Navigating Darkness

Matthew 2: 1-12

One of the movies I caught over the holidays was A Monster Calls. The story is about a young boy, Conor, who finds himself just overwhelmed by life and not able to take much more of it. His parents are divorced, he’s bullied at school because he’s become so isolated, and now the one consistency in his life, his mother, is dying of cancer. He has this ongoing nightmare where he feels as if life is slipping through his hands. There’s so much uncertainly that he lives in this constant state of fear, let along the anxiety and anger he’s experiencing because of this deep grief.

But he encounters this “monster” which is the tree outside in the cemetery that comes to life. Even that distracts him from the nightmare he’s used to. He begins to call upon it. He begins to realize that the “monster” isn’t out there in the cemetery, it’s deep within him. The monster keeps assuring him that he’s leading him to healing, to this deeper truth that gets lost in the darkness of despair and this ongoing lie that he’s holding onto that everything will be alright and his mother will somehow survive. He begins to learn how to navigate through the darkness that has so often consumed his life and learns to let go. It’s not easy for us adults let along a young boy trying to navigate.

This whole season has been allowing ourselves to wander and navigate that same darkness in our lives. Christmas does not expel the darkness nor does it somehow destroy it. We seem to operate in the world that we can get rid of it which only leads to greater darkness. These Magi we encounter today are learning to do the same in their lives. Even their navigation is a bit off, leaning on their own expectations of a king being born. They find themselves a few miles outside Bethlehem in Jerusalem, in what seems to be their final challenge in learning how to navigate this great darkness, the Herod that lies within.

Fear rules Herod and the land and it’s what the Magi now must face within themselves. He was a tyrant and often believed to have been paranoid in the end of his days. He too finds himself in a position where life seems to be slipping through his fingers and losing control. However, he doesn’t let it go. Rather, he takes it out on the most vulnerable, on the children and has them killed. It’s fear, darkness, and despair when it comes to Herod but a valuable lesson for the Magi seeking life, the newborn King. it’s a struggle for many of us, the darkness within ourselves that is so often easier to cast upon the other rather than learning how to navigate it all. Jerusalem will become that same place for the disciples as the story goes on. They too won’t understand the Christ until they first encounter that same darkness. It won’t come in the form of Herod but in the form of a crucifixion by others who are plagued by darkness. Jerusalem becomes the doorway to Bethlehem.

And so they find their way to the Christ. They offer their own gifts, in someways symbolic of their own journey and the darkness that they too had to confront. The journey to the Christ took them where they’d rather not go, where we would rather not go, but like God, we are often led without even knowing, into the great unknown, into this deeper reality of mystery. For young Conor and for the disciples, it was about seeking truth and truth leads to darkness and to life. He had to let go of what he knew. It was no longer about the head knowledge that we want to cling to and how it’s supposed to be or how we want it to be, but rather a deeper knowledge. It’s deeper knowing and truth that so often is beyond words but lies deep within, ever so gently navigating us through that very darkness that we have feared.

As this season of Christmas draws to a close, the journey really just begins. We’ll hear the call of the disciples to go deeper. We’ll hear the call to enter into this journey and to begin to learn to trust something deeper within themselves as they too are led to uncharted territory, where all that they have known begins to slip through their fingers. They will be left with the same choice as the Magi as the encounter the Christ. Do they leave it all at that crib, with great humility, life and death, or do they cling to what they can see, what they know, what they are comfortable with in life? It is what is asked of us as well. With God’s grace, we can learn to navigate the darkest of times, but we can’t deal with the darkness of the country or the world until we first begin to master it within ourselves. When we do, like the Magi, we can no longer go home the same way. The seeking of and finding of the Christ changes the course of our lives where we too go home by another way. It’s no longer about going home to what we know but into the unknown, into this deeper mystery. No, and not that physical place we call home, but deep in the recesses of our hearts and souls, ever so gently teaching and guiding us, while casting light, to navigate the darkness of our lives.

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Acts 1: 1-11; Luke 24: 46-53

If you listen to these gospel stories each week, you know that they all have their own spin on it, Luke included whom we hear from on Ascension this year. They’re writing to specific communities with it’s own issues and concerns and Luke, often though Jesus, has a message he wants to convey. You add in his own history and story, then you also get a gist of his own journey and understanding of who the Christ was and is.

One thing that sets Luke’s version apart, in the end, is that he’s the only one that puts the words in Jesus’ mouth to have the disciples stay in Jerusalem until they are somehow clothed in glory, whatever the heck that means. Matthew and Mark send the disciples back to Galilee and now they will see things differently, through the lens of what it is they have just experienced. But Luke will have none of that. He simply commands that they stay in the city.

Why the heck would they want to do that? Certainly they wouldn’t choose that on their own. Jerusalem, at this point of the story, is a source of much conflict, not much different than it is today. They’re told to stay in the place that has been the place of such grief and loss, having to watch their friend suffer and die upon the cross. They’re told to stay in the place of great fear from the political and religious authorities who now really want the disciples out of the picture. It was one thing when this movement was contained to one person, in Jesus, it’s another when it begins to spread like wildfire through the disciples. Why on earth would he tell them to stay there, a place where life is so fragile and death knocks so closely at their door?

One thing is different about Luke, believing that he was a doctor of sorts, and maybe he understood pain a little different than the other writers. That if all of this was going to make sense, they were going to have to be patient with their struggles and continue to persevere through them. Jerusalem became symbolic in that way for the disciples and what they had witnessed and what they would witness to in their own lives. In our own culture and world, we do everything in our power to medicate ourselves from our pain, whether it’s through prescription drugs or other means, we find ways to avoid the pain and skirt around it. Luke presents a different way to the disciples and to us. He tells us by staying in Jerusalem until we are clothed from on high, we will learn to push through and be pushed through our pain and suffering. It’s the only way that the scandal of the Cross is the glory of the Cross, all at the same time. The city that sits on a hill has been the place of great loss and also the eternal city.

We always run the risk on these feasts to make them into something historical or something that will come later in life, but they are about today. In confronting and staying in Jerusalem today, we begin to see that all the conflict around us, the fear and anxiety, is really within us. It’s why we want to run so fast from it and do everything in our power to avoid it. Ironically, though, it’s the place that we find true power and our greatest gift. Staying in Jerusalem is important for the disciples and for us. They only way we can go out as they do in Acts of the Apostles is because they’ve allowed their Jerusalem and the scandal of the Cross there to be transformed into Glory by staying with it and remaining patient with themselves and this God that continues to reveal in different ways.

This feast isn’t just about the past nor about the future, but first and foremost, about today. It’s about the life that God desires for us today and to, as the opening prayer tells us today, to be led to where the Head had called us to go. Life would be quite dismal if we never moved beyond the cross. It would be depressing and we’d live a life of victimhood. But if we stay long enough, something begins to happen. Our pain is transformed and this space is created. It’s not an abandonment of God or even a withdrawal, but rather a widening of our hearts for something new, a life in the Spirit, that we will celebrate next week on Pentecost.

As we gather on this feast, we gather at many different places in life. So of us remain stuck in the darkness of Jerusalem, living in hope that we will be seen through to the freedom we desire. We know what that’s like. Some of us may find ourselves living in that Spirit and yet still question in my own frail humanity. We know that as well. Wherever we find ourselves, though, we are simply invited as the disciples are today, to stay. To stay with it. Stay with our Jerusalem. When we stay long enough, the message first delivered in Luke’s Gospel will come to fruition in our own, the impossible will begin to happen. Like Mary and Jesus, we will turn our lives and hearts over to this God, who meets us in Jerusalem, with the great desire to cloth us from on high and to lead us into the new creation we call our lives.

The Need for Perspective

Acts 15: 1-2, 22-29; Rev 21: 10-14, 22-23; John 14 23-29

If you ask me, it’s pretty safe to say that we all see life through our own particular lens. We see what we want to see and it takes a lot to break down that vision and find new perspective. For the most part, that lens usually comes from the past. We see through our hurts, where love failed, our rejections, and fears, and so forth that we have a hard time seeing anything new being possible. In our churchy language, it’s as if we see life through the lens of original sin and not the grace of God working in our lives. Jesus tries to give that perspective to the disciples today as we too take a step back to the pre-resurrection section of John’s Gospel, the farewell of Jesus.

However, there may be no more beautiful image of finding that perspective this weekend than the reading from Revelation. The angel takes the writer in spirit to the high mountain to see the eternal Jerusalem. Even goes onto say that there isn’t even need for sun or moon to offer light, simply the glory of God, the grace of God present in his life. It’s an absolutely beautiful image he provides. He receives the bigger picture that will stand as a reminder in the darkness of his own life of something greater and more eternal.

It’s not an easy place to be, though. We’ve all been trapped in darkness, pain, and fear, unable to see beyond it. It taints everything we see and do. It taints our relationships and how we see others. It taints our politics and how we address the many issues in the city, the country, and the world. For good or for ill, and more often than not, ill, it makes us stuck, lacking the perspective we need to move forward. As Revelation points out, it’s only the grace of God that somehow break through, but it often takes something that shakes us at our very core before we move to that place, before we can see with new eyes. It’s not even that the world around us changes, but we do and we see from a different place.

As I said, Jesus tries to provide that perspective with the disciples as we take a step back in the Gospel today. The weight of the world is falling in on them by this point of the story. It’s the Last Supper in John’s Gospel. He tells them not to worry or be afraid. Yeah, easy for him to say and certainly easier said than done. We know what darkness, pain, and loss does to us. It clouds our vision for weeks and months. The same will be true for the disciples. They will see the sin of the Cross and only it’s sin. No matter how much Jesus tries to prepare them for what is to come, when it finally happens, it will make no difference in the immediate moments. All they will see is death and despair. All they will see is fear and hurt, loss. We know that because it’s us as well. It’s not until the grace of God lifts us up and allows the clouded vision to crack before we can begin to gain new perspective into our lives and see the Cross as something more, the darkness of our lives as something more.

As I’ve said throughout this season it isn’t until we get to Acts of the Apostles until we see the fruit of the Spirit in their lives and the grace of God moving them forward. But today, they too find themselves in a sticky situation as they gather for the first council, The Council of Jerusalem. Now for us living in 2016 it seems rather nonsensical to be having conflict over circumcision. I’m mean, who cares. But if we replace that with Baptism, we can see the significance of the gathering. But they too needed a new perspective on how to handle the matter. Does circumcision have any bearing on the grace of God working in your life? Well, not really. God somehow isn’t going to love them more or offer them more because of circumcision. However, that was a significant part of who they were as people. It meant something. So the community gathers and learns to trust this inner voice that we now encounter, the voice of the Spirit that is going to give them that perspective. Their decision carries with it the past but no longer has to be clouded by their past as people. They can see it for what it is and see that there is something bigger driving their lives, the grace of God at work.

More often than not we need perspective. That’s not others opinions. Quite frankly, that just looking at our own sin, darkness, fears, whatever the case may be, through someone else’s tainted lens. We find ourselves stuck as a people and even as communities as well, unable to move forward because the past so often haunts us and choices are made through the past hurts. As this Easter season begins to wind down, we too are invited to take a step back in our own lives, seeking that clearer perspective, to our lives, the struggles we may be facing as people, community, and certainly world. The spirit is willing to take us on that journey to catch a glimpse of the eternal Jerusalem, the Kingdom unfolding in our midsts but it does take a great deal of humility on our part, that, you know what, maybe the way i view things isn’t the best and maybe is tainted by my own darkness, which loves to disguise itself as the light. We already have what we need and what we desire. If we allow the eyes of our hearts to open wide, not through the lens of original sin, but the grace of God working through and within, we will find a whole new world, an eternal world that will always be.

Becoming Love Through the Cross

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ According to John

You need only turn on the news for a few minutes and see how easy it is to become what we hate. There’s so much violence, judgment, hatred, which signifies just how much hurt and suffering exists. We become what we hate when we don’t have the ability to self-reflect,a prophetic eye, to see what it is that needs to die within ourselves. All this, so often as we have seen, in the name of God, in the name of religion, which has gone on since the beginning of time. How easy it is to become what it is we hate.

How quickly, also, the crowd turns on Jesus. Remember back to the entrance on Palm Sunday as they waved palms, welcoming him into the eternal city. Hosanna in the Highest! And yet today, crucify him! When the tension begins to build between Jesus and those John refers to as “the Jews”, which isn’t what we mean it today, but rather the leaders of the faith, the Pharisees and others, the crowd quickly begins to change its tune. They quickly give into the fear projected on them by the leaders who are threatened by Jesus’ true power, as he refers in today’s Passion reading, a power from above. Fear becomes the call of the people in the face of such love, passion, and suffering; Jesus stands in the midst of it watching it crumble, a world created by man while he opens the door to THE Kingdom, built on love.

Yet, we become what we hate. We are uncomfortable with Good Friday and everything that is good about it. We’re uncomfortable with the emptiness of the church, showing the depths of our own being and where God invites. We’re uncomfortable to come and reverence in some way the wood of the cross that will lie before us. Something deep within us tries to hold us back from approaching the emptiness, the wood of the cross, despite the knowing of a deeper reality that this is the true us imprinted on our very souls. Rather than becoming what we hate, the Cross invites us to become the love that God created us to be.

You see, this cross isn’t just some external reality that we come and venerate. No, it’s our story, unfolding every day of our lives, leading us deeper into the recesses of our being, the emptiness that leads us to a radical poverty, a radical love, that can only be manifested by a God that loves beyond all understanding. This is the day, not to mourn, but, yes, to remember the death of Christ, but the reality that it’s our story as well. We don’t have to settle for becoming what it is that we hate. There’s enough hatred and violence in the name of God in our world; but our God leads us to the truth of who we are as people, through the cross, into the depths of our being, our soul, imprinted by Christ, to become who Christ was and is to us, God’s great and everlasting love and to share that gift with the world. It comes through a radical poverty and emptiness of our lives, through the cross. It comes through a radical love, only possible through the cross. It comes from a great trust that Christ invites us into this day, naked, vulnerable, exposed, and yet, a love that transforms our lives and our world not into what and who we hate but into a manifestation of that love. O Come, Let us Adore.

A Seismic Gift of Love

Isaiah 9: 1-6; Luke 2: 1-14

We all remember where we were and what we were doing on September 11, 2001. It’s a day when life changed, forever. I dare say, it was a day when a seismic shift took place in this country that rattled us in our very soul and something we still grapple with to this day, coming to some sense of understanding of who we really are. It was a day when our innocence was lost. It was a day when the illusion we held about ourselves and others thought of us were shattered. It was a day in which we recognized our vulnerability and were no longer invincible. It was day when we saw first had our own mortality as people and a nation. It was a tremendous seismic shift in our lives when the ideal separates from the brokenness of our humanity. As much as we want to and will always try to go back to what it was like before that day, we never can. It simply becomes an invitation to enter into our brokenness and pray for redemption and that the true God will lead us to the fullness of life we desire.

As people, it’s the same shift that takes place in our own lives. As children, when we too lose our innocence and become vulnerable to the pain of the world and our own families we begin to separate. Just think about how life was for us when we were children. Everything and everyone seems so big, filled with adventure, endless opportunity, a gigantic world. And then we are hurt, some to the extreme, and our world begins to shrink and become smaller. As I preached on Sunday, we begin to view the world through the lens of our emptiness, that empty crib that sat here on Sunday. We view life through the lens of our hurt and loneliness and see the world that way, only longing for the fullness of days past. But on this day God invites humanity into that seismic shift in our own lives, from death to life. We try to live our lives over and over where our Bethlehem becomes separated from our Jerusalem, our full crib separated from our empty crib. God wants to bring about a seismic shift in our lives from gazing at the emptiness of our crib to viewing life from the crib, in all it’s fullness.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, but they know the darkness as well, but not separate from the light. This reading we hear from Isaiah today, in all its beauty, was often read at the coronation of a new king. It was a message of hope to a people who have often felt lost in their darkness, their own emptiness and sin, a people who somehow forget to view life through the lens of the faithful God who brought them out of exile and through the deserts of the exodus. Of course, like we are when a new president or leaders are elected, we have traditions like this reading that we convince ourselves that somehow all will be different and life will be better, but Isaiah looks beyond the earthly king and speaks of a child to be born, one who brings wonder, peace, faithfulness, in the flesh, the birth of the Christ child, the only who who shows and leads the way from the emptiness of the cross to the fullness of the crib.

Mary and Joseph become the icons of that journey in their own sense of having to leave their home and journey to the unknown of Egypt with the newborn king. They too are called right away to abandon all that they know and the life they knew because of the terror of King Herod. Herod, threatened by the news of the Christ and certainly not viewing the world from the crib, seeks and kills all the newborns, a feast we call Holy Innocents, celebrated during this season of Christmas. Herod held onto the illusion of power and his kingly role, trapped in the worldly desires, trying to fill his own emptiness and longing, all to be seen through that lens of illusion as a threat, rather than the invitation for change and a seismic shift in his own world. His illusion becomes the threat to the promise that Mary and Joseph bear. Just think about it, in a world that we live today and the issues we face, it is often the children that are threatened the most, their innocence and vulnerability, stripped from them, because of our own hurt and our own illusions.

On this Christmas, God now invites us into the seismic shift. Where and how are we viewing life? Do we continue to view it only through the empty crib, our own emptiness and longing, our own illusions of life? Can we pray for the grace to not only know our emptiness, and we all know it and we all know suffering and will always be a part of who we are in our brokenness, but also to see it from the crib? That doesn’t make us naive or wearing our rose-colored glasses. Rather, it brings about wisdom because our Jerusalem, our empty crib, is no longer separated from our Bethlehem, the fullness of the crib. As people and as a nation and world, we must pray and find silence to welcome the seismic shift and not run back to what was; when such a seismic shift happens our natural inclination is to blame because we only see what we see and feel what we feel and know what we know. Christmas welcomes seismic shifts so we can see through the lens of the unseen, to feel through the unfelt, and to know through the unknown, to reignite a spirit of wonder and innocence in a world that hurts and suffers. We are a people and a world that knows all too well the realities of the empty crib. Today God invites us into the crib to view the world and our own hurts through the lens of the largess of the Christ’s love for us and the world. Merry Christmas!

The Greatest of These

Exodus 22: 20-26; Matthew 22: 34-40

Which commandment in the law is the greatest? After weeks of contention between Jesus and the authorities, we finally settle down this weekend with a rather easy question posed by the Sadducees as to which law is the greatest. Love God and neighbor as yourself. Plain and simple…yet, I dare say, so often in our lives these two responses are read somewhat independent of one another rather than recognizing them in mutuality with one another. We shouldn’t dare utter the words of loving God if we hold contempt, hatred or judgment toward anyone; yes, anyone.

Rather ironic that this reading would come up on the weekend I returned from the Holy Land. One of our first experiences in Israel was fighting going on between the Muslims and Jews. I still have a hard time understanding how after all these years there could still be so much fighting over such a small piece of land! Although we weren’t in any danger, we found ourselves looking on from the Garden of Gethsemane, hearing the yelling and tear gas being shot. A simple commandment, so it seems, to love God and neighbor, not always a living reality in the holy land or in our own lives as well.

The first reading takes us back a few centuries and speaks of the people as being orphans and aliens and how God hears their cry when they are wronged. The Lord makes the point that the Israelites should know better than to allow hatred and contempt and judgment to grow and linger in their hearts because it is also their story and know what it’s like to be alienated and distanced. They know what it is like to be driven out into the desert, searching their way and trying to find the gift of the Promised Land, which seems so far from their reality. Yet, they are allowing it to grow in their hearts. The greatest commandment is on the brink of violation and they will once again find themselves wandering in their own darkness.

If we are honest with ourselves and can see the big picture on life, we are all aliens and orphans, so often lost and finding our way back to God. We become bogged down, so often, by the things of this world thinking they are so important and the end of the world if things don’t go our way, but everything of this world shall pass because we are aliens and orphans living our way to oneness with God for all eternity into the new Jerusalem, for all that will remain is faith, hope, and love and the greatest of these is love…love of God and neighbor.

Yet, the fighting continues beyond and within. We can’t see beyond differences. We can’t accept that we don’t hold the measuring stick for the rest of humanity. We get hung up on little things that bruise our ego and in the larger scheme of things, don’t really matter. We fear anything that is different than what we know. We allow contempt and hatred and judgment to grow within leading us out to the desert of our own lives, seeking a way back, seeking a love that deep down we once knew and have slowly forgotten. Yet, all I can do is work at it, push through the challenges, grow and so often painfully, and be faithful to loving God and neighbor. I certainly don’t always get it right and I certainly don’t do it like God does for me or you, but I am aware that they go hand-in-hand and is a mutual relationship of loving God and neighbor as myself.

Yes, simple words to recite but we know not as easy to live. All we can do is to pray for the grace to let go of what binds and holds us back from accepting that love that is already there for me and you and strive to live it faithfully day in and day out for faith, hope, and love shall remain, and truly, the greatest of these is love.