‘Thoughts and Prayers’

Proverbs 9: 1-6; Eph 5: 15-20; John 6: 51-58

“Watch carefully how to live, not as foolish persons but as wise, making the most of the opportunity, because the days are evil.  Therefore, do not continue in ignorance (and I’d add, arrogance), but try to understand what is the will of the Lord.”  Ephesians 5: 15-17

You know, I didn’t know how I was going to preach today.  Quite honestly, I didn’t know who would show up.  Once again this Church gave us a thousand reasons to jump ship again. If you’ve been on the fence, well, good-bye, gone goes another generation. Yet, here we are, and maybe those of us who are here recognize that there’s more to all of this than the institution.  Maybe we understand, as we sang today, that our firm foundation is in something, or for that matter, someone else, in God, in Christ crucified, in the heart of Jesus.  You know I’m a Scranton guy so it’s been a little more personal.  The bishop who accepted me into formation was listed.  Heck, the bishop that ordained me, on the list for covering up and concealing and for what and to protect what.

Yet, what do we get, thoughts and prayers.  Our hearts go out to victims.  Thoughts and prayers?  Where have we heard that before.  Oh yeah, politicians every time there’s a tragedy.  Empty words.  Politicians who get caught with their hand in the cookie jar.  Politicians who are sorry for getting caught more than for what they had done.  Politicians who’d rather use prayer to push something away and to continue to live in denial that something needs to change.  Thought and prayers.  All the while that abuse of power continues to persist.  Sure there’s been a lot that has been put in place since 2002 but it hasn’t dealt with the heart of these issues and the abuse of power.  What do you end up with?  Just as Paul says, ignorance and arrogance on our part, failing people along the way.

I’ve been criticized over the years for not speaking on moral issues like this and here’s why.  Our foundation is not in morality nor is it in dogma. For that matter, our morality has been hijacked by politicians that it’s nearly impossible anyway without become one of them. Our foundation is in relationship with God, with Christ crucified, with the heart of Jesus.  Now you’re going to hear people say that the Church will carry on, and that’s true, it’s been through many scandals and crises in its history.  But like all the rest it still remains true that when it arises, it arises for the fact that the institution disconnects from its heart.  It disconnects from the heart of Jesus and ignorance and arrogance continue to persist.  I don’t preach it because I know full well it’s not our foundation and I can never live up to it.  None of us can!  Ever!  And if you want to preach high and almighty, do as I say and not as I do, you’re bound to fall and fall hard.  And for what?  To sacrifice one’s soul and one’s heart?  To protect what?  Quite frankly, it needs to fall a part just as much as our political system does.  They no longer serve the people but rather power.  Our firm foundation is in relationship with God, in Christ crucified, in the heart of Jesus that is always calling us to come home, to seek mercy, forgiveness, and love.  When we lose that, well, this is what we end up with, more of the same, ignorance and arrogance.  Thoughts and prayers.  It’s not enough.

The readings all touch upon it.  Today from the Book of Proverbs, Solomon compares lady wisdom with fools.  Now lady wisdom, as we heard today, has a sense of openness.  There’s freedom.  Lady wisdom is welcoming of all to the table and does not exclude or exude force upon people.  Lady wisdom finds power within that relationship with God.  Now we didn’t continue the reading today, but if you read on Solomon will compare that with following a fool.  Don’t follow a fool Solomon says.  A fool knows nothing and yet is enticing.  A fool looks to take advantage of one who is naïve and lacks sense.  A fool is unstable and senseless, all about themselves.  A fool cares only about self-interest, that same power that is abused.  There’s a difference.  Lady wisdom is more than just thoughts and prayers.  Lady wisdom understands the one who’s been abused and taken advantage of, welcoming all to the table, especially those who recognize that need.

Jesus personifies Lady wisdom as we’ve been hearing in the sixth chapter of John the past month.  You know, the one thing that gives hope is that it is often the crowd that begins to understand who this Jesus is.  They may not necessarily know what the words mean.  They may not necessarily know what he’s all about, but they do know there’s something different about him than who he’s often compared, to the Pharisees of his day.  They recognize he’s feeding them with something that is nourishing rather than the stones of the Pharisees.  It’s the Pharisees that want to fight Jesus because he becomes a threat to their power, ironically.  He threatens their control over the people who are also, do as I say, not as I do, holding people to a standard that no one is capable of!  Of course, it will lead to his death.  He becomes the scapegoat simply for gravitating to the poor, the abused, the disadvantaged.  Even he recognizes that it’s impossible for the heart of a Pharisee to be converted in their own ignorance and arrogance.

And it’s no different today.  What do we do, and this you will see as well because I’ve already seen it out there?  We scapegoat.  Well, if we get rid of this one it’ll take care of the problem.  If we get rid of gay people all will be well.  If we dump Vatican II it’ll fix everything.  If we get rid of whomever lacks the purity somehow it’ll make it all right.  Wrong.  That’s denial.  That’s trying to live with a 1950 Church in the year 2018.  We must return to the foundation.  Without a foundation we fall.  When the storms arise, and they always arise, we run.  Honestly, running is easy.  It’s much harder to weather a storm.  It’s much easier to blame.  It’s much easier to live in denial and offer our thoughts and prayers than to change.

Now, there’s only so much I can do as an insider in this institution, and I’m well aware of that.  However, it doesn’t mean I stop fighting.  I will continue to fight, especially for the younger priests who are going to have to live with this ongoing mess.  However, the real power is with you.  It’s with you.  What do the Pharisees as well as any institution or political system want you to believe, that you’re powerless.  You’re not.  You have the power to force institutions to change, including this one.  You have the power to push institutions to move beyond denial, beyond thoughts and prayers.  If you’re here today you already know where and who the foundation is, the one who continues to feed us with life-giving bread rather than stones of shame and guilt.  It’s all of you that need to push us forward.

And so we pray for God’s grace this day for more than thoughts and prayers.  We pray for God’s grace to return to the foundation that, never, no never, forsakes, as the hymn goes.  We pray for this Church and all of us to return to the heart of Jesus in these moments.  As I said, it’s too easy to leave and run.  The disciples did it.  Heck, we’ll hear it in John’s gospel shortly as well because it’s too hard.  We’re more than an institution when we put relationship first and allow all else to flow from the source.  We’ve had enough thoughts and prayers.  We’ve certainly had enough ignorance and arrogance.  We pray that we take Lady Wisdom’s advice to us today, to open the doors, to be vulnerable in the face of adversity, to lay aside old ways of thinking, and to personify Wisdom in the heart of Jesus.  It is this relationship with God, with Christ crucified, with the heart of Jesus that will change us and move us forward while returning us to what matters most.

A Vulnerable Mission

Amos 7: 12-15; Mark 6: 7-13

I don’t know what Jesus is talking about today.  When I travel anywhere I tend to overpack!  So I was at a conference this past week at a retreat house right on a beach in Jersey.  Now there was no swimming in that spot so it was quite nice and quiet, but I couldn’t help and watch everyone else doing what they do on the beach.  If you’ve been to the beach you probably have noticed, or have been the one, who appears to bring everything with them when they come to the beach even to the point where they can barely carry it all.  It’s crazy.  It looks as if they’re moving in despite knowing that they’re going to have to haul it back in a few hours.  I also, at times, feel like I grew up in antiquity watching them.  I saw a woman with her two daughters.  The two are running while the woman is practically hunched over carrying stuff.  I refrained from saying anything but I couldn’t understand why the kids weren’t carrying it!  If we couldn’t carry it, it didn’t get to the beach!  Not a good way to learn to live without.  We carry a lot of baggage.  If it’s true that our environment says something about our interior landscape then there are many that are carrying serious baggage.

Maybe Jesus has a point then about taking very little.  You know, for a gospel that doesn’t give a lot of specifics, Mark is pretty specific on this point.  You notice there’s not much about what they are to do but it’s very specific about what they should take and not take.  Sure, carrying a lot of stuff, like at the beach, becomes exhausting after awhile, but there are deeper reasons for sending the disciples out in such a fashion.  All that they know about Jesus up to this point is that his encounters have been with the most vulnerable.  He encounters the poor, the sick, those who have been shunned from society and outcasts for one reason or another.  They’re the people that have nothing to lose and pretty much have nothing, including no status in the life of the community.  An encounter with the most vulnerable needs to be met with a great deal of vulnerability and trust as well.  It’s the deeper reason to send them with nothing. 

Yeah, they’re pretty simple guys, simple fishermen themselves.  Although they may not be carrying much physical baggage, they still carry with them ways to avoid the most vulnerable, building walls around themselves to somehow prevent getting hurt, avoid rejection.  It becomes easy to hide behind status, role, career, our belongings, all of which prevents the authentic encounter with the vulnerable one.  As the disciples are sent out two by two today, they aren’t being sent to fix people’s problems or anything like that, but in the process of encountering the vulnerable they also become more aware of themselves.  They become aware of their own demons that act as baggage in their interior life.  It’s how they begin to become aware of it around them and to not give into the fear that they often invoke.  Will they always get it right?  Far from it.  Will they be perfect at it?  Absolutely not.  They’re not Jesus nor are they supposed to.  Will they face rejection like the prophets?  Absolutely, but that too will become a point of meeting and encountering the vulnerable and learning to trust over and over again.

The same is true for Amos in today’s first reading.  Again, a rather simple man.  He’s someone that would prefer to go back to his own way of life of shepherding.  Things seemed much easier for him as that and quite frankly doesn’t want much to do with God or being this prophetic voice.  He learns, though, today, about shaking the dust off of his feet or shaking out the sand and moving on.  Amaziah wants nothing to do with him or his message of God.  Like most of the prophets, the message often sounds quite harsh to the powers that be because they try to maintain the status quo.  They prefer to invoke fear in the people but often at the hands of the most vulnerable.  The poor become forgotten and take the brunt of what is done.  The women and children, the refugees, people fleeing the violence that is often sparked at the hands of the political authorities of their day.  Amos, as he learns of himself as well, learns the difference of when that word falls on deaf ears and moves on.  It doesn’t stop him from being the prophetic voice.  Some are just unable to hear and receive the message.  Just as at times we aren’t.  There are times when people try to reach us and we’re unable to hear and see because we trust more heavily on our own baggage rather than being open to the possibility of God.  Jesus has every reason to send them out today with very little in order not to create a barrier, separating them from the most vulnerable and learning to trust that God will give them all they need.  When it’s not being heard, they shake off the dust and carry on.

We tend to carry a lot with us.  We have all learned ways to avoid pain, suffering, being rejected, but in doing so we close ourselves off to love.  We build walls to separate ourselves rather than allowing ourselves to be vulnerable.  These readings challenge us in our own lives to be aware of what it is we use in our lives that acts as that barrier.  There are times where we need to literally go to the most vulnerable, whether the poorest of the poor on the street or even someone suffering in pain or loneliness in the home next to us.  When we go with a sense of openness and vulnerability, it does as the disciples do today, heals.  It heals not only the other but our own hearts and souls.  The most authentic encounters we can have are when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable before the other and the Other.  It’s too easy to close ourselves off but today Jesus invites us on a different path and a different encounter, one of great vulnerability, opening ourselves not only to the possibility of hurt, but more importantly a great deal of healing, love, and compassion for others and ourselves.

Unseen Obstacles

Sirach 27: 30–28:7; Matthew 18: 21-35

When I was out at Notre Dame back in July, I had asked the priest who was kind of leading us through the week what he thought was one of the greatest obstacles we faced as a Church.  Now, I can name many already.  We know there are less priests.  We are certainly aware that there are less people coming.  We also know that there is a lack of trust with all institutions but also a feeling that the institution is out of touch with what’s going on.  Again, the list can go on and on as to what kind of obstacles we face, all of which we can see with our own eyes.  But he wasn’t thinking about what we can see.  He was thinking about something much deeper and so I was taken back when he responded to me.  He said he felt the greatest obstacle we face is resentment.  I got to tell you, it has pushed me to look at my own self and where it may be simmering underneath for me.  We’ve all faced it towards the institution but also with priests and people.  So many examples of how it hasn’t gone as planned or it’s not what we thought it would be or should be.  We have somehow been treated unfairly and we deserved better.  All along as it simmers underneath the surface, resentment.

And, boy, do we as Sirach tells us today, love to cling to it.  I don’t know why we hold on as tightly as we do.  If anything, over time it really acts as a cancer in our lives, feeding on itself, and taking a toll on our hearts.  Now Sirach is speaking specifically to friendships that have gone awry.  This isn’t just something that the Church must face, but we see it in marriages, in families, and in our communities that we’re a part of, simmering underneath as we cling for dear life.  Maybe we tell ourselves that we’ll hold the injustice over the other.  Or somehow it gives me power and domination over the other who has wronged me in some way.  I’m going to dangle it over them, holding a grudge, as if that’s somehow going to bring justice.  Any maybe that’s are problem.  We want justice despite Sirach telling us we even have to forgive our neighbor’s injustice.  Justice without mercy and forgiveness only leads to greater anger and resentment simmering underneath. 

Both Sirach and Matthew write to communities that often faced division.  This who section of Matthew that we’ve been listening to for the past few weeks has been on what it means to be community and the necessary tools for a community to grow.  Today we hear this outlandish parable by Jesus about a servant who was given forgiveness but never quite penetrates his being.  He remains a tyrant and unchanged by the king’s gift.  The servant simply feeds the king a line that he wants to hear, that somehow he’ll repay this outrageous amount of money, knowing full well that it will never come to pass.  He simply reacts to the situation to get what he wants and yet is unable to receive the gift.  How do we know?  See how he immediately goes and reacts to his fellow servant.  He does exactly what Sirach tells us today.  He clings to his sin and begins to choke the guy.  His own anger that simmers underneath gets the best of him, unchanged by the king’s mercy.  Whether we like it or not, it’s our story.  We like to do the same thing.  We’ll play nice to get what we want.  We’ll go along with something even if it upsets us for the sake of keeping “the peace”.  Yet, all along, just as it is with the servant, just below the surface anger is feeding itself on resentment.  It has destroyed relationships and communities alike when we don’t allow it to come to the surface, to the light, in order to be transformed.  We’d not only prefer to cling to it but also transmit it to anyone who happens to set us off at the moment.  The king doesn’t need to send him to the tortures.  We do that to ourselves by holding on.

These two readings provide us two images and leave us with a choice.  Sirach gives us the clinched fist and grinding teeth, holding on to what eats away at us from within.  Then there’s Jesus, the freedom that comes with forgiveness.  The thing about forgiveness, though, and I have said this before, I cannot do it myself and nor can you.  It is truly a grace given to us from God, freely given.  We do not have the ability to forget how we have hurt and have been hurt and so through this grace we are set free from what binds our hearts and what it is we cling to.  The other is this.  There must be a mutuality.  There must be an openness on our part and a receptivity on our part to receive that grace otherwise it simply deflects off of us, unable to penetrate our own hurt.  The servant is the perfect example.  If he were able to receive that grace, that gift from the king, he would have in turn shown mercy to his fellow servant.  When we open ourselves to the grace we in turn give the gift away.  That’s grace.

We all cling to things in our lives, unable to be free.  It may be fear, resentment, anger, so often causing depression in people’s lives.  It can be towards the Church, towards me, towards a spouse, and even towards God when we feel we have been wronged and unjustly treated for whatever reason.  In those moments, though, we are invited into a choice as to what we do with it.  Do we allow it to simmer underneath the surface, creating a wedge between us and the other and God or do we surrender it to the Lord?  It’s hard stuff as individuals and hard stuff as a community to deal with the real issues.  It’s easy to speak about the obvious issues and problems we face as Church and community.  It’s a whole other ballgame to talk about the real issue simmering underneath that prevents us from growing as individuals and as community into the grace of God that is being offered us at this very moment.  Cling or be set free.

Tumbling to Success

Wisdom 11: 22-12:2; Luke 19: 1-10

Our society and culture thrives on success and if not on success, winning. We love to succeed and we love to win. No one wants to be a part of a losing team. Of course, at times we even push it to the limits where we will do what it takes to make it to the top. We see cheating in sports and we certainly know of success in the business world has often been on the backs of the people on the bottom. We have literally made success into a virtue that it has often been hard for us to critique it and see the impact it often has on our lives and the lives of others.

But it’s not just our thing. It seems as if it’s a part of our human nature to want to be on top, winners and successful. We even refer to it as climbing the ladder of success. We call it careerism and even clericalism in this Church sphere. But it’s not new. We see it with Zacchaeus in today’s gospel. We know, according to Luke, that he was the chief tax collector and he was a rich man. He was successful and we also know that he often did it while taking advantage of others along the way. He’s already pegged by the people as a cheat and extortioner. Zacchaeus is a climber and he does it well. Like us, he’s made it into a virtue and so it’s no wonder that he will do what he knows how to do well, he’ll climb to just catch a glimpse of Jesus as he passes through.

But the spiritual life isn’t like anything else. As much as we want to make success and winning into a virtue in our daily lives, it pretty much stands in opposition to our spiritual life and our relationship with God. In our spiritual life the virtues are much more about falling, about letting go, and about surrendering. If Zacchaeus is truly open to an encounter with this God that is passing through, then he’s going to have to fall from the tops of the tree and come down to meet the Lord face to face, falling into his love and mercy. But we don’t like to fall. We’ve probably all had those dreams where we find ourselves falling and it has a way of scaring us. It feels like our lives our out of control. It feels like fear and anxiety are taking over our lives. It feels like death in many ways and that makes us uncomfortable and it certainly doesn’t sound anything like success or winning, and it’s not and is at the same time. As Solomon, the writer of Wisdom tells us in the first reading today, this God, who is a lover of souls, has a way of always calling us forth to come home, a home deep within us that no longer is in need of success but rather connection, vulnerability, love, forgiveness. Where does Jesus want to meet Zacchaeus in today’s gospel. Ironically in his home. Today salvation has come to his home. He returns a changed man.

But there are still these grumblers we have to contend with in today’s gospel as well. We all know them because they are often us! They are the ones that have pegged Zacchaeus as a dirtbag. They know what he has done to them and others. They have him all figured out. But that stands as their greatest obstacle. The spirit of conversion is not only for Zacchaeus but for the grumblers. However, there is an openness that lacks in their lives to see Zacchaeus differently and so they’re certainly not going to see themselves differently either. If you don’t think you’re in need of conversion then it’s hard to be open to an encounter that’s going to change you. They have no ability to see their own sin or have quantified Zacchaeus as being worse then theirs. They have named success in their own way, as somehow being better than the other in a moral way. We may not achieve success in the way our culture and society has deemed it, but there is always a part of us that wants to see ourselves as on top, successful in our own way that also clouds us from seeing ourselves in need of conversion and our pride gets in the way, climbing our way to the top only to find ourselves at some point with the invitation to fall into the hands of love and mercy that invites us to this encounter as it was with Zacchaeus.

Like Wisdom tells us today, there remains that lover of souls that is always calling us to our true home, not necessarily just in the life to come, but at this very moment, a God that never gives us because of love. We may climb all we want, but at some point the branches that once sustained us can no longer hold the weight and we’ll find ourselves tumbling. That itself is an invitation from God, to embrace the virtues of the spiritual life now, surrendering, falling, letting go, and finding ourselves in this face to face encounter with the Lord of life. We can have it at this very moment when we embrace our need for forgiveness, climb over our pride, and allow ourselves to fall into love. When we do, like Zacchaeus, our lives are changed forever and so is the world around us.

Disruptive Blind Spots

Sirach 35: 12-14, 16-18; 2Tim 4: 6-8, 16-18; Luke 18: 9-14

Anyone who drives is well aware of what we call “the blind spot”. We know the havoc it could cause for us as drivers if we are not paying attention to it. It’s our most vulnerable place as drivers and can cause great harm if we forget about it. The same is true, as we know, for Joe Flacco and other quarterbacks. They have their blindside. When his isn’t protected, as we’ve seen a lot recently, he finds himself on his back end more than anything. It’s his vulnerable point and has to be protected and not forgotten.

The same is true for our spiritual life and our lives in general. Like when we drive, it is our most vulnerable place and if evil and sin is going to work its way into our lives that’s precisely where it’s going to happen. Yet, we like to ignore it and are often so unaware of it that it has a tendency to control our lives, sometimes unaware that our lives can even be better than it is. They are our blindspots, our blindside, that can find a way to separate us from ourselves, from others, and from God.

In the stories we hear each week, our blind spot is often represented through the Pharisee. Even when Jesus uses other stories, they’re often about the pharisees and what they can’t see about themselves. However, as we march our way through Luke’s gospel, he seems to be more forward with them, specifically calling the one entering into prayer a Pharisee who finds himself disconnected from the tax collector and from God for that matter. Everything that he wants to point out about others are often his own faults and points of vulnerability and yet becomes blinded by them, presenting himself in a rather conceited way before God. What he does is what we often all try to do, thinking we can trick God into believing that we’re someone other than we really are, as if God is somehow not going to love us or forgive us if God really knows who we are. So what do we do? We created an affront and not always even consciously, but our blind spot is hard at work separating us and leading us to believe we can be someone other than who we are.

Paul knows it all too well. He is the master of the ego and knows all too well what life is like when the blind spot is directing life, often separating us from our own humanity. Yet, today we hear his continuation of his letter to Timothy. He’s imprisoned and nearing the end of his life, using such poetic language to speak about the constant need for turning his life over the Lord, seeking redemption and greater freedom. Everyone has abandoned him at this point because of the challenge he created in their lives. He wasn’t only good at recognizing his own blind spot but calling others out for theirs. They don’t want to hear that. And yet, to move towards holiness and wholeness in our lives, we have to come to the Lord and this Table as we are, entirely. We aren’t going to trick God into believing something about us nor are we going to trick ourselves. This sense that we have to come to the Lord perfect stands as a great obstacle to the good in our lives and an obstacle to holiness and wholeness and leading an authentic life.

Sirach also points out this need to be vulnerable before the Lord as the writer speaks of a God who shows no favorites. It is a God who is partial to the weak and hears the cry of the oppressed, a God not deaf to the orphans, or for that matter as with today’s gospel, a tax collector who acknowledges his own sinfulness and recognizes this deeper need for God’s mercy and forgiveness. It’s someone that realizes they no longer need to hide from God, no longer need to disguise or ignore their blind spot, but rather come to God as they are, in need of mercy and forgiveness. The reversals happen once again where the tax collector upstages the pharisee and God meets humanity at its most vulnerable point, redemption and salvation happens in a moment of oneness and connectedness.

As we come to this Table today, we pray we may be aware as to how we gather. Are we still trying to play games with God, presenting ourselves as “perfect” never allowing ourselves to be changed and transformed by this Eucharist. There is great freedom when we can come to accept that we don’t need to come here perfect but rather only as ourselves, sinners in need of mercy and forgiveness. Why do we want to put that pressure on ourselves to be something we aren’t? It keeps us from growing in relationship with ourselves, with others, and with God. It also becomes an obstacle from living an authentic life. We pray, like when we drive, that we are always aware of that blind spot in our own lives and to know the havoc it could play in our lives. We’re more than that not because of what it wants to tell us, but rather because of who we are, sinners, yet loved and always being called forth to mercy and forgiveness.

Richly Poor

Luke 16: 19-31

The one side-effect or even shadow side of our addiction to the capitalistic culture which consumes us on all levels and aspects of our lives, is that it’s opened the door for us to demonize the poor. It becomes easy to blame them for their own problems and somehow believe that they are envious of others and simply want to be rich. It’s the crazy stuff that we tell ourselves and what our culture tells us. Yet, all it does is, in the words of Jesus today, is create this chasm that seems to grow wider and wider. Really, though, the more we separate ourselves from the poor we separate ourselves from the interior poverty of our soul that always seems to long for the fill of the pod. The external reality of separation of rich and poor is a reflection of the chasm that often exists within our own lives and souls, when we demonize that part of us and try to fill it with something other than God.

But here’s the thing. There is that longing for more in our lives that makes us all the same, whether rich or poor or anyone in between. It’s how we fill that desire for more that often determines the quality of our lives, which brings us to this Gospel today. It should be hard for us to hear today as it was for the Pharisees to whom Jesus is addressing it. Last week we heard the story of the steward and today the rich man and Lazarus, but in between the two are a few verses that describes the reaction of the Pharisees. Luke tells us that they love money and that they are growing weary of this Jesus and the threat that he seems to be bringing to their lives and this perceived power, especially through their love of money as Luke tells us.

So this is where Jesus picks up and begins to turn things on their head. Keep in mind that this is the continuation of the mercy parables of Luke’s gospel so it is first and foremost about who God really is. It’s also important to remember, that like many people today, there was this belief that somehow the more riches and stuff I had the more I was in favor with God. We even use that language about our wealth and belongings! If we believe that, we miss the point and are off mark on God. So the reversals begin at the start of the story. The one who would have been known by name because of his status and wealth becomes nameless and yet the one who is poor and has nothing, living out of his poverty, becomes named, Lazarus. Right from the beginning the pharisees would start to squirm.

But then there’s also the reversal of fortune. The pharisee thinks, thinks, that he is “living in heaven” because of his wealth, not only because of his status but because of his accumulation of wealth. But in the end, it’s him that his tormented. The more he separates himself from the man sitting outside his door, the more he tries to fill his pocket with wealth. His own deep longing is being separated from his life and the external world, and so as much as he thinks he’s “living in heaven” it’s really an experience of hell. He’s not living from the place of poverty but from his place of wealth. Jesus isn’t trying to scold him in some way. Rather, he’s inviting him to recognize his own poverty and to live from that place which can never be filled by what we consume but only by allowing ourselves to be consumed by God. It’s the novel of the story and to begin to recognize that Lazarus is me and Lazarus is you.

If we find ourselves demonizing in some way the poor and blaming them for our problems, well, the reality is, it says more about me than it does them and the chasm only grows wider and deeper in our lives. The story is not meant to spook us or even distress us, unless we have become blinded by our own wealth and stuff that we have accumulated. All that does is leave us with a false sense of security and something we can hold onto. Jesus, today, is inviting us to allow these realties to reflect one another, that by the way we treat others, in particular the poor, we are moving to a place where we can be more in touch with our own poverty and to begin to live our lives from the place.
There is nothing that is ever going to fill that longing and that desire for more in our lives. Yet, the entire capitalistic culture is rooted int that very reality so I can tell myself that I can’t live without something. It’s rooted in our weakness into fearing that place of poverty within ourselves, the Lazarus within ourselves, and the more I separate myself from the longing in my soul, the more I feel like I need something to fill it. It’s never going to be filled by something. We can consume all we want and the chasm grows. What we’re called to do is as it is with the Pharisees, to accept that that’s who we are, that there is this longing and desire for more within me. Rather than consuming ourselves allow ourselves to be consumed, not by the culture, but by the One who creates the longing, the God of love, mercy, and forgiveness. The more we do, the more we no longer need to feed the rich man but rather accept that Lazarus is me and Lazarus is you, and then, and only then, will our lives be rich and fulfilled.

God’s Endless Pursuit

Exodus 32: 7-11, 13-14; I Tim 1: 12-17; Luke 15: 1-32

For those of us who remember, the days of the old Baltimore Catechism, we remember the question and answers that were to be memorized. Some of us can probably still recite them today. I believe the second question simply asked, “Who is God?”. The answer was simply creator of heaven and earth and of all things. It was pretty easy but when we hear these readings this week, it doesn’t seem so easy and certainly portrays God in a very different way. We hear of a God that is in constant pursuit and we the object of that pursuit.

However, many aren’t even aware of this God who is constantly revealing and in constant pursuit, desiring relationship with us because we often get hung up on the illusions of who we think God is. It’s tough to penetrate these illusions because they are so deeply rooted in who we are and often connected to deeply-seeded wounds that exist in the human race and so we cling to the simple illusions we’ve been taught and never quite experience a relationship with what seems to be a rather foolish God in these readings, constantly in pursuit desiring only to love. God pursues from so far beyond and yet in the depths of our being. Unfortunately, these illusions end up impacting our relationship not only with God but with the people around us and even collectively as a people, unable to experience this God in a new way.

These illusions create a distance between us and this God, despite His constant pursuit. We hear that in today’s first reading from Exodus. It appears that it is God that is distancing Himself from the people in the reading. We’re so used to God referring to Israel as my people, but today it’s different. He’s ticked off at people Israel and tells Moses, “go to your people.” It’s as if God wants nothing to do with them at the moment because of how lost they have become. Despite the constant pursuit of this God to His people, they wander again and again. Over time people Israel tries to make themselves god and creating gods in the molten calf today, that they lose sight of all this God has done and the mercy that He has brought upon them. It impacts all relationships. We’re not much different. This country as well has tried to put itself in the place of God and creates gods not only out of objects but out of ourselves as well. Yet, God still pursues Israel as Moses mediates on their behalf, leading them to a changed heart once again.

It is the story of the prodigal in today’s gospel as well. It’s somewhat easy for us to understand the younger son who goes off doing rather dumb things. We’ve all been there and over time eventually, hopefully, work our way back somehow. Even that, though, the father is in pursuit of that son before he ever returns. But there remains the issue of the elder son, the one we’d rather not deal with and face. Remember Jesus is addressing the scribes and pharisees and so the elder son is really a reflection on them. He too has an illusion of not only God but his father in the story. He holds tightly to this illusion of a father who demands perfection and so in turn a God, as it is with the Pharisees. Yet, he has so much animosity towards the other that he too wants a break and a distance with his younger brother. Notice how he refers to him in the say way that God does to Moses in today’s first reading. He doesn’t acknowledge his as his brother, but rather says, “your son”. He wants no association with him. His wound runs so deep that he can’t see beyond this illusion of perfection. However, the father, seeming rather foolish, still pursues him and loves him and desires life for him. But he can’t get beyond thinking seeing beyond the illusion that some how his father is out of his mind and has betrayed him. God doesn’t demand perfection. God desires relationship and whether we know it or not, we can’t have a relationship with an illusion.

Paul knows that better than anyone and he tells of his own journey today to Timothy. Remember that Paul was a chief pharisee and held tightly to that sense of a God that demanded perfection. It’s not until he finds himself blinded in some way that that illusion begins to break down and Paul encounters God in the flesh, in Jesus Christ. He comes through a changed man with a changed heart. The good news is God never gives up. God continues the pursuit and we remain the object of that pursuit. There are the pharisees today, God in the flesh before their very eyes, and yet they can’t see beyond their own illusion and their own pride to encounter God in Christ. Jesus himself pursues them and yet there isn’t that openness to see and experience this God in a new way, in a seemingly foolish way, a God not demanding perfection, but freely offering love, forgiveness, and mercy. Why would we not want such a relationship?

We live in a time when we can almost sense that same distance in our country. Like the elder son, we want nothing to do with the other. We tend to rather enter into relationship with, demonize the other. Our pursuit is the destroy the other, take them down. There is deeply rooted pain and loss that we suffer that we continue to hold onto. But God doesn’t give up on us either. God continues to pursue. Like people Israel, though, we wander and wallow in our own pain, holding onto illusions of what was, of who we think God is, putting ourselves at times in the place of the god we create, creating further distance. What we need, though, is to allow ourselves to be found by the living God, the seeming foolish God that smashes all illusions and moves us to a place beyond separation and violence, to a place of reconciliation, love, and mercy. It’s what we need. Yet, if we can’t bring ourselves to enter into relationship with the other we will continue to suffer at the hands of ourselves and create our own gods, worshiping false idols. It will always seem foolish to the pharisee within us and yet a gift to all who can allow themselves to be open to something new, a God that always is and always will be so far beyond and yet so imminently in pursuit of our hearts that we will never desire anything less than love and mercy.

Neighborly Love

Deut 30: 10-14; Luke 10: 25-37

The gospel we hear today, the Good Samaritan, is one of those passages that is really hard to preach on. We’ve heard it a thousand times and so we know it and then have a tendency to tune it out. It makes it hard to hear it different and it makes it hard to says something different about it as well. Because it’s so familiar, even in our laws, we view it from our own particular lens. All of our lives and our baggage is viewed through the lens of the story. There’s also the backdrop of the revolving door of violence that we once again see in this city and country that really challenges us to look at the question of who is our neighbor and in what ways are we neglecting others. Lastly, there is the backdrop of the gospel itself and what was happening at that time when the story is told and written down that influences why it’s told. So there’s a lot going on to understanding and yet being challenged to hear and live in a new way through the story of the Good Samaritan, bearing in mind all of these backdrops that influence the story. Quite honestly, it would have been a whole lot easier if the story ended after the first question and answer, but Luke, unlike the others, has this way of throwing zingers into the story that make you stop, just as he does by adding the story of the elder son in the Prodigal Son parable.

One of the main backdrops of the gospel itself is this law of what it means to be clean and unclean. As a matter of fact, if you read the gospels through it’s as if they were obsessed with this law. The reality is, according to the law, the priest and the Levite in today’s gospel did nothing wrong. They did what the law had prescribed at crossing the street and avoiding the person that was beat up, robbed, and now half dead. However, their obsession with the law stands in the way of the essence of that very law of loving God and neighbor, as the scholar of the law asks of Jesus. Everything becomes about separation. They learn to separate themselves from the unclean, the impure, what they perceive as wrong and bad, all for the sake of their own self. Their entire relationship with God was tied up in this belief and still is for some, thousands of years later! As long as I separate from it and stay clean then I’m good with God and good with others. If the scholar of the law wasn’t so hung up on tripping Jesus up and winning this argument, he would have left it go at that point rather than posing the real question, then, who is my neighbor. The scholar opens the door and Jesus walks through.

In comes the Samaritan. The one the scholar would have considered the most unclean and the one that is hated enters the scene with the largest heart. There are probably a variety of reasons that we can say on behalf of the Samaritan. The Samaritan really has nothing to lose. Although the Pharisees would try to hold them to their obsession with the law, they don’t. That’s not to say that the Samaritan is perfect. They have their own issues with the Jews but the difference is, the Samaritans are already unclean and on the bottom of the barrel and they really have nothing to lose. The culpability comes on behalf of the Pharisees who are the holders of the law and have the perceived power; the Samaritans, not so much.

The one that really would find themselves in a bind is the one lying on the side of the road, beaten up, robbed, and half dead. They’re most likely a Jew coming from Jerusalem and now they have been cared for by the one hated the most and the one who is unclean, the Samaritan. We can only believe that there would be a crisis of faith on his part as to how to reconcile this obsession with the law and the experience of the essence of the same law by the one who had been separated from the rest. You know, it’s one thing to consider myself neighgor to the one that talks like me, acts like me, talks like me, looks like me, believes like me. But, you got to believe that was never the intention nor the demand of this gospel. Quite frankly, that plays from the place of comfort, from the place of the priest and Levite of ourselves. When we do this, that’s how so much violence continues to happen around us because we continue to separate and divide ourselves and deciding for ourselves who will be our neighbor rather than seeing all, especially those who are hurting the most as our neighbor. We can be complicit in violence simply by our lack of responsibility and empathy towards the other.

In his own farewell discourse today, Moses tries to convey that to the Israelites. They think they can’t do it without him, that somehow he’s the one who takes responsibility for their lives. He says in such a beautiful way that it’s not his responsibility! You don’t need to cross the sea or go up into the sky, the gift to bridge these divides is already within each of you. It’s the responsibility of all of us. We can choose to blame and not take responsibility for our own violence in our lives when we fail to forgive and reconcile or when we choose to cross the street out of fear of the one who may make me unclean, but deep down we’ll start to feel as if something is missing, something is separated and is yearning to return and unite.

We can make this story about what we normally do about going and being kind but what the heck does that mean anyway. The demand of Jesus in this story and overall is not kindness, albeit important, but rather love and mercy. If we continue to separate ourselves, and we do it with this city, that somehow that’s their problem and not ours. No. It’s all our problem because hurt is a human problem. So much violence connotes hurting people, people wanting to be heard, a voice crying out, and if we choose to ignore it, then we are no better than the priest and Levite in today’s gospel. According to the letter of the law, we’ve done nothing wrong, but at our very essence and the essence of our humanity, we are just as culpable because they are our neighbor and our neighbor is us. In what ways am I choosing to separate, often at my own doing and out of a deeply rooted fear, that which I have deemed unclean, impure, bad, or wrong, the Samaritan within myself, that helps me to empathize with the other; not just be kind to neighbor, but to love more deeply all our brothers and sisters, both here and beyond.

Readiness

Acts 5: 12-16; Rev 1: 9-11, 12-13, 17-19; John 20: 19-31

If there is one thing we can take from the Easter readings, not only last week, but today with Thomas as well as next Sunday, it’s that, in order to receive God’s grace, mercy, love, whatever way you want to describe it, there must be a readiness on the part of the disciples and us. Otherwise we simply spend our lives locked, where the disciples are today, in the upper room. We don’t make it easy on God and we’re going to hold on tight often until we’re pushed to the edge. That goes for me, for you, as community, and for the disciples.

They, and we, hold on tight to many things. They’re caught up in fear, even paralyzed by it. They’re questioning and doubting what all of this has meant, if anything, this despite the fact that he has already appeared to them once! They’re caught up in their grief. Their grief is strong in the loss of their friend but also in the way they think. Jesus and the disciples always seemed to live on two different planes. He was out healing, curing, and even raising people from the dead! But they never thought that’s who he was or what they wanted of Jesus or God and so the grief runs deep for them. They thought he should be someone who would be a revolutionary who would overturn the Roman government and someone who should overturn the religious leaders of that time. But he was never that! But they never gave on that false hope that things would be different. That God would and should be different. That Jesus would and should be different.

And so here they are, locked in the upper room, paralyzed by fear and yet, at least the other disciples, knowing something has changed. They’re not only filled with fear but with joy at the same time. The readiness on the part of the disciples is not only for an openness to God’s grace and mercy, but in letting go of what they know and the way they think. The thing is, they will learn that what they think they know about God pales in comparison of what they don’t know, this mystery that they will be led into and beyond and it will change their lives forever. This will take them to places they could never imagine.

Think about it. We hear from John today in the second reading from Revelation landing on Patmos. Who the heck would decide to go to Patmos? It’s not some exotic, vacation destination that we think of when we think of Greece. It’s a rocky island with not much vegetation and life, and yet, his readiness has landed him there. But despite being ready, he still shows us today that it doesn’t take away the fear, the doubt, the questions, and wondering why he listens to God in the first place. He once again finds himself in the ready position, vulnerable and questioning, and God steps in. Like us, he falls back on what he knows and once again is going to have to imagine God in a new way and let of of what was, again. It’s never-ending! But he does and grace and mercy break into John’s life, going places he’d least expect, open to the unknown, and being led to a deeper place within and a deeper love for this never-ending mystery we call God, once crucified and now raised from the dead.

Then there are these disciples. We don’t know how their lives are changed until we get to Acts of the Apostles that we hear from throughout these fifty days. There’s a bit of a gap between the disciples we meet in today’s Gospel and where the story picks up in Acts, just as there often seems to be a gap between the fear and the joy in our own lives, holding on while letting go, what we know and what is yet unknown. By the time we meet them in Acts it’s all changed. It doesn’t mean that they don’t fear or question because they will. It’s how the community grows. But they no longer must be paralyzed by it anymore and with that the community expands and reaches new heights. They bring the sick out into the streets not even to be touched by them but to simply have their shadow fall upon them! They have been changed. They have encountered Christ crucified now raised from the dead, cross the threshold of the upper room to change the world because they first were changed and allowed themselves to be changed. There was a readiness and God stepped into the messiness of it all. God meets them in their fear, their grief, their hurt and darkness, and I suppose, even then pushes them off the cliff to change! Or so it is in my own life.

So before we’re quick to judge Thomas in today’s gospel as we have a tendency to do, we must put ourselves in his place. He and the disciples had expectations and had to let them go. He and the disciples doubted and questioned and yet learned to believe, experienced God in a new way. He and the disciples feared, and rightly so at that time, knowing their lives were at stake, but they accepted love and mercy and they were changed forever. If we’re not ready, then we must pray for a readiness of heart. We must step to the cliff, yeah, maybe look back at all we have known, and yet still step forward and out of the upper room, into this great mystery we celebrate and this great mystery that changes our lives forever. God wants more from us and we must ask if we’re ready. We may still fear and hold on, but the Easter joy and live and love and mercy will win out and we’ll be taken to new places, new experiences, and a new life that can only be possible by God!

It Means Everything

Acts 10: 34, 37-43; I Cor 5:6-8; Luke 24: 1-12

So what? Why the heck is any of this important anyway? I mean, it doesn’t seem to have much impact on our lives and certainly not on our world. Maybe resurrection is just something of the past that doesn’t mean a hill of beans anyway. But you know what, I think God, Jesus, has the disciples exactly where God wants them. Think about it, the story today picks up where Friday left off. There facing chaos. They feel as if all is lost. There’s darkness, despair, grief. They’re totally disconnected from all their groups and are now in hiding. They’ve hit, as we call it, rock bottom and they have nowhere to turn. God has them right where they need to be, where they can accept death and then embrace the life that comes. But not yet, so it seems.

You know, they will quickly learn that there are serious implications to this event that unfolds in the gospel today as they encounter this empty tomb. It’s unfortunate because we’ve limited resurrection to some other life, this afterlife, that we can hope to anticipate, but for the disciples and us for that matter, it should be impacting us at this very moment. That’s why they become a threat now that Jesus has died and been raised from the dead. The implications are endless, in society, politically, and even religiously. We all know that they saw Jesus as a threat but the threat is about to grow. Paul uses the image of yeast in today’s second reading, which negatively, can grow like wildfire. But so can love and mercy and crazy enough, that becomes the great threat.

You see, God has them where they need to be. For the disciples, they have hit rock bottom and all that they know seems lost. It appears that they have no future. Everything they thought Jesus was supposed to be has been proven wrong. Everything that they wanted Jesus to be never happened. Everything that they thought they were because of their relationship with Jesus has been squashed. It’s all gone. This whole ego structure that they had created, which isn’t real in the first place, has now been diminished to rubble. And so have they. Quite frankly, it would have been much easier for them if the story just ended here. They could return to what they knew, their old way of life. Or could they? Had their hearts been changed. Yeah, at the moment they think it’s all nonsense and crazy and impossible, but very soon things are about to change. The threat of one man, Jesus, is about to grow and expand by leaps and bounds. The resurrection has implications for them and for us because they can no longer be touched by outside authorities, culturally, politically, and religiously, and anyone that thinks they have power in that way isn’t going to like it. It’s not because they fear giving up their lives; it’s because they have found true life and real power. If not, everything else tries to take it’s place and we’re back at the beginning, so what?

Throughout this season we will be hearing from Acts of the Apostles and Peter, Paul, and the rest will try to reconnect the people they encounter back to their roots. That’s what is often lost in faith communities today. You would think that the disciples of all people would have some connection with their own roots in the Exodus, the heart of any Jewish man and woman. But they still don’t see it that way, otherwise they would see such despair at the moment. That story, that root of their faith, should affirm that even in the darkest of times, the promised land is in sight. But they don’t see Jesus yet as the Passover Lamb or the Exodus before their very eyes. When they or we disconnect from our larger story, this great story of mystery, the Paschal Mystery, we begin to make ourselves the center of the world and everything pivots from us. Paul and Peter will remind these communities faithfully to connect with their larger story, the mystery being revealed and lived, otherwise, as Paul warns Corinth today, you’ll fall into the trap of spreading negativity and community will be built around ego and not the deeper mystery of who they are, in relation with Christ crucified, now risen from the dead. They have to get there and don’t even know it because they think what they are holding onto and what defines them is real, and to some degree it is, but it’s not the eternal present now. That’s where the implications come into play for them and us.

It’s no wonder that in the Easter Sunday gospels it’s about the women first pursuing this new reality. Think about it, if they must reach rock bottom and allow all else to die before they can seek the new life, who is it that lives on the bottom of the ladder in the time of Jesus? It’s the women, who’ve followed him from Galilee. They have no status. They have no institutional power. They have no success to pursue. In other words, they have nothing to lose because they’re already there while the men question, doubt, and think it’s utter nonsense. They will need to see with their own eyes this new reality before they can accept death and then embrace the new reality and become the true disciples of Christ crucified, now risen from the dead.

There are implications, or at least there should be, and if there are not, we too must consider our own relationship with the Lord. Unfortunately, we do a much better job of trying to enter into a relationship with the churchy Jesus, which too is often an illusion and something we must let go of, just like the disciples before we get to that place. It’s hard because it’s all we know and it feels like we have everything to lose. We do, but it’s our own and not the true power of the Risen Lord. They are a threat and we can be a threat as people, when we learn to accept death and embrace the power of the Risen Lord already given to us, right now. Right now! All of us! It’s what institutions fear the most because now the disciples have nothing to lose. The death and resurrection of Jesus changes everything. Everything. The power of love and mercy changes everything and spreads quickly.

Throughout these fifty days of Easter we’re invited to go deeper into this mystery that is are larger story. It’s what binds all of us, as we will soon do by renewing our baptismal promises. It’s not about membership. Rather, that even, these events, are about changing our lives and binding us in a way that is beyond our imagination, into the deepest recesses of our being, where we enter into this sustaining love affair with Christ crucified, now risen from the dead. I can finally come to a place where I realize and accept that it’s not merely a historical event that I come here to remember, but rather, the lived reality and the lived mystery of my life. There are real implications to saying we believe. It’s not what the disciples eventually do in Acts; it’s about who they are. They have let the scales of death and of their own ego, fall from their eyes and allow a new recreated order through the great gift and now lifelong relationship, with Christ crucified, now risen from the dead. So what? Well, because it changes everything, even our hearts and souls and the very way we live our lives.