The Promise Realized

Micah 5: 1-4; Hebrews 10: 5-10; Luke 1: 39-45

I’ve been reading this book, God is Young, which is basically an interview that Pope Francis had done with an Italian journalist as a preliminary conversation before the Synod held in October on young people. The basic premise surrounds the question, “How do we move forward?” It seems that we’re rather stuck, not only in the Church world, but certainly as a country and even city, where it seems that we just can’t seem to move beyond this point of separateness. The gist of what Francis tells the journalist is that we have to connect the two generations that often get tossed aside in our world; obviously young people as to whom the synod was dealing with as well as the elderly. The young tend to get disregarded as being naïve and the elderly we don’t have time for or don’t want to deal with the reality of aging. He says, the answer forward is in those two. The young people are the dreamers, the visionaries, the prophetic voices where as the elderly have the lived experience and the wisdom to temper the energy but combined a way forward evolves and unfolds. He pretty much says anyone in between the two have a tendency to become too attached to the systems, whether in terms or religion, politics, or economically, that they don’t want to change and can’t see the necessity and so they try to silence the two that have the necessary vision.

It is, on some level, what unfolds in this dramatic scene in today’s gospel from Luke in the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth. It is the reconciling of the past and future, in the one that is barren with the one who is full of life, the old and the new. Neither has any idea what the other has been through following the announcement of the birth of their children until they have this encounter with one another. In that very moment, two worlds collide with one another and a semblance of peace comes to their hearts, confirming that God has fulfilled the promise of long ago through their very lives. Here are two women at opposite ends of their lives and yet facing similar situations. Mary, in her teens, now faces with trepidation the shaming of a society, casting her aside for having this child under such circumstances and Elizabeth who has lived with the same reality in remaining childless her entire life and now beyond child-bearing age. In this moment, the Christ reconciles these two worlds and a vision unfolds, a vision that Luke has already began to spell out in the telling of these miraculous stories.

As the promise is fulfilled, Mary will go on and proclaim a vision for who this child is to be and a radical image of a God who has delivered the two of them. Mary’s Magnificat will turn the patriarchal God of the past on its head and a fresher and newer understanding of God who becomes incarnate as we will celebrate on Christmas. Luke already begins to point us in that very direction with these two women as the prophetic voices announcing this God of vision. The one would be seen as the prophetic voice, Zechariah, the head of the house, the man, is silenced in the announcement of their pregnancy and the voice of the women are raised in their consistent faith and trust in God, not separated from their lived experience of shame and being voiceless. Before the Christ is born, Luke already begins to point us to a new reality of God of giving voice to the ones who had been cast aside announcing the fulfillment of the promise made from the beginning of time.

You would think that Israel would have greater faith and trust in such a God, certainly symbolized through these two women, knowing their own heritage of a God who has seen the people through exile. Here two woman, one full of life and the other barren, learn to trust not only through their experience, but the experience of their ancestors of past that regardless of their own circumstances, God will see them through, even if not experienced first-hand. They obviously knew that Moses never did, and yet the dream, the promise, the prophetic voice continued to break through reconciling past with a present all in the name of Christ, God’s will.  Israel, to this day, stands as a microcosm of a separated world. The place of life and birth, as Micah proclaims, in Bethlehem, still remains separated from the barren city of Jerusalem by a wall. When we separate the two rather than reconciling we become what we are, a stuck people, clinging to dysfunction rather than trusting a new vision and hope for the human race, for the Church, our country and world.

As we gather for this Fourth Week or day of Advent, we gather mindful that these two women are more than just a story; they are each of us. God has planted within all of us a vision, a dream, a prophetic voice that can get out of control if not tempered by the voice of wisdom gently moving us along, teaching us to trust and let go. As much as it needs to happen in our Church and world in bringing together the ones without a voice, it’s a challenge to each of us individually as well. Their story remains are story as well. Israel, despite it’s own inability to get out of its own way, raises us these two radical women today while silencing the powerful ones of the world, leading us to a place of trust, that the promise given from the beginning of time continues to unfold and be fulfilled in our very lives. Sure we often prefer begin stuck in what we know, but Mary and Elizabeth remind us just how unsatisfying life is lived in that way. The more we keep ourselves open to the unknown, to mystery, to a God of great surprises, that same God will continue to give birth to us through the very same Spirit that has always stood as the great reconciler of dreams and wisdom. The promise given from the beginning is our promise, to have faith and trust and God will see us through. We may not know what it all looks like, but that’s why these two are about trust and the courage to say yes, not just once, but over the course of their lives, gradually opened to the birth of a new God, a new reality, rooted in Mystery.

Wholly Reconciled

Genesis 2: 18-24; Mark 10: 2-16

Here’s the secret.  It is about divorce and it isn’t, or at least not the way we’ve come to expect.  Regardless, though, it’s a tough message today, especially in a time where if statistics are true, nearly 50% of all marriages end in divorce.  It’s a sad reality that we live with and through.  But if you look closely, the Pharisees and Jesus seem to be talking past one another and speaking of different issues, at least on the surface.  Maybe Jesus is also aware that divorce, like some many other things are merely symptoms of deeper problems that we miss or fail to see.  Yet, Jesus gives clues by his very response to the Pharisees to their question that they pose in order to trip him up.  In the end, Jesus, yet again, exposes them for who they are and the part of themselves that they consistently fail to see.

You see, there are also hints in the readings themselves.  If it was about the Mosaic law in which they question Jesus, then we would have had that as our first reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, but we don’t.  Mark takes us back to the Book of Genesis and so does the Church in the formation of the cycle of readings.  So it’s about divorce, and yet it’s not.  When Jesus responds he tells the Pharisees that the law is there because of the hardness of their hearts.  He doesn’t cast out the law or demonize it in anyway, but rather exposes it for what it lacks, a heart, just like the Pharisees.  He proceeds to then return us to the basics, to the Book of Genesis, male and female God created them, in God’s image and likeness.  A hardened heart and a creation account sets us up for totally missing the point on where the real divorce and separation lies.

You see, male and female God created me.  Male and female God created each of you.  We’ve already been created whole and yet over our lives become fragmented and separated.  There has certainly been enough done on human development that tells us that men have feminine souls and women have masculine souls.  Yet, no matter how much we are told that, our binary way of thinking and acting in this worlds moves us towards separation but it also moves us towards the lie that first leads man to fall in the creation accounts.  The lie is that someone or something out there is going to complete me, is going to make me whole, and so I go searching everywhere else but the interior journey.  It’s what continues to cause war, division, and certainly separation and divorce in all aspects of our lives.  We have certainly seen that play out in the political scene the past few weeks, that when we become separated and divorced from ourselves, it becomes solely about power and nothing else.  It’s why we continue to have immature leaders in the Church and immature leaders in civil government because we are terrible with dealing with how we ourselves have become separated.  It’s all indicative to just how separated and divorced we are, most typically between head and heart.

But that’s the issue with Jesus and the Pharisees and even the disciples in today’s gospel.  It’s why the second part of the gospel is so important when the disciples try to keep the children from coming to him.  It’s always the most vulnerable that are most impacted.  Again, we have seen that play out in our politics.  We try to destroy the most vulnerable in order to satisfy our own sense of power.  It has shown us just how little interior work is done by some of our leaders where they totally disregard the other.  Just like the Pharisees, it points to their own separateness and divorce.  From the very beginning, God made us whole.  The rest of our lives is spent trying to bring the pieces back together and it’s hard work.  Yet, if we don’t learn to reconcile our own masculine and feminine, male and female God created them, we will continue to fall prey to war, violence, division, and this sense of being separate.  When we fail to reconcile all of it within ourselves, we can never move to a place of equality, despite the way in which we were created wholly by God.  Jesus moves to level the playing field and the men that felt they dominated and held the power wanted nothing of it.  They couldn’t see, just as we can’t, our own blindness.

The more we separate from ourselves, from each other, from God’s creation, we can pretty much guarantee that we have separated ourselves from God.  When we do that, we don’t even open ourselves to experiencing God in a fuller way.  God becomes simply about power and justice yet missing mercy and forgiveness.  God becomes about anger and vengeance yet missing loving and compassion.  When we can’t bring them together within ourselves, that we can be both just and merciful and all the rest, then we fail to see that about God as well.  It’s because of the hardness of your hearts and when the heart is hardened, the vulnerable become the target.  Ironically, and paradoxically, that’s precisely where we will find God on our journey.  It’s about divorce and yet it’s not, but really about learning to reconcile our own complexity rather than blaming.

Divorce is a tough subject but it is not limited to those who have literally experienced divorce in their lives.  It’s a reality that plagues all of us from the first time we began separating and becoming fragmented in our lives.  The first time when we learned as children that we had no value for one reason or another, thinking that life was about power and strength but never coupled with mercy and love.  It’s the divorce that plagues all of our hearts and has spilled over on the world stage of politics and Church life.  We have seen it with our eyes.  Yet, people praise it and gather with their tribes.  All it does is show how bankrupt it all is and how little we do to teach people what really matters.  It’s easy to get hung up on divorce and all the rest, but when we’re honest with ourselves, it impacts all of our lives.  Like the gospel reminds us, it is only Christ that pulls it back together, the complexity of our lives.  We’ve seen enough divorce in so many different capacities.  It’s time to reconcile beginning first with myself and yourself.  It’s because of the hardness of our hearts.  It’s time to create the space in our own hearts and lives to begin to reconcile these realities of our lives that have become so splintered and so much about power, leading to deeper divorce and separation.  It’s time for reconciliation.

Inside Out

Wisdom 2: 12, 17-20; James 3: 16–4: 3; Mark 9: 30-37

One of the themes of Mark’s Gospel is that of “movement”.  The disciples and Jesus are always on the go as the gospel proceeds, at least until the passion when it will come to a screeching halt.  Mark, though, would not be the one to read if you want a geography lesson on this part of the world because they’re all over the place!  But there’s another more profound movement that takes place in Mark’s Gospel and we hear it today, “once they were inside the house”.  There’s a movement from outside to inside with this Gospel and when we hear that they were inside the house our ears should perk up because it usually indicates something important is about to be taught.  It’s not just about being inside the house.  It’s a symbolic move that shifts them to their own interior life, within their hearts, that this message needs to penetrate.  It’s here where what really needs to happen in moving to a changed heart for the disciples and us and where their own interior struggle is revealed.

The crazy thing of the story is that Jesus isn’t even dead yet and they’re already fighting about who’s the greatest, who’s the most important, who has the power, and all the rest.  You could just imagine them bickering about all of it as if they were waiting for that moment.  Yet, there’s Jesus just going along with them until they enter the recesses of their own hearts where the shallowness of the argument begins to reveal itself.  He goes to the extent of bring a child into the center to teach them what this life as a disciple is all about because the child would have no place in society and certainly no standing.  Such as it is with the disciples.  No bickering of greatest and power and who’s the best but rather of service and humility.  When we remain on that level of conflict there is a lack of humility and conflict continues.

It’s what James tells us in today’s second reading.  He goes onto say that we shouldn’t even have to ask ourselves why war, conflict, division, and this clamoring for power exists because even to this day we refuse to do our interior work, to get our own house in order.  All these writers would remind us even to this day that life is about being lived from the inside out; that if we get our own house in order, our own interior life, then there is less need for jealousy and selfish ambition as he tells us today.  As a matter of fact, he’d go onto say that if we have the need to boast about how wise we are, how great we are, how smart we are, and all the rest then it does quite the opposite.  It goes onto show just how empty we can be in our own interior life and how empty the house really is.  Yet, it’s our culture in the Church and certainly in our nation, that we believe that all the externals are in place, we dress the part and play the part, then all is fine, despite the fact that more often than not we’re living a lie.  The more we neglect our own house, our own interior, the more we tend to act upon our jealousies and selfish ambitions.  Quite frankly, it’s easier to live the blame game and blame everyone else for our problems.  Yet, James reminds us they are still there, lurking below the surface in our own homes, our own interior lives.

Solomon, the writer of Wisdom would tell us the same.  He speaks of that wickedness that tends to dominate our interior when we neglect it.  He portrays for us in many ways the image of the true Israelite.  Yet, the wicked ones, who claim power and wisdom, are doing everything to undo him and to expose him as a fraud, not realizing that they are the frauds in it all.  They don’t quite know what to do with themselves because once Solomon does his own work and gets his own house in order, they no longer have control or power over him.  It’s what pushes them to try to undo him and prove him as a fraud.  Yet, Solomon has nothing to prove.  Solomon recognizes his own wickedness and has learned to reconcile it within himself.  War, conflict, division, and all the rest continues to plague us on all levels because we refuse to get our own house in order.  It’s easier to blame and to allow our own “wickedness” to come out towards others, all along emptying of us of the very fullness of life that we desire within our own interior life.  We begin to separate ourselves from our own humanity and cast our sin upon the other.

We need to get our own house in order.  The invitation of Jesus this evening is the invitation to each of us, to come inside the house.  Sure, we often fear that place within ourselves, but it’s the only path towards healing and reconciliation and a change of heart.  The path of discipleship is not only of service but of humility and that humility is revealed in the interior wisdom when we begin the oft painful process of getting our house in order.

We pray for the grace this day to enter the house over and over again, to our own interior lives and confront our own wickedness that torments us as it did the ideal Israelite and will certainly torment the disciples as they face Jerusalem.  The appearance of humility and wisdom is just not enough.  It continues to reveal how bankrupt our culture can become and that culture in turn influences our politics and our Church.  We become what we hate and settle for lies over the stream of wisdom that flows within the house, our very hearts.  We all desire that fullness of life but it will never come by focusing solely on the exterior world of power, success, wealth, and all the rest.  They will only leave us more anxious and empty.  The fullness of life we desire lies within, when we can live our lives from the inside out.

Illusionary Violence

Shortly after the shooting at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, I received an email asking if we, as a parish, are prepared if something like this were ever to happen.  Now first, I’m not sure anything can prepare you for something like this, other than possibly a sniper attack in a war zone or consistent trauma in your life; but secondly, I’m not convinced I want to be prepared for something like that.  I can certainly understand, from a logical and rational point of view, but it also feels, as someone who is supposed to trust deeply in this higher being we call God, that it’s giving into fear, which is antithetical to the consistent message of Jesus in the gospel proclaimed every Sunday not to fear.

Safety and Security may be the two greatest illusions we hold onto and quickly buy into when we react to horrific acts like this.  Our immediate response is more guns or at times, build walls, anything that’s going to give us the false sense of security that we desire to make us feel safe.  We pad ourselves in whatever way possible, building a fortress in order to appeal to what our eyes can see, “I’m safe now”, but deep down, in the unseen, the heart of the matter continues to exist.  It never quite strikes at the deepest fear we cling to, which is death, but in those moments our automatic response is to consume more of what we know rather than sit with the unknown reality that all who are hurting are left with in their lives.  The consistent underlying message when giving into fear is that I will do everything possible to avoid what really could have been me.  It very well could have been me or anyone else sitting in that church on Sunday or a movie theater or a classroom or at a concert or whatever the next setting will be, knowing full well that there, unfortunately, will be another, and each time it is me.

More often than I’d like, including less than a month ago, I have written on this blog the continuous struggle with violence that we witness and perpetrate in our lives.  Violence goes beyond the horrific acts of gun violence as well as other means that we have all too often witnessed in this country, a consistent reminder that there’s a problem.  More often than not, though, we’ve bought into the culture of violence, through our words and actions.  These men, and yes, it is consistently men as well, are a mere microcosm of the deeper issue that continues to spread throughout the country.  We consume it daily through news outlets and social media and many times spread it ourselves.  We consume it in our conversations, in our gossip, in our lack of respect for human life and all creation.  The simple reaction to our problems is to blame and invoke violence against the other, feeding into the death of the soul of a nation, bankrupted of any moral standing, putting guns, walls, drugs, things, before the very dignity of the very person that is most impacted.

Now I’m not one to necessarily always buy into the understanding that we are all divided.  Unfortunately, division sells and sells big.  Fear is such a deeply rooted reality in our hearts and souls that we appear attracted to it and drawn into it consistently, quickly buying into any fix as to take away the eternal pain of separation while building up a false narrative of the kingdom.  Our problem, as consumers, is that over time we’re lulled into believing it all, even if we know deep down that things aren’t right.  In our own infatuation of the illusion of safety and security we will find a way to cling to anything that is known and certain, often to avoid the fear that only continues to grow exponentially, leaving us in a frenzy.  It happens in us as individuals but collectively as a country as well, mindful that that illusion was shattered in this country after the events of 9/11.  Since then, violence has spiraled, divisions have been set in place, even if they are illusions, extremes have positioned themselves, all feeding into this fear while the rest of the world watches and waits, looking from a place a part from us, understanding our hurt and pain in a way we know not and seem to refuse to look at and consistently find ways to avoid.  We have grown a part from ourselves and each other, now leaving us with more violence than our hearts are often able to bear.

I honestly cannot imagine what it was like in that church on Sunday and maybe I don’t want to either.  My guess is it started like any other Sunday, people catching up with one another, asking about family and friends who may be sick, the small chit-chat that happens on a typical Sunday morning.  There were no thoughts of feeling unsafe, no thoughts of what separates and divides people.  They were a community that gathered under a common purpose and with God at the forefront.  In an instant, lives were changed forever and many eternally.  It wasn’t long after that the predicted responses would begin and hurting lives would once again be turned into politics and more violence, separating and dividing.  We hear about guns don’t kill people, good people need guns, if the government makes any changes they’ll take away all our guns, as we know best, it’s all or nothing, benefiting corporations, feeding a consumer culture rooted in fear, safety and security.  We react and lives are left shattered in the process.

I have no answer even though it seems like I write about this so regularly anymore.  I’m not sure there really are answers when we don’t even know the right questions to ask.  Conversations are directed from backstage, inciting fear, and without even thinking, we give into it so quickly, again, believing what we are told and so often afraid to go to the depths of our own being to evaluate what’s most important to us.  We will never have the safety and security that we think or believe we should have.  It’s a mere illusion and an illusion that is fed by a consumer culture.  More than anything, we need to learn to have a patient trust in the slow workings of God in our lives. 

There is so much healing that needs to happen in our lives, not just the hundreds whose lives have been shattered by traumatic violence that goes beyond the city, but each of us who find blaming the other individual or group for our problems, throwing tantrums in trying to get our way.  Not only do we need healing but we need to grow up and accept responsibility for ourselves and each other.  We do this not by continuously buying into these illusions that feed our own fears, but in learning to embrace the paradox and mystery of life and death.  Our lives are not comprised of only half the mystery, the half we like while living in fear of the other.  Rather, with each passing breath in every given moment a gift is being given to live, but at the same time to let go and trust in the unseen power of God.  For all who have faced such trauma and are reeling in the grief of loss while they still cling to life, it’s all they have, and quite frankly, it’s all any of us really have.

A Holistic Healing

Leviticus 13: 1-2, 44-46; Mark 1: 40-45

As we listen to these stories of the healing of the man with leprosy, I think it’s good to keep in the back of our mind that, when we do hear them, it’s pretty certain that there is going to be more than just a physical healing that takes place. Of course I have worked with many sick people, to the point of terminal and nearing the end of their lives, and it so often seems that the physical pain becomes secondary to what it can do on the inside. It’s the isolation, the separation from family and friends, the disconnect from the community that begins to take a toll, sometimes causing greater pain than the physical part. Not to say that many don’t suffer greatly in a physical way; there are many that do. Some of it, I dare say, is that we don’t like to face it. It’s easier to separate and isolate than it is to look suffering in its face, despite the fact that we are constantly being invited into this mystery of life and death, truly one and the same mystery.

It’s what goes on with the guy in the gospel today and his encounter with Christ. More than anything, this guy wants to be connected to the larger story, the story of community. His leprosy has kept him separate and in isolation and we see his immediate response is to want to go and tell everyone. First, of course, he’s told to follow the precept of the law and show himself to the priest. We hear that account in the first reading today from Leviticus in the message delivered from the Lord to Moses and Aaron. “He shall dwell apart” is the command that is given to those with leprosy. Do we have any idea what it does to the human person when they are disconnected from the larger story of the community? Think about it, even to this day we still try to separate and have a hard time going to visit those who are sick and dying because our own mortality is put on the line and in such great vulnerability, we are tested deep within, connecting us with suffering and death itself, and ultimately, to the larger story of who we are, the mystery of life and death, where suffering is so intricately connected. We live in a culture that avoids death and suffering at all cost. We can’t bring ourselves at times to face it.

But as we know, Jesus has a way of turning things on its head in the gospel accounts that we hear on Sunday. Yes, it is the man who suffers from leprosy that has lived isolated and disconnected, separated from community, but not by his own choice. He doesn’t choose to isolate and separate. He doesn’t choose to disconnect. It’s those who consider themselves the insiders that make the choice for him and it is them, too, that have become disconnected from the larger story, the great mystery of our human lives, the interconnectedness of life and death and suffering. They want nothing to do with the suffering. They want nothing to do where their own vulnerability is going to be put on the line. They want nothing to do with those that have been deemed unclean, less than human, separated from their deepest desire, to be one. Yet, the only way we become that one is to embrace the mystery in its entirety. They go out, as the gospel tells us today, to encounter the Lord. It’s everyone that is need of conversion and an encounter with the Lord, not simply the man suffering with leprosy.

It may just be appropriate that we hear these readings now that we stand just a few days away from the start of Lent. We focus so much on what we’re going to give up that we sometimes forget that it is a season of change and conversion, growing in holiness. So often it’s the very leprous parts about ourselves that we cut off that are in need of healing and conversion. We learn as kids how to protect ourselves and keep ourselves safe in times of darkness, but as adults, it’s stands in the way of living life in its fullness, a life of being one. As we approach the season of Lent, we can begin to ask ourselves where are those places within us that we have cut off, turn away from, can’t handle, that we don’t like, the places that have become so often our sin, that place of death within. For all we do to separate, even other people and within ourselves, God now tries to pull together and reconcile, to make whole and one. That’s where real healing and growth takes place, when we no longer have to live separate from and disconnected from the larger story of life, our lives, the great mystery. God now invites us into those places that have become separated and leprous in our lives to bring us back into wholeness and holiness as we seek the healing touch of the Lord.