Life’s Narrow Gate

John 10: 1-10

One of the final scenes of the movie Up is of Carl, the old guy who is just besides himself, wallowing in his grief.  He lost his wife before they could ever make their way to their dream vacation, Paradise Falls.  It’s all they ever wanted.  Yet, over and over again something happens, life happens, and it never happens and then her life is cut short.  He’s a grieving man who’s lost so much and is now at wits end with the young boy and the bird that have led him down this path that he just doesn’t know what to do.  They have a big fight and go their separate ways, leaving Carl to return to his house.

But something happens at that house that he’s tried to fly to Paradise Falls with balloons.  He begins to look at albums and realizes he didn’t know the whole story.  He was so trapped in his grief and in the way things used to be, his expectations of that dream vacation, that he had lost sight of the bigger picture and realized it was time to let go.  It’s one of the best scenes of the movie because you see him start to throw out the furniture, throw out anything hung on the walls, anything that was nailed down had to go out the door and gradually the house begins to fly once again, not to Paradise Falls as he thought, but a return to this makeshift community that he had grown to love.

It’s what we encounter in today’s Gospel of the Good Shepherd as well.  It’s not the cute, stained glass window good shepherd that we have become accustomed to over the years.  If you go back to the Fourth Sunday of Lent, this is the follow up to the story of the Man Born Blind which ends up in a fight between Jesus and the Pharisees and the staunch insiders that are wound so tight that they too lose sight of the bigger picture.  They think they know it all.  They have their eye on what they think is Paradise Falls, which more often than not was doing things as prescribed in their own way, and yet they grow angry and tired of this Jesus and today is really the continuation of his response to them after he tells them they are the ones that are blind.

Like Carl in Up, as time goes on and they allow things to become attached internally, their vision becomes more narrow.  They become blinded to the true paradise falls, or in John’s case, a return to the Garden of Eden, and the challenge it is to move to such freedom in life.  So once again, even though they still won’t get it, he uses this image of sheep, shepherd, gates, and all the rest which aren’t anything we’re accustomed to in our society.  They best I can come up with is if you’ve ever been to Ireland you can see rows of small stone walls that seem to go on for miles and then every now and then there is this narrow opening.  All the images used by Jesus, though, is taking what they see as derogatory and turning it upside down.  Early followers of the way or of the Christ were often known as sheep, similar to what in our own history we’d refer to people who might live differently or look differently than us might have been referred to as in life.  It appeared that they had blindly followed something that the rest couldn’t quite grasp because of the lack of depth in their own lives.  The followers, these sheep, had been led to the garden, the pasture, this place of freedom which only has one way through, and that’s through the narrow gate.  There’s no jumping over and knocking the wall down.  You can only through the narrow gate.

Like Carl, because of the narrowness of the gate it’s nearly impossible to take anything through with you.  The shepherd literally acts as the gate by lying on the ground and leading them across to this place of freedom.  We become weighed down by our own illusion of what this paradise is that we begin to lose sight like the Pharisees and the staunch insiders.  We begin to think that things can only be done in one way and no other way.  We begin to replace paradise with the American Dream and think it’s about accumulating, the white picket fence, and gathering things that begin to leave us weighed down rather than free to roam about in this life.  But the life and the life more abundantly that Jesus speaks of in this passage has nothing to do with any of it.  We keep trying to get to paradise falls with all our belongings and all we hold onto but end up stuck in life.  The path to a more abundant life that Jesus speaks of is often just the opposite of the American way of life, not about accumulating but about letting go.

One of John’s central themes is to move to this place of a more abundant life.  It’s not easy and it does come only with a passage through that narrow gate.  The path to that more abundant life is by living a life of conversion, of an ever-changing heart that doesn’t allow itself to become weighed down by fear, worry, anxiety, and all else that a life in this culture often leads us to each day.  The great thing about allowing ourselves to enter into this life of conversion is that on some level it gets easier.  The more we learn to let go of in life the less we try to carry through that narrow gate.  What makes the sheep so smart and how Jesus throws it all on its head is that more than anything, sheep trust that one voice, the true voice.  It’s where the Pharisees and the insiders get it wrong.  They worry about how it looks and all the externals of life, but the path John leads us on through the Christ in a dismantling of our interior life, just as it was for Carl.

As we continue this Easter journey on this Good Shepherd Sunday, we pray for the awareness in our lives as to what we still try to carry with us through life.  Where are we being weighed down and are hearts being weighed down by failed expectations, hurts, fears, and all the rest.  Like Carl, and the disciples, we often learn only by going through and not get comfortable with what we think is paradise falls because the Christ promises an even more abundant life when we learn to let go, cease control, and be led through the narrow gate.  We quickly learn, as did Carl, it’s no longer about getting to Paradise Falls.  Rather, it’s about living Paradise Falls in this very moment and quite often in the life of our own community.

Resurrection Is

John 20: 1-16

If you were in this church either Thursday or Friday you know that it looks much different this morning than it did then, when we began the Easter celebration. One of the things that struck me here, more than any other place I’ve been, in those days, was the empty tabernacle because it’s unlike any other I’ve seen. We’re kind of used to the golden tabernacle that when it’s opened you can see pretty much all that’s there. But on Thursday night as I sat in the front pew, spending a little time reflecting, I was mesmerized by this one because it’s dark inside and from where I was sitting almost seemed endless. It was like looking into the night sky and if I were to put my hand in there it would just go on forever.

As I was preparing for these days and trying to read and listen to as much as I could about John, looking for new ways to preach these gospels, some of his images in the story of Mary Magdala, in its fullness, began to surface when I saw that empty tabernacle. For John, the Resurrection narratives, the first of which is Mary Magdala who goes onto witness the resurrected Christ by herself, become the fullness of the promise at the beginning of the gospel, the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. It culminates at this narrative in particular, but not limited to Jesus nor Mary Magdala, nor ourselves for that matter.

The first image John will go on to use is that of the garden. This all takes place in the garden. Mary will mistake Jesus as the gardner and gardens appear several times in John’s gospel, just as it does in the front of our altar today, and with good reason for John. Even the garden in the passion is different than in the other gospels, but now, even creation partakes in the resurrection narrative. What John tries to create in this image and symbol is a restored Garden of Eden. That this eternal Christ, now resurrected, restores all of God’s creation to it’s fullness and wholeness. For John, creation too has something to teach us and even goes through it’s own gradual conversion from the changing of seasons, if we can allow ourselves to listen to it and reverence it in the way John displays in this resurrection narrative.

But there’s still that empty tomb, and even for us the few previous days, the empty tabernacle. If you know anything about Israel’s history, you got to know that the Temple was destroyed and rebuilt probably more times that we can count. In that temple, beyond the garden, was the holy of holies, which it’s sacredness was only seen by particular people. There was something beyond the veil that was to be seen by those with sight. Think about what many see when they visit a grave like Mary, Peter, and the other disciple do. We often see death, we see end, we are often caught up in our grief, shame, loneliness, like that endless interior of that tabernacle on the days leading up to today, but today is something different, at least for Mary. For Peter and the other disciple, who are so caught up in their grief and shame, mourning the loss of Jesus, they flee the scene and return to the locked upper room out of fear. But Mary will stay behind and through her tears begins to see something very different and things begin to change very quickly for her as the scene progresses.

Now don’t be foolish into thinking that somehow this event takes away the suffering of the world. We all know it doesn’t. But that also isn’t John’s point and why he is the Easter gospel. For John, it’s all about the process of conversion and moving to a life of joy. For John that path was in stark contrast with the Pharisees and Sadducees as we heard during Lent. For them, they had reduced God to an intellectual construct, just as we often have for centuries as well. Think about our own experience of God and faith. We want scientific proof, we want facts, we want it all proven for us. But that’s the thing, as Mary teaches us here, I can’t and I know nothing I say could change someone’s mind. How Mary stands in contrast has nothing to do with intellect. For Mary, she shows us the way to a lived experience of the Christ must come through the heart. She will weep and then she will hear her name said by the Risen Christ, Mary. From that moment on her life is changed forever. She doesn’t need the other disciples to tell of what they have known or anyone else for that matter, for Mary her heart was moved to tears and her eyes were opened, no longer an endless abyss in the tomb, but a resurrected Christ and an invitation to a new life for Mary. Even the fact that it comes not just with tears but in the hearing of her name is a lesson John tries to teach. Think about how he speaks to his mother at the beginning of the gospel where he calls her woman. It’s not being nasty to her. Rather, she too is invited into the same process. When Lazarus hears his name, he comes out. When Mary Magdala hears her name, she comes out and is changed forever.

For John, as we heard in the weeks of Lent and will now hear for the next fifty days, our lives are about the invitation to conversion, to a change of heart so that we too have an experience of the promise that he gives of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. Like many of the characters in his stories, we know it happens over time and gradually. It’s sometimes much easier to live with the grief, guilt, shame, and absence that we experience in our lives than to allow ourselves to be opened to something new and a lived experience of the eternal Christ, who has been, is, and always will be. Just as the garden, the tomb, Mary, and others are transformed, so can we. It’s the Easter promise. Just as I said on Good Friday that we must look at that day through the lens of Easter, today is no different. Resurrection is and we must look at Easter through the lens of Easter otherwise it loses its power.

We pray for that conversion in our own lives and to notice the moments when Christ is inviting us into the lived experience of our faith. Just as it was for Mary, it’s change our lives forever. A lived experience of the Christ, who was, and is, and always will be, changes us in ways like none other. If this Christ can do what has been done in and through others, just imagine what this same Christ is trying to do to us at this very moment. We, all too often, have pushed the whole experience of resurrection to some life after this one, but what John reminds us is that Resurrection is. And at this very moment, God calls our names and is preparing our hearts to be changed once again and forever.

Come and See

Ezekiel 37: 12-14; Romans 8: 8-11; John 11: 1-45

‘Come and see’. It seems like a rather odd response from the people when Jesus questions where Lazarus has been laid to rest, entombed, in his final resting place. Maybe even more peculiar is his response to their response. It’s the one time we hear in Scripture that Jesus wept. He cried at what was going on and as the scene moves towards the burial cave of Lazarus.

We must keep in mind who this Jesus is in John’s Gospel. He’s a very different Jesus than we’ll hear in Matthew’s Gospel next week as well as in Mark and Luke. We’re mindful that John’s Gospel is written some seventy years after Jesus had been crucified. We hear in the other gospels about the agony and such leading up to the passion, the suffering servant, but not here in John. If anything, John is more in line with St. Paul and what he has to say in today’s second reading. For John, it’s about the eternal Christ who transcends time and space, the one who was, is, and always will be who happens to take on flesh in Jesus.

So when they respond ‘come and see’ and Jesus weeps, it carries something else with it and as usual, as we heard the past few weeks from John, is not what you expect. See, the invitation that they give is the same invitation that Jesus gives to the disciples in chapter one of John. It is the call of the disciples, unlike the call from fishing in the other gospels. They know there’s something different about him, he peeks their curiosity, and he begins to lead them to this unknown, to this deeper mystery of who he is and who they are for that matter. But today, the people use those words in another way.

Now it’s not even that they didn’t believe in the resurrection. For the most part, many did believe in that reality. It becomes a tenet of faith. It’s not even that Jesus is weeping for Lazarus at this moment in the scene. What’s really going on and why he weeps is because they don’t believe him and they don’t believe in who he says he is. They just don’t. Sure, there may be a resurrection down the road but not in the here and now, a resurrection that happens in this time and space. For the first time, in all of these seeming controversies of the Samaritan Woman, the Man Born Blind, they feel like they finally have him where they want him and they, in their own way, lure him to the place of death, the tomb. Finally, there’s something that can defeat Jesus, in their mind, and that’s death. It’s death. Lazarus is gone. He’s as dead as you can get, done. Four days, stench, all of it, and the people finally smell victory in their fight against Jesus. And Jesus wept.

And it is the eternal Christ and their are certainly glimpses of that even in the prophets, such as Ezekiel whom we hear from in today’s first reading. For him, it’s not just about the death of one person like it is in the gospel. Rather, it’s the death of a people, the nation of Israel. It’s gone and once again obliterated in war and destruction and today Ezekiel stands before it and the field of dry bones. He questions whether there is hope in the midst of such death and enters into this encounter with God who assures him that life will be breathed into the bones once again and a new Israel will grow. It’s not about going back to who they used to be. Like Lazarus, it’s dead, no more. Rather, it’s about God breathing new life into the people and recreating them into something new. In some ways, God invites Ezekiel to come and see in that same way Jesus does at the beginning of John, to a place of curiosity, unknown, and deeper mystery of who they are as a people.

John’s Gospel has presented us with some great images to enter into as well as challenges to our own faith and what it is we believe. He weeps, even for us, that somehow we can continue to recite such words in the resurrection as we do in the creed each week and still not believe that it can happen in our lives at this very moment. We, like in so many of these controversies these weeks, become preoccupied with death and with being right over being led to this place of encounter with the Living Lord who is the resurrection, that we miss the point and become blinded by the tomb and the comfortableness of our lives. More often than not, we’d rather live in that tomb were it’s comfortable, and yet we know it and there is some consistency to it all. The call today, to come and see, is not to prove how Jesus is wrong and how death has won victory. Rather, it’s about being called forth from what has bound us and come and see what God has in store for us individually and collectively. It’s one thing to believe it as a tenet of faith. It’s another to feel it in, what Ezekiel calls, even the dry bones that have become a part of us as well.

Before we head into Holy Week, John once again invites us to use our imaginations and find ourselves in the story of Lazarus. Actually, it’s not about Lazarus at all! Where are we on our won journey of faith and understanding. Are we feeling like we’re being called to come and see how death has had victory, how Jesus loses, as to laugh in his face or is the come and see of Jesus, calling us forth from the tomb we have often created for ourselves, and for that matter, allowed ourselves to be bound by, calling us by name as he does Lazarus. In the end, Lazarus is the one set free as the rest watch idly by ready to cast judgement when the gift is right there before their very eyes. It is the last straw for the people and the gospel begins its downward spiral after this. This preoccupation with death will cast upon Jesus to prove once and for all he’s not who he says and they still won’t come to believe. He weeps for them. We desire the fullness of life, a life of resurrection. That, my friends, though, can only come from an encounter with the Lord of life who today calls us forth to come and see the victory he has prepared for us.

The Problem of God

Much has been written on the problem of Evil. It’s the ageless question of how to make sense of so much evil and destruction in the world and still believe in a loving and just God. One of the most famous of books was written by Jewish Rabbi, Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, writing of the process of trying to reconcile these seeming opposites in our lives. It’s a challenge for the most astute and keenly aware people, let alone those who have such sudden changes in their lives when it begins to feel as if everything is falling apart around us, when we feel as if we’re losing control over things, including our own lives and all that we have considered normal.

All of that is true, but I firmly believe that the struggle between God and Evil is so closely intertwined that it becomes not just a problem with evil as much as it is with God. It seems rather hard to believe that an issue in our lives is with God, but in my experience it’s so often more the reality, even in the face of evils and great suffering. Even in our political discourse in this country has a God problem, since politics and religion also have been so intertwined and institutionalized, parties often hijacking religious beliefs in order to support their own self-interest.

On the right, there is a very legalistic image of God that leaves very little wiggle room for encounter and the struggle with sin and human suffering, often leading to greater suffering but blinded by it. This view of God holds God tightly in a box, black-and-white, right and wrong, and so on and so forth. Sure, there are morals and boundaries that help us to function as society and are necessary in many ways, especially in raising future generations. However, that’s not an entirety of God. Quite honestly, whenever God is boxed in in that way there’s very little room for mystery and depth in life, God remains a distant reality that is always watching our every move. It often leads to a god of shame and judgement.

On the left, often quite the opposite. “Everything and anything goes” can rarely be sustained. There’s often more a pursuit of a utopia than of the Kingdom of God that Jesus preaches in the Gospel. It’s often a more acceptable means because at first it’s pursuit is good, equality for all and progress. However, it too has its shortfalls. In pursuing such a perfect place and institutionalizing it, we begin to lose the perfect and gradually no longer have a need for God, for the perfect is found here, in another ideology, but often at the expense of excluding others and thought that differs. We see this playing itself out in “safe spaces” and even the upheaval on college campuses of having opposing speakers come and voice opinion that differs. Again, if it’s of God, the factor of human limitation must be accounted for in our lives. It’s short-sighted in that it becomes yet another way to box God in but in a different way.

Both lack a desire for a seeking of truth and a deeper knowing, shallow in their approach when it becomes concrete and lived with such certainty. This problem exists in our politics but also in our churches around the globe, fearing a movement towards something deeper in our lives and using our own god to judge others and exclude. Sure, there is a problem with evil and we can name many of the atrocities that exist in our world, such as poverty, war, refugees, racism, and many others that have taught us to separate and to judge and to often believe in a God that isn’t even close to the deeper mystery that God truly is and can never be fully appreciated or experienced in our lives, managing to live patiently with the tension of these realities and learning to respond differently, not with ideology but with love.

What we’ve done over the past decades is to institutionalize these gods in one form or another rather than seeking the incarnate God in Christ Jesus. We have given them foundations that have become hard to break, but as time now presses on, we gradually see the collapse of the institutions on all levels, these internal structures that have defined us all for years now no longer serve the common good as gaps and divisions continue to widen. However, when it begins to happen, even in our own lives, and we are invited into something new, into deeper mystery, we fear the unknown and where it may be leading us because we have made them into gods for ourselves, giving us comfort and assuring us of some kind of known. All that we desire from religion becomes projected onto our institutions, which people no longer trust, which begin to make us feel boxed in, and become self-serving. Quite frankly, leads to an evil in and of itself. In other words, nothing to do with God but laced with godly language to cover-up. Both sides of the argument are just as guilty as the next for the death of God in this way.

If I’ve learned anything about God and myself over the years it’s that I am a hybrid of all of it. I am never, in this life, going to know and understand the fullness of this God in all God’s mystery nor myself or anyone else. There’s a lot I know from my own lived experience and suffering but there’s also a lot I don’t know. As a matter of fact, it’s that unknown that God seems to always be leading. At times I want to put up the gutter bumpers, somehow trying to maneuver a new territory and at other times desiring that utopia, where all is perfect, avoiding any type of suffering in my life but at the same time, rejecting the invitation to something more in my life. But we don’t live in a perfect world and somewhere in the middle this tension exists between the two which is mysterious in and of itself. It’s where my mind and heart are being invited to being opened to something new. But when I’ve institutionalized something that isn’t meant to be institutionalized, and quite frankly, is bigger than any institution, it becomes increasingly difficult to seek mystery, unknown, because as we hold on tight to what has been institutionalized and is in a dying form, we fear the unknown, and yet, the unknown is where God most often is and invites us.

The pursuit of truth and the ongoing call to conversion in our lives leads us to that place of tension and when we can no longer see or hear the other we’ve once again boxed not only God but ourselves in, closing ourselves off to that pursuit and a life of conversion, closed to finding not our way but a third way. I’ve seen it on both sides; we’ve all seen it on both sides. We have a problem with God because we’ve created gods we can hold onto and yet no longer trust. We have created gods that have been faithful to us to this point but now no longer serve us. Yet, rather than stepping back and allowing even a crack into our certainty, we hold on for dear life even though we know deep down that it’s not leading to life but further into darkness and death. It’s the ongoing struggle with the mystery of life and death that we all are, like it or not.

It’s not God, though, that’s dead or dying. Rather, it’s the gods, the golden calves, we’ve created and convinced ourselves of that are God, that are dying. They have been faithful to us but they’ve also helped create a sick codependency. They have brought us safety and security, in their own way, but have now stifled us from going anywhere. They have brought us certainty and total knowing, we like to think, but have closed us off to creativity and imagination. They have helped us pursue our agendas but at the same time forced us to settle form something less than we are as people. We convince ourselves that they have opened us up to freedoms and liberty, but in reality, have made us less free and bound, chained to our way of thinking. What they’ve done is closed us off to this deeper mystery we call God.

The death of something we cannot see and yet believe to be God is always a daunting reality. It’s almost easier to deal with the death of a loved one or a friend because of their finiteness. In order for us to get unstuck in our lives, as individuals and as country, then we must allow these gods to die and grieve their loss as faithful servants. Our faith, in its deepest liberating grace, moves us to that place in our lives, to let go of our addictions, not only to these tactile gods but also to our thoughts and our own institutionalized versions of these gods that have led to a deep mistrust. We are much more than it all because we are a part of this deeper mystery. We will always be limited and our ideologies will always be limited, but none of it should ever close us off to the pursuit of the limitless even in our finite world. That is not the pursuit of these institutionalized gods, but rather truth and this known and yet so unknown mystery we call God.

Jesus Christ, Public Enemy Number One

Lev 19: 1-2, 17-18; I Cor 3: 16-23; Matthew 5: 38-48

What happens when the solution to our problems no longer works? Honestly, we have to prepare for it because the typical means of dealing with problems, these evils of the world, and so on, it is typically done through violence and fear. What happens when it doesn’t work anymore? Think about it, Jesus himself was public enemy number one. He was hated by the scribes and pharisees, as well as the political authorities of his day. He rattled their cages. He challenged the status quo. He preached this awful message of loving enemies, and yet, he was that person. For it, public enemy number one faces death, death on a cross. Why on earth would be we surprised that we would do the same thing? If we can do it to God, to Jesus, why not get rid of anyone and everything that stands in our way, our enemies. Yet, the message today is to love them.

So where do we begin. We first get rid of anyone with brown skin. We lock up black people. We bar Muslims. We can dump the President. We can get rid of Congress. There’s no need for the Church or any institution for that matter. Now, of course, we can throw in the press and the desire for truth and honesty. Let’s just get rid of everyone and everything that has become an enemy to our way of life. There is so much out there right now trying to open us to a place to look at ourselves and where we need to grow. But then what? When all else is gone, using the image that Jesus uses today, after I hand over my tunic and my cloak as well, I now stand naked, exposed, with no one else to blame for my problems, out of solutions, and after I use both my words and actions to take down the enemy, I’m left with myself and the greatest enemy of all, lying deep within myself, my own hurt and pain that I finally come to realize I can no longer outrun and no longer blame everyone else for in my life. If we’re willing to do it to Jesus, and none of us are innocent in this game, the only one left to destroy so often is myself.

Martin Luther King, Jr, in his sermon on this very passage said most of us live with “a persistent civil war that wages within”. It becomes the easiest of paths and the path of least resistance when we choose violence and hatred. It does make it easier, though, when we remove God from the scene. It’s the challenge that Leviticus faces in the first reading today. The writer speaks and writes of a God that is distant from the world. It’s so often easier to justify our wrongdoing and the bitterness that we hold onto in our hearts. It is so often that Christ within that tries to rattle all of our cages, moving us to a place of freedom in our lives where we can begin to deal with the injustices of the world and of our country. We mustn’t allow the oppressed and those who feel oppressed become the oppressor in return. If we are not living in that place of freedom ourselves, we so often resort to violence, and no, maybe not always physically, but with our gossip and talking about others behind their back. Violence doesn’t come just in the form of war, but often from our own mouths. That civil war becomes a persistent part of our lives when we desire to move to the place where we can love our enemies rather than destroy.

Paul warns of destroying God’s temple, which I am and you are and the community is, with Christ as the head. Paul warns them about taking advantage of those who may feel oppressed in the community of Corinth and beginning to think that somehow it’s about me and what I want rather than recognizing that we become instruments of God’s grace, a God who works through and with and in us. When we keep God at a distance we can put ourselves in that place of power, a power that is so then often abused and so the war begins of trying to take out anyone that stands in my way. Jesus was public enemy number one and if we’ve done it to him, who’s next? What happens when this solution to our problems, the deep hurt and pain we so often want to hold onto, no longer works, when we find ourselves, as individuals and as country, standing naked before the true God and the world, with no one else to blame for our problems, but now exposed for our own pain. It’s a humbling place to stand when we no longer have to fight that civil war and we can learn to love our enemy.

Sure, there are plenty of enemies in our world and plenty of evil at play. But the journey of faith that Jesus invites us into these weeks, leads us to that place of pain and the place of humility when I can finally begin to see that that damn enemy that I have been fighting all along is right within me, looking for attention and to be loved. Jesus understood first-hand, knowing that he was that enemy to so many, or so they thought. If he teaches us anything, it’s that when we allow ourselves to go to that place of pain and ask ourselves why we do hate and why we even desire to have enemies and what it is about them, we can finally hold the mirror to ourselves, individually and collectively, and realize it’s not a solution that we desire, but rather healing, forgiveness, reconciliation, and love. An alcoholic will always think that alcohol is the solution to his problems, but in the end, it’s a destructive end to himself and others. Hurting people will always think that violence and “getting rid of” is the solution to our problems, but in the end, it’s destructive to ourselves and others. Sure it may give an immediate gratification and stroke our ego, but it’s never a long-term reality of the Kingdom that Jesus preaches.

The civil war will only persist in our lives if we don’t first deal with the enemy within ourselves. Otherwise, we continue to project it onto the world, continuing to hate and to hurt. We must live a life of resistance that heals, a resistance that forgives, a resistance that leads to a deeper love. That is why this gospel stands as one of the most difficult and most challenging that we hear all year. It’s not easy to love people around us sometimes let along those whom we have deemed enemy. It’s a sad way to live our lives when we give into such hate and violence. When we resist the temptation, and it will always be a temptation, to retaliate and exact revenge, we finally move to that place of freedom, free of any oppression in our own lives, to then begin to tackle the real problems that exist. Hate leads to more hate. Violence leads to more violence. It’s time to accept the challenge for all of us to hold that mirror up, with public enemy number one looking back, leading us to a place of love, forgiveness, and healing, first in ourselves and then for the salvation of the world.

Freedom to Love

Sirach 15: 15-20; I Cor 2: 6-10; Matthew 5: 17-37

Despite being a rather lengthy gospel, containing probably enough for ten homilies, there are some common themes that hold the passage together, in particular, the way it begins where Jesus reminds the disciples on this continuation of the beatitudes, that he has not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, in the context of somehow surpassing the righteousness of the scribes and pharisees.

So what’s going on? First of all, the law has it’s place. If anyone knows this it’s us. As Americans we have a tendency to obsess about the law more than anything else. We know it brings order to chaos but it also is there to protect us from harm or if we are harmed. The problem with law, despite all it provides, is what Sirach tells us in the very first line of the first reading today where he states, if you choose you can keep my commandments. It’s not a bad thing. However, I can will myself into following the law. I don’t kill. I don’t steal. Yeah, maybe break traffic laws from time to time, but for the most part, I can will myself into following the law. At the same time, it’s not going to bring fulfillment and quite frankly, there’s not a whole lot of joy in my life if I stop at simply willing myself to following the law. It’s tiring. It’s burdensome. It takes a great deal of energy. Honestly, that was the issue with the scribes and pharisees. They were obsessed with the law and it all stopped there.

The law says…but I say, Jesus says. Sure, there’s a place for all of that in our lives but we also know, in all of his statements that follow, he specifically deals with relationships. Relationships are hard and don’t always fall into the bounds of the laws we try to follow. There are elements that rise above, such as forgiveness and love. That’s the rub when it comes to this obsession with the law for the scribes and pharisees and which Jesus warns his disciples, when you become so fixated on it, there’s no room for love or forgiveness. That will be his message that follows next week. The law may be great for keeping order and creating some kind of boundary, protecting us from harm or if we were harmed, but it doesn’t leave much room for the greater law of love and forgiveness.

But we can’t stop there. It’s easy to say that I don’t obsess over the law. I am a person of love and forgiveness. Is it really that easy? There’s another law that has a tendency to creep into our lives and that’s the law we create for ourselves and try to hold others accountable. That’s also the reality of the scribes and pharisees, again, not leaving much space for love and forgiveness, and for that matter, error as human beings. That’s a necessary reality as humans because we’re not always going to choose in a way that brings about life. It starts to creep in when I say things should be this way, or we do things this way, and we try to hold ourselves and others to these self-proclaimed laws that aren’t even realistic and quite frankly, leave no room for God and the Spirit at work.

Paul speaks of that Spirit working in our lives in today’s second reading. The Spirit often meets us in this rub in our lives between the tension and this deeper desire for love and forgiveness. Somehow, as he tells us, the Spirit scrutinizes everything, even the depths of God, trying to lead us to that deeper place in our lives. We are so often so unaware that we even do this to ourselves or others because it becomes our unconscious way and habitual that we don’t see it and can’t even begin to imagine ourselves not having it, because, like the law, it feels like we’re losing control and the law brings order and protects. In reality, it can protect and bring order all it wants, but once, we the people, are involved, there must to room for hurt, pain, suffering, and ultimately, love and forgiveness. No judge or arbitrator can ever bring that about in our lives and our relationships, only by allowing ourselves to enter into that rub, that tension in our lives, where we can be moved forward by the Spirit.
The gospel today challenges us to seek that awareness in our lives when we are obsessing about the law. As I said, it may not be civil law, it may not be Church law, although it can be, but it can also be that law we create for ourselves that acts as a way to control and protect us from being hurt, but it can also cut us off not only from others but from God. The more we are aware of our actions in that way, whether we want to admit it or not, where we make choices that lead to death and joylessness, the more we open ourselves to the grace leading us to let it go and create space for love and forgiveness. Why would we want anything less? Control can never bring it. Walls cannot bring it. Protection cannot bring it. Only the grace of God and the relationships that feed us in that way will bring us to a place where we can acknowledge the need for law but it no longer needs to define me.

Silence

For those who venture to enter into Silence, don’t be surprised if you find yourself leaving with more questions than answers about the struggle of faith of the lead, Father Rodrigues. Both him and Father Garupe, young priests with a sense of conviction, find themselves questioning where it is that God is leading them, firmly believing that they are being called to head to Japan, despite the known reality that they are to face of severe persecution, living in constant hiding, and the possibility of death as so many others had to face.

Father Rodrigues is a rather complex character throughout the story, especially in relation to the faith of the Japanese who are willing to go to their death because of their faith. Yet, throughout, on a deeper level, Father Rodrigues has this aching fear of death as he watches them, one by one, marching toward their own. Both Rodrigues and Garupe make this journey, despite the doubt of their superior, in order to seek out their once mentor who was believed to have renounced his faith. Garupe never makes it that far. From the beginning there seems to be an intersection of faith and lived reality for him, a disconnect that often follows Rodrigues throughout. Garupe’s blood will be spilled long before Rodrigues encounters their former mentor.

But for Rodrigues, it’s more than just seeking the mentor who, in his mind, could not have apostatized. For Rodrigues it was about seeking this truth that he becomes angered over many times in his questioning by the Inquisitor. The Inquisitor, who’s about as creepy as you can get, feels him to be arrogant. It may be the one quality of his that the Inquisitor is correct in identifying. That place of arrogance, which stands in the way of him finding the deeper faith, in the form of pride, becomes the place of rub for Rodrigues. He knows the truth, which for him, is a belief that he knows it all and is the bearer of it all, a gap between the intellectual faith and this faith he witnesses in the people, and in Garupe, for that matter, at times only seems to wane. He struggles greatly allowing this penetrating silence to enter into the depths of his heart and soul, to feel the pain and be one with the pain that the people experience.

The simplicity of the faith of the people only makes it a more stark contrast to what it is that Rodrigues seeks and believes. They seem to lack the fear that he has held onto about this God. It’s as if they know something that even he doesn’t know about the Christ, willingly accepting before renouncing. As the story progresses, Rodrigues questions time and again who it is that he’s praying to in the moment. He seems to simply pray to silence without any answers, despite knowing what he knows and questions who this God is. It is this God, or image, that seems to crumble with each persecution and death that Rodrigues witnesses but holds to so tightly. The Japanese believers, on the other hand, question who’s willing and able, living not from a strength that follows pride, but one that follows love.

In the end there seems to be no resolution nor reconciliation with Rodrigues. The look on his face mirrors a man who continues to angst up to the bitter end. In the end he too will have to confront his own demons of surrendering while beginning to know deep in his heart that he had done something wrong. He still hangs on to an image of who this God is supposed to be rather than opening himself to a bigger God, a God that can somehow even embrace a mentor who has disappointed and a friend who has betrayed, while he continued to allow perfection to stand in his way. The fear of the Japanese was that the spread of Christianity would begin to break down the world order that they had experienced and created, opening the door to questioning and revolt. Yet, they never much seemed to fear Rodriques, despite their persistence in persuasion. Maybe deep down they too knew of his own fear and didn’t see him as that same threat as it was for the people. It wasn’t the power of fear that threatened, rather, the power of love; and for Rodrigues, it was his deepest fear and struggled to accept.