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.

 

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The Struggle for Soul

Daniel 12: 1-3; Mark 13: 24-32

It’s hard not to hear these readings today through the lens of so much violence that seems to be the norm in the world. It’s a complicated world and a complicated time to live. After the attacks in Paris the president of France said the response would be something like ruthless and merciless. Even Pope Francis used strong language saying we are living in a piecemeal third world war. On top of that, we hear these readings about darkness and destruction and so on that it’s hard not to think that the world is nearing the end. It is, in some ways what ISIS wants in the great battle with the West, this great battle between good and evil that remains timeless, and one this is really a wrestling for the soul. It can be the soul of Islam. The soul of the West. The soul of religion. The soul of this city which has seen now over 300 murders, whatever the case. It’s a battle all too familiar.

I’m not naive to know that these are complicated issues that face the world. At the same time, deep down, my deepest me tells me that it is wrong but it doesn’t stop me from wrestling with that reality and to know war and evil is real and if it’s going to hide itself anywhere, it’s going to do so in what is perceived as the place of virtue, in religion. Violence is quickly passed off as being done in the name of some God or that we somehow have to eradicate it in the name of religion because somehow God would want that. Not necessarily. That just stands as a justification for our own reaction by begetting more violence. What complicates it even more is that ISIS sees the West as evil and the West says the same of ISIS. That sets up a dangerous combination. ISIS may have some distorted view of God, but in many ways, the West too has abandoned God and faith. The response of France sounds a great deal like the response of the US after 9/11 and that should give us all pause as to how to proceed. Evil cannot be destroyed but must be understood. Evil too is mystery and finds new ways to manifest itself, while still knowing that the Mystery of God stands greater.

We also know that in the time of Jesus the religious leaders of the time were notorious for it all. But at the same time, that was the trusted source. They saw themselves as the guardian of the soul. They were the keeper of the law. They were the moral authority, while all along plotting to use violence in the name of God to take down God in Jesus Christ. Evil finds a way to manifest itself in the place where it is least expected and where better to hide than in religion. It finds a way to seep into the crevices of our thinking and disguises itself in ways often unknown and unseen. Over time, the soul is sold out. It’s not just the religion we know. Secularism becomes a religion. Nationalism becomes a religion. Fundamentalism becomes a religion. We have no patience to just sit with these opposing realities and struggle with them and to understand them and learn new ways to respond to them; these realities are nothing new. The means by which it’s done and accomplished may be completely different, but the battle between good and evil, God and the devil, the quest for one’s soul, or whatever way you want to put it is timeless and not just beyond us, but something that often battles within.

And so there is this Gospel today and the last time we will hear from the Gospel of Mark this year. We’ll hear from John next week and then move into Luke for Advent. He too uses some hard language about tribulation, and darkness, the powers in the heavens will be shaken. It seems as if there is something to fear. But the writers of these gospels as I have said before are not proclaiming a message of fear but rather that of love and hope in the midst of fear. They are about to witness the destruction of the temple of Jesus Christ but also the long-standing temple that has withstood the test of time. That destruction takes on a deeper meaning for what I have already said. It was the keeper of the law. It was the place of moral authority. But it was also the place where evil was just as present and had lost its way. In order for something new to arise from the rubble, as Daniel tells us in the first reading today, this transition into mystery must become the new reality. We must learn to sit with it and learn from it in order to grow from it. The battle that ensues out there on our streets, in our nation, and in our world is the battle that ensues in our very lives in our own search for the soul and our struggle with good and evil.

The events we are witnessing in Paris and right on our own streets can seem dark and dismal, and they are. It is the reality of a sinful people. It is the reality of war. It is the reality of evil that exists and remains just as much mystery to each of us. But the message of the gospel or that of Daniel in Israel being led out of exile, are not of destruction, even if it feels that way. It feels that way and it feels like separation, just as we experience in death. Everything we know is passing away, leading us to the unknown. We too quickly want to make it all about the end times, but in that regard, we then succumb to the thinking of ISIS and will once again finding ourselves reacting out of fear and perpetuating violence. We make this Gospel into something literal rather than as image and metaphor for deeper meaning and change in our lives, the search for one’s soul and a language that has been all but lost in the Western World.

There are no easy answers to any of it and probably the worst thing we can do is simply throw are arms up in the air and give up. At the same time, we want to react. We want to react with more violence somehow thinking that if we destroy it out there that it will somehow be wiped clean of the earth. That too is naive and a childish understanding of God and Evil. Rather, the invitation is to sit with the uncertainty and allow ourselves to be suspended between these realities. It’s where faith happens. It’s where dialogue happens. It’s where change happens. Because if there is something we always have to keep in mind, it’s not just ISIS that we think must change, it’s also us. When we allow ourselves to be suspended in the unknown of already and not yet, between now and forever, it will feel a lot like the gospel and in that moment, our lives are changed, we no longer choose sides, and we become agents of change in the world and seekers of our truest self, our soul.