Will We Ever Learn?

I forced myself to watch the grand jury report from Pennsylvania regarding abuse in the Catholic Church.  I was partially curious as to the findings but also spent many formative years in the Diocese of Scranton, which included a few familiar names to me in the report, most of which I had already known.  At times it was hard to listen, not simply as a priest but as a human being.  At times, listening to how the sacred became scandalized and in people’s lives nearly seemed impossible, a thinking that has often led to denial in the life of the Church.  Anything is possible when it comes to human beings.  I still recall the words of Cardinal Tobin at a conference I attended earlier this summer, “All of us sitting in this room are really only a phone call away from our lives being destroyed even if we had done nothing.”  If that’s not perspective on what we live with I’m not sure what is.

I suppose the other common question is, “Why?”  Sure, there’s the question as to why things happen and why was it allowed to continue.  There are certainly plenty of justifications given by leaders.  Unfortunately, I’m not in a position to answer those questions and even more unfortunately is that those who can answer them still often refuse to answer.  The question, and not only posed by others to myself but the very question that at times weighs on my own heart, is, “Why do you stay?  Why do you keep staying with an institution that has done what it has done, and worse yet, fails to take responsibility?”  All good questions, and quite frankly, not always answers, or at least good answers, especially when it feels as if you’re climbing aboard the Titanic as it finds itself already halfway submerged in frozen water.

I believe there’s always been a part of me that has desired to push for reform from the edge of the inside, as Pope Francis often refers.  It’s just a part of who I am as a person.  I can’t say anything has really surprised me, even Cardinal McCarrick, but instead saddens me more than anything and often angers me that protecting and clinging becomes more important than human life.  I believe when the deacon preached about it a few weeks ago I had commented that I’m not here to tell you how to live.  Quite frankly, I have a hard enough time keeping myself in order than telling others how to make choices and what to do with their lives.  All I can really do is help shed light on situations and then give others the freedom to make choices.  When you believe your “business” is to be the ethical or moral police of the world, well, as it was with the Pharisees, you’re going to fail and the harder you try to prevent it and cover-up, the harder the fall.

Someone had said to me that they don’t want this to happen to the Church, but that ship sailed long ago.  Honestly, the Church has brought it upon herself over the years.  It’s tried to live with the illusion of perfection, which, like it or not, will without a doubt lead to putting yourself above God, and like Adam and Eve, it will always lead to failure after failure until you learn to accept that an illusion is just that, an illusion.  It’s not real.  None of it is real.  You cannot be God or Christ nor put yourself in that position.  Just like the rest of our lives, failure can lead to despair or it can lead to change, transformation, just as our faith teaches.  The problem is we’ve become so disconnected from the heart that we believe policy and new rules and zero tolerance is going to solve all problems.  It won’t.  Sure, it has a place, but all of this, and maybe why I stay connected is, about transforming hearts and leading others to that freedom, just as Moses did, with great difficulty, with people Israel through the desert to the Promised Land.  If we just took time to put aside dogma, teaching, and all the other head stuff, and allow ourselves to be transformed from the inside out we are changed forever and so much of the rest falls into place.  Thank God that God is bigger than the Church.  Thank God.  Otherwise I’d have every reason to despair and toss it aside forever.  Thank God I have been forgiven over and over again for stupid decisions and choices that I have made in my life.  It’s the only way.  When you think you’re simply the agent of forgiveness and fail to remember you need it more than anyone, problems will arise.  And they have.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s deflating and hurtful because as a priest we’re all lumped together, just like every other aggregate.  When things first broke back in 2002 I was still a seminarian so it was different then.  I was still protected from it in some sense.  I lived with, albeit a false hope at the moment, that the Church finally learned its lesson.  It hasn’t entirely.  Sure, some, but there’s more to go.  That’s obvious now.  All of us who continue to remain, though, must hold others accountable.  That I believe now more than ever.  It’s going to take a new generation to begin to dismantle, and it needs a dismantling, of the “old boys club” thinking, which exists not only in the Church, but in politics and many other institutions.  It’s not that men should be banned and shunned.  Rather, men need to grow up and certainly men in the Church need to grow up and become more attuned to their own interior life.  It’s the only way.  Buckling down, turning back the clock, tightening grips may seem like the answer but long-term only makes matters worse.  You can only hold someone under water or in a noose so long before it becomes fatal.  We’d find ourselves where we often find ourselves, reactionary rather than proactive, bound rather than free, hiding rather than open, sick rather than healthy, for it is true, you’re only as sick as your worst secret.  We have all the proof we need on that one.

It isn’t to say anything is new in what has been reported out of Pennsylvania, but the very visceral reaction of people, media, and certainly on social media, shows just how little has been done to change hearts, transform, and reform a sick culture, and that goes for Church and culture at large.  It’s easy to say that it all happened before 2002 but that by no means indicates that the culture has changed for the better.  Like any family that thrives on secrecy, which may seem important at the moment, the longer you sit on it and build on that secrecy, the harder it is to contain it over time.  Eventually the truth is revealed and exposed in and through the light.  If anything, we should be thankful that it is being exposed, but again, as long as it leads to transformation.  The fear always is that we’ll wait it out, let it pass, and we can go on with “business as usual”.  Business.  Yes, that’s often how it feels.  Hopefully it can lead to a return to who we’re really supposed to be, agents of change and transformation, conversion of heart.  The rest means nothing if there’s no foundation to grow on. We become the house on the sand that collapses amid the storm.

I still hope, in God.  I still have faith, in Jesus Christ.  I still love, this journey of conversion and leading others to that place.  It’s why I stay connected, but as I said, more on the edge of the inside.  The more we allow ourselves to be immersed, creating a codependency as is so common, we lose sight of the bigger picture and what really matters and what’s really important.  It’s what allows me to hope, to have faith, and to deepen that love.  As I said at mass a few weeks ago, I hope to see the day when the Church stops living in denial.  Again, don’t get me wrong, many policies were put in place that was necessary, but a lot of what we say still are empty words because policy and doctrine doesn’t change hearts and heal people, God does, pushed often to the edge through our relationships.  Those of us on the front lines of the battle are often all too aware of that.  Hopefully, as the rungs of the ladder are climbed that basic truth isn’t forgotten, less the fall becomes all the more hurtful, painful, and dramatic.  Unfortunately, we’ve become all too familiar with that.  All we can do is live in and with hope that we learn and change and grow out of the ash heap.

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A Living Icon

Deut 4: 32-34, 39-40; Romans 8: 14-17

Image result for rublev trinity

One of the most profound interpretations of the feast we celebrate today is Rublev’s Trinity.  It’s a 15th Century Russian icon that is probably one of the most known.  At face value it actually is a story that we don’t hear today but did at some point this past year, of three visitors, or angels, that visit Abraham and Sarah who are about to turn their lives upside down when they are told they will give birth to Isaac.  Rublev has these three images that all look alike and yet dressed differently sitting around a table or altar.  Now I’m not sure if it was intentional or not, but there is a similar scene in the movie version of The Shack when the father is at wits end and finds himself gathered at the table with the three persons of God.  It is believed that that was Rublev’s intention that the fourth one to gather at table was you and me, humanity.  The more you find yourself invited at table the more you participate in this force of love, union, and oneness, and you become that mystery.

One such person that certainly exemplifies that is Moses who we hear from in the first reading from Deuteronomy.  Moses often found himself being drawn back to that table to gaze into the eyes of God that he becomes one of the great figures of salvation history.  He’s well aware that others are not in the same place as him on this journey, as they still wander seeking their own gods, but he’s there to remind them of what he has experienced in that participation with mystery and how it is transforming his own life.  He recalls for Israel today their own history as a people and the many times they have not only wandered, but how the true God of mystery, unfolding within and among them, has seen them through some of their most difficult challenges as a people.  He takes them back to the beginning reminding them of their own creation as a people and they have been created in that image and likeness of God.  Now Moses doesn’t keep returning to the mountain to convince God that God is someone else or give to give God pointers on what needs to be done and what the people want, rather he returns to that place to soak in that mystery and allow it to consume his life to his deepest core, a core that is that image and likeness.  Like Israel, where we fail and find ourselves wandering is when we want to create God in our own image and likeness rather than allowing ourselves to be transformed by the unfolding mystery.  It’s the mastery of Rublev’s icon because you can’t take your eyes off of it as you gaze at it’s beauty and mystery, drawing you more and more into the mystery of God and the mystery of our own lives.  Without mystery, life becomes dull as do our relationships.

It is, as well, the pinnacle to Paul’s message to the Romans in today’s second reading on becoming the adopted children of God.  Paul is fully aware that people wander.  He himself has wandered in his own life, seeking that sense of meaning from something beyond the divine indwelling.  His view for the Romans comes from the masters who have had their own experience and literally adopt one of their slaves as their own.  This experience at table with mystery has a way of breaking down the many barriers that we create for ourselves, separating ourselves, one from another, as was true in a master-slave model.  Paul, though, like Moses, continues to take them back to the beginning and remind them of who they have always been as children of God, born in that image and likeness.  Like Moses, the more he gazes and the more we gather at table with that mystery that unfolds and in its almost seductive manner, transforms without us evening knowing and grow into that image and likeness.  We become living icons, where we’re not God, but our lives simply point to the mystery that has drawn us in and have fallen in love with while participating in that love and that mystery.

As we celebrate this great feast, we gather in the name of that one God who invites us to Rublev’s table and to participate in their radical hospitality of drawing us into love, mystery, and union.  We will never completely understand any of this and shouldn’t think we can.  We will never completely know it because it is beyond knowledge as we know it.  Rather, it is a knowing that lies deep within, where heart speaks to heart, often being dragged in like the guy in The Shack, finally moving to a place of surrender.  It takes utter faith and trust on our part, a dark night as it’s known, to trust in such a way.  When we allow ourselves to be used that way, by mystery and love, we become transformed in such a way that we are the living icons for a world that has enough of its own gods, we simply point to the one true God.  This is a God that keeps expanding our hearts and that very table for it is only in love that we have space for all, no matter, color, where we’re from, background, lifestyle, the many who have wandered far from “home”.  The mastery of Rublev’s Trinity is that there is space for everyone, knowing like Abraham and Sarah, when we finally surrender to mystery, our lives may be turned upside down, but better that than anything else.  We pray for the grace to become these living icons in the world today, where all we do and say points to love, to mystery, to union and oneness, to the one true God who continues to unfold that very mystery in the world today.

Love’s Friends

Acts 10: 25-26, 34-35, 44-48; I John 4: 7-10; John 15: 9-17

You don’t need to be a biblical scholar to understand that the message of love stands at the very heart of John’s writing.  Between the second reading and the gospel today, a total of eleven verses, the word love appears eighteen times.  It stands as the core of his ethic and what it means to be a community that has Christ at its center.  The past few weeks it’s all we have heard from him is this message of love.

Today, though, he tells it in the context of friendship.  He calls his disciples friends.  Of course, friendship is near and dear to all of us.  More than anything it is our friends that accept us for who we are, warts and all.  There’s no need to hide or mask ourselves in anyway.  There’s no sense of superiority or feeling less than. If there is it really would not be friendship anyway.  Over the course of our lives they tend to be some of the most important people in our lives, accepting us, the first people we call, the ones who walk with us through struggles, the ones who love us in a very unique way, often willing to put our own needs ahead of their own.

It’s a rather unique description that would be used by Jesus in describing his own followers as they prepare to be sent forth into a hostile world.  It’s a radical message for them as a crew who would be familiar with their own tradition knowing that the only one named friend of God in Scripture is Abraham, the father of their faith, and now Jesus using the same language.  He comes down on their level and meets them there while raising them up in line with someone like Abraham.  They are friends.  Of course, it won’t take very long before they find out what this friendship is going to ask of them.  They’re not the best of friends at first, abandoning him in the darkest of times out of fear for their own lives.  Yet, he meets them where they are, in all their imperfections and nonsense, love comes down to them and calls them forth.

We have seen how that plays itself out in the earliest community of Acts of the Apostles these six weeks of Easter now and once again today Peter is confronted with this reality in relation to others.  Peter has just had a miracle done through him so Cornelius believes that he is at an elevated position.  Now, of course, we have put Peter in that position ourselves, and there’s nothing wrong with being a leader, but what Peter doesn’t forget is that it’s not about him.  As a matter of fact, when he gets out of the way, as he did today, his ministry is even more fruitful because he knows it’s not about him and it is only this love and this friendship with Jesus that continues to work in and through Peter to do what he does.  Now it’s not that they always get it right either and we’ve heard that these weeks as well.  They are constantly discerning and figuring it as they go and learning where it is that God’s leading them, but they can only do this by doing what was commanded to them in this farewell discourse of John, by remaining and abiding in their friendship with Jesus and to keep returning to that source of love.

The community at times still falls back to its old ways and old way of thinking.  The other followers of the way can’t seem to understand how the Spirit has come upon the Gentiles in the first reading today.  Israel, like Peter, has had its own struggle with having a somewhat superior status of being the chosen ones of God.  The master/slave relationship that Jesus speaks of was most familiar to them and has influenced them greatly.  It all takes time and returning to that source of love that begins to expand their hearts to understand that it doesn’t matter whether your Jewish, or followers of the Way, the early Christians, Samaritans, or Gentiles, this love far exceeds a particular group of people because the chosen-ness has nothing to do with that and everything to do with who this God is and the expansiveness of that love.  As they grow and deepen in that love it begins to make sense and the normal boundaries and judgments that have separated them begin to dissipate.  The love that transforms their hearts now transforms the world around them.  It only happens, though, when the return, abide, remain, the message that we have heard consistently from Jesus the past few weeks.  You only become love when you return to that source of love and that friendship with Jesus.

As we come ever nearer to the end of the Easter Season we return back to the beginning when we were asked as to what kind of community we’re called to be.  John has reinforced that message of love over and over for us these weeks and calls us to remain and abide in that love.  It’s the only thing that changes and transforms us.  Today, though, he calls it forth through friendship, one of the most valued of all relationships we cherish because we choose this friendship with Jesus.  We come like the disciples, messed up at times, afraid, far from perfect, masks and all at times, but he comes down to us and raises us up to that place of love to transform our hearts where we no longer need to hide from this God but rather enter into friendship in order to abide in love and become that love.

It is only love that will see the disciples through as they are sent forth into the hostile world, a world that remains hostile towards love.  Hostility, fear, war, violence know full well the power of love and will do anything to have us succumb to something less than love.  We go forth to bring that love to a world that doesn’t need more violence, separation, war, and division, but needs to be loved.  It’s the only thing that will transform it.  The more we enter more deeply into friendship with Jesus the more that love transforms our hearts and we become the hands and feet of Christ to those most in need and who are hurting.  We don’t go forth in order to be more of the same.  Rather, we go forth in order to love in a very different way as we are called to be a community of love, of friends, who don’t see ourselves as better than or even inferior towards others, rather as the most humble of ways, as friends.  Friends who share in love and are called to become love.  We pray for the grace to abide and remain in that love so that despite whatever it is we face, the world will be, as it was with Peter, transformed in and through us because we have allowed, over and over again, love to transform us.

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.

Heart’s Unfolding Mystery

Exodus 20: 1-17; I Cor 1: 22-25; John 2: 13-25

The Cleansing of the Temple that we hear this weekend is not unique to John’s Gospel.  We hear it in all the gospels so there is some historical accuracy to the account, but the other evangelists place it near the end of the story upon Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  We’ll hear that on Palm Sunday from Mark’s Gospel.  John, though, changes it up and places it near the beginning as the gospel opens with the first of three celebrations of Passover.  It’s also rather crazily placed between the Miracle at Cana, the water into wine, just prior to it, and then follows with a rather intimate dialogue with Nicodemus just following this event and so it’s smack in between these stories.  After this great celebration and the sign at Cana it’s as if things get turned upside down.

It’s placement almost seems as if to throw people off.  As they begin to understand who this Jesus is in John’s Gospel, he seems to move which knocks everyone off kilter, almost appearing as if he’s creating these conflicts or certainly this tension where things seem to happen and change occurs.  You know, at first glance there really is nothing wrong with what’s going on at the feast of Passover at the Temple.  It was customary for people to sacrifice animals and so to be sold in that vicinity was common and so Jesus seems to overreact to it all when he shows up in Jerusalem for the feast.  As he makes this move it seems to begin to cast doubt and almost chaos into the lives and hearts of the people he encounters.  But maybe that’s his point all along.

Like any people, but in particular those he encounters today, we gradually become comfortable with what is and we begin to lose sight of the deeper realities that we’re being invited into.  It’s what creates this misunderstanding in this passage and beyond in John’s Gospel.  We become blind and deaf to things, where we can no longer see nor hear beyond the surface of our own hearts.  Gradually it becomes a market place, as the writers note, but in that gradual process of becoming they in turn lose sight of the bigger picture and the deeper reality.  Rather than becoming more like God and participating in that mystery, they become participants in this sham of a market place while their own gods are created.  Christ entering the scene turns it upside down, literally and figuratively, to make them aware of what they have become and invite them to become something more, this deeper lived reality that can only come through Christ.  He will enter into dialogue with them, push them, and be on the move.  Of course, in all he encounters it requires a willingness and an openness on the part of the one encountered to change, to deepen, to see and hear with the heart.

It’s the message Paul conveys over and over again but in particular to the community at Corinth that we hear today.  He reminds us that Jews demand signs and Gentiles wisdom but in the end what they really look for is proof in their own ways.  They want to cling to what they know and to be able to hold onto something rather than enter more deeply into this mystery of faith.  It is, as Paul reminds us, the paradox of the Cross.  It’s the lived reality, as with John, to not become comfortable, because just like the encounters with Christ in that Gospel, God has a way of throwing us off kilter and remind us who’s really in charge of this life and all we can do is enter more deeply into the mystery as it unfolds within and beyond us.

The Ten Commandments, as we know them, come from the passage from Exodus today.  However, what we hear this weekend is much more poetic than what we become accustomed to as kids growing up and the ten rules we’re expected to follow and somehow all is right with God.  But just like the people John introduces us to, we often, over time, lose sight of the deeper meaning and purpose for what we do and are brought back in order to enter into dialogue once again.  This is not to simply remind ourselves of the rules, like the ten commandments, but to enter into relationship with the unfolding mystery that lies within them, their deeper meaning, that the writer tries to convey.  How easily we become blinded by our own lives and our own agendas that we to get stuck which is just another way of casting shadow on sin.

As we continue this Lenten journey and now enter into the Gospel of John, we’re invited into the experience of the cleansing of the Temple and allow ourselves to get knocked off kilter.  We too become comfortable and blinded in our own lives where we can no longer see nor hear the deeper meaning and mystery.  It may lead us into conflicted hearts or even the experience of tension, but as the gospel reminds us, that’s exactly where God works best because it shows an openness on our part to change and to deepen.  We pray for that grace today, in our own misunderstandings as we hear in the gospel, our own comforts, our own blindness, may be torn from under us in order that we may fall freely into this unfolding mystery of the Christ.  It’s what we truly desire and it’s the fullness of life that God continues to promise.

God’s Way

Isaiah 55: 6-9; Phil 1: 20-24, 27; Matthew 20: 1-16

This is a rather unusual gospel we hear today and some proof that God really does have a sense of humor as to what we think is important in life.  All of us have been indoctrinated into a capitalist system, everyone of us.  We know what the rules are and what to expect.  We often know how to take advantage of it and when it takes advantage of us, even at the expense of others.  We want what’s fair.  Whoever works the hardest gets the most in return.  Whoever works the least gets their share but not as much as others.  We know the system.  But the passage was never meant to be a critique of such a system.  It was more a critique of the culture.  However, in the age we live, that system of capitalism has creeped its way into religion as well and certainly a part of Christianity in this country.  It’s about winners and losers.  It’s about who’s deserving and not.  It’s about whoever works the hardest should get the most returns.  In other words, we think it’s about us.

But it’s not.  This is where we get it wrong because as much as we feel we might have to prove all of that to our boss, God isn’t our boss.  As a matter of fact, God’s trying to work for us and through us more than anything.  Isaiah tells us today that our ways aren’t necessarily God’s ways and our way of thinking is not necessarily God’s way of thinking.  That we can be thankful for.  At the same time, we feel the plight of the workers who have slaved all day in the heat.  We’ve been there and we’ve seen people get treated better than us and it immediately begins to poke holes in the system.  For Matthew it was the early Jewish community that had been around all along and they were seeing the special treatment of the Gentiles who were converting.  Like most parables, they’re meant to turn things on our heads, to try to see our own lives, including our failings, through the lens as God sees not as we do.

As much as it’s not a critique of the system it is a critique of our lives that have become consumed by the system.  For Jesus, he was constantly butting up against a similar system that divided folks into greater and lesser.  It wasn’t just about the early community feeling this way.  For Jesus, it was the distaste of the Pharisees that he often had to confront.  They saw him hanging with people that they considered less than for one reason or another.  They saw themselves and deserving and entitled and if Jesus wanted to make a difference, he was going to have to hang with those who considered themselves the respectable members of the community, not sinners nor fishermen.  We’re better than that.  We’re deserving of better treatment.  Don’t you know all we do?  God’s not our boss and we have nothing to prove.  We may have to work like that in our lives, but really shouldn’t, but not with God.  Isn’t even funny how the generous landowner makes sure they’re all there to witness the generosity.  No hiding but in the process of this generosity to deeper truth is revealed, hearts that were closed off to seeing each other for who they are rather than what they did or didn’t do.

Even some of the prayers we use at Mass have language like that that just sends the wrong message.  We use words like merit and attain in our opening prayer.  In our language and in this capitalistic system, those words connote a way of thinking that isn’t of God.  As Matthew’s gospel reminds us, this God is an abundantly generous God who is constantly giving when we allow ourselves to be open to the grace, to the forgiveness and love.  Like they did with Jesus, we sometimes become jealous and envious because we think God has somehow blessed others better than ourselves, somehow someone less deserving than ourselves got something and we didn’t.  That’s where the system has infiltrated our faith.  We’ve associated the things we’ve accumulated as somehow a grace from God.  But you know what?  Eventually that’s all taken away when we begin to question what’s most important to us, what we value and we begin to see how little opening we have in our lives for God’s true grace that frees us from the systems that we often make into our own gods.

Paul sees it as a choice.  For Paul it was a matter of life and death and for him, when you choose God you always choose life even if it means martyrdom.  He finds himself in prison, and although we will be freed this time, he knows if the choice is to be martyred he will go with it rather than giving up what he values the most.  For Paul, the simple desire was to be open to the Gospel.  You know, even for Paul the greatest threat was calling to mind and making others aware of how they had become attached to something that was only benefiting a few.  More often than not Paul had to call out his own communities for falling into the traps of the world rather than being open to God’s thinking and God’s way.  For Paul, the choice was easy.  You choose the relationships, the values, love of God and neighbor, over using people for our own gain.  It’s what the system feeds on when be buy into the illusion that all benefit when we know full well it only benefits some and poverty continues to grow.

No, it wasn’t meant to be a critique of the system.  It was a critique on how they treated one another, especially the new folks that come later to the game.  It’s not about us but it is about us and how we become consumed by it in all aspects of our lives, even in the way we see God, the big boss in the sky, cracking the whip, working us to the bone, and so on.  But that’s not God’s way and that’s not God’s thinking.  Thank God.  We pray for the grace to be aware in our own lives of where we are feeding into and buying into the system as it tries to work us to death, somehow proving our worthiness and creating divisions.  My guess is we can never be totally free of it but we can be aware of it.  Once we’re aware, we can finally begin to let go of and be freed of all that our entitlements in life that prevent us from loving neighbor, caring about people, and being open to a generous God who’s always inviting us, as with Paul, a fuller way of life where we value what is most important to us.  Not an accumulation of things but rather a surrender of it all to an experience of life with greater depth and meaning.

 

Unseen Obstacles

Sirach 27: 30–28:7; Matthew 18: 21-35

When I was out at Notre Dame back in July, I had asked the priest who was kind of leading us through the week what he thought was one of the greatest obstacles we faced as a Church.  Now, I can name many already.  We know there are less priests.  We are certainly aware that there are less people coming.  We also know that there is a lack of trust with all institutions but also a feeling that the institution is out of touch with what’s going on.  Again, the list can go on and on as to what kind of obstacles we face, all of which we can see with our own eyes.  But he wasn’t thinking about what we can see.  He was thinking about something much deeper and so I was taken back when he responded to me.  He said he felt the greatest obstacle we face is resentment.  I got to tell you, it has pushed me to look at my own self and where it may be simmering underneath for me.  We’ve all faced it towards the institution but also with priests and people.  So many examples of how it hasn’t gone as planned or it’s not what we thought it would be or should be.  We have somehow been treated unfairly and we deserved better.  All along as it simmers underneath the surface, resentment.

And, boy, do we as Sirach tells us today, love to cling to it.  I don’t know why we hold on as tightly as we do.  If anything, over time it really acts as a cancer in our lives, feeding on itself, and taking a toll on our hearts.  Now Sirach is speaking specifically to friendships that have gone awry.  This isn’t just something that the Church must face, but we see it in marriages, in families, and in our communities that we’re a part of, simmering underneath as we cling for dear life.  Maybe we tell ourselves that we’ll hold the injustice over the other.  Or somehow it gives me power and domination over the other who has wronged me in some way.  I’m going to dangle it over them, holding a grudge, as if that’s somehow going to bring justice.  Any maybe that’s are problem.  We want justice despite Sirach telling us we even have to forgive our neighbor’s injustice.  Justice without mercy and forgiveness only leads to greater anger and resentment simmering underneath. 

Both Sirach and Matthew write to communities that often faced division.  This who section of Matthew that we’ve been listening to for the past few weeks has been on what it means to be community and the necessary tools for a community to grow.  Today we hear this outlandish parable by Jesus about a servant who was given forgiveness but never quite penetrates his being.  He remains a tyrant and unchanged by the king’s gift.  The servant simply feeds the king a line that he wants to hear, that somehow he’ll repay this outrageous amount of money, knowing full well that it will never come to pass.  He simply reacts to the situation to get what he wants and yet is unable to receive the gift.  How do we know?  See how he immediately goes and reacts to his fellow servant.  He does exactly what Sirach tells us today.  He clings to his sin and begins to choke the guy.  His own anger that simmers underneath gets the best of him, unchanged by the king’s mercy.  Whether we like it or not, it’s our story.  We like to do the same thing.  We’ll play nice to get what we want.  We’ll go along with something even if it upsets us for the sake of keeping “the peace”.  Yet, all along, just as it is with the servant, just below the surface anger is feeding itself on resentment.  It has destroyed relationships and communities alike when we don’t allow it to come to the surface, to the light, in order to be transformed.  We’d not only prefer to cling to it but also transmit it to anyone who happens to set us off at the moment.  The king doesn’t need to send him to the tortures.  We do that to ourselves by holding on.

These two readings provide us two images and leave us with a choice.  Sirach gives us the clinched fist and grinding teeth, holding on to what eats away at us from within.  Then there’s Jesus, the freedom that comes with forgiveness.  The thing about forgiveness, though, and I have said this before, I cannot do it myself and nor can you.  It is truly a grace given to us from God, freely given.  We do not have the ability to forget how we have hurt and have been hurt and so through this grace we are set free from what binds our hearts and what it is we cling to.  The other is this.  There must be a mutuality.  There must be an openness on our part and a receptivity on our part to receive that grace otherwise it simply deflects off of us, unable to penetrate our own hurt.  The servant is the perfect example.  If he were able to receive that grace, that gift from the king, he would have in turn shown mercy to his fellow servant.  When we open ourselves to the grace we in turn give the gift away.  That’s grace.

We all cling to things in our lives, unable to be free.  It may be fear, resentment, anger, so often causing depression in people’s lives.  It can be towards the Church, towards me, towards a spouse, and even towards God when we feel we have been wronged and unjustly treated for whatever reason.  In those moments, though, we are invited into a choice as to what we do with it.  Do we allow it to simmer underneath the surface, creating a wedge between us and the other and God or do we surrender it to the Lord?  It’s hard stuff as individuals and hard stuff as a community to deal with the real issues.  It’s easy to speak about the obvious issues and problems we face as Church and community.  It’s a whole other ballgame to talk about the real issue simmering underneath that prevents us from growing as individuals and as community into the grace of God that is being offered us at this very moment.  Cling or be set free.