Walking With & By Faith

Ezekiel 17: 22-24; II Cor 5: 6-10; Mark 4: 26-34

Well, it’s good to know that after some 2000 years of history Saint Paul still manages to find his way into public debate as we heard this past week when it comes to families being separated at the border.  He, probably more than anyone else in Scripture, is the most misinterpreted and abused writer in the Bible.  His writings have a way of being weaponized in order to defend things that aren’t intended, all in the name of God.

Paul, though, writes much more from a mystical point of view following his conversion, which makes him so misunderstood.  He, maybe only second to John, have the ability to do what many of the other writers cannot, that being able to stand in the tension.  Paul understands the reality of his own day and the many struggles that are faced, injustices and abuses, but he always keeps an eye on the prize.  He doesn’t see it as either or but rather sees both as long as we live on this earth and does everything try to stand in that place of tension because he understands the consequences when you don’t.

Here’s a guy, writing to Corinth today, who comes to a place where he understands the necessity of the law, body, ego, how every you want to describe it, but also love.  Paul lived a life separated from love and made the law into his own god.  It’s what made him so callous and just a ruthless leader, leading to the murder of early Christians and charging others with murdering them.  He was ruthless because there was no heart.  It’s not that Paul then miraculous abandons the law.  Again, he understand the value and it’s necessity while here but it must be held in tension with the heart, with love, otherwise the leaders to become ruthless.  In the end, he knows, that love wins out because that’s the prize he keeps his eye on and that all else will pass away.  We are, for Paul, all citizens in exile seeking shelter, seeking a home.  We, as a country, can learn something much deeper from Paul in the way we live our lives.  We want to say we’re a country of laws, and it is necessary; but when it becomes a god in and of itself, we too become ruthless towards people.  It’s part of our history and continues to be a part of our history to this day.  There are tremendous implications when we separate from the heart, from love, from God.  Paul stands in that tension and we must as well.  The same is true without the law.  We stand for nothing and have no principle.  Paul reminds his community that both are necessary.  He speaks to the elites of his own day and to ours.  They tried to exclude the poor and those deemed less worthy or a threat to their way of life.  We’re told so well today, walk by faith and not by sight.

It’s the underlying message of the gospel today as well as the farmer, in a nonsensical kind of way, tosses seeds everywhere, which to the naked eye seems wasteful.  However, that’s not necessarily the point.  The farmer knows better than anyone about what happens in places that cannot be seen with the eye.  Now I’m not talking about the corporate farmers of our day.  Rather, these guys knew the land better than anything.  They kept their ear to the ground and learned to have utter trust and faith.  Once the seeds fall into the darkened earth it’s beyond the control of the farmer.  As a matter of fact, if the farmer tries to control it we know the result.  There’s no produce in order for him and his family to live.  He does to the earth that which Paul did to the people.  We become even ruthless towards the earth, thinking it’s our and we can control it.  Yet, deep down lies the heart of God, beating in the depths of the darkness making something happen that just can’t be seen.  The farmer knows it takes trust, it takes a great deal of faith, and a great deal of patience when you walk through the darkness of the earth.  Yet, it’s where God does God’s best work.  To the eye it seems foolish what the farmer does.  To the eye it seems as if we should be able to control this the way we want.  To the eye we become disconnected from our heart and without the heart there is no love and certainly no God.

Paul probably consistently turns over in his grave.  It’s not only politicians, but also religious leaders, who take things out of context, use scripture as a weapon, and allow politics to define faith and God rather than allowing just the opposite.  That’s the brilliance of Paul.  He doesn’t avoid the realities of his own time.  He understands the injustices, the abuses, and everything else because that was his life!  He knows it and lived it.  Now, though, he stands in that tension of this life while waiting the unfolding of the kingdom, the tension of law and love, the tension of mind and heart because he knows the implications when not.  Paul sees as God sees and helps to redefine what is in that context all while trusting what cannot be seen.  For Paul, you have no other choice but to walk through the darkened earth and all that comes with it, the chaos, the fear, the anxiety, because it’s only in the unknown where the farmer learns to trust and to have faith, even the size of a mustard seed.

We pray not only for ourselves but for our country and world that like Paul, we reconnect with our heart, with love, with God, to soften where we have become callous and ruthless towards others while not losing what it is we believe and defines us.  Like Paul, we need to learn to live in that place of tension and to trust and have patience that so many that have gone before us, God will see us through and new life will grow from the darkness and the cedar will once again bloom.  The more we separate, exclude, fear, live in anxiety, and begin to believe that it’s about only what we see with our eyes, we literally lose sight of what is most important, what we cannot see and yet always at work deep within us for we are called, as Paul tells Corinth, to walk by faith and not by sight.  We are called to trust what we cannot see and like the farmer, keep our hearts and ears close to the ground for when the Lord has spoken, so will the Lord do.  We pray for the grace to walk by faith and not by sight, even if it means walking in the darkest of days.

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Becoming

Acts 9: 26-31; John 15: 1-8

If you know anything about Paul’s conversion story from Acts, of which we catch the tail end today, it’s that he was the number one threat to the followers of the Way, which was the name used before Christian.  He was enemy number one and a threat to their way of life.  Not only that, but just prior to his conversion he was responsible for the death of one of the most beloved of the Way, Stephen, who was stoned to death and then on Paul’s travels has this radical transformation.

It should be no surprise then when he shows up in Jerusalem today they’re very skeptical and fearful of him.  He still looks like the Paul who was responsible for the death of many followers and early disciples and now wants to be one of the group after believed to have gone through this conversion experience.  Just think if we were in that situation, knowing all that Paul was capable of, we too would be fearful and skeptical.  He could have been trying to infiltrate the group in order to blow them up from within or to dismantle them at his own doing.  It will be, though, only as they lock arms with one another, walking through the streets of Jerusalem, will there finally be a public affirmation for who Paul had become as fellow follower and disciple.

Ironically, for the man who had become blind through this experience of radical transformation, Paul’s blindness in turn reveals the blindness of the followers of the Way and their own fearfulness and judgment.  This experience of Paul is not a one-time deal, but a call that the disciples will have to continually embrace, this call to conversion and radical transformation.  In some sense, Paul stands as the change of tide for this community for he was not an original and did not have the first-hand account of Jesus as people like Peter did and so it often created conflict as to how they understood the faith.  One thing, though, that linked them, despite their differences, was when there were difficulties, the community would pull them and draw them back into their source of life, to remain, abide, to stay with the Lord, as Jesus reminds us in today’s Gospel.

This is not to say that they all lived happily ever after.  It is well known that Paul was somewhat of a hellion!  Again, his lived experience was very different from the original disciples and so there were often misunderstandings within the community.  It makes you wonder that when we hear at the end of the reading today that he’s shipped off to Tarsus as if it wasn’t intentional!  Paul, though, understood, as we know from his writings, of that necessity of Jesus’ farewell discourse in John about where it is he receives life.  He no longer has to look at the world through the eyes of fear, narrowness, violence, or even death, but through the eyes of his own lived experience of Christ crucified.  He has to keep returning to the vine for the true life and he knows that no matter how difficult it may become or the many obstacles they will face as a community, they will be seen through when the keep returning and abiding and being nurtured by what and who gives them life.

I don’t know the exact account but that message of return, abide, and stay with is quite dominant in these chapters of John’s Gospel.  It’s almost as if Jesus knew he’d have to say it in a thousand different ways and days in order for it to begin to sink into the minds and hearts of the disciples that despite the hostility of the world that they are going to experience first-hand, there is still a greater life that you pursue in becoming his disciples.  Over and over again, like in Acts, they will be called to critique their own calling and what it is that is going to need to be surrendered and let go of, whether it’s fear creeping in or their judgments towards people like Paul or the world for that matter.  It’s so easy to become part of the problem by our own unease of the unknown and to give into fear, choosing fear over faith and love.  Over the course of their lives it will continue to be revealed to them what it means to be a disciple.  What it means today will be very different for them when that community begins to form but no matter what, they will return in order to be fed, nurtured, and to be given life.  They will become disciples and will be a presence of love to a hostile world.

Paul’s story as well as the disciples is very much our own story of becoming disciples.  It’s always changing, evolving, and being called to radical transformation ourselves.  However, at times we still cling to vines that no longer feed yet still disguise themselves as life.  We cling to our own fears, judgments, and even violence, rather than allowing our own blindness, like Paul, to be revealed to and through us in order to move us to a deeper sense of discipleship.  In a world that so often is torn by violence and division, driven by politics and individual agendas and ideologies, we must stand together with locked arms, like the followers of the Way, in order to bring about transformation to a hurting world.  We may never change the institutional structures in which we live and operate, but we can be witnesses to a changed heart, a free heart, that models not violence and fear but rather faith and love.  It is in that way that we continue to become his disciples.

A Path To Peace

Christmas Narratives continued…

There’s a belief that the problems we face and encounter in our lives are often of the psychological nature, which tells us there are a great deal of issues that encompass a broken humanity.  At the same time, though, it’s believed that the solutions to the problems are spiritual, a matter of the heart, which explains why problems seem to never end and this pursuit of peace seems rather insurmountable.  We’re not very good at matters of the heart.  It’s a challenge with problems and difficulties we face individually and so as a city, a country, and the world, handling heart and soul begins to make us feel helpless in the face of such suffering.  You may have heard Pope Francis mention yesterday on the eve of the New Year that humanity wasted 2017 on war and lies.  When we avoid the matters of the heart the pursuit of peace never seems possible.  It becomes much easier to inflict our pain and hurt onto others.  It’s easier to stay in war and locked in a violent cycle here in Baltimore than it is to do the difficult work of heart and soul that the gospel demands.  And so as we begin the new year we pray for peace but first in our own hearts and souls.

It is a theme that threads through Luke’s gospel even as we hear in the continuation of the Christmas narrative we hear on the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.  She reflects and ponders and holds all these things in her heart.  Luke returns to it throughout the gospel but he’s not meaning the beating heart that keeps us physically alive.  He speaking of the oneness and union of mind, soul, and spirit.  He’s talking about how Mary steps back from all that is happening and allows the space of this mystery to unfold.  There’s no need to react or explain.  There’s no reason to attack their enemies.  Mary and Joseph, for that matter, have found that gift of peace and are at peace with the overwhelming gift which will now see them through the darkness of Herod as we hear on Epiphany on Sunday.  The gift that is given to them is then freely given to anyone who dares open themselves to it being offered.  When we find that peace and become that peace within our own hearts, as Luke describes, not even the harshest reality of war will stop us from facing the broken humanity and to truly work towards peace.

When we fail to seek healing and solutions as a heart matter and rather resort to a shallow political system here in the city as well as the country, we’ll continue to get the same results, trying to solve issues from the same level in which they were created.  Both extremes of the political narrative use fear to control and manipulate, just as Herod and Caesar Augustus did, who Matthew and Luke reference.  They try to bring about a peace that is rooted in fear, as we heard on Christmas.  They thrive on keeping people in the dark, separating and dividing.  At some point we have to face the fact that it no longer works for the people, especially the Joseph and Mary’s of the world, the poorest of the poor.  It no longer brings peace nor the pursuit of the common good.  Like Herod and Caesar Augustus it’s about building their own kingdoms and making politics into a god.  It’s how we have the problems that exist and that’s not the way to solve it.  It’s a matter of the heart.  It’s a matter of the soul that is necessary in these days.  We can’t stand for another year as we did in 2017 here in Baltimore.

It’s easy to pray for peace and we’ll continue to pray for peace on this World Day of Prayer for Peace but we also turn to Mary as our model on this feast of the Mother of God.  She is the one that teaches us to ponder, to reflect, to hold all these things in our hearts.  When we lose that space, as we have as a society and culture, we react and react and react to every blessed thing that is thrown our way and we become part of the problem not part of breathing peace and healing into hearts that hurt.  We become what we hate about the other.  Demonize the other.  Cut off the other.  Fearing what we don’t know and clinging to what we think we do.  We no longer have that space in our own hearts, as individuals, community, city, nation, world, for the sense of mystery that Mary ponders.  We hold on, and hold tightly, to what we know, what we see.

Our problems may be psychological but the solutions are a matter of the heart, are spiritual.  The path to peace is a difficult one.  It lies beneath the surface and is often what we can’t see or know.  It’s what we so often fear.  Yet, if we want that peace we have to work at it, not politically but in prayer, in silence, pondering the healing that is needed and take a contemplative stance towards a hurting world.  The Herod’s of our time can just as much be us if we don’t do our own work and on this feast we turn toward the Mother’s guidance in Mary, to ponder, reflect, and hold this mystery close to who we are that we may seek that oneness and union, not only within our own lives, but in the city and nation.  The pain runs deep in this city and nation and if we’re not willing to do it differently we’ll only perpetuate and mirror 2017 by wasting another year and another chance for the breaking in of the Christ which calls us to a new way, to a changed heart, to an opportunity for hope and peace that is rooted in the Christ, looking up and gazing into his mother’s eyes, pondering what sort of greeting this might be.  If we want peace then it must first begin with me.

A Stable Force

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Isaiah 9: 1-6; Titus 2: 11-14; Luke 2: 1-14

There’s some irony in hearing this familiar gospel from Luke today of Mary and Joseph heading back to the place of origin for the census. The story we heard more than anything this week was about taxes.  Congress passed a bill and it was signed into law.  There’s debate, depending on who you listen to, as to who it benefits.  I don’t know.  But some 2000 years ago Mary and Joseph found themselves in this same familiar place.  The calling of the census by Caesar Augustus was primarily about taxes.  Like always it seems as if money drives everything no matter the point in history.

We do know one thing, though, that Mary and Joseph would not benefit from this taxation and nor would any other poor person of the day. It was to benefit the expansion of the kingdom that Caesar was creating in his own image.  It was a time of peace that was rooted in oppression, fear, and constant instability for the community in which Luke writes this passage. Yet, despite all of it this couple were faithful to this earthly power just as Jesus would go onto say, give to Caesar what is Caesar.  But they were faithful until they no longer could.  They were faithful until it stood in the way of this newfound life in Christ that seemed harmless and yet a threat to powers of the day, when people, as history is turned on its head, no longer have to be defined by the political or even religious authorities of their day.  In the midst of all the instability, Mary and Joseph return to the place of origin, as we all do to seek what they sought, to the stable, the manger, the garden, to once again find that union with the divine.  In the midst of the instability of the day a Stable arises in their midst to bring lasting peace and freedom that can no longer be contained by the earthly powers.

This passage we hear this evening that stands so familiar to us of the birth of the Christ has great spiritual implications more than any other.  As much as we have softened over time, it was a story of hope for Luke’s community that found themselves displaced and in constant turmoil from within and from the political and religious authorities.  There was no space, no room, for another voice beyond Caesar and anyone that tried faced consequences.  There was, as Luke tells us, no room in the Inn.  The external pressures to conform and that contained them would no longer suffice for a God who was to take on flesh.  Rather, Mary and Joseph leave the confines of the Inn and wander into the darkened night, where the community so often found itself, giving birth in a stable.  This is the defining moment for Mary and Joseph as well who realize there’s no turning back at this point.  They have been given a gift and this gift is going to guide them through some of the darkest moments of their lives.  They will not be defined by Caesar and his cronies.  They will no longer be contained by the political and religious authorities of their day.  They, instead, will be led as refugees to unfamiliar land and space only to turn to the Christ as their guide.  They return to the place of their own origin and give birth to a new way of life, wrapped not in the confines of the worldly desires but rather in mystery and the unknown, learning to trust and navigate the given gift.

But long before there was Israel who too found itself in similar situations.  As much as things change over time they also remain the same.  They find themselves again on the cusp of something new.  They were a people that walked in darkness but now illumined by this light.  Israel will learn in its own history, as in ours, that darkness becomes their greatest teacher.  It’s often when they find themselves wandering, fleeing oppressors, facing the unknown and utter darkness, that grace begins to grow.  They too will return to their own place of origin, to the heart of who they are, only to once again become attached and led to the darkness once more, to grown more deeply in faith and trust of this mystery that continues to call them forth.  Like them, we don’t like to be “in the dark” on things.  We want to know.  We want that certainty in our lives.  Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and even the Magi will encounter in the weeks ahead, learn to be sent forth to those very places in their own lives.  As I said, great spiritual implications as to how they and we live our lives.  Our we going to be defined by the confined Inn, cluttered lives we often lead.  Will we simply be identified with our politics and even our religious beliefs.  The radical simplicity of Christmas in a very complex world reminds us that in all our instability, war, poverty, unrest, and all the rest, we’re called to leave it behind, the “worldly desires” and allow the Stable to arise in our own hearts and souls to now be led not from on high and not from these external authorities but rather from within our very hearts and souls where the Christ, from the beginning and always, is being born.

This is what Christmas is about.  Luke turns the story on its head.  Salvation history will not be defined through the eyes of Caesar Augustus, Herod, or any other tyrant of their day, oppressing the people for their own political gain.  Luke reminds us that we live from the inside out and from the bottom up.  The journey now into the great darkness that has seen the great light is a painful one at that, but Mary and Joseph stand as witnesses to the power of the Stable in the midst of the instability of their own lives and ours as well.  Deep within us we know something that goes beyond anything this world offers, all the clutter and noise that distracts us, creating anxiety and instability, turmoil in our lives.  In that very place we’re called to leave it behind on this Christmas, leave the staleness and artificialness of the Inn that has defined to something real, wandering in the darkness of night, to a Stable that holds the eternal and the one who navigates Luke’s community to a new way of life and one for ourselves as well.  We can be defined by the tyrants of our day, the corruption of money, political and religious leaders telling us who we are and what to do but Christmas demands more of us.  Christmas demands us to learn to grown and trust the voice deep within, from a place of mystery and the great unknown, calling us to live our lives identified by the eternal place of origin, a Stable, in the midst of a often unstable world.

Kingdom Dwellers

Ezekiel 34: 11-12, 15-17; I Cor 15: 20-26, 28; Matthew 25: 31-46

All year we’ve heard from Matthew’s gospel and today we come to what many consider to be the culmination of what he was all about in his writing, the Judgment of Nations.  Keep in mind it’s not about individual judgment as we’ve often associated.  For Matthew, the other gospel writers, and Paul in today’s second reading, salvation was not an individual sport.  It was about the collective salvation and their own seeking of the common good in this life.  It, of course, has been overly politicized over the years and many times rightly so when we neglect people in need for one reason or another, but that’s not necessarily the context in which Matthew writes nor the lens we need to read it.

If we had to sum up Matthew’s approach to his community, as one he often struggled with, fearing division and its demise following the destruction of the Temple, it would be a journey of interior change and how we handle change in our lives and how our experience of God changes.  If you know anything about Israel’s history you know the destruction of the Temple seems to almost be a regular occurrence for them.  It wasn’t just the center of their faith life but was also the center of politics and economics so everything was intertwined.  With that being the case, it should be no surprise that it is destroyed over time.  However, just like it is today, when they all become intertwined in that way it’s without a doubt that God is going to come third in line, and so, in some sense, Matthew tries to lead the community to a much harder change, an interior change, to recognize that there’s something bigger than the Temple and that an encounter with God can happen, often times even more, beyond the temple dwellers.

From the beginning of the gospel, if we recall from Advent and Christmas last year, Mary and Joseph were on the run, refugees.  The Magi come on their own journey and return differently because of the encounter with the Christ, something is changed interiorly in their lives.  Throughout the gospel the disciples are being led outside of Jerusalem to experience the Christ in the acts of healing and forgiving, rather than something you go to they are being led to be an embodiment of that love that takes on flesh and they find their true strength from within.  It’s what makes Jesus so dangerous to the Pharisees and other temple dwellers.  As disciples, the Temple has it’s place but they aren’t meant to dwell there.  Rather, they’re kingdom dwellers with the Spirit of God going with them into these encounters.  This God that Matthew portrays to us and that we’re called to embrace can no longer be confined to a particular time and space.  At that point it’s not God anyway.  Rather this God cannot be contained and is going to lead them to the places of discomfort and uncertainty to learn to put their trust not in the Temple as has been their history, but the temple of the Holy Spirit acting within the community and each other.

It is new, of course, for the people in first century but even new for us at times.  However, the message has been a part of Israel’s history, even at the burning bush when God is revealed in name and that they mustn’t get hung up on the location of these events.  When they do that it begins the gradual confinement of God to a time and space and we find ourselves living in the past.  It’s where the prophets have tried to lead the people, over and over again, but with great resistance even costing them their lives at times.  They too get hung up on the temple dwellers and thinking that God can somehow be confined to that space.  Yet, with this enmeshment of faith, politics, and economics, the question really should be, as it was in the parable of the talents as well as the wise and foolish virgins as to who is the master they’re serving.

Ezekiel, in today’s first reading was one such prophet.  If you read it in its larger context you know that he’s going after them for this very thing, their own corruption.  Israel once again finds itself in exile during the time of the Babylonian Exile and they’re not being cared for.  The people responsible, the shepherds of the time, were not taking care of the needs of the lost, the strayed, the injured and sick.  They had become their own gods in some sense, temple dwellers themselves rather than seeing beyond and being moved to the place of discomfort in their lives.  When you have it all and you’re on top, even in our own time, it seems as if there really is no need for this God.  I’m quite fine with the gods I can hold onto, that bring me comfort, that keep me safe, rather than leading me outward while being inwardly changed. It’s the opportunity to not only encounter God in a different way but to learn of myself in a new way and light.  It’s not about changing others.  It’s about allowing ourselves to be changed, our hearts to be changed by going to the very place we fear.  It’s the story of Mary and Joseph.  It was the Magi.  It’s the embodiment of love.  It’s the journey Matthew has invited us into this past year.

So it brings us to the culmination of his gospel and the judgment of nations.  Needless to say we have often failed at embodying love.  We have allowed ourselves to be temple dwellers while often enmeshing faith, politics, and economics, while neglecting sometime our very own rather than surrendering it all to the true God.  Like Israel in all its history, when the three become enmeshed, God, without a doubt, will become confined and the other two will take their place as the gods of our time.  We all fall prey to it and all find ourselves as sheep and goats.  But for Matthew, it meant something more.  It meant an embodiment of that love and not just loving neighbor.  Rather, being one with neighbor in the sick, the poor, the refugee, the imprisoned, the stranger. 

Every one of us is good at making ourselves comfortable.  For Matthew, our faith is quite the opposite.  We’re not called to be temple dwellers where we grow comfortable and safe, confining God to our particular time and space.  There’s a place for it but it resides in something bigger than time and space.  Rather, kingdom dwellers where we seek the eternal, the Christ, with prayer always on our lips for a change of heart.  It’s what it’s all about.  It’s messy.  It’s hard.  It’s frightening.  Yet, with Mary and Joseph leading the way for Matthew, we’re called to go out and encounter the living God and to be that embodiment of love that we’ve witnessed through the eyes of Matthew this year.

 

Mediating Love

Ezekiel 33: 7-9; Romans 13: 8-10; Matthew 18: 15-20

During the 2008 campaign we often heard from Sarah Palin about the “bridge to nowhere”.  It was part of her shtick to prove the point of the ineffectiveness of the federal government, building a bridge that went nowhere just to benefit a few.  There are others like it where you can be driving along and all of a sudden if you try to continue you’d end up hitting a wall.  I tried to think of an example closer to home and all I could come up with is, that if you’re a regular driving around here you know that most of the roads from Homeland are One Way out.  All of it begins to send a message over time as the bridge to nowhere does.  Bridges to nowhere, one way out, walls, it’s what we tend to be good at in our lives.  It should be no surprise that we’d want to build walls rather than deal with the burning issues of our day.  It’s much easier than reconciling our differences and finding common ground.

Building community is no easy task.  Matthew is quite aware of that with all his community faces, including their own divisions, but we also know it from our families and any relationships we have been in and have experienced in their breaking apart.  So often we have to have mediators come in to work with people because we become so attached to being right, to knowing it all, to our certainty, to the other being absolutely wrong, when we know that there is often truth on both sides.  Mediators can often help sort out the truth and sift through the conflicts to find that reconciliation.  It doesn’t mean we always get what we want.  As a matter of fact, there often has to be a willingness to give up and surrender things for the good of the community in order to get to the other side and build bridges that go both ways.  We too often become comfortable building bridges only to those we feel we can tolerate, leading to the bridge to nowhere, to only people we can somewhat agree on, tribal thinking as we often see in our own society and certainly our politics..

Ezekiel was one such mediator.  He saw his role as the watchman of his community.  He had to be the one that stands in the middle, seeking the truth when conflict would arise, when people were abusing power or excluding others.  God reminds him of the immense responsibility that comes with such a task and the consequences when there’s not a willingness to be truthful about what he sees and experiences.  He becomes the one who has a keen sense of awareness in the life of the community to see where bridges between the oppositions can be made and what needs to be let go of in the process.  He’s the one that stands above, watching from the watchtower, to not lead them into the traps of bridges to nowhere, one ways, or walls, but rather to a richer sense of community.

It’s no easy task as we’ve heard from Matthew the past few weeks.  It’s quite the challenge when there is conflict and one can’t see the others perspective and not even willing to understand.  Matthew lays out a plan for dealing with such conflicts to hopefully lead to reconciliation but even he knows that that’s not always possible.  He realizes some will choose to not be a part of the community, such as tax collectors and Gentiles.  Of course, they have their own reasons to separate themselves from the life of the community and quite frankly, many had reasons why they didn’t want them to be a part of the community.  There were plenty that would be considered intolerant of them.  At times it seemed insurmountable to think that a bridge that goes between could ever be built.  However, Matthew, time and again, will remind them that it is no longer the prophet who stands as mediator but Christ who stands as love.  The gap could only be closed when love stands as mediator and we could see the other as brother and sister, as neighbor, no matter color, economic status, place of origin, or whatever other means that we used to build our bridges to nowhere and erect walls.

The heart of the readings is Paul’s letter to the Romans.  He puts it so plainly that we must love our neighbor as ourselves.  Love does no evil, he goes onto say.  When we live our lives and grow community around love, around Christ, it finds ways to move from what is often superficial ways of separating ourselves to uniting us around a single purpose, around a single person in Christ.  Reconciling our differences and conflicts is hard work.  It’s the reason why we live in a world where war is never-ending and a constant state of chaos and conflict.  We get so hung up on our own way of things and thinking we’re right, prideful, that there’s no room for love to break us down and see ourselves as brother and sister, as one with our neighbor.  We don’t choose who gets to be our neighbor, mindful that I am a neighbor just as you are and we’d want to be treated with love and respect as the next one.

Yes, it is all easier said than done.  We do prefer walls and bridges to nowhere, and even one ways out so we determine it all and we use ourselves as the center of our lives, avoiding conflict and settling for less in life.  However, to be community and to call ourselves community, we often have to go where we have conflict and where we have made judgments and misunderstandings of each other to learn to bridge those gaps, just as we have to do in our own lives.  It’s so often what separates and it’s so often the easy way out but it never leads to growing deeper in love and in accepting that love.  We pray today for the grace to be aware of it in our own lives, where we may be avoiding what it is that we struggle with and ask love to build a bridge there as well.  In the end, what we can most offer the community is to not only open ourselves to that love in our own lives but ultimately to become that love to one another, to our brothers and sisters, to our neighbor as ourselves.

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.