Grounded in Love

Jeremiah 33: 14-16; I Thess 3: 12–4: 2; Luke 21: 25-28, 34-36

Ben Sasse, the Senator from Nebraska, has a new book out entitled, Them:  Why We Hate Each Other—And How To Heal.  For the record I have not read the book, just articles about the book as well as the free sample on my Kindle.  The basic premise, though, for Sasse, is that the problems that divide go much deeper than the political rhetoric that we have become accustomed to hearing.  Rather, he says, that the deeper problem facing American society is loneliness.  Now it may not necessarily be in the way we use that word, but he goes onto say that there has been so much upheaval and uprooted-ness in our society that we no longer have a grounding.  When it comes to technology, our work place, and even our home life, there is so much change that the natural inclination is to turn in on ourselves and the deep pain that often inflicts us.  He says that it leaves us wandering as a people, leading to greater suicide and drug addiction because of this deep loneliness that is leaving us uprooted.  If we understand that, then we can begin to see different situation and the way many react to them, like globalization or even people crossing into this country, we pull back in fear and anxiety because some are left wondering just how much we can change and be uprooted, losing our grounding as people and losing that sense of community that once defined us.

We don’t have to look far, not even into history books, to find this same reality lived out.  The story of wandering and being uprooted is Israel’s story and so ours as well.  As a matter of fact, it’s probably more their story than not.  We often think we’re the first to go through such an upheaval and it’s just not true.  All the prophets we’ll now hear from in Advent and Christmas are going to deliver one message to Israel and that’s of hope.  Wandering became a way of life for them, never at home, always feeling uprooted, and more often than not believing that God has left them to wander.  Jeremiah gives them that same message today.  Here they are, once again in exile and wandering, and it’s gone on longer than they even could have imagined.  They are beginning to despair.  For hundreds of years they were promised of the new King that would sit on the line of David and that would somehow make everything right after war and exile became the name of the game.  Nation stood against nation.  Despair and darkness seemed to rule their hearts.  You could only imagine that even as Jeremiah proclaims this message of hope, that God would root up a new sprout to bring them hope that it would go on deaf ears.  However, exile and wandering is often a necessary part of the journey towards trusting this God that leads them through the darkest moments of their lives.  They may not always know where they are going or what this new way of life looks like, but all they can do is learn to let go of all the rest and trust in this God of mystery.  We mustn’t give into despair otherwise fear too reigns in our hearts.  As Jesus reminds us, tribulations will arise, and they certainly did for Israel, and all one must do is continue to push through in hope and the promise of life will be fulfilled.

It’s also true of the Thessalonians whom Paul writes today.  It’s the earliest of his writings to this community, a community as well that finds itself struggling and trying to find its way.  Paul’s message is quite simple to them today, and to us for that matter.  This is a community that is beginning to see itself fracture, and thinking as insiders and outsiders, us and them, as even Sasse warns us about.  They want to cling to a tradition that no longer serves but rather needs to be recreated.  Paul reminds them today that the deepest roots you have as community is none of that which passes away in this life; rather, it’s love.  Paul reminds them that if they are a community that is rooted in love they will never lose hope in the trial and tribulations that will arise.  The problem is they want to be rooted in their politics or even as Church in dogma and doctrine, but if that’s the case we quickly become uprooted.  None of that can ground us as people and so we’re left wandering when all else begins to fail us.  It begins to feel just as Jesus describes in today’s Gospel, as if everything is in flux and all is being turned upside down and inside out.  It’s a painful process of new life.  Any parent here can tell us just how painful it is to give birth to a child.  It’s no different when God is trying to give birth to a new people, a new nation, a new community that is grounded in something much more, grounded in love.

Advent provides us the time, albeit quick, to pause and recognize our own pain at this time, how it is we may be experiencing that loneliness as well in our lives as God tries to free us to give birth.  Fear and anxiety have a way of taking hold of all of our hearts, but more often than not, our way of thinking is what needs to die.  It not only has to die; it needs to die quite often, in order for new life to take root.  In the process, as Jesus tells us, our heart begin to become drowsy and the darkness of the day begins to set in.  How quickly we want to give into despair when we see all the reactions, but more often than not, it’s because we refuse to deal with the real issues, the underlying pain that exists as a human race and that becomes what we cling to the most.  It’s often the last gasp we have.  In the midst of all of it, just as it is for Israel, we mustn’t lose hope.  It is hope that will give us the grace to continue to push through the new life promised.  It’s a life not only anticipated at Christmas, but a life that God promises us at this point in our life and at this very moment.  We can’t rush it; all we can do is trust.  Israel returns from exile and finds its grounding once again, but now in a deeper way.  My friends, we are invited to the same.  Where are we rooted and even being uprooted in our lives?  Sure it may feel fearful and painful, but the promise of life and the hope of the season will see us to the light of a new day.

Belonging

Leviticus 13: 1-2; 44-46; ICor 10: 31–11: 1; Mark 1: 40-45

I was listening to a podcast this week with Brené Brown.  If you don’t know her, she in some ways rose to fame with a TED Talk she had done a few years ago on vulnerability and has since written many books.  The episode I was listening to, she happened to be speaking about “belonging”.  Belonging, according to her, demands us to be who we are, our most authentic selves even if the group expects something else from us.  She would say that the deepest pain that we can experience is a loneliness that comes with not feeling like we belong, even within our own family and community.  The paradox, as she puts it, is that feeling of loneliness actually is fed when we try to live up to the expectations of the community rather than being our authentic selves, sacrificing our truest selves for the sake of a false sense of belonging.

This sense of belonging and not belonging strikes a cord many times in Scripture, especially in the healing stories of the lepers that we hear today.  Their separation, even more so, has nothing to do with their own choosing.  The community, the law, the authorities, and certainly the fears force the leper to be separated and not belonging to the community.  They are inflicted with the rejection of the community simply because their disability is seen with the naked eye.  It’s all based on this sense of being unclean and somehow they are going to pollute the community.  Yet, here comes Jesus.  His approach seems rather radical for the community and the leaders because he sees the leper for who he really is.  He’s going to step out of the comfort of the illusion of being clean to encounter the human person in their suffering and pain and their sense of separation that feeds into that lived reality.

We’ll hear many stories like it throughout the gospel and probably scratch our heads and why this is so much of a problem for the community and leaders of the time.  What happens when the leper returns to the community?  The leper simply shows back up like nothing ever happened and reintegrates into the community.  Or so we would think.  And we think that the leper even cares about such things anymore.  The healing that takes place with the leper has implications on the community and their way of thinking and their judgment of this fellow human being.  The judgment of the community upon the leper now becomes challenged and is also revealed in the healing of this guy.  Their own shortcoming and what they have deemed important is revealed along with the healing.  They will be left with a choice as the story goes on to whether believe in Jesus or continue to surrender themselves to the law, the prescriptions, the expectations, and most especially their fear and judgment.  That’s the rub that these healings invoke within the community.  We can be grateful for the healing, but we all know that the pain runs deeper and can the person stand as they really are, owning that sense of belonging now in the face of this newfound uncertainty.

As the story unfolds and we move into the Lenten Season, we’ll see that the community will move to this false sense of belonging, giving into the fear of the political and religious figures, around the common enemy in Jesus.  There will be an unwillingness to encounter these characters in the healing stories in their own humanity because meeting people in their own suffering reveals our own sense of worth, and lack there of at times.  It reveals our own insecurities on life.  It reveals our own fears and judgments that we have towards others who may be different, even when it’s not their own choice.  It reveals, at the heart of it, just how difficult it is for us to change in the face of it and to see what’s most important for and in our lives.  Their sense of belonging, the lepers and all the rest we encounter and who have been pushed to the margins for one reason or another, has nothing to do with us.  Brown will go onto say that it’s a matter of the heart.  It’s a matter of accepting ourselves as we are, belonging to ourselves, and ultimately belonging to the Christ.

Paul tells us in today’s second reading about imitating Christ as he has and that imitation comes in the form of going out and meeting the other as they are, as a human person.  Most of what divides us is of our own making and choosing.  The implications of our own sin not only impacts us but the life of the community.  We imitate the Christ when we show compassion, when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, when we meet suffering head on in our lives and in the other.  Paul understood that when he seeks the benefit of the many and not his own.  He understood his own insecurities and judgments but wasn’t going to allow his own thinking to prevent him from imitating Christ in that way.  If anything, Paul teaches us that our own sense of belonging comes first with an acceptance of our belonging in and with Christ.

The greatest paradox, more than anything, is these healings not only reveal the far reach that God has in trying to heal one who has been separated, rejected, unloved in going “outside the camp” as we hear in Leviticus.  When we recognize that our own sense of belonging has bearing on it, the demand of the Gospel is to do the same.  It’s much easier to give into the expectations of the community and the fear associated with not fitting in, being rejected, but the fullness of life and the restoration of that life can only come when we belong in and with Christ.  The implications of our own choices should weigh on our hearts.  As a community, a country, a world, we need to see the other as we are, as human persons, who are often hurting and suffering in less obvious ways that the leper and in need of that human contact that binds us as one.  When we feel we can’t, more often than not it’s our own fears, the expectations we’ve created, the laws and prescripts that have been decided on by the group, that prevents us from taking that step as Jesus does today out into the world so that what we do here really matters.  When we find our sense of belonging in Christ, we recognize that there is only one choice in who belongs and who doesn’t and it isn’t even ours to make.  When we see each other as human persons rather than our judgment then we all belong.

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.

\ 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.

Jesus Christ, Public Enemy Number One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expanding Our Vision

I spent this past weekend helping to lead a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat which I believe I’ve done for nearly eight years now. I never leave the experience without some sense of wonder and awe, not only at what people manage to live through in their lives, but undoubtably the courage they have to see it through to the other side. Or if anything, to begin the process of passing through.

If there’s one thing about pain and suffering, it has a way of narrowing our world view and often to the point where the sense of the eternal seems all but lost. Everything that we see and experience is viewed through that one narrow lens that does not lead to reconciliation and conversion, but to greater isolation and separation. It seems like the endless spiral of life for so many, choice after endless choice only leading to greater violence towards life and to ourselves.

It is the story of salvation history, though, as well. All this season we hear these great messages of hope from the Prophet Isaiah, including this Sunday. It is certainly the story of people Israel who often found itself in conflict after conflict, leading to greater separation. In today’s reading, despite the message of hope, Jerusalem once again plans for an impending attack from beyond its walls but also from within as this ongoing separation that leads to greater injustice and suffering. Heck, even if you go today it isn’t much different from thousands of years ago. It’s probably one of the craziest cities I’ve visited. They are so focused on their own pain and the need to protect that it has led to building walls that separate, from our own faith, the place of birth from the marking of death, a separation of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. It’s led to great problems beyond the walls and in places like Bethlehem, leading to a greater degree of poverty and injustice towards the people. Their vision had become so narrowed and they start believing that they really are the eternal rather than seeing it all metaphorically, that it eventually leads to their demise and destruction, time and again.

Yet, the message for Jerusalem and for us this weekend is of hope. That somehow these seeming opposites in the natural world will somehow lead the way and bring example to us humans as to how it’s done. Is there possibility for reconciliation? Is there possibility for less separation and a working towards greater justice, especially for the most vulnerable? Isaiah likes to believe so. For as hard as Isaiah can be on people Israel, this season offers a message of hope to those who have only known darkness and despair, to those who have viewed their lives through their constant suffering and the greater degree of poverty it leads to in one’s heart and soul. Like so many of our own sins, even those who walk this horror movie through the experience of making a life-ending choice, are so often symptoms of something much deeper going on in our lives, both individually and collectively.

Certainly John the Baptist was aware of this and everyone around him was aware of it. It’s why he was such a threat to the leaders, who often perpetuated the darkness for their own benefit, but also to the structures of his time. He was leading a revolution to call out the injustices of the society of his time, but for John it began with himself and for those who followed. He called them to look at themselves and how they too have sinned on this deeper than cellular level of their lives. The Pharisees and Sadducees knew it and did everything to avoid the fear that arose within themselves before the one who threatened their perceived power. John’s message is to repent, to do an about-face in life and to be awakened from their slumber to a new way of life, a life with greater vision, expanded vision, of a true and lasting God that sets them free.

This is the God we celebrate today and the God we prepare for all at the same time. There is no denying the greater darkness that has ensued so many lives, defined lives, ceased lives, and has caused us so often to stop growing ourselves. We get to a place that begins to seem hopeless as our world continues to shrink and dissolve around us, as the storm seemingly collapses over and over again before and within us. But there is hope. With just a crack in the walls we have created, the light begins to shine forth and God once again begins to break through and we submit ourselves to the invitation. This is a season of hope and a season to not only celebrate but to prepare for as the eternal breaks in and is broken open before our very eyes on this Table. As we gather and go forth, we pray we may continue to allow ourselves to be open to something and someone bigger than ourselves, to expand our vision while healing our pain and suffering. It is the fullness of life God desires of each of us and a fullness of life promised in this season of Advent.

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.