Listen

Exodus 17: 3-7; John 4: 5-42

In his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey makes the point, and I paraphrase, that more often than not we don’t listen to understand the other but rather listen with the intent to reply or react. We have it all figured out, and so often without even knowing it, we predict the end of a conversation or another’s thought based on judgement, our own opinion, or simply the tapes that play over and over in our heads that have already determined the outcome. We don’t listen to understand but rather listen to reply, to react, to the other. Any, in the word of Jesus, life-giving water we may have becomes stagnant in the process. We like predictability. We like certainty. Listening to understand, however, puts us in a place of vulnerability of possibly having to let go of things and change.

That brings us to today’s gospel of the Samaritan Woman. Even that story we can predict where it’s going. We know it and it’s hard to listen to it in a different way, a new way. But that’s also the life of this woman and she likes it that way or at least wants it that way. Even the fact that she arrives at the well at noon. It’s crazy. No one in their right mind would go to the well at that time of day. It’s too hot and it would be grueling. The time for the women to go was early in the morning or at evening, when the sun isn’t so hot. But mindful that she wants the predictability, she already knows all of that and it becomes a way to avoid others, to cut herself off from them and their judgment. You see, she not only has a set of tapes about all of them, she has them about herself. If she avoids them she can avoid that feeling of guilt and shame that she has defined herself by because of her life. Jesus points out that she’s been married several times and is currently in another relationship but not married. She knows it and they do as well.

This time is different, though, because she encounters Jesus. Now even in this case she comes off as rather terse towards him. He too doesn’t belong there so she doesn’t quite know what to do. Her predictable situation now has uncertainty. But she also has a running tape about men and Jews that only complicates the matter and so she’s less than thrilled for this encounter. Our immediate thought often with John’s Gospel, though, is that Jesus is the one that doesn’t listen to understand. He seems to talk past her and there is a great deal of misunderstanding. The tapes are no longer working with him. I’m guessing it’s often the case in our own relationships as to why there is conflict, because there is misunderstanding. But it’s not Jesus that doesn’t understand. It’s me and it’s you; it’s us that don’t understand. He’s not trying to move himself to a deeper understanding he’s trying to move her and us to a deeper place, trying to break through the wall we create for ourselves that cuts us off from others and God’s love and mercy. We think these defense mechanisms are going to somehow protect us from hurt, but they only isolate us more and cut us off from each other and God. Her hurt and pain runs so deep but she begins to show signs of it breaking down. In John’s Gospel this conversion, this transformation is all a process. She begins to doubt. She begins to question. No, not necessarily God because she still hasn’t come to that realization, but certainly the predictability that she has created for herself, the tapes that she runs were beginning to break down.

It’s not just her, though, it’s also the disciples in this passage. They too are confused and rather dumbfounded by the actions of Jesus. Again, it appears that it’s him that doesn’t understand but it’s them. As Jews they too are aware of the judgment and the relationship that they have with Samaritans. As much as she knows it with them, they too know it with her. They aren’t to cross in the way that Jesus is leading them. They ask about food knowing he must be hungry and he speaks about something deep within them, the food that nourishes the heart and soul but they don’t know how to react, to respond. Their tapes as well seem to be getting frayed. When we cut ourselves off from the living water and the food of eternal life, we become stagnant. As Jesus says, you will always want more because you thirst and hunger for something that just isn’t satisfying you. There is a deeper hunger and a deeper thirst that Jesus will try to lead us through these weeks of John’s Gospel. He listens to understand. Can we do the same in return?

Which brings us to the Israelites. If anyone like predictability it was the Israelites. Think about it. These are the people that have just been led to this great liberation, set free from bondage, but almost immediately want to return to what they know. We find comfort in certainty and predictability. It makes us feel safe and gives us something to hold onto in life. But it also dries them up and dries us up. They quickly flee the living water of their own lives and return to grumbling, what they so often do best. They love to complain and see themselves as victims. That’s the tape they play. They, more often than not, do not listen to understand what and where Moses is leading, they listen to reply, to react through their own selfishness and their own small view of the world.

The readings the next few Sundays are going to challenge us in this way and to try to listen to them with fresh ears and hearts. Our natural inclination is to listen with the old tapes, knowing how the story ends and predicting its outcome. We like it that way but it also leads to suffering, isolation, and cutting ourselves off from the living water. We are invited to imagine ourselves sitting at the well with Jesus. The encounter alone breaks down our predictability of the situation and of our lives. He doesn’t listen to reply or to react but rather to understand. Can we do the same? Or better yet, do we want to do the same? Sometimes we just don’t want to change and be transformed. It’s much easier to live in the predictability of our lives, no matter how miserable we may become. Courage, we pray for that courage, to sit with Jesus at the well and allow ourselves to be vulnerable, open, and generous with sharing our story, our hurt and pain that continues to cut us off. He wants so much of and for each of us if we can simply listen to understand, and before you know it, sure, it may lead to doubt and uncertainty in our lives, but if can finally begin to open us to the love and mercy the savior of the world has to offer each of us.

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Expanding Our Vision

I spent this past weekend helping to lead a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat which I believe I’ve done for nearly eight years now. I never leave the experience without some sense of wonder and awe, not only at what people manage to live through in their lives, but undoubtably the courage they have to see it through to the other side. Or if anything, to begin the process of passing through.

If there’s one thing about pain and suffering, it has a way of narrowing our world view and often to the point where the sense of the eternal seems all but lost. Everything that we see and experience is viewed through that one narrow lens that does not lead to reconciliation and conversion, but to greater isolation and separation. It seems like the endless spiral of life for so many, choice after endless choice only leading to greater violence towards life and to ourselves.

It is the story of salvation history, though, as well. All this season we hear these great messages of hope from the Prophet Isaiah, including this Sunday. It is certainly the story of people Israel who often found itself in conflict after conflict, leading to greater separation. In today’s reading, despite the message of hope, Jerusalem once again plans for an impending attack from beyond its walls but also from within as this ongoing separation that leads to greater injustice and suffering. Heck, even if you go today it isn’t much different from thousands of years ago. It’s probably one of the craziest cities I’ve visited. They are so focused on their own pain and the need to protect that it has led to building walls that separate, from our own faith, the place of birth from the marking of death, a separation of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. It’s led to great problems beyond the walls and in places like Bethlehem, leading to a greater degree of poverty and injustice towards the people. Their vision had become so narrowed and they start believing that they really are the eternal rather than seeing it all metaphorically, that it eventually leads to their demise and destruction, time and again.

Yet, the message for Jerusalem and for us this weekend is of hope. That somehow these seeming opposites in the natural world will somehow lead the way and bring example to us humans as to how it’s done. Is there possibility for reconciliation? Is there possibility for less separation and a working towards greater justice, especially for the most vulnerable? Isaiah likes to believe so. For as hard as Isaiah can be on people Israel, this season offers a message of hope to those who have only known darkness and despair, to those who have viewed their lives through their constant suffering and the greater degree of poverty it leads to in one’s heart and soul. Like so many of our own sins, even those who walk this horror movie through the experience of making a life-ending choice, are so often symptoms of something much deeper going on in our lives, both individually and collectively.

Certainly John the Baptist was aware of this and everyone around him was aware of it. It’s why he was such a threat to the leaders, who often perpetuated the darkness for their own benefit, but also to the structures of his time. He was leading a revolution to call out the injustices of the society of his time, but for John it began with himself and for those who followed. He called them to look at themselves and how they too have sinned on this deeper than cellular level of their lives. The Pharisees and Sadducees knew it and did everything to avoid the fear that arose within themselves before the one who threatened their perceived power. John’s message is to repent, to do an about-face in life and to be awakened from their slumber to a new way of life, a life with greater vision, expanded vision, of a true and lasting God that sets them free.

This is the God we celebrate today and the God we prepare for all at the same time. There is no denying the greater darkness that has ensued so many lives, defined lives, ceased lives, and has caused us so often to stop growing ourselves. We get to a place that begins to seem hopeless as our world continues to shrink and dissolve around us, as the storm seemingly collapses over and over again before and within us. But there is hope. With just a crack in the walls we have created, the light begins to shine forth and God once again begins to break through and we submit ourselves to the invitation. This is a season of hope and a season to not only celebrate but to prepare for as the eternal breaks in and is broken open before our very eyes on this Table. As we gather and go forth, we pray we may continue to allow ourselves to be open to something and someone bigger than ourselves, to expand our vision while healing our pain and suffering. It is the fullness of life God desires of each of us and a fullness of life promised in this season of Advent.

If You Are…

This feast, Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, is a fairly new feast in the Church, only 91 years. It began in 1925 by Pope Pius XI as a response to a rising secularism, especially in Europe. Of course, it doesn’t seem to have somehow altered that history. If secularism were a religion, and it is in some ways, it would probably be one of the largest on Earth. Pius XI saw the separation of religion from government that was worrisome. Today, though, it goes even further and maybe a step backwards to individualism. It’s now individuals who are separating themselves from something and someone larger than themselves not just governments. It seems to even escalate here in the States and in Europe this sense of separation, that nations become the center of their own universe. Only time will tell where it will lead us. In the past it has often led to war due to separation and this sense of isolation that causes speculation and mistrust.

When we do begin to separate ourselves from something and someone larger than ourselves is often when we find ourselves getting into trouble. We start to make selfish choices that we think only impact us and forget about those around us. David was such a person whom we hear from in Second Samuel today. He was considered the ideal king. He was young and had lots of energy. But it eventually goes to his head. He eventually begins to believe that he’s all that and not only the King of Israel but also the king of his own life. It begins to impact his relationships and will bring about a fall, a sense of humility has he’s put in his place in life and once again reconnects with the true King and he truly does go onto be one of the greatest. He comes to the realization that he can’t do it on his own and must keep his eye on the true Kingdom.

This tension that exists in our lives as well, between individualism and the reality of the greater Kingdom, plays itself out in today’s gospel from Luke. It’s the last we’ll hear from Luke this year as the liturgical year comes to a close. Jesus finds himself hanging between these two realities. He’s faced with the same temptation that he does in the desert that we heard back in Lent. There’s the crowd and the one thief that puts pressure on Jesus to prove himself. They’re so closed in on their own pain that they miss what’s really going on. There’s the temptation to do it yourself, in somehow I’m able to save myself and no need of a God or anything or anyone bigger than myself. Of course, though, on the other side hangs who we often refer to as the “good thief”. There’s an acknowledgement on his part that he is in need of something bigger, a need for mercy and forgiveness. And there’s Jesus, hanging smack dab in the middle of the two and standing in the middle of our own tension with that reality, that sense we can do it ourselves and don’t need God and a place within us crying out for something more, mercy and forgiveness.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul, in one of the oldest hymns in the New Testament, tries to give community after community this same perspective in their lives. He speaks of not a Christ of the Universe but rather a cosmic Christ that has always been and continues to be to this very moment, unfolding within and yet beyond us. It’s a hymn that expresses the deepest desire of our hearts, this desire for expansion. But it is only the one who stands as mediator that can expand hardened and hurting hearts. The more hardened they become the more we rely upon ourselves, not in need of any God. Our own pride gets in the way. We want to blame everything under the sun as to why people don’t need God or want Church, from soccer fields to wanting to be spiritual and not religious, but there is always a deeper reality at play, that often goes unseen. It is often our own struggle with the two thieves in our lives and often giving into the one that steals our freedom and convinces us that I am enough for me and that salvation is up to me rather than seeing salvation as a communal reality.

This feast will hopefully continue to give us pause in our lives, not only today but with each passing day that we are given, not only as individuals but as community, nation, and world. The more we separate ourselves from the source of life the more we become hardened and no longer feel the need for something or someone bigger than ourselves. Not Christ but I become the center of the universe. We begin to fear expansion like globalization and try to hunker down and isolate ourselves as fear takes root in our hearts. What we truly desire is the expansion of our hearts, to embrace all we encounter and recognize the need for the other and the Other. There will always be that part of us that thinks we can do it alone, the rise of individualism in our own lives, but we must recognize the tension and the desire for connectedness and oneness, the seeking of that Paradise that is promised, not by me, but by the mediator, the one who stands at the center of this tension in our lives and world, Jesus Christ, the true King of the Universe.

Reconciling the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Acts 4: 8-12; IJn 3: 1-2; John 10: 11-18

Every year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter we hear from the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel and his account of the the Good Shepherd, on what we call, Good Shepherd Sunday. Yet, for what we know of this image, which is probably the most prevalent in all of Scripture, it often seems to stand at odds with Jesus and even the words, good and shepherd seem to be more in conflict than anything. However, Jesus manages to pull together these seemingly opposing opposites and identifies himself as the Good Shepherd.

In the gospels, when Jesus is confronted by the rich young man he even questions him in calling him good. His reply is, “God alone is good.” And the shepherds, well, we know how unfaithful they have often been from David right on down to the shepherds who become the chosen ones of the incarnation that we hear at Christmas, because they are seen as suspicious, dangerous, involved in risky business, at times thieves, and even to this day, some who live in isolation from the rest of the community because of how they have been labeled and looked down upon and so often living down to that level.

Yet, Jesus says I am the good shepherd. Jesus manages to reconcile the good and the shepherd of our own humanity, and through the Crucified Christ now raised from the dead, is salvation, the kingdom, brought to fruition in the life of the community. It’s the debate that Peter finds himself in today. Now this is nothing new for Peter. He’s been in this situation before when him and the other disciples question Jesus in the gospels about those who are being healed by others than the “chosen” ones. Now he’s in a different position. Now he knows in his very being, Christ crucified, now raised from the dead, as more than just an event but a reality in his life and that of the community. He pretty much tells them the details of the healing of the crippled man really don’t matter. How it happened or what took place. What matters is that he was healed and can now be with the community in the fullness. It was and is through the power of the Crucified One now raised that we believe he has been healed. As a matter of fact, it is only through Christ that we seek and find healing, forgiveness, reconciliation. The Christ goes to the place where we have been isolated. Christ goes to the place where there has been hurting. Christ comes into the world and appears to the least, the shepherds in the fields, to offer a message of hope in the midst of the their lives.

But Peter had another issue to deal with and one we deal with in our own society and culture. He emphasizes that salvation and the breaking in of the kingdom comes in and through Christ. Yet, so often they were led to believe that it came through the Emperor or the political leaders of their day. We know from Herod that it was more out of fear that leaders often rally the troops. If we wait for leaders to bring healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation, we will be waiting for quite some time.

Now we find ourselves as a city facing some deeply-seeded hurting going on these days and for the past weeks and it is us, the believers, as it was in the early community with Peter, who are called to be love to the community and this city. If we reduce everything to politics, we find ourselves in ongoing situations like this one, with hurt leading to more hurt, divisiveness leading to more divisiveness, and trying to prove one’s right and one’s wrong. As it was for Peter, we’re missing the point. We’re missing the point that it is healing that needs to take place. We’re missing the point that it is reconciliation that needs to take place. We’re missing the point that it is forgiveness that needs to take place. It is Christ crucified, now raised from the dead, that comes and brings reconciliation. Christ reconciles the good and the shepherd. It’s Christ that reconciles the shepherd and the sheep. It’s Christ that reconciles the good, the bad, and ugly of our own lives. For it is only in Christ in our own lives, that when healed, we no longer have to respond to violence with more violence, but rather with love. We are God’s children and so we are as John tells us in the Second Reading.

There’s a lot of good in our lives and city, but there’s also, at times, a lot of bad and ugly that takes place. We find ourselves as reactionaries more than responders of love. Christ, the Good Shepherd, comes to the place where we have been and have isolated in our own lives, to love and comfort, to seek out what has been lost and can now be found, just as he did with the shepherds. As we celebrate this Good Shepherd Sunday we gather mindful of the heavy burden of hurt and pain in our lives, our community, our city, and certainly our world. We’re not called to fix and solve. On this Good Shepherd Sunday we are called to reconcile as the Great Reconciler did and continues to do in our lives and world. It doesn’t matter how it happens for this mystery of healing and reconciling is within and yet beyond each of us. We are called to manifest God’s love to our community, city, and world, by being the wounded healers, reconcilers, and forgivers, for it is that that we witness to by our very lives in trusting the Good Shepherd, leading the ewes with care, devotion, and great love.

A Holistic Healing

Leviticus 13: 1-2, 44-46; Mark 1: 40-45

As we listen to these stories of the healing of the man with leprosy, I think it’s good to keep in the back of our mind that, when we do hear them, it’s pretty certain that there is going to be more than just a physical healing that takes place. Of course I have worked with many sick people, to the point of terminal and nearing the end of their lives, and it so often seems that the physical pain becomes secondary to what it can do on the inside. It’s the isolation, the separation from family and friends, the disconnect from the community that begins to take a toll, sometimes causing greater pain than the physical part. Not to say that many don’t suffer greatly in a physical way; there are many that do. Some of it, I dare say, is that we don’t like to face it. It’s easier to separate and isolate than it is to look suffering in its face, despite the fact that we are constantly being invited into this mystery of life and death, truly one and the same mystery.

It’s what goes on with the guy in the gospel today and his encounter with Christ. More than anything, this guy wants to be connected to the larger story, the story of community. His leprosy has kept him separate and in isolation and we see his immediate response is to want to go and tell everyone. First, of course, he’s told to follow the precept of the law and show himself to the priest. We hear that account in the first reading today from Leviticus in the message delivered from the Lord to Moses and Aaron. “He shall dwell apart” is the command that is given to those with leprosy. Do we have any idea what it does to the human person when they are disconnected from the larger story of the community? Think about it, even to this day we still try to separate and have a hard time going to visit those who are sick and dying because our own mortality is put on the line and in such great vulnerability, we are tested deep within, connecting us with suffering and death itself, and ultimately, to the larger story of who we are, the mystery of life and death, where suffering is so intricately connected. We live in a culture that avoids death and suffering at all cost. We can’t bring ourselves at times to face it.

But as we know, Jesus has a way of turning things on its head in the gospel accounts that we hear on Sunday. Yes, it is the man who suffers from leprosy that has lived isolated and disconnected, separated from community, but not by his own choice. He doesn’t choose to isolate and separate. He doesn’t choose to disconnect. It’s those who consider themselves the insiders that make the choice for him and it is them, too, that have become disconnected from the larger story, the great mystery of our human lives, the interconnectedness of life and death and suffering. They want nothing to do with the suffering. They want nothing to do where their own vulnerability is going to be put on the line. They want nothing to do with those that have been deemed unclean, less than human, separated from their deepest desire, to be one. Yet, the only way we become that one is to embrace the mystery in its entirety. They go out, as the gospel tells us today, to encounter the Lord. It’s everyone that is need of conversion and an encounter with the Lord, not simply the man suffering with leprosy.

It may just be appropriate that we hear these readings now that we stand just a few days away from the start of Lent. We focus so much on what we’re going to give up that we sometimes forget that it is a season of change and conversion, growing in holiness. So often it’s the very leprous parts about ourselves that we cut off that are in need of healing and conversion. We learn as kids how to protect ourselves and keep ourselves safe in times of darkness, but as adults, it’s stands in the way of living life in its fullness, a life of being one. As we approach the season of Lent, we can begin to ask ourselves where are those places within us that we have cut off, turn away from, can’t handle, that we don’t like, the places that have become so often our sin, that place of death within. For all we do to separate, even other people and within ourselves, God now tries to pull together and reconcile, to make whole and one. That’s where real healing and growth takes place, when we no longer have to live separate from and disconnected from the larger story of life, our lives, the great mystery. God now invites us into those places that have become separated and leprous in our lives to bring us back into wholeness and holiness as we seek the healing touch of the Lord.