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.

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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.

 

Living With Uncertainty When Certainty is Expected

I question almost everything in life. No, I wouldn’t and don’t consider myself a skeptic by any stretch of the imagination, but I am a seeker and someone who’s always looking for a deeper truth in almost any place I can look. There isn’t a stone unturned that isn’t examined from every different perspective imaginable, despite the fact that the stone will always be a stone. In moments of questioning, as I do, there is always a truth to hold onto; the stone remains a stone, even if smashed. Just the same that, who I really am, in the eyes of God, will always remain, no matter how much it feels like what I have known is also falling apart.

It’s easy to analyze a stone, but when it comes to our lives, we live with a much greater amount of uncertainty, despite our most basic of instincts wanting to grab onto something we can be certain of, bringing us some sense of peace, albeit momentarily, in moments when it feels as if everything is falling apart around us. I only know it because I’ve been there in my own life, my natural inclination to return to what I am most comfortable, not wanting to live with the uncertain and the uncomfortable. It’s as if, at times, where in my life I am playing a game of ping pong between the two, not always wanting to sit in the tension of the two, in finding another way of going forward. However, more often than not, even that feels like the unknown and uncertainty in my life because we have become so accustomed to our own way of thinking, tribal thinking, nonetheless.

We all want to belong. It might be the one thing we can be certain of in life. It begins with our desire to be a part of a family, and then peers, coworkers, church, political party, for it gives us some kind of definition in our lives and also provides us a platform to stand upon and something to stand up for in our lives, especially if we haven’t found our own voice. It gives us the certainty that we want in life, that helps to keep us feeling safe, despite its very rooting in fear. What we fail to see is that so much of it isn’t worth standing for and yet we’re willing to go to the stake for it, defending something that merely lies at the surface of who we are and never moves to the deeper understanding of our soul, of our identity in Christ and who we are as people.

I have found myself struggling greatly these days, in particular for a man that does question and seeks deeper meaning in life and in the world. I have found myself struggling with our inability to see ourselves in a different light, where we have gone wrong and where the Gospel demands us to look at our own fragility and shadow side that only seems to loom larger with each passing day and week. I struggle with how we can be so certain about where we go as a country, often locked in our tribal thinking that only seeks to destroy us as a people, when, even in my own life, I am almost never certain of direction. Something is dying and yet we fear it so greatly that we must clamp down on what we know and what we’re certain of, all the signage that has defined us as a tribe, digging our heels in all the more rather than allowing ourselves to sit without reacting and learning as to what it’s revealing about me and my life and what I’m holding onto and where I need to let go, a nonviolent resistance towards myself. Whether we like it or not, we don’t need to build walls as a nation because we’ve already done it with each other and our tribes. The mere desire of building walls rather than bridges should not surprise us, for that is what and who we have become and now we reflect it outwards. For all intensive purposes, the wall has already been built and each of us has helped to lay the bricks over these years.

Sure, maybe it’s not our tribe that wants to build walls, cutting ourselves off from foreign land. That doesn’t exclude me from my own fears and building of walls in our own ways. If it’s not our bricks we can almost be certain that it’s our cement that is helping to hold it together. We become name callers and step onto the world stage with a pride that dampens my ability to see the other as myself. We demonize and put down and think less of because of my own certainties rather than questioning and opening myself up to the possibility of doubt. In this quest for deeper meaning, it becomes unsettling and raises anxiety for our humanity, and maybe because of such tribal thinking, we must always view everything as winners and losers, and yet, when we do we all remain losers, giving into our own fears and continuously reacting, out of our own fear and often self-righteousness, while gradually cementing the walls of separation, each certain of the answers and direction yet neither seeking “a more perfect union” but rather a win for my America, not ours. A win for my tribe, not the common good.

Do I see walls as an obstruction, of course, but I also believe we live in a finite world, often plagued by sin. Do I believe that when the dignity of any human person is being violated we must, if anything, be open to providing out of our abundant resources, absolutely, but I am also aware of my own mortality and fragility in always getting it right. It’s what makes me question and seek deeper understanding and meaning and to examine that stone I’m ready to throw from all different perspectives before I cast judgment, knowing I may have missed a perspective different from my own. I also believe that we must also serve our own. I see them daily from the comforts of my office window, encountering them as they go and wait, often times in the biting cold, waiting for food. They’re not moochers and lazy, they’re my brothers and sisters to whom it’s often more comfortable to journey with in life. That I am certain of; so much else doesn’t matter much anyway, many times simply seeking the necessities of life.

It’s easy to talk and it’s easy to cast judgment from behind my computer screen; really easy. I hike myself upon my high horse and cast the stones that I have accumulated, building a wall around myself, a tribe of one at times. How easy it can be to start throwing, free of reason, free of reflection, free of understanding, free of love, and yet, not free at all. That’s the irony of so much of our circumstances and the way of thinking that has plagued us. We fight for freedom for all and yet we’re not even free ourselves. I’ve learned that so much is theory, even the Gospel, until we have that personal encounter with the other who hurts and who we have walled out over time. I think of the homeless I have ignored. I think of someone who looks different that I feared. I think of someone who spoke in derogatory ways when I didn’t speak out of fear or wanting to be liked. Then the encounter. Then the uncertainty. Then the breaking down of the walls and ego. Then the change of heart. Then the comfort with mystery and unknown. Then the discernment. Then the nonviolent resistance. Then the real change that is needed.

All too often we pick and choose what it is we think is most important and what we’ll speak out against, so often as it’s been defined and spun for us, but at the heart of all of it are fragile human beings, often used and abused as consumers to get what we want for our own gratification and to stroke our own ego. Over the years, in particular since 9/11, we have gradually laid bricks and cemented them into place tightly around the heart of this country that found itself deeply wounded, an innocence lost and taken away, trying so desperately to fill that void with something, with a certainty we think we once had, the city on a hill, the beacon of hope to the rest of the world. It’s time we “tear down that wall” and no longer band-aid what has ailed us as a country. My fear is we will only continue to build the walls higher and with stronger cement; but one day Troy will fall, as every empire eventually does in time, when it can no longer sustain it’s own perceptions and illusions that it thinks it is, an illusion of strength, an illusion of superiority, especially when everyone else knows otherwise.

You can only avoid your own pain and hurt for so long before it catches up with you. That I am certain of and have experienced. The greatest challenge is, that when that uncertainty and doubt begins to creep into our lives, as it always will, that we don’t quickly react to it, laying yet another brick and stone; rather, to respond to it with love, for it is only love that begins to crack walls and move us forward and inward to our deepest identity that promises life and death, always uncertain and yet seeking, discerning what is necessary to lead not to more certainty to hold onto, but rather, the wings needed to fly above and beyond while descending me to greater depths of meaning and understanding while encountering my own deeper humanity in the other.

It’s not about our tribes and this reptilian brain that wants to trap us into our way of thinking and this need for certainty. Rather, it’s about our consciousness of it happening within me and setting it free. Then, and only then, do I begin to find the space necessary in my life for certainty and uncertainty, known and unknown, fact and mystery, superficiality and deeper meaning, tribal and yes, our truest identity, all of us, that holds all things together in Christ. That is why I question. That is why I seek. And for me, that is what it means to live with faith, with uncertainty, when all too often people demand certainty. If I’m so certain, I then question where God is in my life.

Fasting for Life

Isaiah 58: 7-10; ICor 2: 1-5; Matthew 5: 13-16

I feel blessed because I’ve had the opportunity to travel to several Third World countries over the years, often with high school students. I still remember the first time I had left the country and had done one of these trips to Honduras. Needless to say, it’s a culture shock when you step off the plane in another country like this and see men standing around in many locations with machine guns. You quickly realize that you’re no longer in the States and are going to be pushed to look at life and people very differently than what we’re used to here. You know, I’m from small town Pennsylvania and I never had an experience of someone of a different color in my life until I had gone to college. My only experience was judgment, stereotype, and fear. That was it; but quickly learned that none of it was true when I began to enter into relationships with others. It didn’t seem to matter color, lifestyle, religion or anything else that is used to separate and put ourselves in a place of superiority.

The one striking thing we’d often push each other on in these different cultures and surroundings was to catch ourselves when we were being over-American. As Americans, we love to fix and we want to help to the point where we want to, in many ways, create “mini-me’s” around the globe. We think we’re the greatest and somehow know how to do this life thing better than anyone else. However, when we want to fix and we want to help, it also puts us in a place of superiority because we know better than “those” people. It automatically puts up a barrier between and prevents relationship. If there’s anything I learned, none of these experiences were about changing anyone else. More often than not, they were about changing me as a person and to let go of my fears and judgements, sometimes even about myself.

At the heart of the first reading today from the prophet Isaiah is about that, about fasting, but not int the way we use that word. Like most things, we water it down to make these things more palatable, like giving up food or something. That’s not the message of Isaiah though. Isaiah’s challenge is a much more radical fasting. He challenges Israel to fast from malicious thought, oppression, false accusation, and as I said, would include, fear and judgment. Israel also has lived with this complex of greatness, but that’s a hard standard to live up to forever. Eventually it begins to crack and Isaiah is inviting them into that place. Like us at times, they want to enter into these relationships thinking their somehow superior and above and thought everyone should be like them. Isaiah says and challenges today, to give it up. To give up that kind of thinking that stands in the way of relationship. He says to go and serve the poor, the hungry, the homeless. In our own day, we’d add refugees which is not a new phenomenon. It’s gone on for some time and we are left wondering what to do with a humanity that is not in need of fixing and helping but of healing and reconciliation. It’s not just about serving for our own need. It’s about a service that challenges us to go to the vulnerable places in our own lives that are in need of healing. It is so often in these relationships that we are pushed to that place.

You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. But not always. We haven’t as a country and we aren’t always in our daily lives. We can’t ignore our own darkness and the moments when we allow fear to control our lives. The light is the only thing that can help to illumine the darkness of our lives. It is so often that fear and judgement that we hold onto and often define ourselves by that prevents us from stepping out of the dark and entering into relationship with the other. Maybe it’s fear of us being moved to change that prevents us the most. When you think you’re the greatest there’s really no need for change. However, here’s the thing about greatness. You can never be it until you give up and surrender all interest in it. There’s no humility in that type of greatness, only pride that cuts our lives short from where it is that God invites us to grow in these relationships with one another.

Relationships are hard, not only others but with God. They require a great deal of effort on our part and an openness to change, me changing! It is much easier to crawl up into my fear and judgement and lock myself into my own little corner of the world but there’s nothing freeing about that. It is so often in the relationships that we have avoided because of our fear and judgment that have prevented us from an experience of the unknown, of another part of God which is then opened up to us. That’s the real desire of Isaiah and also the desire of Paul in proclaiming the mystery of God. The invitation today is to step beyond our own comfort. Maybe it is in service to someone different than myself that I have feared. The challenge is to not go into it with the intention to fix or someone change to your image and likeness, but low and behold, to maybe, just maybe, allow yourself to be changed. The more we fast from this fear and judgment and even malicious thoughts that Isaiah tells us about today, the more we are opened to hearts that are healed and vulnerable to a greater experience of love. In that we continue to grow into our call in being salt of the earth and light of the world.

A Weary World Rejoices

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Isaiah 9: 1-6, Luke 2: 1-14

A weary world rejoices…it is the night of our dear Savior’s birth

They are the words of the classic Christmas hymn, O Holy Night, which we celebrate this evening and there’s no denying that a weary world it so often seems…

The two great stories that identify us as Christians, tonight, of course, the incarnation of our God, God breaking in and taking on human flesh, and then the death and resurrection that we celebrate at Easter have many similarities to their surroundings as they unfold. If you reflect upon both there is great upheaval and chaos that is going on all around these events. Yet, all those who are so greatly connected to them don’t seem bothered by the fact. There of course is corruption by the political and religious authorities of the time, who all along plot the death of Jesus. There’s fear beyond belief. There’s yet another boot tramped in battle and another cloak rolled in blood as Isaiah tells us this evening. It is a weary world that Jesus encounters from the very beginning. All of it sets the scene for these two great events that define us.

But they also happen in darkness. It’s almost as if God can only seem to do something with people in darkness, when they are most vulnerable. And if that’s true, and it is true, then imaging the great things God is trying to do at this very moment in a world that continues to stand weary, and yet, on this night, manages to rejoice the birth of a Savior. But it doesn’t seem to destroy the darkness. It’s still there. The most vulnerable still are impacted the most by ongoing war and violence of a world plagued by fear. Who can get out of their minds, and maybe we’re not supposed to, the images of the children running for their lives out of Aleppo. Or as we lie down at night, others continue to remain very vulnerable on these very streets of this city, murder and death, night after night. It is a weary world and a weary world that welcomes the birth of the Savior and begins to make space for a God breaking through the weariness of the world.

But it’s us as well who experience such weariness in our own lives. It’s not just beyond us in outlying areas. It’s us when we are most vulnerable as well, as we lie down in the darkness of the night and we can no longer outrun our weariness and weighs upon our hearts and souls. As the day silences it only seems as if the mind begins to race, thinking of what hurts and worries us at this moment, a dying parent, a sick child, an unemployed spouse, a lost soul, all of this arises in the darkness of the night, when we too are most vulnerable for something, for someone, a God breaks through and begins to bring light to a weary load, no longer needing to figure it out on our own but a God who comes to ease and to point us in a new direction in life. It is the night, a night that lies weary.

It is the story of people Israel whom Isaiah speaks to today. They too know weariness and are searching for something and someone. Long before Jesus even enters the scene, Isaiah knows in his very being this Christ. It’s the only explanation for such words of hope to a people who have wandered in darkness and experience boot tramped in battle and cloak rolled in blood. They know ongoing war and violence. They know famine and poverty. And yet, when a new king ascends the throne, this great hymn is sung as if the past is the past and we begin anew. We no longer need to walk in the darkness and become victims of our own vulnerability, for a child is given us and a new leader will rule the earth. Once again, God desperately tries to break into the weariness of the lives of Israel, who so often try to go it alone. And over and over again, leads to further war and violence, famine and poverty. And once again, it is the most vulnerable that are forgotten, the faces of Aleppo that are now ingrained in our minds and hearts. That’s the irony of the story, it is in the most vulnerable places that God breaks in and it’s the place we will try to outrun and avoid. It is so often the place we fear the most.

Somehow, that fear takes hold. There is Herod, as well, who fears that another king has been born. In his own insecurities, someone is going to try to steal his power away from him, which, of course, isn’t power or peace at all, it’s fear that rules the land and Herod’s heart. But what Herod didn’t know because he was so encapsulated by himself, is that this king was different. This king wasn’t looking to ascend to his throne or somehow knock him off. This King wasn’t about ascending at all. This King was one who was descending into the depths of the earth, into the depths of our very being, to the most vulnerable place, our own poverty, our own weariness in order to give us life. Herod had nothing to fear and yet did and there was a price, a heavy price, that would be paid by the most vulnerable of his time.

And so chaos ensued. Darkness covered the earth and never seemed to lift. Yet, in the midst of it all in this couple, Mary and Joseph. Mary gives birth to the Savior as we see in this manger scene and now will have to confront the fear of Herod and their own fear. But they have nothing to fear. Mary doesn’t only give birth to the Savior into the world. Mary allows the incarnation to birth within her. Joseph allows this incarnation to be birthed within him. The shepherds, the most despised of their day, traitors, thieves, robbers, as they were, hear the message of the angels and their souls felt their worth. They too allowed the incarnation to be birthed in them and their lives are forever changed. In the midst of the chaos and darkness, a weary world rejoices for it is in those very moments that God desires to break into our lives, to meet us in our very humanity. Sure we like an Almighty God who ascends to the throne, but first, and most importantly, descends into the weariness of our lives. This is a vulnerable God, a scandalous God, that desires to love the places where we find ourselves most weary and to birth new life, to break into and through our own weariness. It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth and a weary world rejoices.

It is easy for us to get caught up in the nostalgia and sentimentality of the season, and maybe that’s easy for some of us to do. It’s an opportunity to block out the weariness and emptiness of our own lives, the poverty of the soul that desires worth. Yet, it’s not the peace this night provides or desire of us. Because as we gather, chaos still happens. Darkness is still the reality for many. War and violence haven’t stopped simply for Christmas. No, the world remains weary and will be weary, just as our lives very much can be even at a night when we rejoice. The message tonight is of hope, of a God who desires to love so much that is willing to do the unthinkable, a God who’s willing to descend from on high and meet us where we are, to birth us once again, so that we may be the bearers of light to the darkness, to the war-driven streets of Aleppo and Baltimore, and even to our most vulnerable places, where we feel most weary this day, for today we rejoice that our Savior has been born, breaking into our world and lives, and points us to a still more perfect, fulfilling way of life. Merry Christmas!

It Begins With Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

Healing Divides

2 Kings 5: 14-17; 2 Tim 2: 8-13; Luke 17: 11-19

So often when we hear these healing stories within the gospels, the physical healing taking place almost becomes somewhat secondary to the spiritual healing that takes place. They appear to be so intertwined with one another. But it’s not just the physically wounded one that Jesus tries to heal. If you look at it from the perspective of God, healing is not limited to just a select few. It’s what causes so much of the tension with Jesus, that this God somehow seems to go beyond the boundaries that have been set by the people. Only by the grace of God will that begin to fall away and hearts begin to expand.

On the part of Israel and his Jewish brothers and sisters, Jesus tries to break down their image of who they think God is. They were the chosen people and began to believe it on all levels. They thought somehow the grace of this God was somehow limited to them where everyone else perishes. At times they probably felt that they didn’t even need this God; they had it handled on their own. There’s no doubt that there was contention with the Samaritans. That’s our first hint that this is more than just a physical healing that is going to happen. But the Samaritans as well need healing that goes beyond the physical. They were considered outsiders and often less-than-human, especially one suffering from leprosy. There had to be some feeling, for any of us, that this God had somehow abandoned them. So it all sets the scene for Jesus to bring about healing. For one it is a humbling and for another a raising up. How often does our own pride get in the way, thinking we can do it ourselves?

For Israel, as with Naaman in today’s first reading, there is a need for humility. He too had to get over himself. He just constantly fights with Elisha over what is being asked of him in order to be healed. Again, he had this idea of who God was and couldn’t understand why he was being asked to go into the murky waters of the Jordan to be healed. He couldn’t get over that. He was better than that and was insistent that he deserved better treatment from God. He questioned how this could happen to him in the first place, knowing his place. Yet, there was this one thing that he hated about himself that he couldn’t let go of. But Elisha was persistent as well. Elisha already understands the imminent God.

We see it in his response to the gift Naaman tries to give him. Elisha refuses and not because he somehow doesn’t see himself as being worthy of it. Rather, Elisha knows full well that this healing had nothing to do with him. It was all this God who leads Naaman to the murky waters of the Jordan working within and through him. Elisha the Prophet was an instrument of God’s grace and healing. In turn, Naaman comes through the experience a changed man, humbled by a God manifested in a different way, a new way than he ever could have expected. The very thing he hated about himself becomes the fullness of the grace given by God. Naaman finally opens himself up and God steps into his life.

Yet, there must be an openness on our part if we are going to experience such healing in our lives. We live with such division in our city, our country, and our world, with each side claiming to hold the truth. Yet, they’re all wrong. It’s God who reveals the truth. If we are in need of healing with anything beyond the physical, it’s a healing of God. We have a God problem. Using the imagery that Paul uses today in the second reading, our hearts remain chained. When we close ourselves off to the gospel we remain chained. Here he was in his final days of life, in prison, and yet speaks with such freedom. He has allowed himself to be open to the healing power of God, and even for him, persecutor of the Christians, the boundaries begin to fall away and God expands. Paul stands as a witness to us all of the possibility of conversion in our own lives. When we allow ourselves to be opened in that way, we become agents of change. We become agents of healing as he was and as Elisha was in today’s first reading.

In the time of such division with our politics and beyond, we must seek healing. If we feel we don’t need it, then we pray for an openness to it. We are all in need of healing from the divided lives we often live. It will only be through God that we will find such healing, such reconciliation. We can’t survive much longer as a race if we don’t find a way to seek understanding rather than living in fear and allowing our pride to stand in the way. God desires this healing for us now, at this very moment. As we open ourselves up to this healing, we begin to change the world. We become the agents of change. We become the agents of healing. It’s what this city, this country, and this world need now more than ever and God has us primed for such a healing in this very moment of our lives.