Love On Trial

Acts 4: 8-12; 1John 3: 1-2; John 10: 11-18

Many of you have probably seen the video of Pope Francis from the past week or so when the young boy gets up to ask him a question and can’t get it out because he’s just sobbing.  His father had died and believed to be an atheist and he was concerned about his well-being.  It’s a lot of pressure on the young boy, not only losing his father which is traumatic enough but also worried about whether God is taking care of him.  Pope Francis calls him up and hugs him and speaks to him, showing him just a great depth of love.  First, it’s a good reminder of how we as adults influence young people by our words and actions and what it is they absorb from us.  Also, ironically, though, it’s that depth of love that has often got Pope Francis in trouble with the religious zealots.  Any zealot, religious or political does not leave much space for such love.  They often just can’t receive it.  In the end it’s not simply Pope Francis or anyone else who shows such love that is put on trial, but rather Love itself.  It’s love working in and through him that is put on trial and in doing so exposes the zealots for who they really are.

It’s no different for the early community that we hear of in today’s first reading from Acts.  They literally are on trial for the healing of this cripple.  Like most healing stories, though, including in the gospel, it’s more than just the healing that perturbs the zealots.  It’s the fact that as John tells us in the second reading today, the claim their place as children of God.  They can no longer be touched by the political and religious authorities because something has changed dramatically in their life.  The ones healed finds themselves no longer bound or defined by the temporal authorities of their time and that causes unrest.  But like Francis, their approach in life is very different than those who have closed themselves off in fear.  To regain that status as children of God it doesn’t mean that they become kids, like that little boy who simply sees the world through a black and white lens, but rather are moved to a place where the Love who had created them is now the love working through them.  That very love casts out all fear and in doing so exposes it for its shallowness and narrowness in thinking and understanding.  Not in their wildest dreams can they begin to imagine a God they can’t control of sorts.  The zealots no longer stand as the mediator but Love itself.

There is that same connection in today’s Gospel because in some ways Love is on trial in the person of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd.  He too just found himself in this long interaction and conflict because of the healing of the blind man which comes just prior to today’s reading.  That man, too, has been reclaimed as a child of God as well and begins to live into this newfound freedom.  He’s no longer bound by any of the authorities, including his own family.  His healing not only exposes the fear of the zealots but also their blindness towards love and the person of Jesus Christ.  But Jesus isn’t done with them yet.  He then proceeds into this discourse of the Good Shepherd who then calls them out for being false prophets, hired workers who care more about themselves and their own narrow beliefs.  Like that young boy with Pope Francis, they have yet to move forward in life and continue to live in a very defined world which again leaves very little space for love.  When their narrow beliefs clash up against the human person they choose their belief and the law over the well-being of the person and unable to show them love.  This is the reason why they become such a threat to the zealots, including Jesus himself.

He pushes it though in today’s gospel.  He reminds them that there are still others beyond the gate who will hear his voice and he’s called to lead.  The one thing about insiders and even zealots is that they think they possess the truth.  It’s hard to love and to seek that truth when you think you already have it and possess it.  Love, on trial, again exposes their own fear for what it is, attached to the ruler of the world.  They are unable to love with such great depth until they allow themselves to fall into this mystery of our faith.  Right after the passage we hear today we are told that they begin to divide.  They want nothing to do with Jesus or Love.  They’d rather convict love than to open themselves up to change.  Jesus will lead the children through the narrow gate where there is a sense of seeking and wandering and a desire for love.  The insiders and zealots are left behind at their own doing, and yet, are blinded to that reality.

This is common language in much of our prayers this Easter Season.  We hear over and over again of being the children of God and it’s easy to reduce that to just another nice thought.  But for John it’s the stone rejected that becomes the cornerstone, to once again be moved to the place where we stand as children of God against a hostile world and a world that seeks knowledge, truth, and certainty while leaving very little room for Love.  All these years later we continue to put Love on trial and even convict love over our own narrow beliefs that hinder us from embracing the love that created us and tries to work through us.  It’s what makes the disciples untouchable.  They see as God sees, exposing the fear and hurt for what it really is and rather than rejecting the person, they do as the Good Shepherd has taught.  They love and with that the world is transformed not by them but through them and the love freely given!

Advertisements

Belonging

Leviticus 13: 1-2; 44-46; ICor 10: 31–11: 1; Mark 1: 40-45

I was listening to a podcast this week with Brené Brown.  If you don’t know her, she in some ways rose to fame with a TED Talk she had done a few years ago on vulnerability and has since written many books.  The episode I was listening to, she happened to be speaking about “belonging”.  Belonging, according to her, demands us to be who we are, our most authentic selves even if the group expects something else from us.  She would say that the deepest pain that we can experience is a loneliness that comes with not feeling like we belong, even within our own family and community.  The paradox, as she puts it, is that feeling of loneliness actually is fed when we try to live up to the expectations of the community rather than being our authentic selves, sacrificing our truest selves for the sake of a false sense of belonging.

This sense of belonging and not belonging strikes a cord many times in Scripture, especially in the healing stories of the lepers that we hear today.  Their separation, even more so, has nothing to do with their own choosing.  The community, the law, the authorities, and certainly the fears force the leper to be separated and not belonging to the community.  They are inflicted with the rejection of the community simply because their disability is seen with the naked eye.  It’s all based on this sense of being unclean and somehow they are going to pollute the community.  Yet, here comes Jesus.  His approach seems rather radical for the community and the leaders because he sees the leper for who he really is.  He’s going to step out of the comfort of the illusion of being clean to encounter the human person in their suffering and pain and their sense of separation that feeds into that lived reality.

We’ll hear many stories like it throughout the gospel and probably scratch our heads and why this is so much of a problem for the community and leaders of the time.  What happens when the leper returns to the community?  The leper simply shows back up like nothing ever happened and reintegrates into the community.  Or so we would think.  And we think that the leper even cares about such things anymore.  The healing that takes place with the leper has implications on the community and their way of thinking and their judgment of this fellow human being.  The judgment of the community upon the leper now becomes challenged and is also revealed in the healing of this guy.  Their own shortcoming and what they have deemed important is revealed along with the healing.  They will be left with a choice as the story goes on to whether believe in Jesus or continue to surrender themselves to the law, the prescriptions, the expectations, and most especially their fear and judgment.  That’s the rub that these healings invoke within the community.  We can be grateful for the healing, but we all know that the pain runs deeper and can the person stand as they really are, owning that sense of belonging now in the face of this newfound uncertainty.

As the story unfolds and we move into the Lenten Season, we’ll see that the community will move to this false sense of belonging, giving into the fear of the political and religious figures, around the common enemy in Jesus.  There will be an unwillingness to encounter these characters in the healing stories in their own humanity because meeting people in their own suffering reveals our own sense of worth, and lack there of at times.  It reveals our own insecurities on life.  It reveals our own fears and judgments that we have towards others who may be different, even when it’s not their own choice.  It reveals, at the heart of it, just how difficult it is for us to change in the face of it and to see what’s most important for and in our lives.  Their sense of belonging, the lepers and all the rest we encounter and who have been pushed to the margins for one reason or another, has nothing to do with us.  Brown will go onto say that it’s a matter of the heart.  It’s a matter of accepting ourselves as we are, belonging to ourselves, and ultimately belonging to the Christ.

Paul tells us in today’s second reading about imitating Christ as he has and that imitation comes in the form of going out and meeting the other as they are, as a human person.  Most of what divides us is of our own making and choosing.  The implications of our own sin not only impacts us but the life of the community.  We imitate the Christ when we show compassion, when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, when we meet suffering head on in our lives and in the other.  Paul understood that when he seeks the benefit of the many and not his own.  He understood his own insecurities and judgments but wasn’t going to allow his own thinking to prevent him from imitating Christ in that way.  If anything, Paul teaches us that our own sense of belonging comes first with an acceptance of our belonging in and with Christ.

The greatest paradox, more than anything, is these healings not only reveal the far reach that God has in trying to heal one who has been separated, rejected, unloved in going “outside the camp” as we hear in Leviticus.  When we recognize that our own sense of belonging has bearing on it, the demand of the Gospel is to do the same.  It’s much easier to give into the expectations of the community and the fear associated with not fitting in, being rejected, but the fullness of life and the restoration of that life can only come when we belong in and with Christ.  The implications of our own choices should weigh on our hearts.  As a community, a country, a world, we need to see the other as we are, as human persons, who are often hurting and suffering in less obvious ways that the leper and in need of that human contact that binds us as one.  When we feel we can’t, more often than not it’s our own fears, the expectations we’ve created, the laws and prescripts that have been decided on by the group, that prevents us from taking that step as Jesus does today out into the world so that what we do here really matters.  When we find our sense of belonging in Christ, we recognize that there is only one choice in who belongs and who doesn’t and it isn’t even ours to make.  When we see each other as human persons rather than our judgment then we all belong.

The Need for Perspective

Acts 15: 1-2, 22-29; Rev 21: 10-14, 22-23; John 14 23-29

If you ask me, it’s pretty safe to say that we all see life through our own particular lens. We see what we want to see and it takes a lot to break down that vision and find new perspective. For the most part, that lens usually comes from the past. We see through our hurts, where love failed, our rejections, and fears, and so forth that we have a hard time seeing anything new being possible. In our churchy language, it’s as if we see life through the lens of original sin and not the grace of God working in our lives. Jesus tries to give that perspective to the disciples today as we too take a step back to the pre-resurrection section of John’s Gospel, the farewell of Jesus.

However, there may be no more beautiful image of finding that perspective this weekend than the reading from Revelation. The angel takes the writer in spirit to the high mountain to see the eternal Jerusalem. Even goes onto say that there isn’t even need for sun or moon to offer light, simply the glory of God, the grace of God present in his life. It’s an absolutely beautiful image he provides. He receives the bigger picture that will stand as a reminder in the darkness of his own life of something greater and more eternal.

It’s not an easy place to be, though. We’ve all been trapped in darkness, pain, and fear, unable to see beyond it. It taints everything we see and do. It taints our relationships and how we see others. It taints our politics and how we address the many issues in the city, the country, and the world. For good or for ill, and more often than not, ill, it makes us stuck, lacking the perspective we need to move forward. As Revelation points out, it’s only the grace of God that somehow break through, but it often takes something that shakes us at our very core before we move to that place, before we can see with new eyes. It’s not even that the world around us changes, but we do and we see from a different place.

As I said, Jesus tries to provide that perspective with the disciples as we take a step back in the Gospel today. The weight of the world is falling in on them by this point of the story. It’s the Last Supper in John’s Gospel. He tells them not to worry or be afraid. Yeah, easy for him to say and certainly easier said than done. We know what darkness, pain, and loss does to us. It clouds our vision for weeks and months. The same will be true for the disciples. They will see the sin of the Cross and only it’s sin. No matter how much Jesus tries to prepare them for what is to come, when it finally happens, it will make no difference in the immediate moments. All they will see is death and despair. All they will see is fear and hurt, loss. We know that because it’s us as well. It’s not until the grace of God lifts us up and allows the clouded vision to crack before we can begin to gain new perspective into our lives and see the Cross as something more, the darkness of our lives as something more.

As I’ve said throughout this season it isn’t until we get to Acts of the Apostles until we see the fruit of the Spirit in their lives and the grace of God moving them forward. But today, they too find themselves in a sticky situation as they gather for the first council, The Council of Jerusalem. Now for us living in 2016 it seems rather nonsensical to be having conflict over circumcision. I’m mean, who cares. But if we replace that with Baptism, we can see the significance of the gathering. But they too needed a new perspective on how to handle the matter. Does circumcision have any bearing on the grace of God working in your life? Well, not really. God somehow isn’t going to love them more or offer them more because of circumcision. However, that was a significant part of who they were as people. It meant something. So the community gathers and learns to trust this inner voice that we now encounter, the voice of the Spirit that is going to give them that perspective. Their decision carries with it the past but no longer has to be clouded by their past as people. They can see it for what it is and see that there is something bigger driving their lives, the grace of God at work.

More often than not we need perspective. That’s not others opinions. Quite frankly, that just looking at our own sin, darkness, fears, whatever the case may be, through someone else’s tainted lens. We find ourselves stuck as a people and even as communities as well, unable to move forward because the past so often haunts us and choices are made through the past hurts. As this Easter season begins to wind down, we too are invited to take a step back in our own lives, seeking that clearer perspective, to our lives, the struggles we may be facing as people, community, and certainly world. The spirit is willing to take us on that journey to catch a glimpse of the eternal Jerusalem, the Kingdom unfolding in our midsts but it does take a great deal of humility on our part, that, you know what, maybe the way i view things isn’t the best and maybe is tainted by my own darkness, which loves to disguise itself as the light. We already have what we need and what we desire. If we allow the eyes of our hearts to open wide, not through the lens of original sin, but the grace of God working through and within, we will find a whole new world, an eternal world that will always be.

The Beginning and the End

The Passion According to John

It’s a rather unusual day. Yes it is Good Friday but maybe somewhat providential, if you follow the Church calendar March 25th is actually the day that we normally celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation. It rarely happens that the two coincide and won’t happen again for decades, but here we are today. Of course, that feast gets pushed back until after Easter but there are striking similarities as we mark Good Friday. It’s the day that the beginning and the end, the first and the last, the alpha and the omega, converge into this one event. But there is more. The one that remains consistent through the story is Mary. The angel Gabriel appears and announces the news of the Christ, tells her not to fear, behold the handmaid of the Lord, may it be done to me according to your word. All of that, along with the basic human reactions with fear, that of doubt and questioning what this message is all about.

Then there’s today, Good Friday, and we meet Mary at the foot of the cross. What the heck was that message from Gabriel all about? Is this really what God had planned for His Son? Probably much of what Mary had experienced at the beginning she now encounters at the end, questioning God’s plan and wondering what all of this can mean. It’s easy to say that she knew. She was with him through it all and the disciples were there to follow and heard the stories and the predictions. But, in our deepest grief and loss, none of that seems to matter. All we know is pain and rejection in that moment.

But then there’s also Jesus. How the heck did he get to this point? He too questions from the Garden to the Cross what all of this means and whether it’s necessary in this way. We all know that he didn’t do anything wrong. Even Pilate claims him not to be a criminal. Yet, there he hangs, before his mother, watching in disbelief of the horrific way he is to die. But he seems to have backed everyone into a corner. No one wants to take responsibility. No one wants blood on their hands because they know there’d be an all out revolt among the people. John tells us that Jesus simply is here to testify to the truth. And yet, for those in authority in these institutions, Pilate and the political authority and the Chief Priests and Pharisees want to bear no responsibility for what is to unfold. He becomes a victim of their own game and they manage to turn the people against him. Death is looming. Grief is stricken. The end is beginning for this man, Jesus.

There are many theories as to why this all happens in this way. We’ve heard them all and have come to believe many of them. Sure, there is dying for our sins and setting us free from sin and death. That is all true and part of the truth. But like Pilate and the Pharisees, we also like to end it there, bearing no responsibility for following him all the way, only to find ourselves falling short when we get to the cross. For Mary and the disciples, the message that has been consistent all along has been to follow him. That’s it! And yet, when we become overwhelmed by the darkness of our lives, our inclination is to be like the disciples at this point. We fall back to what we know and we seek to please, going along with the crowd yelling, crucify him! All seems lost. Darkness hangs in the balance now. Mary, may it be done to me, now stands by idly, watching her son die. It can’t be easy. His pain is her pain and her pain is his. Every parent knows what that is like as you watch your sons and daughters suffer in different ways. Is it any wonder we turn away and try, and that’s all we can do, is try to return to a normal life. But normal life is no longer.

It is the beginning and the end. Despite the pain and hardship, Mary and Jesus remain faithful to that command of turning it over to the Father. May it be done to me. And maybe that’s the point. None of us would ever choose to do it ourselves, but rather, only by the grace of God I shall go, not coming up short, but all the way to the cross. It’s so hard to see beyond that threshold that it creates for us. We become victims of our own hurt and suffering that when we’re in that moment, we lose sight of the light and the life that is promised us. Then more than ever is faith necessary and to reconnect to our larger story, the story of the Passover, the story of the great Paschal Mystery. As generations pass it’s easy to disconnect from the lived reality, yet, it is the only way to persevere as we stand at the foot of the cross with Mary, reminded, in faith, of the life to come.

There is something different about this day. It is the beginning and the end, as well as the beginning of the end as we face yet another threshold before us. We imagine ourselves at the foot of the cross with Mary, silently uttering her prayer and the prayer of Jesus, may it be done to me according to your will, not my will but your will be done. In a world plagued by injustice and abuse of power, it truly is only the truth that will set us free, even in the face of such suffering. God suffers with us this day and weaps with us as we continue to try to back God into a corner to do something, anything, so that like Pilate and the Chief Priests, we can stand idly by watching the suffering of our world, not wanting blood on our hands. Yet, we already do when love and mercy escapes us. It is the challenge of Good Friday and an even greater challenge when the beginning and the end converge on this day. All we can do is stand with Mary and pray with Mary that God’s will be done and that my life too may testify to this truth, that, in the end, love and mercy will always endure.

Love Never Fails

Jer 1: 4-5, 17-19; I Cor 12: 31–13:13; Luke 4: 21-30

Love never fails. It’s hard to ignore these words from St. Paul this weekend in one of his most poetic writings to the people of Corinth. If you’ve been to a wedding, you’ve probably heard it used as couples make that commitment. But it wasn’t written for weddings, unless we’re speaking about Paul’s only desire for union with God. The reading is a self-examination of his own life and where and when he falls short of being that love. Paul understands and believes, at the very core of his being, and the core of everyone, is love, and that never fails. Yet, we know from our own lives that seeking love is never easy and comes with great cost and great commitment. As much as it never fails it’s also not so simple to understand.

Jeremiah is one such person that struggles with it. Jeremiah, along with us at times, wants love on his own terms. As a matter of fact, he wants nothing to do with Love because he’s already aware of what’s being asked. He must wrestle with the idea and the reality of love because he also knows, once it’s been found, his life is changed forever. He can never go back because nothing is ever going to fill that longing that love does. It’s only in the moment of surrender that he finally begins to become love. He thinks he’s too young. He doesn’t think he has what it takes to be the person he’s being called to be. All he can see is the pain and the rejection it’s going to afford him. He wants love on his terms, but then it’s not love. It’s the examination that Paul addresses, a gong and clashing cymbal, all talk without love. Jeremiah was going to have to surrender to Love in order to become and be love and he does. His life is changed forever. Jeremiah becomes what he had been called to be, one of the great prophets we celebrate in the Old Testament. He becomes the voice, despite the rejection and the cost, of how Israel needed to change it’s ways. They had become comfortable with fear. They had become comfortable and complacent with war and hate. But as Paul reminds us, that all passes. It is only love that never fails and that remains eternal, otherwise it’s not love.

Jesus, of course, is Love. And as we begin this weekend in the gospel all seems fine. They love what they have to hear. But they only hear what they want to hear. They only see what they want to see. As Paul challenges himself and us, we then remain shallow, surface people, without much depth to go with it. All of that will be brought to nothing, he says. But then, without even being aware of what was happening, Jesus turns the tables on the people gathered in the synagogue. In some bizarre twist, Love has no borders and seems, in the stories Jesus says, to go beyond and even come with greater awareness beyond Israel. Of course, the chosen people are infuriated with him and want to throw him off a cliff! It becomes the downward journey in the life of Jesus who will pay the ultimate price for Love. As we move towards Lent, the crowds grow more restless when it becomes the reality that it’s not love that brings them together, but rather hatred and fear. Is it not the same today? Why is it that we humans are more attracted to the dark, to hatred and fear? We see that in our culture and certainly in our politics. Maybe they point us to the reason today. Maybe we too are aware, like Jeremiah, of just what it costs to choose the greater way, the more excellent way, as Paul states. We can’t face the demand that it places before us. But like Jeremiah, once we find it within, nothing else will satisfy, nothing else will fulfill the longing from within. All we can do is surrender to it and our lives are changed for ever.

Paul provides this great poetry to us today and warrants a look on our part to see where we have come up short. We all have and all we can do is become more aware of it, and like Jeremiah, continue to surrender to Love. It does come with great cost but the cost of not surrendering to it is even greater, a life less lived and a world that never benefits from it. It’s not just about doing things. Paul is even aware of that in his own life. Anyone can do good, know much, have faith, but without love, he says, I am nothing. Nothing. It is only love that never fails. The demand of love is not just about doing and having the right words, it’s also facing the cost of the commitment to love, and the more I surrender to it, nothing else matters, because the more I become love and I become the man God has created me to be, to become love and most importantly, to be love. Love never fails.

Being Love to the World

Mark 16: 1-7

And they went away seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. That’s how Mark concludes the Resurrection narrative that we hear today at the conclusion of the gospel. It’s seems rather odd, especially coming from those who have been most dedicated to him on this journey, the women, who are prepared to anoint his body and visit his tomb, leave in fear and trembling. In the end, they were no different than the disciples, seemingly faithful only “from a distance” as the disciples were throughout, and even the woman viewed the death from a safe place. In the end, their lives were about playing it safe rather than with and in a radical faith. For Mark, there doesn’t seem to be any “happily ever after” moment, but isn’t that how our lives often are? Mark now gives his listeners and readers the choice as to how they will live their lives forward.

But it’s Easter and none of that makes any sense. They were about to do what was expected of them by visiting the tomb and anointing his body. Their lives were about doing what was expected of them, until they encounter the unexpected and they leave bewildered, afraid, and seized with trembling. They all learned quite well what their fellow humans are capable of by arresting and crucifying an innocent man named Jesus. Like us so often, they were trapped by that lens in life, victims of what was expected and unaware of the unexpected happening within and around them. They knew what their fellow human beings were capable of and maybe missed the point of the Mystery in its fullness before their very eyes in Jesus, failing like the disciples, to see he was more than what can be seen with the eyes; he was more than human but also divine. The unexpected happened in an unexpected place and at an unexpected time, and their lives are about to change forever, no longer living from a distance, but encountering life in love.

But not yet. None of us knows what the women do after this. We can assume that they do eventually do as commanded, once a burning begins within them, because we know and will hear throughout this season how that early community began to grow in Acts of the Apostles. But their work was not done as it wasn’t for his disciples. Once again Peter is singled out in this gospel, like us, needs even a little extra work, but all of them will be called to go back to where it began in Mark’s Gospel and begin to not only view life from a different place but also to live it from a different place, a place from within.

On Holy Thursday we heard of the story of the Passover of the Lord and our sharing in that story and the pain that often accompanies this journey of conversion and discipleship. On the journey we must go to the place where we felt rejected. We must go to the place where we felt abandoned and be healed of our own passion. Good Friday challenged us to pass through that narrow path of the Cross in order to recognize that deeper love and not live our lives from the place of hate and judgment. Easter, though, pushes us through and offers the hope we so often need to be healed of all that holds us back, from playing it safely from a distance, to let go of our own hurt past and history, knowing we must go through it in order that we may live Easter not only at the end of our lives, in the fullness of God’s love, but to live in and with the desire that God has for us at this very moment, to be God’s love in the world, only through an embracing of the fullness of the Mystery and it’s ever-deeper reality.

Now we may not be there yet and certainly we aren’t in its fullness. We may be like the women in the Gospel or the disciples that we encountered these past days. We may still be living in fear, and for them at this moment, the haunting fear of the rejection they will face in believing that there is something more to life in Christ. We may still be holding onto parts of our past, trying to control and missing the unexpected working in our lives. Heck, we may find ourselves square in the tomb, wondering, lost in my own victimhood, trying to do it all by myself, knowing deep in my heart and the place of emptiness within me, that that stone can only be moved by God, in order that I may come out a changed person, living in and through love, being love to the world. That stone can only be moved by a God who works in the most unexpected places of our lives in order to gift us to be God’s love to the world.

As we celebrate the Resurrection of the Crucified Christ, we pray for an awareness that God meets us wherever we may be on this journey and accepts us at that point, knowing the demands and pressures of our society to live one way when God calls us to another. In a world that so often calls us to conform, to play it safe from a distance, on this great feast of Easter, when the Crucified One is raised from the dead, God calls us to be and to live in the unexpected and that our eyes and minds and hearts are opened to be transformed into God’s great love in the world! Happy Easter!

An Authentic Yes

Ezekiel 18: 25-28; Philippians 2: 1-11; Matthew 21: 28-32

As we swing into this section of Matthew’s Gospel we arrive at a scene change. We have now entered Jerusalem and tension begins to mount during Jesus’ final days before his death. The battle lines have already been drawn between Jesus and, well, just about every leader there is, both political and religious. Today we hear the first of five different controversies that are raised and only add to the tension between the camps. The first controversy is where John the Baptist receives the authority to say what he does, and like only Jesus can do, rather than answering the question, tells the unusual and yet obvious story in today’s Gospel.

Needless to say, since it is the first of the controversies, it’s important to remember that it is being told to the opposing “camp” of pharisees, chief priests, and elders of the people and so there is going to be something that trips them up and knock them out of the routine of their lives. It’s also important to know that the second son, the one who answers yes but doesn’t really mean it is the one that culturally would be the one that is accepted. It was best not to dishonor his father like that and so despite knowing that he has no intention on doing what the father has asked, says so anyway; it’s an immediate and expected response.

That’s the hang-up with the passage and the confrontation with the chief priests and elders of the people with Jesus. Most of what they hold others to are simply learned responses. We all have them. From the time we are little kids, we learn ways to protect ourselves from being hurt, from being rejected, from thinking we’re going to hurt others’ feelings, and so this defense of ours keeps us from living in and out of faith; rather we live in fear.

The chief priests, elders of the people, and the pharisees all had these learned responses. Even if they didn’t believe it or understand it, they had everything figured out and all the answers, including a predetermined understanding of God. Everything was viewed through that lens. And so when they now confront Jesus about John the Baptist, it’s a lot easier to understand because they didn’t want to hear what he had to say! They didn’t like it! It challenged them and their thinking. It wasn’t the learned responses that they were used to and what they feel they needed to protect, but rather he spoke and acted out of the divine indwelling. Of course, it ended up costing him his life as well.

We see this all too often in our politics, we see it often in the leadership of our Church, and I thin even was evident in the whole scandal that has hit the NFL the past weeks. All too often, our learned responses are what we think people want to hear or what we want them to hear in order to protect ourselves or the institution. If I speak the truth, I won’t get elected. If I speak the truth, the Church rejects. If I speak the truth, we lose income on football. If we have to work that hard to protect an institution or a symbol, it’s probably living not out of faith and ongoing conversion, but rather out of fear. Yet, we have learned how to get what we want, but as Paul tells us, “humbly regard others as more important than yourselves.”

For the Israelites whom Ezekiel speaks, it’s the blame game. Their learned response, and even ours at times, is to blame everyone else for our problems. It’s never because of the choices we make, or when our yes really doesn’t mean yes. They blame God; they blame the Egyptians; they blame, blame, blame everyone else, and yet, Ezekiel tells them today, the learned responses of life and of childhood must die in order to live. It really is a slap in the face when Jesus raises up the tax collectors and prostitutes but it is them who sought a change of mind and heart. It is them that saw the learned responses of life no longer worked and only led them further into sin and away from life and faith. It is only so long before it catches up with us, our emptiness from living this way, when we seek change in our lives.

My friends, it’s not easy. It takes a great deal of courage to let go of those learned responses and our ego and the fear of somehow being rejected; when in reality, we only end up rejecting ourselves in the process. We choose all too often fear over faith. We pray today for the courage to wake up each day and make our yes mean yes no longer to live out of fear but rather faith. It is a lifelong commitment to seeking conversion in our lives. It is a lifelong commitment to saying yes to faith over fear. It is a lifelong commitment to an authentic way of life.