What Matters Most

Malachi 1: 14–2: 2, 8-10; I Thess 2: 7-9, 13; Matthew 23: 1-12

If you follow what we call, the opioid crisis, you may have heard last week from Chris Christie mentioning that over the span of three weeks, this country loses as many people to overdose as we did back on 9/11/01.  That’s every three weeks and yet we have plenty of money to try to make us safer and secure but we can’t seem to find it within ourselves to deal with this continuing growing problem.  Maybe because it’s a problem that lies beneath the surface and can’t always see with our eyes.  We’re much better at reacting to what we see rather than dealing with the interior, unseen.  Just think about it, though.  If there are that many who are trying to mask themselves think about the amount of pain that is hidden in plain sight.  We somehow think that taking away the heroin, the pain pills, the guns, or whatever else will solve all our problems but all it does is tackle the seen and rarely pushes us to deal with the pain below the surface that leads us down the path of opioids or other means.

It’s the challenge Jesus often faces with the Pharisees, as he does again today.  Keep in mind, the Pharisees weren’t bad people.  They were well-intentioned and whether we care to admit it or not, there’s a Pharisee in all of us.  They seem to only care about how things are seen with the eyes, how they look, and keeping people distracted by what might be less important.  Along comes this Jesus who doesn’t seem to need them so much, despite the relationship with the Pharisees being one of need and dependency.  Jesus, rather, encounters the people where they are and with what matters most, their pain and suffering.  He’s not the least concerned about how things look, titles, being seen, or having the attention on himself, all he cares about is so often zoning in on the pain, not by medicating or numbing it, but entering into with the one who suffers.  It’s a radical approach to faith as they had known it.  The approach of the Pharisee is one of superiority and allowing yourself to be seen as “good” and blaming others for your problems.  For Jesus, it’s about going below the surface and bringing about radical change that can only come by a holy encounter in pain.

In the words of Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians, it’s a God who is like a mother who nurses and cares for her children’s hunger and need.  It wasn’t about being seen or about who’s in and who’s out.  No, rather for Paul it too was about this radical healing that needed to happen in people’s lives.  More often than not Paul would go after the communities for separating themselves from what mattered most even what was seen with their very eyes.  Their focus tended to be on themselves rather than the poor and people dying in the streets and encountering them in those very places.  Paul uses that image today to remind us of this God who doesn’t care about what we have or our bank accounts or how we are seen in the public eye.  Rather, it is that mother, as he tells us, who cares for her children’s very needs, needs that are so often not noticed on the surface but internally, as if instinctual, a deeper pain and hunger.

For the prophets it was no different just as with Malachi in today’s first reading.  He too uses language of a parent but now rather a God who is a faithful father.  Malachi is going after the priests who too had lost sight of what was most important.  They were much too worried about the Temple, in some ways as we often do, the façade of the building.  Somehow as long as things look good and fine on the surface we can ignore the deeper problems in our lives, city, and country.  All along, though, we become eaten alive by our pain that continues to lead us further into a virtual life that eases and numbs the pain rather than seeking that holy encounter within the pain so that it may be transformed and we may live life more fully.  They were no different than us, focusing on what separates us and divides us rather than the deeper issues facing our community, city and country.

When Matthew writes this gospel he too was worried about his own community.  That presence of the strong Pharisee was separating and dividing his community and he worried that they’d come apart.  Matthew worried how fear had crept in and was eating away at the community as he tried to unite them around the one who knew their pain, the Christ.  That Pharisee within each of us will always look for the short-term solution to our pain, turning to opioids, heroin, pain pills, guns, or whatever our choice is all that we can continue to function in our lives and world while being eaten within ourselves by our pain that keeps being pushed down and numbed.  It’s so easy to get caught up in the less important things that we see with our eyes rather than to be led to the unseen, the pain within our own hearts, that prevents us from loving in the way that Jesus has loved, like the nursing mother and the faithful father.

The amount of pain that exists in this city and country is even hard to imagine and in the short-term it appears we’ll continue to avoid and numb as long as we look strong and secure.  But deep down we know there is more, in the unseen parts of our heart lies a deeper pain that desires more than anything a holy encounter and a radical healing so we too can focus on what matters most, the lives we are called to go out to as missionary disciples, not to separate and divide but to gather together around the Cross of the Christ where radical healing, in our most vulnerable state, is brought forth.

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\ ˈem-pə-thē \

If you were to look up the word, empathy, in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, you’d find the following:

The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also :the capacity for this”

From time to time I make the mistake of going to comment sections of articles and posts that I happen to be reading.  It doesn’t take long for me to realize that I’ve made a mistake by doing it and yet I do it anyway.  Maybe there’s a part of me that hopes it has changed, that somehow since the last time I made this mistake that the world got a little better and more understanding.  Needless to say it didn’t go so well and was reminiscent of times past.

The one thing I could never quite understand is how people can lash out at others that they don’t even know, complete strangers going after one another because of opposing viewpoints but never making any effort to get to the heart of their own anger and why this is all coming up inside themselves. When I can’t be sensitive to another’s feelings, thoughts, and experience, I simply then project it all onto them, making them the embodiment of the demon that lies within myself, becoming enemies rather than seeking understanding of a person’s view; and that’s all it is, a view.  I’ve been the victim of it myself and I’m sure the projector at times in my life.  It’s a sign of just how unaware we are as a culture and society when we don’t take responsibility for our own baggage and prefer to share the wealth with others.

When it comes to pain and suffering we are often the worst.  We have to look tough, stoic, to others and the world.  It can explain a great deal of the opioid epidemic that has arisen in this country and our constant need to be medicated and numbed.  That pain has been taken advantage of by advertisers, politicians, and drug manufacturers alike, all of whom have benefited from our inability to deal with pain.  Dealing with our own pain, rather than numbing it, is the only answer to the epidemic but also our inability to empathize with others and to understand another person’s experience which is often different from my own.  Pain has a way of sucking us in and yet projecting outward, seemingly that we stand at the center of the world and carry the measuring stick of judgment of all life’s challenges, experiences, and pains, even if I’ve never actually experienced it myself, all in the name of defense of some one or some thing.

As a culture and society we have distanced ourselves from pain and suffering (the cross) so much that we no longer know how to handle it, embrace it, enter into it, feel it.  It’s as if we walk into the ICU of a dying patient or into a funeral home to mourn with a family and we become so uncomfortable that all we know how to do is make trite statements, hollow at best, because of the fear of going to where we hurt and in those very moments, to realize that that person is also me.  The pain of sitting with the uncomfortableness is too overwhelming in those moments that we have to do something with it.  We just can’t bring ourselves to do it and so we project it all outward, onto each other, onto the country, other countries, and to the world.  Heck, for that matter, there are plenty of examples of it in Scripture that, more often than not, we do it to God as well.  It has given us distorted images of each other and the Creator and there are examples of it everywhere, often including our own lives.  Again, if we’re willing to take a step back, become self-aware, and see what I too am doing to the other and this world.  There’s no wiping our hands entirely clean if we’re willing to take responsibility for our own undealt with pain.

It’s probably the easiest way to understand the gospels and Jesus’ own encounter with the Pharisees and other leaders of that time.  They had such venom towards him, mainly because he challenged their way of thinking and understanding of the other.  All they could do is try to divide and conquer, and in the end, they believe they won. They believe, in the short term, they have won the battle with Jesus once he is crucified, a projection of their own disdain for God and human life and the suffering one endures.  It was and is inevitable in the case of Jesus that hatred would appear to be his demise.  Hate, anger, unfinished hurt, always thinks short term in order to protect itself from deeper pain but always fails to see the big picture, avoiding it at all cost.

We see it in war, violence, resentment, hatred, bigotry, racism, disdain, blame, all rooted in this deep fear of our own pain, separating us from the other in isolating fashion.  Little do we know that when we make decisions and choices from such destructive tension, life becomes much more about survival that living life fully.  It’s as if we’re drowning in our own pain and all we can do is cling rather than to take the hand of someone who may look different, live differently, have a different experience of my own, simply because I couldn’t bring myself to admit that I may have been wrong.  When life is about winning and losing we, without a doubt, always lose even if it feels like a short-term win, protecting myself once more while gasping for air until the next attack, the next exposure of my short-coming, my imperfection, my shadow, my own pain that has taken hold of my life.

We have a lot to do in our society, a lot of work in dealing with the deep-seated pain that we continue to hold onto, clouding all our decisions and choices for the future, while at the same time blaming the future for all our problems.  We’re leaving that very future one hell of a mess to clean up if we soon don’t learn to stop, quiet ourselves, and sit in that ICU, sitting with the dying patient, and learn to die with them.  Pain and suffering has so much to teach us and is often the key to living a fuller life when we no longer dance around it but rather jump in, head first, rather than sharing it with the world.  In times when we retreat, isolate, and believe it’s about us first, we can only begin to understand such action when we’ve been there ourselves, wallowing in our own pain and suffering, feeling it’s the only way for us to survive.  I can empathize with that because I’ve been there myself.  It feels like it’s the only answer to the loneliness experienced when we suffer.  The capacity to empathize with the other, the nation, all suffering everywhere, the world, can only come when we’ve done our own work and continue to do our work in life, creating the necessary space in our lives for someone and something more than ourselves.  It’s the task at hand if we are to move forward for the way forward is through.