Anxious Hearts

Deut 18: 15-20; I Cor 7: 32-35; Mark 1: 21-28

This is now the second or third week that Paul has addressed the community of Corinth on anxiety.  Of course, it’s something that remains prevalent in our own culture.  I’m sure there are many here that take medication for it to be able to cope.  Not that doesn’t help many, but it never allows us to get to the heart of the fear and anxiety that Paul speaks of because really the heart of anxiety is fear.  In our day, though, it’s only been magnified by the use of internet and social media and most definitely the 24/7 news cycle that just seems to bombard us at every waking moment about negativity and fear that only feeds into our own “unclean spirits” as Jesus speaks of rather than trusting the true voice of authority in Christ.

It must have been an issue that the community was aware of that they were willing to write it as a question for Paul in their correspondence.  Now it’s easy to get hung up on how Paul tackles this issues with married men, women, virgins, and the works, but we’d miss the point and once again avoid the deeper lying issue in the community and our own lives.  Getting hung up on the relational way or commitment way Paul handles it only become divisive and leads to greater anxiety.  First and foremost is this need to please.  He speaks of husbands trying to please their wives and wives trying to please their husbands and single people trying to please the Lord, but for Paul, it has nothing to with that.  It’s not about pleasing anyone else, our spouse, our boss, and institution or anything.  First and foremost, as he concludes today, it’s about conforming to Christ.  It’s learning to trust that deeper voice that leads to a greater sense of love and peace.  The challenge is, is that it tends to be the quieter of the voices, a hush from the Lord that tends to be overtaken by the noise around us, just as it was for the community of Corinth.

The irony is, they know the voice of the Christ but the more they are bombarded by the noise, fear, anger, and such, the more they begin to believe that’s the voice of authority only feeding in more to the unclean spirits within us.  We all have them and they love to be fed by anything that is going to feed them the lie that we’re something less than we are.  That’s not the prophetic voice that we hear of in today’s readings.  As a matter of fact, Paul will go onto say that that’s nothing but clashing cymbals and such, simply noise that comes from no greater depth.  I could only imagine what Paul would think today in the face of so much negative chatter, noise capturing our attentions, pulling us away from our truest selves, our deepest selves, the voice of authority in Christ that remains and yet often suffocated by the outside world.  It’s what this community of Corinth faced in trying to conform to the culture rather than to the Christ.

Even in today’s first reading, though, we hear of Moses speak of the prophetic voice that is to be raised up, which is more often than not how it happens, it has to rise up from deep within us.  It’s a lot of work, which makes medication and coping the easier answer.  For the community that Moses speaks to today it’s more about trusting fortunetellers and soothsayers that precedes this reading we hear.  They’re looking for guidance and direction from beyond themselves, and like Corinth, often succumb to the fear of believing.  The path to the prophetic voice takes a great deal of patience, and Moses will go onto say, a learning of how to discern these voices that work in our lives and recognize the voices that lead us to further fear and anxiety and learn to turn them off.  They are loud and unruly, often appealing to the worst of our instincts to react to everything that comes our way.  The prophetic voice requires that will rise up as Moses speaks requires silence and the space in order for that voice to grow.

We are only a week out from the disciples being called in Mark’s gospel and today they’re already thrown into the muck of it all.  As much as Mark’s focus is getting them to Jerusalem and the reality of the cross, Jerusalem has a way of finding them on the way.  Here they are, first stop, and it’s the Sabbath and they’re in the synagogue and Jesus is going to dispel the unclean spirits.  This whole process of following for these would-be disciples is about learning to trust the voice of the Christ in the midst of Jerusalem after Jerusalem.  Just like the people of Corinth they’ll slip into that fear and anxiety.  They’ll have to face the controversy of the religious and political authorities that feed on that fear and will try to appeal to their worst instincts, trying to pull them away from the Christ out of fearing rejection.  That need to please will leave them with, as Paul tells us, a divided heart which only leads to greater anxiety.  If it’s the prophetic voice, that voice of authority, it will continue to rise up until it is acknowledged and followed.  It’s what will see them through some of the most difficult times of their lives when Jerusalem is faced head on by the disciples and each of us.

We aren’t much different than these communities.  We’ve allowed the clashing cymbals to be the so-called prophetic voices in our lives, rooted in fear and insecurity.  We want things instantly and love to react to it all, especially the unclean spirits of our day and the amount of negativity that bombards us day in and day out that over time drowns out the voice of truth, love, peace.  It doesn’t mean that it’s easy or we’re naïve about the realities of the world, but the voice of authority, the voice of the Christ, the eternal, leads us to the deeper place, beyond the differences and divisiveness of our day.  Paul knows by experience, as does Moses.  It’s the journey we must be willing to take, to learn to discern the unclean spirits of our own lives that we’ve taken for granted and learned to trust.  They tend to have all the answers and try to convince us that we’re right and often unworthy.  The voice of God, though, is always breaking through, rising up, trying to remind us who we really are.  It’s that voice, and only that voice, that will take away our fear and anxiety and lead us to the fuller life we desire, a life of peace and a deeper awareness of God’s love.

A Liberated Critic

Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11; 2Peter 3: 8-14; Mark 1: 1-8

The Advent Season raises up this rather peculiar character this week and next, John the Baptist.  He really is one of the more complex characters we encounter.  There is this rather hipster vibe that he portrays by what he wears and eats and just wandering out in the wild, the desert.  Yet, at the same time, he comes off as this rather fire and brimstone kind of guy, together just making him complex and very much a paradox to himself.  He is one of the great prophets, along with Isaiah, whom we hear from this season, pointing us, often, right into the desert.

The one thing about the Baptist, though, is that there is a sense of freedom and liberation about him.  In these very brief encounters, despite his strong words, it comes from a place within.  He even mentions today that one mightier than I is to come and he shows that in his words and actions.  He remains grounded as a prophet in the eternal Christ, giving him the freedom and integrity to be who he is, despite the hesitation of the leaders towards him at that time.  In John’s Gospel he’ll go onto say that I must decrease and he must increase, in reference to the Christ. 

We all have that prophetic voice within but all too often it becomes separated from the Christ leading more to a rather self-critical voice instead.  We all know what that’s like and have seen it in ourselves and others when it’s more about criticizing but not coming from a deeper place.  It is part of Israel’s storied history as it is ours.  If they are consistent with anything it’s separating themselves from the Eternal and they end up becoming their own worst enemy.  Here they are, again, moving out of Exile, a second exodus for Israel, and they quickly begin to return to their old ways.  They resort to their own critical voice and despite being led from exile remain far from free nor liberated from what it had done to them.  They become the source of discrimination, war, and oppression, clinging to an institutionalized god who no longer serves.  As a matter of fact, when we cling to the critical thoughts that aren’t grounded in the Christ, they begin to strangle the divine and squelch the voice of the Spirit working within.  Israel remains symbolic of our own story as individuals and nation.

Then there is the Baptist.  As I said, a rather peculiar fellow that we encounter and yet often feared by the religious and political leaders because of this liberating element to him.  More often than not they don’t like what he has to say.  They become his greatest critics, and as we know, eventually leads to his beheading.  Even that becomes symbolic of cutting off that place where so many of the self-critical thoughts come from.  That wasn’t the case with the Baptist though.  It’s what they never understood about him.  His prophetic voice wasn’t coming simply from some heady place.  It was coming from deep within his very foundation.  What appeared to them as fearful thoughts was actually the eternal working through the Baptist from deep within his heart and soul.  That’s the freedom and liberation that this complex character exemplified.  For John, this message of repentance, of totally turning around and looking at life differently, being grounded in the eternal is what it’s all about.  John never forgot his own place and it wasn’t the Christ.  One mightier than I is to come.  I must decrease and he must increase.  It’s the mantra of the season.

And so we have these two great prophets pointing the way to freedom and a deeper way of life, an about-face to be liberated for the eternal.  The avenue to that freedom, though, is through the desert.  Isaiah tells us “In the desert prepare the way”.  Other than when he’s jailed all we know of the Baptist is through this desert experience.  Many throughout our history have physically gone to the desert to experience the wildness of their own hearts and souls, to see what they were already feeling within.  Maybe that’s why so many are drawn to the Baptist at that time.  It becomes symbolic of the soul’s journey for so many in Scripture, the vast, wide, emptiness that we often fear becomes the place of transformation, freedom, awareness of our own critical voice and liberation from within.  Our lives and the about face is from being led from the external world to the interior world which holds the eternal.  This is what makes Isaiah and the Baptist who they are.  It’s what separates them, so often, from activists even of our own day.  It comes from the depths of their souls and they know it as truth, as the eternal.

Peter reminds us in the second reading today, thankfully, that God remains patient with us through this process of transformation.  The more the eternal is freed up from the strangle of the critical and we become aware that the critical is not God, the more we begin to experience not the institutionalized god we have come to know but rather the God of mystery and freedom, and true freedom at that.  Like Israel we can say we’re free all we want but if we’re still holding on from within we haven’t experienced the divine in that way.  Peter reminds us that what is not of God will all be dissolved anyway so why not open ourselves up to mystery and to the unknown God.  Be eager for peace.

As we continue this Advent journey and encounter these redeemed prophetic voices of Isaiah and the Baptist, we pray for the awareness in our own lives of that critical voice that is still in need of being liberated.  God desires so much more for each of us and yet we tend to settle for much less.  When we move from being led by that critical voice to being led by and with love, our lives are changed forever.  We, like the Baptist, are complex creatures often in need of love and redemption more than anything.  This season we’re invited into the desert of our own souls, with a very patient God, where a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day, to experience our lives and how we see ourselves and the world in a very different way.  No longer grounded in criticism, control, and fear, the institutionalized gods we create in our lives, but rather the God of love, freedom, and liberation, pointed to us by the Baptist himself.

A Worthy Influence

2 Kings 4: 8-11, 14-16; Romans 6: 3-4, 8-11; Matt 10: 37-42

The connection the Church tries to make with our readings today, particularly the first and gospel, is that of hospitality.  The woman in the first reading is hospitable to Elisha as he passes to and from their town and then link it with the same message in today’s gospel from Jesus. And certainly hospitality is important and learning to be hospitable to one another could do great wonders for all of us.

However, I think we miss the point of the story if we stick to simply what we see and the obvious in these readings.  I don’t need to tell anyone here that in most of these stories the role of being hospitable was that of the woman of the home.  If we stick to that theme all we really do is enforce what is expected of her and in many ways make her small, confining her to a role and some social construct that she is a part of.

Notice in the story that she’s is not referred by any name but is called a woman of influence.  Of course when we hear that word certain things come to mind with people of influence, wealth, power, some kind of authority or whatever the case may be.  But that’s not true in this case.  That would be her husband in that time.  Her influence is something different, a worthy or holy influence.  There’s something different about her connection with Elisha that goes beyond simply being hospitable. 

Elisha has struggled with his own call of being a prophet even though she keeps referring to him as a holy person.  As the story continues, she will receive what Elisha promises, a son.  However, the son dies rather quickly, leaving her as it would any mother, simply beside herself trying to make sense out of all of it.  She will then proceed, with her holy influence, to make her way to Elisha, breaking every social barrier and construct in the way because of this deeper connection.  As much as she affirms his own prophetic call, he in turn, on a deeper level, affirms her own prophetic call, as if the divine is speaking to the divine with the two.  It doesn’t stop her from being hospitable and living the role that is expected of her, but it also doesn’t get in the way of being something more, something bigger.

That’s also the message that Jesus conveys to the apostles today as Matthew continues this understanding of the conditions of discipleship.  Please understand, Jesus is not telling them to somehow hate or not love their parents, their siblings, or anyone for that matter.  This message is about roles, identities, and expectations that they, and us for that matter, grow up with, that often stand in conflict of us going to that deeper place within ourselves.  We all grow up in some type of familial structure and social structure that has helped to define us and our place, just as it was for the disciples, maybe even more so at that time.  The message of Jesus is always about trust and letting go and to begin to identify ourselves through a different lens, through that of the Christ.  That is where we will find our truest identity and where the other relationships them flow.  As the learn to trust this deeper reality and calling, they will do as the woman does in today’s first reading in finding a worthy influence on the world.

That is the message of Paul as well today in the second reading to the Romans.  He reminds them that the Christ dies no more, the eternal, which Paul himself had to seek and find in his own life.  It is no longer about living for his own purpose and what the world calls him to be, in a defined role of sorts, but he now lives for God.  That’s what makes all these characters different and iconic figures for us in our own spiritual lives.  Sure she was hospitable and that alone is a good thing, but she is much more than that as well, just like myself and each of you.

None of it is easy and it is a lifelong process for each of us as we grow into this deeper identity where we learn to speak the divine to the divine.  It’s how we begin to see each other as equal because we are no longer limited by what we see with our eyes, what’s expected of society, or even what we have grown up with in our lives.  At some point all of it makes not only us small but everyone else we limit in the same way.  She was hospitable not because it was her role, but because she did everything in and through the divine, in and through the Christ.  We all have roles but the roles don’t define us as people, as much as we sometimes think they do and make us feel worthy or of influence.  In a worldly way, possibly, but not a worthy or holy influence as exhibited in the readings today.  Our greatest influence we can have on the world will never come with power and money and certainly not our pride.  Rather, it comes when we find that divine within and proceed to live our lives in the same we.  It’s how we find that equality and it’s how we see each other as brother and sister, no longer bound by our eyes and no longer bound by the world but rather a life lived in and through the Christ.  That’s the worthy influence we can and are called to in this world.

No Going Back

Ezekiel 2: 2-5; IICor 12: 7-10; Mark 6: 1-6

There’s one thing that the prophets quickly learn, as Jesus does in today’s gospel, you pretty much cannot return home. Most of us can understand it on some level like when we leave home and start to break away, it’s hard to return. It’s hard for others to see us beyond the lens of who we were in their image and who we have become. Jesus meets immediate resistance when he returns, questioning his authority and the wisdom he shares. Like any of the prophets, home has changed for them. Home is no longer defined by the outside relationships of family and friends, but is rather found within. It’s that home that gives the authority and wisdom to say and do has they do to the people.

But it doesn’t come without a fight. That is the consistent theme of the call of the prophets of the Hebrew Scripture. From Ezekiel whom we hear from today to Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the rest we hear from throughout the year, there is this ensuing tension with God and the call that is being given. It gets to the point where they almost can’t not do it because it becomes agonizing for them until they can finally surrender to that voice. Like any of us, there is always that desire to conform, go along with the crowd, fit it, be accepted, but to be authentic and live out that call, Ezekiel must move beyond that and grow to accept the call that is being given in going out to Israel. However, despite their hardened hearts and Ezekiel knowing the difficult task that is being placed within and on him, he’s freed up by God reminding him that whether they heed or resist, a prophet has arisen. Their acceptance or denial of his call has no bearing on the fact that he’s being called in this way, to a new way of life and to be this prophetic voice to the people. It’s not that he’s being called to be the doomsday guy or to tell them how to live their lives, but given the gift of the spirit, he sees and hears on a different level. He becomes the voice and eyes of a God who is always present, even in the hardness of their hearts and the messiness of their lives. This is what Ezekiel sees and hears and can’t not be that voice to the people.

Jesus, as I said meets that resistance when he finds that home within himself, just as Ezekiel does. He returns to his native place where you’d think they’d welcome him with open arms and yet is quite the opposite. What do they see? They see a carpenter. They see the son of Mary. They see what and who he used to be, from their own lens, and yet can’t see him for who and what he is now. Even Jesus sees he’s going to get nowhere here in his native place. Their own hardness of heart prevents them from seeing the face of God in their midst. They are probably the ones that needed the miracles the most; yet, their prevented from seeing and experiencing the gift. They question his wisdom and his words. Of course, finding that home within leads us where we don’t want to go, in the face of persecution and hardship, suffering and to the cross. It’s what leads to his impending death on the cross. He too can’t not do what he’s been called to and to be that prophetic voice. But we are all called to that life of mature faith. When we come to this baptismal font we are all anointed priest, prophet, and king. We are all called on this journey in where we too are no longer defined by our exterior relationship and circumstances, our past, but rather find that voice within. That’s how we become the person God has created us to be and to be God’s gift to the world, His instrument.

Paul, too, understands the challenge of that call. He calls it a “thorn in the flesh.” It’s something that is always there. He questions along the way as Ezekiel and the other prophets do. When standing in the face of pain and suffering will I be able to be true to that voice, even if it means confronting the thorn in the flesh in my own life, suffering at the hands of others who can’t accept this call that has been given? It’s not easy being that voice, which is why so many choose otherwise and would rather that voice be silenced within rather than to be true to it, to be authentic. In the end, though, we lose what is most important to us when we do. Paul, like many others, are not willing to give that up once it’s found and will face martyrdom if that’s what it takes to be true to the home that has been found within.

There are many that claim to be prophets in our world. There are many that think they are great defenders of what we believe. Yet, so often it’s empty words if it’s not grounded in something and someone deeper within ourselves. When we continue to try to please others or want acceptance more than authenticity, we will continue to surrender our greatest and most treasured gift, our authentic voice within. We all have one, but like the great prophets that have gone before us, when we settle for something less, God will continue to wrestle as long as we need to, but in the midst of our own suffering that we continuously bring upon ourselves, God’s presence will arise and win out; God always does. We pray that we may find that voice within and remain true to that voice, our own home. It may lead to rejection and other suffering, but we will remain true to ourselves and the true home within will become the home of the many who go without in our world.