as well and this theme of light and darkness will follow us straight through Christmas at this point. Not only have they been led through the darkness of the years wandering in the desert, but also in times of exile, war, famine, and this perpetual moaning to a God who had somehow abandoned them through it all. In the midst of such darkness they begin to despair and lose hope that they will ever get beyond it, or better yet, be able to push through or be pushed through. As it was with King, God grants Isaiah this panoramic vision of life in a time when the people needed it most. Israel once again finds itself at a low point and Isaiah, rather than condemning as can often be done, offers a message of hope, to walk in the light of the Lord, and that, even in their darkest of days, God continued to break through and offer hope to a people that hurt and suffer. Like them, we begin to identify ourselves by our darkness, whatever that darkness may be. We begin to identify ourselves by our sickness, by our cancer. Or we begin to identify ourselves by our unemployment or underemployment. We begin to identify ourselves by our addictions or whatever that darkness may be for each of us. But that darkness is not me and it’s not you.

Paul too continues that theme in today’s second reading to the Roman community. He reminds them to throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. For Paul, it was a motivation to be love to one another and to recognize that this journey through life is one that we do together. If someone finds themselves wandering in darkness, they we are there to push them along and not to give up, to encourage. If we don’t, again, that darkness has a way of taking hold of our lives and we lose that panoramic vision of our lives and begin to despair and no longer believe that this God is not only breaking through in our lives but pushing us through that darkness. I’m mindful of the giving tree here as we also help people in need. We also mustn’t fall for this idea that somehow my darkness is worse or not as bad as others. Darkness is real in our lives, no matter what form it takes. Rather, it is a journey we do as one.

Jesus is preparing his disciples for the greatest of darkness, this experience of his impending death as King did in his speech. It will be one of the few times we actually hear from Jesus during these weeks. That’s why the message these weeks is to stay awake and to awaken from our slumber. The invitation these weeks is to climb that mountain, as difficult as it can be at times, and continue to allow ourselves to be pushed and not be so quick to give into the darkness of despair. Jesus knew it would not be an easy task for his disciples, but it is one that they must do together. They will quickly scatter but eventually find their way back to one another and push through the darkness of death together in order to be light to others.

This season gives us the invitation to take the journey that so many of the prophetic voices have invited us throughout salvation history, like Isaiah and King, along with Paul and Jesus. We are invited to the journey up this holy mountain of our lives and take a panoramic view of who we are and to ask ourselves where we have allowed darkness to define us. Where have we allowed ourselves to be lulled into believe that this darkness in normal and somehow have become a victim of our own circumstances, even questioning, as Israel did, how God could do this to us? When all along and through it all, God continues to break through. King was right in that it often is in the darkest time of the night that the stars shine the brightest, but it us who are called to be that light. We make this journey together, as one, in darkness and in the light. No, we are not the darkness that often defines us, but it is real. We are called to put on that armor of light and to be that light for all who find themselves climbing that mountain in what often seems as the darkest part of their night.

Increase Our Faith

Habakkuk 1: 2-3; 2: 2-4; Luke 17:5-10

Increase our faith. It seems like a rather simple request coming from the Apostles in today’s gospel, but when we speak of any of these virtues, we seem to have a tendency to use them rather loosely. We can often throw them around without ever recognizing the magnitude of the request being made, as it is with the disciples in today’s gospel. We tend to limit faith to dogma or doctrine, something we can hold onto, but that doesn’t even begin to come close to the biblical faith that they truly desire or the faith that Jesus is going to lead them to in their journey.

It’s safe to say, though, that they’re primed for something. If you think about all that we’ve heard the past weeks and months, they really are aware of the tension that is building between Jesus and so many of the leaders. They’ve witnessed it in their interactions and in his story telling, only seeming to escalate things, allowing the drama to unfold until we come to an encounter with the Cross. It’ll be in that moment when they finally come up against something they can’t explain or rationalize, and certainly can’t control, before they can finally be pushed through and begin to make sense out of what they are asking today when they ask for an increase in faith, a faith that can move mountains.

It may be the anonymous programs where we find a deeper meaning to what it means to be faithful. It’s not something that can be taught. It’s only where we can be led in our lives and be open towards. Step one of the programs, and probably the most difficult of all of them, is to recognize and accept that we are powerless and that there is a higher being than ourselves. It’s so hard but it’s such a movement towards the faith we desire in our lives and the faith given to and show to us by Jesus.

There may be no others in Scripture where we see it exemplified than in the Prophets. Today we hear from the prophet Habakkuk. For the entire chapter Habakkuk does nothing but lament to God for all that he has seen and witnessed. All the violence, the injustice that has unfolded, the vast amount of darkness that seems to rule the land. It’s not much different than our own lives and the world in which we live. It can push us to a place where we begin to feel helpless and even lose hope, wondering why God can ever let such things happen. At times all we can do is also lament to the Lord. Finally, God gives some response to Habakkuk. The Lord hears his plight and the plight of the people, but simply assures him that it’s in God’s hands and will occur in God’s time. It’s so often at those moments of surrender when we can finally begin to let go of our own need to try to control and fix things and simply place them in the hands of God. I am powerless to so much of it and all I can do is surrender it to a higher being. It’s trust. It’s faith.

For the disciples it will come in the form of a Cross. It’s going to be the pinnacle moment of tension in their lives when they recognize that what they are truly seeking is not something they can hold onto. As a matter of fact, dogma and doctrine isn’t worth a hill of beans if there’s no faith in a higher being and a mystery always trying to reveal before and within us. Quite honestly, we can practice religion our entire lives without ever going to this deeper place, this vast place within ourselves, where we truly learn to let go of that which has power over us, and so often it’s the way we think and it is what we have believed. There’s no final point to the journey. Faith is always leading us deeper and yet beyond ourselves, into mystery with another opportunity to let go, surrender to this ever-manifesting God.

Increase our faith. It does seem so simple a request asked by the disciples in today’s gospel, but there’s nothing easy about it. It is an invitation that remains with us throughout our lives to once again be pushed where we’d rather not go, to the place of great suffering where we will once again need to give up control and our need to know and simply learn to trust. It’s God who will push us through and lead us to this place. It’s God who will push us through to this place of faith, where we once again surrender and let go, and in God’s time, allow our hearts to grow to greater depths of faithfulness.

Parade of Heroes

Hebrews 11: 1-2, 8-19; Luke 12: 32-48

If you watched any of the Opening Ceremony at the Rio Olympics this week, you know one of the most impressive parts is the parade of athletes from all around the world. It’s the one time where the best of the best gather every four years. Although we’ve made it so much into winning and losing, as we do life, the ideal remains the same that the greatest honor is just having been chosen to participate. I was struck by one young man walking in who was just trying to hold back tears. He may never win anything, but he was chosen to participate and accepted that invitation.

I thought of that image when I read this second reading we hear today from the writer of Hebrews. Actually, it is probably worth a second or third reading for all of us it is so well crafted. This chapter in the Letter is often referred to as the Roll Call of the Heroes of Faith. In many ways, it’s the writers own version of the parade of athletes at the Olympics. It’s the best of the best of these iconic figures that have done something great by accepting their own invitation to something bigger than themselves, like those participating in the Olympics. However, one stark difference is that it isn’t only about participating in something bigger than themselves, it’s also a humility that this comes from some great depths within them and yet beyond them that is beyond explanation. It has nothing to do with athletic ability or anything like that. It has to do, as the writer tells us, about faith and a trust in that which we cannot see.

So we hear of two of the ancients today, Abraham and Sarah, whom we just heard about a few weeks ago with their own struggle to give birth to a child. Today the writer of Hebrews reflects on their lives and their uncanny ability to trust and deepen their faith in something they can’t see, this great mystery that keeps leading them to places that are beyond their imagination. You see, we probably spend to much of our lives trying to trust everything we can see and hear, holding onto so many things that are tangible or make us feel secure but fear allowing ourselves to go to a deeper place, below the surface and learn to trust the power of the Spirit already present within us. It’s the only thing that can explain their lives and why they are our ancestors in faith and stand as witnesses not only to something bigger than themselves, but also deeper than they could ever imagine.

How else do you explain their sojourn in the promised land as in a foreign country, or at times hopelessly wandering, or this idea that somehow God should give them what they want in the birth of a child. None of it seems to happen in their lives. Yet, they never give up. There is always this desire for more within them that keeps them going, trusting that this God will provide. Maybe their prayers won’t be answered the way they want them to be or think they should be, but in the face of such adversity, they don’t turn away only continue to fall deeper into this mystery and trust in this love that is beyond explanation.

But the disciples aren’t there yet. They still are seeing with their eyes and hearing with their ears and have not moved below the surface. That’s really why Peter even asks the question about whether what he is saying is meant for them. They can’t see a deeper meaning, or as Jesus says, where your heart is will be where you find your treasure. Until they can move to a place of trusting in what they can’t see it’s going to be hard to understand. Remember what it is that they are experiencing with political and religious authorities at that time where there was so much abuse of that power that so many feared them. They, of course, in turn feared Jesus because there was something different about him. Jesus, in some ways, in what seems to be a rather negative message, is trying to lead them to that deeper place. That’s not who they are to model their lives. It’s no different today. There remains corruption and mistrust in these authority figures because they so often don’t live from that interior place of faith and trust, in what we cannot see. It’s so often about the immediate and my own gratification that we don’t even allow ourselves to live into the adversities of our lives to learn to trust in something deeper and bigger.

At the same time, we learn from our own ancestors. We have a responsibility to the next generation and the generation after that, just as Abraham and Sarah did for their own. All of that impacts the way we live our lives. It doesn’t mean that it will look and sound the way it did for us. If it’s a living faith it can’t. But the heart of it remains eternal, our trust in this great mystery that is constantly calling us into the role call of heroes of faith. We mustn’t tell ourselves that it’s only for someone else. It’s the culture of blame and victimhood that we embrace all too often. This call is for all of us and all of us must model, as best we can, this faith into something bigger and yet deeper within ourselves. What do we do when we face such adversities in our own lives?

Maybe we can’t always understand Jesus and this call especially to take up the cross, but there are so many others in the roll call of heroes that show us the way. We understand unanswered prayers. We understand hurt, loneliness, and abandonment. We understand it all but when it comes our way, as it did for Abraham and Sarah, what are we going to do with it. They too show us the way on this pilgrim journey. When we allow ourselves to fall into it all, we find ourselves being suspended in mystery and learning to trust and deepen our faith so that like them we can be taken to the places that even seem unimaginable in our own lives.

A Wilderness Solitude

IMG_1568

Wilderness appealed to those bored or disgusted with man and his works. It not only offered an escape from society but also was an ideal stage for the Romantic individual to exercise the cult that he frequently made of his own soul. The solitude and total freedom of the wilderness created a perfect setting for either melancholy or exultation. ~ Roderick Nash

Today is our final day on the land portion of the trip to Alaska and begin the transition to the ship early tomorrow morning. For the final day I opted to set out on a guided nature tour down the Cooper River with our guide, Blake. It provided a little more time to simply sit and be in the presence of the majestic nature that surrounded us, from snow-capped mountains to the depths of the forested national park that surrounded us on the ride.

I’ve been so struck by the number of young people and listening to their stories of what brought them here to Alaska in the first place. So many started with doing similar type trips at some point in their lives and then find their way back for one reason or another. The same was true with this guide who spends the rest of the year in Minnesota with his wife but still manages to come here for ten years to work the river in one capacity or another, from salmon fishing to white water rafting with visitors from around the world who come here to Alaska seeking something. What may start as a vacation for some turns into something much more when they encounter the vast lands that continue to speak volumes and for generations to come.

Blake mentioned how is father has given him a hard time over the years, wanting him to use his college education to be a part of the work force, in the corporate world. I’m guessing that’s what many parents would expect of their sons and daughters. He did it for a time and yet never felt satisfied, as if there were something more for him that exceeded the expectations of his father and his education. It was amazing just how much he knew that river, every twist and turn that led us further down and deeper into the forest. He knew it. He feels it. He lives that river like nothing else and keeps returning despite the demands and expectations to “grow up”, whatever that might mean.

There’s something inviting about the river. Those that know me know that the river has not always been my friend over the years. After nearly losing my life while white water rafting nearly thirteen years ago now, I feared returning to it, despite it often calling my name to return. I may never white water raft again, but I haven’t allowed myself to be paralyzed by fear to return in one way or another. Today was yet another one of those days and listening to Blake speak about it reminded me today just how strong the current can be within us to seek adventure and take risk in our lives, even if it means breaking down the stereotype of what we have called success to live a fuller life, one that continues to feed us in a way that many others will just never understand.

I have found that it is practically necessary to return to nature, even when it has arisen fears within us that we feel will paralyze us for life. I think about Phil the other day who had been attacked by the grizzly in Denali. He may have to face the aftershocks of such an encounter over the course of his life, but it’s not going to stop him from living from that deeper place, that place that runs deeper than fear, the river that runs deep within our soul, yearning to be emptied into the vastness of the sea that continues to feed.

As much as it has been a place that I have had to face my own mortality, the encounter and experience of water remains the place that grounds my very being. Maybe it’s because I have witnessed its power and has taught me to reverence and respect it. Watching it flow so quickly around me today reminded me of the strength that it has to bring about life and death, so often when we least expect it. Yet, there we were, snow-capped mountains, freezing water temperatures, trees in full bloom, and trying to take it all in at the same time. The vastness of the lands around us pale in comparison to the vastness of what landscape of the soul that lies within. Sure there are parts of us that will terrify and feel as if we’re out of control, but a trip down the Cooper today reminded me that it’s not just me but all of the natural world that continues to be invited into deeper mystery and when we can finally begin to let go and accept it, all we can feel is the wind blowing through our hair taking us to places we never could have imagined!

May It Be Done To Me

Exodus 20: 1-17; ICor 1: 22-25; John 2: 13-25

“We proclaim Christ crucified.” These are the words we hear from this very short passage from Saint Paul today in his letter to the Corinthians, and in a set of readings that are quite difficult to preach on, I am reminded of how Paul consistently, in these same words, is always moving communities to their own connection to the larger story and how we are all a part of Christ crucified. He uses those two words so frequently in his letters that it’s obvious that he believes it, has experienced it, lives it, and knows it in the depths of his being, and sees it as the connection that we all share as people and in the sharing of the suffering of the world, in and through Christ crucified.

It’s unfortunate because we have a tendency as believers, as Christians, to so often limit the great Mystery to something that has been done for us. Christ died for us, for our sins, for our salvation and so on, but that understanding also feeds into our own culture of entitlement that someone frees me of the responsibility of my own life and my connection to the larger people of Christ crucified and not always needing to grow up, mature, seek conversion in my life and in deepening my faith. But Paul comes at it in a different way. He understands the Mystery in its totality as not just something that is done for us, as gift as that is, but it is an ongoing invitation from God to be done to us. Remember the prayer of Mary from the beginning of the story to the prayer of Jesus in the Garden near the end of us ministry is the same prayer for us today, “May it be done to me…” To remain connected to that larger story, we must accept it as the daily reality as Paul did in his own life and not grow stagnant, even if that’s where we like to be at times.

As people, we do try to limit the Mystery at times in our lives and box God in to our image. Quite honestly, we can spend our entire lives simply trying to fulfill the Ten Commandments, the Ten Words that we hear in today’s First Reading from Exodus. Of course, we know them. We learn them from the time we are little kids and are ingrained within us. However, they can become an idol in and of themselves. But as we age and mature, we learn it’s not the fulfillment and fullness of God or this Great Mystery. What happens when we begin to see that we can’t live up to that constant expectation, when we begin to fail at the Ten Words, when we can’t force others to live up to them, as Jesus often confronted the Pharisees on and we will hear throughout John’s Gospel in the upcoming weeks. We can grow bitter and angry, holding grudges and resentment, or Christ crucified. At that very moment, when we can’t do it and our prayer becomes their prayer, may it be done to me, we find ourselves pushing against the Cross and experiencing Christ crucified; not merely a historical event, but a lived reality in our lives even to this day. We proclaim Christ crucified; that’s our connection to the larger story of life and our point of intersection and relationship with the sufferings of the world.

Now if you read Paul’s letter to Corinth you will find that he’s just getting started in this letter. As the letter progresses he too will begin to name the many idols that existed in that community and how they were used to divide people into their own camps rather than seeking unity within the themselves and with one another. Over and over again Paul will proclaim Christ crucified to the community, a stumbling block to Jews, just as much as it can be for us. We don’t want to go to that place; we’d much prefer to cling to something that was rather than embrace the life that God desires for us and how God’s love will be manifested in the world. Can we even begin to utter those words of Mary and Jesus, “May it be done to me…”. It must have been a prayer held deeply within Paul and will eventually lead to his own death, eternally connecting him to Christ crucified in his people.

The Gospel is a tough one. It’s another story that we are quite familiar with, the cleansing of the Temple. John places it at the beginning of his Gospel to set the tone for what is about to come, but it doesn’t make it any easier to hear or reflect upon. But using that same reality of idols in our lives, does not the Temple, or the Church in our case, at times become that same idol for us? It so often was for the people in the time of Jesus, certainly for the Pharisees that saw it as the be all and end all, often forgetting the greater gift, the larger story, even of their own Exodus, and even beyond the time of Jesus, missing the point of who and whose they are and what and who they are called to be in life. Both the Pharisees and the money changers and sellers were taking advantage of people so often manipulating them to believe that they were gods themselves and what they had the people needed.

The season provides us the opportunity to look upon and seek conversion from the many idols we hold onto in our own lives, the things we feel we can’t live without, even if it’s our thoughts, the way we do things, or whatever it may be, to be cleansed in order to get to the place where with all will the prayer of Mary and the prayer of Jesus may be ours, to be done to us. Yes, we can be thankful and grateful for what has been done for us, but it isn’t just about something in the past. God invites us into a moment of grace right now, and as Paul would so often say, the place you find the grace is the place you least expect it, in Christ crucified, at the Cross. We pray for the grace to make our prayer today, “May it be done to me…”.

Winter’s Tight Fist

Image

It’s been hard to take at times, the tight fist of winter.  It seems like with every reprieve that comes, a taste of spring, winter comes with greater force and vengeance.  Yet, even with the sun’s angle growing in the sky and days getting longer, there’s something comforting about winter’s solace.  There’s something about hunkering down and hibernating in our own way that, as much as we want it to end, we still hang onto it.  We complain about it’s wrath.  We question why it continues.  We wonder if we could ever get out of bed in the morning, in all his darkness, winter hangs tight.  Even in anticipation of light and life, with melting snow and the passing of days, we hold back from accepting winter as a part of life’s cycle, as a part of God’s plan for creation to wait with patience for life, not on our terms or in our time, but not until spring is ready, not until winter tries to give his last laugh and his own gasp for life.

So true of our own spiritual life and the ongoing tension of life and death, of winter and the spring of our lives, our own spring awakening.  We too get comfortable with the dark, the cold, the death, and as much as we say we fear death, our lives often say that what we fear more is not death but life.  Like winter’s tight fist, we tighten up and hold onto all that holds back life.  We hold onto all that keeps spring from happening.  Yet, God is patient with it all and buries the roots deeper for life so that when we finally accept the winter of our own lives and spring begins to take shape, it will bear greater fruit.

Maybe we haven’t been slowed enough by winter?  Maybe we keep fighting it?  What we fight is so often our denial of the winter of life, wanting the forever spring where life always abounds; yet, there is great value in winter, not only for nature and her course, but for the mystery that we call life.  Without death, we remain tight fisted.  Without death we want control.  Without winter we try to direct our own path toward salvation, life, resurrection.  Without death there isn’t much life; the two go hand-in-hand.  Without winter, spring loses its pop.

In these late winter days when we have grown weary of all that winter brings, we can begin to feel the tug within for change, for life.  We can begin to feel the pains of giving birth to life, to buds breaking forth.  In these late winter days we are called to accept winter as part of the mystery we live, not as our enemy or something to avoid and leave, but rather an invitation to allow the roots to go deep, to be buried in the fertile soil that God has been preparing these weeks and months.  At that moment of surrender and that moment of acceptance spring, with all its glory will erupt within and around our midst, regardless of what the calendar may read, and most certainly, regardless of what it looks like and feels like outside our door.

Yet Another Invitation

Image As it is said, “Out of the mouth of babes.”  It was the first thing thought of when I saw this photo of Martin Richard killed in the bombing attack at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013.  His simple message is, “No more hurting people; Peace.” When events like this take place in our world, they have a tendency to shake us at our core and realize our own mortality as human beings.  It also tends to bring out the best of people, at least for a little while, where love does seem to be the prevailing message.  These events also make many question God, especially when such an innocent life is taken.  Some will also question the power of evil and predict “doom and gloom” upon the world for various reasons. Ever since 9/11/01, however, I have tried to take a different approach with these events that would probably be more productive for all of us.  I see them as invitations for change in my own life.  I start by asking myself, “In what way is God calling me to change in light of this situation?”  It’s typically a difficult question to answer, but maybe young Martin Richard provides us the space in our lives and hearts by asking ourselves who do we show hate towards or hold contempt for within our lives?  That is a monumental question, but one that can move us towards the peace and love that even this young boy desired. As long as there is evil, and it’s not going anywhere, there will also be hate.  There is contempt for people’s lifestyle, for people of other nationalities, other religions, other colors, and the list goes on and on.  There is contempt for people of other political parties, those who have differing opinions and beliefs, values, and so often we make that unfortunate leap into doing exactly what we hate about the other and become hate ourselves, often without even knowing it.  That’s the problem with hurt, as young Martin suggests, if we don’t find healing for our own pain, not only will we become it, but we will pass it onto others for so many reasons, avoiding the relationship that can heal it. And so, another invitation is being given to each of us and how we respond will be telling; but it will also determine our future.  Do we respond with hate, simple retribution, and vengeance, as has often been the path in the past; or is this an invitation not only as individuals, but as a country, to be invited into healing, deeper love, forgiveness, and maybe most importantly, humility, which can bring about Martin Richard’s dream of peace in our own hearts and in the lives we encounter.  You never quite know who you will invite in if you show the other a little love.