Digging In

Although I’ve only spent about a week and a half here at Bethlehem Farm, a majority of that time has been spent out in the fields, planting a variety of vegetables, starches, and such. I’ve learned that what it is that is being planted isn’t even all that important as much as the how and why of what it is that is being submerged in the ground for a not so distant future time. There’s a great deal of preparation that is necessary long before anything is even placed in the ground and it’s in that preparation where it’s easy to get lost in thought and prayer, maybe some of the most depth-filled that one could even experience.

You never quite know the obstacles that you’ll face in the preparation. There are a variety of tools and such that help along the way in order to prepare the ground for the planting. They come in all shapes and sizes depending on what it is that you’re trying to extract, because more often than not something needs to be removed from the soil before planting is able. Sometimes the greatest obstacle are those you have no control over, like the weather. The heat of the sun and the unexpected rain that passes through allow you to step back and reassess the process as to how to proceed, knowing that it’s out of my control and yet isn’t an obstacle that necessarily forces you to end the work of the day.

It is, though, what lies beneath that becomes the most challenging in the process, and quite possibly where our own humanity runs straight into its natural counterpart. It’s always what lies beneath the surface that becomes our most challenging aspects of life as well. Let’s just say, I have witnessed a variety of different bugs, inspects, and other creepy crawly things in the ground and quite often running through my fingers in the earth. At times I have wondered what it’s like being them, considering I am intruding on a space that has been there home and now I find myself intruding and turning it upside down. Of course, we’re often participating in the same process, of excavating the earth for future times, for what lies ahead, in order to allow all of us to continue to sustain ourselves on this planet.

However, the creepy crawly things are also within us and often the very places we try to avoid, our most vulnerable or tender places that frighten us. It’s not until someone gets their hands on them where it becomes unsettled and unearthed, witnessing parts of ourselves that we don’t necessarily want to show the world for fear of rejection or not being accepted by others, despite the fact that we all live with the understanding that these creepy crawly things exist in everyone else but somehow think no one knows of our own. It’s not until we find ourselves tilling soil one day when we begin to see more clearly what lies beneath, what we’ve tried to avoid in our lives, when we can no longer run from what it is that frightens us because there it is in our hands, and more importantly, in our very hearts and we find ourselves with tears in our eyes. Somehow the excavating of the earth allows our own heart and soul to be excavated in ways that we never thought possible. All of a sudden we realize that our head just isn’t in the job but our heart lies exposed in the earth in which our hands lie, pulling and tearing apart roots that run so deep and creating space for something new to grow, a new life, a new love, a deeper reality that now exposed in the earth in which we work. There no longer exists a separation.

It’s not easy, but I guess no one ever said that it would be. One day we just show up in a very different place in life, trying to sort out what’s next and never realizing what would become unearthed in these ways, whether it’s a call to simplicity or a more radical way in which to live life, at the heart of all of it is the preparation, the work, the at times, back-breaking grind that never seems to end, only in the end to look out at the end of the day to see what was accomplished and hyper-aware of what it took just to get to the point of dropping a seedling or plant only to wait with great patience for a harvest that is assured. It won’t, though, without the preparation, the time, the effort, and quite possibly most importantly, the love necessary for anything to grow, including ourselves.

Without love nothing grows and the preparation becomes shallow, only breaking the surface without ever getting your hands dirty in the deeper reality of what lies within each of us, a field that desires to be planted with love, nurture, community, hope, trust, faith, and so much more, but without love there is nothing. No one gives up everything for a cause that isn’t rooted in love, especially doing the hard work of reaching into the depths of our own lives and literally touching the creepy crawly things that often frighten us because they have no name, moving us to a new level of intimacy with ourselves, others, and God. Once they’re named and once we find ourselves one with them, we no longer need to fear who or what they are but simply meet them where they are, in their own place, and love them all the more knowing that we till and unearth together, allowing each other to grow. We do it as individuals but more importantly we do it with others that we love. We learn the dance with love and for love in order to confront what lies beneath the surface in our own lives. Only then can we truly look out and see love. Only then can we look out and know the hard work we’ve done, together and in love, in order to hear our Creator remind us, “and it is very good.”

But Still There is More…

I Corinthians 12: 12-30

It’s hard to ignore Paul’s letter to the Corinthians today, not simply because of its length, but we’re at that point where it is truly some of his most poetic writings and a beautiful crescendo to his message to Corinth.  Unfortunately, we’ve picked up nearly three quarters into the letter so it also stands outside of the larger context of his message to this community.  If you go back to the beginning, Paul begins to question who they have become.  There’s a question about the divisiveness in the community and how he has watched it splinter over issues surrounding competition and superiority, so from the beginning he tries to move them to a place of their deeper identity in Christ.  Paul, without a doubt, is very much in touch with the fact that he’s born in that image and likeness and understands what it means to be a person or community to be living in Christ and Corinth has strayed.  It’s become about exclusion, about who has the greatest gift, about a sense of hierarchy, a reminder of Paul of what happens when we don’t move to the deeper places in our lives and become trapped by what we think is important simply with our eyes.

Paul, though, envisions a very different community and struggles with what he has seen.  Paul sees the potential of Corinth but he also sees their own lack of growing in the faith.  They have become content with the way it is, which walls them off from going deeper and also begins the splintering of the community.  Last week we heard him speak of the gifts coming from one Spirit and next week the climactic reading on love, but today he spells it out through the metaphor of the body and the value of all the parts and a warning about cutting off the parts that have been seen as less viable.  If there’s anything we can learn from Paul it is that it is often in the weakest parts of our body that we find the greatest value.  We can often learn the most about ourselves and become whole, as he desires, by looking at what we have chose to ignore, the people we have cut off, the ones we have excluded over time. 

This is the community that has decided to exclude others from this meal.  They have made the point at times to cause scandal in the life of the greater community.  They have, in many ways, done harm to themselves by not cutting others off from them but by that very act, excluding themselves from the larger community, creating not a community that welcomes but rather a community that wants to pick and choose who they deem worth to be a part of them.  In one of the most beautiful of ways, Paul tries to take them back to their core, to who they really are and what it means to say, “in Christ”.  For Paul it means everything to every community that he writes to that we hear throughout the year.  Often what appears to be our greatest weakness, the “cause of our downfall” winds up being the “means of our salvation”.  Their very sin as a community can lead them to their own demise or can be seen as an invitation to reclaiming themselves “in Christ”.  That lies at the heart of what Paul has to say when he writes to these communities, but in particular to the people of Corinth who often just agonized Paul because of what he had witnessed with them.

It’s not to say that Paul thinks any less of all the gifts and all that they contribute to the life of the community.  That would miss his point.  The very next word can be summed in simply by saying, “but”.  All of this is important, but there’s still more.  He will go onto to remind them that if it’s not rooted in love, and if it causes splintering and a community turning in on itself, then it’s not rooted in love, then it’s all for naught.  As a matter of fact, he continues in this section that if you still think it’s about all of this stuff, competing and comparing, putting yourself above others, and all the rest, then you still remain in a childish faith and have not allowed yourself to grow into an adult in the faith.  Read on; it’s right there is writing!  When we continue, as community, as country, or even as individuals, hung up on being right and others wrong, splintering ourselves, then there remains a crisis of faith in the community because you’re missing your deeper identity.  It’s all well and good, but understand it means the death of the community in the end because you will splinter yourself a part that way.  The path forward is to grow in dialogue through our deeper identity, where is a common ground, where there is a mutuality in seeing the other as person, seeing the other as an intricate part of the body and a worthy part of the body.

Paul’s words ring just as true today as they did centuries ago.  Whether it’s our own community, the larger community, or certainly our country.  We fail to take the deeper journey to a more whole life, a holy life.  It had to have broken Paul’s heart along the way as he watched the demise of some of these communities, and more often than not, at their own doing.  He watches them become simply about themselves and losing their deeper identity.  He watches them stunted in their own growth in faith and lack thereof.  For Paul, what matters most is that you remain grounded “in Christ”.  When we allow ourselves to fall into that mystery once again, we not only find ourselves connected as a human race, but the promise made by God long ago remains eternal, the promise of life.

A Living Icon

Deut 4: 32-34, 39-40; Romans 8: 14-17

Image result for rublev trinity

One of the most profound interpretations of the feast we celebrate today is Rublev’s Trinity.  It’s a 15th Century Russian icon that is probably one of the most known.  At face value it actually is a story that we don’t hear today but did at some point this past year, of three visitors, or angels, that visit Abraham and Sarah who are about to turn their lives upside down when they are told they will give birth to Isaac.  Rublev has these three images that all look alike and yet dressed differently sitting around a table or altar.  Now I’m not sure if it was intentional or not, but there is a similar scene in the movie version of The Shack when the father is at wits end and finds himself gathered at the table with the three persons of God.  It is believed that that was Rublev’s intention that the fourth one to gather at table was you and me, humanity.  The more you find yourself invited at table the more you participate in this force of love, union, and oneness, and you become that mystery.

One such person that certainly exemplifies that is Moses who we hear from in the first reading from Deuteronomy.  Moses often found himself being drawn back to that table to gaze into the eyes of God that he becomes one of the great figures of salvation history.  He’s well aware that others are not in the same place as him on this journey, as they still wander seeking their own gods, but he’s there to remind them of what he has experienced in that participation with mystery and how it is transforming his own life.  He recalls for Israel today their own history as a people and the many times they have not only wandered, but how the true God of mystery, unfolding within and among them, has seen them through some of their most difficult challenges as a people.  He takes them back to the beginning reminding them of their own creation as a people and they have been created in that image and likeness of God.  Now Moses doesn’t keep returning to the mountain to convince God that God is someone else or give to give God pointers on what needs to be done and what the people want, rather he returns to that place to soak in that mystery and allow it to consume his life to his deepest core, a core that is that image and likeness.  Like Israel, where we fail and find ourselves wandering is when we want to create God in our own image and likeness rather than allowing ourselves to be transformed by the unfolding mystery.  It’s the mastery of Rublev’s icon because you can’t take your eyes off of it as you gaze at it’s beauty and mystery, drawing you more and more into the mystery of God and the mystery of our own lives.  Without mystery, life becomes dull as do our relationships.

It is, as well, the pinnacle to Paul’s message to the Romans in today’s second reading on becoming the adopted children of God.  Paul is fully aware that people wander.  He himself has wandered in his own life, seeking that sense of meaning from something beyond the divine indwelling.  His view for the Romans comes from the masters who have had their own experience and literally adopt one of their slaves as their own.  This experience at table with mystery has a way of breaking down the many barriers that we create for ourselves, separating ourselves, one from another, as was true in a master-slave model.  Paul, though, like Moses, continues to take them back to the beginning and remind them of who they have always been as children of God, born in that image and likeness.  Like Moses, the more he gazes and the more we gather at table with that mystery that unfolds and in its almost seductive manner, transforms without us evening knowing and grow into that image and likeness.  We become living icons, where we’re not God, but our lives simply point to the mystery that has drawn us in and have fallen in love with while participating in that love and that mystery.

As we celebrate this great feast, we gather in the name of that one God who invites us to Rublev’s table and to participate in their radical hospitality of drawing us into love, mystery, and union.  We will never completely understand any of this and shouldn’t think we can.  We will never completely know it because it is beyond knowledge as we know it.  Rather, it is a knowing that lies deep within, where heart speaks to heart, often being dragged in like the guy in The Shack, finally moving to a place of surrender.  It takes utter faith and trust on our part, a dark night as it’s known, to trust in such a way.  When we allow ourselves to be used that way, by mystery and love, we become transformed in such a way that we are the living icons for a world that has enough of its own gods, we simply point to the one true God.  This is a God that keeps expanding our hearts and that very table for it is only in love that we have space for all, no matter, color, where we’re from, background, lifestyle, the many who have wandered far from “home”.  The mastery of Rublev’s Trinity is that there is space for everyone, knowing like Abraham and Sarah, when we finally surrender to mystery, our lives may be turned upside down, but better that than anything else.  We pray for the grace to become these living icons in the world today, where all we do and say points to love, to mystery, to union and oneness, to the one true God who continues to unfold that very mystery in the world today.

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.