Getting UnStuck

Exodus 34: 4-6, 8-9; II Cor 13: 11-13; John 3: 16-18

Despite the passage of centuries, I do believe that to this day Moses, people Israel, and the whole experience of the exodus and exile has something to teach us about our own lives.  Their story really is our story.  We know what it feels like to live in exile from others at times, even from God.  It so often seems, in such contentious times with Moses and the people, that they lose their ability to relate to one another and to God and move towards cutting themselves off, moving into this tribal mentality of winners and losers, where, in the end, everyone ends up losing.

The same is true for ourselves and the climate in which we live these days.  On many levels we’ve lost the ability to relate to anyone different than ourselves and have really exiled ourselves from one another or at least from people that we have deemed the losers, the ones that think differently, creating this divide, and like people Israel, we have become stuck.  We can’t relate to others and then for that matter, with God.

Think about their experience, though, in relation to ourselves.  Despite this newfound freedom that people Israel experiences following the exodus, they don’t know quite what to do with themselves.  It’s as if they had become accustomed to being slaves in Israel that they no longer know how to live.  They don’t understand what’s up with Moses and his seemingly strange experiences, but they also don’t understand God.  Keep in mind that this experience has impacted them on a very deep level.  They had gotten used to a God that seemed to abandon them.  They had gotten used to a God that seemed to reject them over and over again, and now as they move to this place of freedom, they don’t know how to act and they certainly don’t know how to relate.  They react to it all and create these false gods for themselves, grouping themselves and finding, at times, a common enemy in Moses for leading them to this place.  It’s simply their experience but so is being stuck as they seem to become in the throws of the desert for years to come.  As Moses tries to lead them to a deeper understanding of this God, a God of mercy and generosity, their hearts remain closed and they become, as he so often refers, the stiff-necked people.  As life changes so does the way we relate to others and especially to God.

This is what we encounter in this snippet we hear from John’s Gospel today.  In its larger context is an interaction with one of the more interesting characters in the gospel, Nicodemus who’s known for coming to Jesus at night.  At this point in John’s community, some fifty years after their formed, there is a great deal of contention and division.  We have certainly heard that during the Lenten and Easter seasons as Jesus often found himself in conflict with the leaders.  Well, Nicodemus was one of them.  He has his own way of relating in the life of the community as a Pharisee and is not yet willing to put that in jeopardy so he comes to Jesus at night.  As much as people Israel didn’t know what to make of a God that wanted to enter into relationship with them, even centuries later they still can’t quite grasp now this God who takes the form of one of them in Jesus.  It causes more tribal thinking, certainly among the Pharisees who had their own way and were stuck in that thinking.  For them there had to be winners and losers.  For Nicodemus, despite being one of them, he finds himself somewhat attracted to this Jesus guy and what he’s all about.  For John it is a process we go through, of letting go and reconciling, allowing ourselves to move forward in life with a fresh take on the way we relate to one another and to God, not in some distant universe, but right here in the midst of our own lives as they unfold.

In the end, it’s probably Paul that sums it up best for us in today’s second reading and provides us the tool to look at our own lives and the way we relate.  Just because we’ve related in one way all our lives doesn’t mean that it’s the best way or even the healthiest way.  Again, we see that on the large scale in our political system and the divides, people moving to the extremes.  Paul reminds us to mend our ways.  Reconcile with one another.  Love stands as the foundation of relationship and community.  Work towards peace.  Among other tidbits of ideas that he shares with us today.  If we continue to cling to a God that rejects, abandons, or shames us, it’s just probably not God.  There’s a better chance that we can relate to people Israel and find ourselves stuck in life, just as we find ourselves politically.  It impacts all of us and the way we relate.

On this feast of the Most Holy Trinity, maybe it’s time accept the invitation to be the fourth one at the table and being challenged to change the way we relate.  If we cling to tribal thinking, where we’re right and others are wrong, where truth becomes relative, where there needs to be winners and losers, well, guess what, we all lose and we are all losing because we’re being invited to move beyond our stuck-ness and grow into a deeper relationship that goes beyond ideology and politics, to the deeper reality of a God that continues to pursue a relationship with us from deep within our very being and through all creation we encounter.  Where are we stuck in our own thinking and understanding not only of others but of God?  That’s the place this God pursues us and desires greater and deeper intimacy with us, relating to us in a more profound and deeper way, with others, our community, and with the Mystery that continues to draw us to the place of mercy, generosity, healing, reconciliation, and certainly, love.

 

It Begins With Me

2 Thes 3: 7-12; Luke 21: 5-19

By now I suppose most have had enough of politics. I’ve stayed out of it as much as I can because I believe as a preacher that it’s not my place to tell people how to vote and to take away their freedom to choose. But it’s over now and we now move towards a new reality, not only with a president but with a mayor of this city. I spent some time reflecting and blogging this week, even down to the point of how hard it was up to the point where I was filling in that oval square as to how I would vote. But I also reflected upon who are the losers in all of this. You know, I think the greatest losers in all of this are the two political parties with religious institutions a close third. It gets more and more obvious as to how politics influences religion much more than the other way around. We can tell simply by our reaction to it and we ask ourselves where it is we place our faith.

I thought of the losers coupled up against this gospel we hear today. If you ask me, the major parties as they stand have to lose. They have lost touch with people and in particular people who are truly suffering for a variety of reasons. Jesus makes the point at the beginning of the gospel today about the people that have become distracted by “costly stones and votive offerings”. It’s like the shiny object over here that distracts us from the real issues going on in people’s lives. It’s this facade that both of these parties have projected outwards that distract us and even worse yet, we begin to think that they are identity. I am red or I am blue. But you know what, it simply becomes another way for us to judge and distract. We not only judge by skin color, by sexuality, by religion, we can now judge by the color of our vote and because one votes one way I am somehow better than. We can keep going down this road, but the parties are going to destroy us as they continue to divide and even manipulate in a way that benefits them. Yet, all along, there’s war, famine, poverty, destruction, and great suffering going on over here being ignored.

We cannot keep dividing ourselves in these ways that continues to separate. Even the way we look at poverty. Sure there is great poverty in this city of Baltimore alone, but we even make judgements about that. We think somehow our poverty is greater than the poverty in rural America and we cast judgments upon them. You don’t need to drive very far to see it all around us. So yes, our politics has influenced our religion much more than the other way around because we’re called to something more and we hear that from Paul this morning in our second reading. He understands quite well in these communities how there can be divisions. He would understand our reds and blues. But Paul makes a point to lead people to their deeper identity, that there is something more than the color of my vote, there is the very fact that we are to model Christ, and Christ crucified at that. That is who we really are despite what these parties want to tell us. They want to convince that we are these parties and our lives depend on it. You know what, Christ crucified. That’s who we are and no one can tell us otherwise.

Of course, people even ask what Pope Francis has to say. He says he’ll certainly pray for the president but he says what matters most is what’s happening with the poor, the migrant, the immigrant, and the list goes on. We must continue to work for peace and justice but not because red or blue tells us to but rather because our faith demands it of us. However, in order to do that we must begin with ourselves. If we want peace we must first find it within ourselves. If we want to work for justice, we must first work to identity the injustice of our own lives, that’s me and you. I have judgements, I have stereotypes, I have all this going on in myself and I get easily distracted by the shiny object just as much as the rest, but this is a time to come back to center and come back to our truest identity. We cannot become what it is we hate. We cannot continue to blame others for the problems of the world. We must first begin with us, with me and with you. I must recognize my own injustice and my participation in the injustice of the world before I can begin to bring about justice in the world. We are more than all of it. If we want to be love and forgiveness and mercy, we must reconnect with our deepest identity in Christ and detach ourselves from our attachment to red and blue. It will destroy us because it’s not even real and we know deep down that we are more than it all.

This is a time of reflection for all of us, individually and collectively, to ask ourselves where we have become distracted and attached ourselves to something other than we really are and move towards oneness. We have to stop believing that we are this facade when we know deep down we are something much more. As Jesus says, it will all pass anyway. There’s no point holding onto it. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. It never is to let go of something we believe to be our identity. He speaks about how it does turn family and against family and against friend. But we must keep our eye on all who are suffering, including those beyond the bubbles we live in. We must keep our eye on the poor, the suffering, the fearful, the hurting, all suffering from famine. We don’t like to keep our eyes there and would prefer to be distracted, but that’s where we find our truest selves in Christ crucified and it is Christ that we are called to model to the world. We work for peace and we work for justice, but let it first begin with me.

A Heart Problem

Galatians 3: 26-29; Luke 9: 18-24

As I watched coverage of the events that unfolded in Orlando last weekend, I was struck by the words of a minister that was speaking, not just about the events in Orlando but the fact that it’s also a year since another mass shooting, the one in Charleston last June. Of course, they were speaking about the senseless activity of taking the lives of innocent people for one reason or another, but what the minister pointed was that the real crisis we face in the country, or even in this city for that matter, is a crisis of heart. We have a heart problem. Our hearts become calloused and hardened that we can no longer empathize with the other, feel their pain, lost in this endless cycle of dividing and separating, while feeling helpless at the same time. We see that after all these events. We immediately divide into our camps and the leaders of our camp tells us how we’re supposed to think and decided what’s really wrong. We never get to the heart of the heart, the heart of the problem. When we don’t, we too become complicit in the crime.

There is more to it as well but also part of the heart problem. The heart reminds us who we really our, our true identity. These readings today touch upon that very reality and take us to the heart of who we are as people. Paul sums it up quite simply, we are “children of God”. That’s it! That’s as easy as it gets and yet so hard, all at the same time. That belief will eventually lead to his death, but until then, both here in this letter to the Galatians, where he’s really just getting started and will begin to go after them, but also in Corinthians, he uses this language of even back then they used to divide. There were Jews and Greeks, there are slave and free person, there are male and female, and we can add our own, there are black and white, there are gay and straight, there are Christian and Muslim, all this language that is used to separate. Paul tries to move them to a deeper identity. When we remain trapped in the separateness, it’s often for our own advantage. We want to feel superior in our own way but often at the expense of putting someone else in a lower position.

It’s what Jesus will confront with the Pharisees. They do it to everyone! Everything is viewed through their own lens of separateness and worthiness. If you somehow don’t meet their standard, then you fall into the unworthiness category; you become separated from them. So today Jesus is testing the disciples on this whole reality of identity. It’s really the heart of it all as to who this God is that they believe in. First he asks what everyone else says. Bear in mind, Jesus isn’t playing the popularity card. He doesn’t much care what they are saying. He doesn’t follow the polls like a politician and morphs into what they want to hear. Quite frankly, any label that they place upon him doesn’t do him justice. Elijah, well, alright, but still more than that. One of the prophets, well, alright, but more than that. As soon as we begin to box God in we no longer really know the true God, the God of endless mystery. But the same is true for other people. When we start to label them by what we see or who we think they are or who we think we are, it’s never enough. We start to limit ourselves and settle for something less than we really are, children of God, and at the heart of it, as the opening prayer stated today, is love.

Now it doesn’t come without great cost. As I said, Paul will die for it. Jesus will die for that reason. They don’t do it for some law or label that’s been placed upon people. They don’t do it for some kind of popularity, standing for nothing in the process. They have found and are this endless mystery and they reach the point where nothing else matters. They have found the great gift buried deep within their very being, that they are children of God, and at the heart of it, love. That’s it. Yet, it’s so hard for us to grasp because it is something that we just can’t and never will be able to grasp. All we can do is continue to fall into this deeper identity that goes beyond color, beyond religion, beyond sexuality, beyond it all, if we take up that cross, suffer at times greatly, and fall into love.
We have seen the best of religion in this moments and the worst. We don’t always want to admit the darkness that comes with religion as well, and yet, it’s there and it shows it’s weary head, trying to separate and divide. But you know what, there is only one that is content with dividing and separating. Only one. That one is evil. Where God tries to embrace, invites us to fall into, making whole and one, evil will try to divide and separate. It thrives on division. We see that in our politics and we see that in our churches. That’s not the work of God! It’s also not who we have been created to be and it’s not who we are at our very core. We have a heart problem, as that minister pointed out.

The readings should challenge us today to go deeper into our own lives but also as a city and country to look more deeply at the real issues facing us as a people. The amount of division is only going to increase the violence. The god we may have thought we believed in isn’t real and yet we find ourselves clinging to something that will bring us down as a people. But the real God can handle that. The real God invites us down into the depths of our hearts and souls, into hearts that have become calloused and hardened, for the healing and reconciliation needed to return to our deeper identity, our identity in Christ, our identity in love. The world needs love more than anything right now. If we’re not allowing ourselves to be transformed by it and into love, we too become complicit to the problem, fear holds us to the point of popularity, and the cycle of violence continues. We pray for our city, our country, and ourselves, that we accept the invitation to go to the heart of it all, hearing that question today, “Who do you say that I am?” and allow ourselves to fall into this endless mystery, into Love.