Love’s Acceptance

Acts 10: 34, 37-43; I Cor 5: 6-8; John 20: 1-9

If you spend any time surfing the internet, you know full well that you can find someone out there who’d have an argument for something you want to believe, even if it’s not true; actually most likely not true.  We call them conspiracy theories.  They’re nothing new but we have certainly lived through many of them.  It seemed as if the birther movement would never end.  How about George Bush being responsible for the events of 9/11?  Of course, every time there’s a school shooting there’s always some conspiracy out there that somehow there’s a mastermind behind all of this working the ropes.  It says something about our faith when we succumb to much of it and how fragile it can be at times.  So when we don’t agree with reality or prefer to think that reality isn’t reality, when we can’t accept it, then we’ll just create a new one that agrees with how we think things should be, avoiding reality itself.  What’s worse is that now we have virtual reality.  When we’re totally dissatisfied we can just create a new one through technology in order to avoid what is.  We avoid our own pain and suffering and then also avoid it in others.  It creates a false sense of life and almost instills a sense of paranoia.

They’re nothing new, though.  Even what we celebrate today had many conspiracy theories surrounding it and they come out in the characters we encounter through the Easter season.  One of them is uttered from the mouth of Mary of Magdala this morning that “they have stolen the body”.  Just as the political and religious authorities conspired for the death of Jesus that we marked on Good Friday, they will now conspire once again to cast doubt and fear into the heart of the followers that somehow what had taken place actually didn’t take place.  When they conspired towards his death they thought they had their problem under control.  They thought that if he can be contained in this way and then simply get rid of it, they can maintain their sense of control and the illusion of power.  They can continue to oppress the people in this way and suppress them at the hand of authority.  They knew, though, that if word continues to spread and takes on flesh that Christ had been raised, it would spread like wildfire and so conspiracy theories are born in order to control the fire.

We hear, though, throughout this season from Acts of the Apostles that it just can’t be contained.  That this gift of life and the Spirit was not going to be contained by fear.  It doesn’t mean that they don’t suffer nor face great pains as a community.  We hear that throughout the early days.  But they learn to accept the eternal life now which dispels all fear.  Over time, and through this process of conversion of heart, the words of Jesus and the Word made flesh, becomes who they are; they make it their own and they become unstoppable.  They will certainly be tested and challenged by the authorities, but the embodiment of the love freely given will change them forever.  Whenever they find themselves doubting and questioning or even beginning to believe the conspiracies over their experience, they will once again be drawn into this mystery of life and death.  That’s what they ultimately learn in relationship with Christ.  You have to embrace it in its entirety.  You cannot have life without death.  They go hand in hand.  We want to separate and feel it can’t touch us, but surrender, sacrifice, and letting go needs to be a part of who we are if we are to become a community of love.  When we separate mystery in that way, we begin to create alternate realities and virtual realities in order to avoid what we most dislike, the fact that we can’t have it all and that we’re not immortal.  The more we avoid it, the more problems will continue to mount here and across the globe.

Paul reminds us in his letter to Corinth today that if we are to become this community of love then we need to leave things behind.  We need to leave behind bitterness and malice.  We need to leave behind our fear and our confusion.  We need to leave behind our paranoia and conspiracies that we cling to and learn to accept reality for what it is and only then can we begin to change.  It’s the encounter with the divine love and our participation in that divine love that changes us and allows us to move from simple lip service to a changed heart.  It’s easy to say I believe in God or I believe Jesus is risen from the dead.  It’s a whole other reality when we embody it.  For John, it comes down to that, back to the beginning of the gospel when the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us.

That’s what it’s all about.  Problems continue to mount.  Poverty continues to spread.  Homelessness is everywhere.  Injustice happens here and abroad.  Yet, the fragility of our faith often prevents us from falling into the pain and suffering of the world and to bring about its transformation through love.  Only love can do that.  Fear won’t do it.  Conspiracies won’t do it.  Virtual reality won’t do it.  Paranoia won’t do it.  Only love and it’s a love that is freely given.  When the disciples head to the tomb and find it empty on Easter, it doesn’t move them from a place of darkness right away.  But something begins to stir within them, deep within them, and they know they can never go back.  They can no longer live in an alternate reality and they’ll know deep down that the conspiracies are simply words rooted in fear, fear of change fear of the authentic power of Christ crucified now raised from the dead.

As we enter into these 50 days of Easter, we pray for the grace to have that same movement in our own lives.  Like them, we often want proof with our own eyes.  We want to see it.  Well, none of us can prove anything like that and that’s certainly not the message John conveys in his gospel.  For John, it’s a deeper sense of knowing that we truly long for in life, a knowing that can only be embodied and not simply words that can sound shallow.  John wants us to move towards a deeper faith, embodied within a changed heart.  That’s the community of love that is being offered and the only way to live more deeply in the reality of our own pain and suffering, offering us hope of not an alternate reality or a virtual reality, but a reality rooted in hope and love, a reality rooted in Easter.  We pray this day that we may become that community of love in order to cast out all fear and darkness from our lives, the community, and the world.

‘Better than This’

Isaiah 22: 19-23; Matthew 16: 13-20

In today’s opening prayer we heard something like, we pray amid all the uncertainties of the world.  Well, I’m not sure where it is we start with that.  It seems as if there is uncertainty and chaos all over the place, around the globe, the country, even Mother Nature seems to be playing a part, but also right outside our front door.  I’ve been here three years now and this was the first summer that I was awakened one night because someone was shot across the street.  I don’t know who he was or what the circumstances are but I’d guess drugs.  It’s the way of life in this stretch of road.  It’s been a rough summer in the city of Baltimore and here in our own neighborhood.  All I can think is, aren’t we better than this?  Aren’t we better than all of this?

You ever notice that’s often our response to realities like this?  It was our response following Charlottesville, following 9/11, after mosques had been blown up, among other things, that somehow we’re better than this.  It is the American way to these situations, somehow we’re better than all of this.  It’s the illusion and persona that we collectively try to project to the world that somehow we’re above these realities even though everyone else knows otherwise.  None of us can really escape it.  It’s a part of who we are but it’s also a way that we separate ourselves from responsibility and connection to those who suffer and hurt, people who walk this street day in and day out.  More often than not we’d prefer the illusion over the reality but the reality is that the guy shot is me and you as well.  In the end those who suffer those most from our thinking that we’re better than this are the poor who often get trampled upon to uphold the illusion and avoid the reality.

It’s where we encounter Shebna in the first reading today from Isaiah.  Shebna is about to be tossed out as the master of the palace because of his lack of responsibility to the people.  Shebna is all about himself and feeds into this power that has been given to him and has abused it.  God’s not going to have anything of it and is now going to toss him and raise up Eliakim.  As with many of these figures we encounter in the prophetic books they let power go to their head and becomes about thinking they’re better than others and somehow above others along the way.  We’re better than that would be his approach to the people and so now he’ll be humbled and stripped of this illusion of power that he has held so tightly.  God will raise up a father figure, one who can tend to the needs of the people and their pain, holding a place of honor in the family.  From the beginning of time we’ve lived with the uncertainties of a changing world and a fallen world clinging to power.  As I said, it’s very much a part of who we are as humans and certainly as Americans.

Then there’s Peter.  He too is given power today as they have this encounter with the Lord.  Upon this rock I’ll build my church, keys of the kingdom and so on.  Needless to say almost instantly it’ll go to Peter’s head and will be knocked down a few in next week’s gospel.  He immediately begins to think that he’s somehow better than and above the rest because of all this recognition from Jesus but despite identifying the Lord in today’s gospel he doesn’t yet realize he is also speaking of his own deepest identity.  Notice that Jesus asks two questions.  First he asks what the crowds have to say about him.  What is the image the persona that he is projecting to this crowd?  They say he’s one of the prophets like Elijah and Jeremiah or John the Baptist.  But then he goes directly to those closest of the followers, those closest to him and asks and Peter responds ‘the Christ’.  It doesn’t put him above them in some way or lording authority over them.  It’s a recognition of the reality of who he really is beyond any illusions and persona that may get in the way.  At the core we are the divine, myself, you, the man shot outside, those peddling drugs, those looking for some sense of belonging in gangs in this city.  At the core we are all the same.  When we think otherwise we begin to separate, distance ourselves, and as we are so good at, the problem is somewhere out there.  The illusion can be so strong and we love to hold it so tightly thinking it’s who we are.  But in the end it separates us from reality and the many uncertainties that we face as a city, a nation, and a globe.  In the end, we all know who it ends up hurting the most.

If there is one thing we can be certain of, the extremes in our politics and even in our Church cling to that illusion in their own way, that somehow they hold the truth entirely, that they are somehow better than.  But they’re not and we’ll never move to a place of healing as a city and nation unless we learn to let go of that illusion and move to the place of our deeper identity.  All our clinging to the illusion is a mere reminder that we continue to search for something, search for God in our lives yet we cling to the wrong thing.  There are countless people suffering in this city and country and beyond and yet we still seem to convince ourselves that we’re better than that.  Our prayer is to allow ourselves to be aware of it in our own life; it happens so naturally.  Then learn to let it go.  Once we can accept reality for what it really is we then can begin to change it for the better, ourselves and as a society.  It’s humbling.  It takes a great deal of patience and acceptance.  It takes a great deal of courage to step out of that illusion and see the other as yourself.  There is always hope.  If we don’t, we’ll continue to separate and buy into the illusion, keeping us out of touch with reality, out of touch with the pain of our brothers and sisters.  The problem is…the problem is…we’re better than this.

 

Fake News

James 5: 7-10; Matthew 11: 2-11

You can’t seem to turn on any news these days without hearing something about “fake news”. There seems to be this blurring of lines between reality and some fictional world that is created, probably for a variety of reasons. Of course, there is the making up of a story, which is simple for most of us if we think about it. But there’s also the reality of people believing it, that we’ve crossed a line where we start to think that the “fake news” is real and reality is somehow lying to us or is wrong. It’s not a great line to be crossing for any of us and in many ways shows a lack of depth on the part of our culture and society that we can no longer discern these aspect of our lives and the world.

I’ve been thinking, though, that this is not something new. We’re all familiar with the famous Christmas letters that we often joke about. It’s often us presenting to others some kind of illusion of perfection of our families, telling others how we think things should be rather than the real real, such as the suffering and struggles that make up who we are as well. We become so dissatisfied with our reality that we have to resort to our own “fake news”, often to avoid our own grief, our anger, our dissatisfaction with life many times and our own “fake news” becomes a way to avoid our reality. But, we also all know, it eventually catches up to us when the illusions we construct begin to crumble before us. You see, this God we encounter is one that deconstructs what we construct in order to recreate us into something new, into the Kingdom as it continues to unfold within and beyond us.

It’s where John the Baptist finds himself today as we find him in prison. He’s a very different person this week than the one we encountered last week. Remember, he was the one down in the Jordan baptizing people. He was chastising the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. He was going after Herod for his marriages. He was preaching this rebellious messiah that was to come to overturn the government and religious leaders. Yet, today, he’s somewhat somber. Of course, we would as well when we know our lives are nearing the end as he’s about to be beheaded.

For all this time, John was preaching one message and now we find him today asking whether Jesus is really the one. This entire narrative that John has been preaching is no longer the reality that he had hoped for. Jesus isn’t who he was supposed to be in the eyes of John. John thought Jesus should be someone else. His own narrative that he constructed is now beginning to crumble as he faces the reality of his own life through his own mortality. His idea of Jesus and his idea of God no longer works and once again God is opening John up for something new, despite being at the end of his life. The more narrow our vision of what we think things should be is a good indicator that it’s more about building our own kingdom rather than allowing the Kingdom to unfold within and beyond us. It’s us wanting to control and for John, he now finds all that being deconstructed to be recreated into something new. It’s what we prepare ourselves for at Christmas, the breaking in of God.

But it takes a great deal of patience on our part for that breaking in, just as we await the birth of a child. We hear that from James in today’s second reading. He’s writing to the poor who are losing hope as they find themselves being oppressed by the rich. They too are paying the price for a narrative that the rich are putting together about the poor and, like any of us, are quick to judge. As much as James tells them to be patient with the unfolding of the Kingdom but he’s also warning them about judging the other. Our judgments are also part of the “fake news” that we create about others, not just ourselves. However, all those judgments say much more about ourselves and our own dissatisfaction. James isn’t telling them to allow themselves to be walked upon by the rich. Rather, he’s telling them not to become what it is that they hate by doing what’s being done to them.

As we move into the final days of the Advent season and continue to seek the breaking in of the Kingdom, we are challenged to see where we allow our own “fake news” to take hold of our lives, avoiding the reality of our own lives. We do it individually and we do it communally. Certainly the internet has escalated all of it but it is something that we have always had to deal with in our lives, constructing our own narrative and building our own kingdom often to avoid reality. God can only meet us in our reality and wants to meet us in our reality. It’s in the healing of our hearts, the seeking of love, mercy, forgiveness, and freedom that opens our hearts to the breaking in of the Kingdom.

We all know what it’s like to be John and wanting things to be something other than they are, but at this very moment, on the Third Sunday of Advent, God desires to meet us where we are. Not where we think we should be or who we think we should be. That’s our own “fake news” narrative. But where we have allowed ourselves to be imprisoned and made ourselves smaller than we really are. The Kingdom is vast and wide. It’s that Kingdom we desire and it’s that Kingdom that we are being invited into being broken into our lives and world at this very moment, into the reality we are being called to embrace.

Humbling Connectedness

Sirach 3: 17-18, 20, 28-29; Hebrews 12: 18-19, 22-24; Luke 14: 1, 7-14

I don’t need to tell you that Jesus has this tendency to create tension wherever he goes. It’s as if conflict follows him into all these different situations. Today is no different. He stands, as the writer of Hebrews tells us today, the Mediator, between these two opposing realities.

There’s first the reality of the Pharisees. They are the center of religious power and a power that often went far beyond religion. They saw themselves in many ways as gods and the keeper of the law. Here he is in the leading Pharisees house on the Sabbath so naturally there’s going to be tension. He heals a guy which already counts as a strike against him and then begins to observe the actions of the Pharisees, who, on many levels, are oblivious to what’s going on and how their actions appear and speak to others.

Then there’s this other reality that he presents to them through the telling of parables and who should be invited to dinner. It’s the poor, the crippled, the lame, and every other outcast of society. It’s the people that have been ostracized by the pharisees for one reason or another. Yet, they are the ones that Mediator raises up in humility. So what makes their reality so unique? I’m not saying everyone because they too are human but the difference often comes in this deep connectedness that they have that goes beyond the community that they’ve been ostracized from, a deeper connection with what is bigger than themselves. They’ve had to learn because of their lives to have faith and put trust in the One that is bigger than themselves, as opposed to the pharisees whom often saw themselves as the ones that are bigger than the other.

All of this is the realities that Jesus steps into as Mediator and tries to find another way, a third way as it is often called, to bring together these opposing opposites. But we know not only from the time of Jesus but our own time as well that it just doesn’t seem to happen. When the people in authority and who hold the power are put into such a position they don’t want to budge. The buckle down and try to hold onto their power, which isn’t even real in the first place. Jesus brings up fear and uncomfortableness in their lives and of course becomes the scapegoat for their fear and uncomfortableness. He is a threat not only to them but to the system, the institution that they represent, and they become self-serving. It’s no longer about the people who are in touch with this deeper reality, it’s about holding on and trying to save something that isn’t real in the first place.

Now we know how it turns out. Eventually these systems even today must die. They know longer have the purpose they once had but that requires all of us to change. The pharisees isn’t just these guys back in the time of Jesus but they are me and they are you. We don’t like things to change but when the system no longer serves the most vulnerable and becomes self-serving, it’s lost it’s purpose. Like them, there is that part of us that wants to hold onto it. It’s the critic in ourselves that will do everything to prevent change and to try to sabotage anything new. When we don’t, we have what we have today, this sense of disconnectedness that exists between the ruling class, as it is with the pharisees, and become blinded by their own behavior, and what’s most importation, this deeper connection that we hold, this inherent dignity that comes from the Eternal Mediator that tries to reconcile these parts of ourselves to makes us whole, as individuals, community, city, and even country.

None of us can deny that the systems are broken in our Church and government. They may have had their place in a time but not anymore. Heck, even a few weeks ago Jesus threw the family institution into the mix as well. All of it is a voice crying out to be heard that is being ignored. Those in power want to continue to keep others at bay, to keep that disconnectedness, creating the violence we see in our own lives and beyond. The readings, though, today speak of humility. Humility is when we become aware of how we have allowed the pharisee in ourselves to lead us and disconnect us from our own humanity and the One bigger than ourselves. It’s is a dying to self and giving up that self for a greater good for the people, especially the most vulnerable. If we don’t take care of those that have been ostracized we have truly lost our way. We pray today for that humility in our lives, in our city, and certainly in this nation.

Pride has quite the way of taking hold of our lives and not wanting to let go, blinding us to those being called to the banquet as Jesus speaks of today. We have become so blinded by that in our own country and our hold to nationalism and other pharisaical ways that we become attached to in our lives. We pray for that humility to be able to sit with the tension in our own lives and to meet the Eternal Mediator in the heart of it all, calling us to let go and to connect with our deeper identity, our inherent dignity in Christ.

In The Beginning

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Isaiah 42: 1-7; Matthew 3: 13-17

If you began faith formation in CCD, like myself, you probably spent at least some of the time using the Baltimore Catechism.  My guess is many of you can probably still remember some of the questions and the answers that followed…Who is God?  Why did God create me?  There was also, “What is a sacrament?”  A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.  I remember during Confirmation back then the bishop would come and quiz you before receiving the sacrament and undoubtably, that would be one of the questions, followed by the next one in naming the seven sacraments.  An outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.  It has been revised in the new catechism but this is the one drilled into my head after those years, and the thing was, it didn’t even matter if you knew what any of that meant.  My guess is none of us really did; all that matter was that you could repeat it to the bishop.

An outward sign that points to an inward reality, our true identity.  It’s really what culminates this Christmas season as we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord and the beginning of him living out that identity in the ministry we will witness to in the weeks ahead.  But what is true for Christ is true for us; that outward sign points to the inward reality of who we really are as well, sons and daughters of God.  This was the ongoing controversy in the first century, though, as to the true identity of Jesus and what did he know and this whole sense of the early communities feeling ashamed that Jesus would come to John to be baptized.  That’s a struggle that has gone on long after, trying to make sense and wrap minds around the fact that God became flesh.  It was hard and at times is still hard to understand just how and why God would do that.  Many have tried to explain this reality away!  But after the past few weeks of looking at the what and how and where and everything else in those months surrounding Jesus’ birth, today, makes a choice to be baptized by John, and out of this action, the identity of Jesus and us is revealed.  That’s why it’s so important for us to celebrate this baptism today and many Sunday’s during the year because it becomes a constant reminder of who we are.  Baptism isn’t something that we do; it is rather something or someone that we are.  Can we accept that about ourselves or is it just as difficult as it was in the beginning of Jesus’ public life?

Using these images that have surrounded this season…we could spend our lives trying to build a stable and worship the stable and never really seek out the life within the stable; keeps us at a safe distance.  Or we could spend our lives in fear and insecure as Herod did in last weeks gospel.  That Herod within us can’t handle the power and greatness of the Christ and so does what he needs to do to squash the child, leaving us empty and constantly searching.  But there is also today’s feast.  Isaiah tells us today that this God doesn’t come shouting and screaming, but is rather gentle and humble, not overbearing but rather seeks forgiveness and unending mercy, reminding us always of who we really are, the sons and daughters of God.  How easy it is to quiet that voice, ignore it, listen rather to the loud, booming voices outside ourselves and within telling us that we cannot be sons and daughters of God, reminding us of our unworthiness, telling us that we are sin rather than grace.  Yet, that gentle voice tries to raise up and remind us of our true identity, a truly good reason to gather here each week, that we are sons and daughters of God.

An outward sign pointing to the inward reality of who we really are.  It’s the grace of not only this sacrament of baptism but this Eucharist as well, pointing us to who we really are.  Over these weeks of Ordinary Time, and maybe over the course of our entire lives, we will spend time not only trying to accept it and believe that about ourselves, but ultimately, as Jesus will teach over these weeks, to live it.  We pray today that we may accept that gift of ourselves, our true identity, revealed today in the Christ’s baptism, for it is true of us as well…to trust and believe and then live out of that identity, in full, in our daily lives.