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.

 

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Pay Attention

Romans 8: 9, 11-13; Matthew 11: 25-30

From the time we are kids, we are taught to “pay attention” to certain things.  Of course, as kids it’s necessary because it often keeps us safe and secure even from perceived dangers.  However, as we age, it often grows into judgment, stereotype, even guilt and shame, that seems to dominate our lives where we begin to think what we have paid attention to is truth.  But over that time, despite some of its necessity early on, it begins to overshadow who we really are, hide our truest self from ourselves, often distorting our image of God, but also separating and dividing us not only from others but from ourselves as well.  It makes it nearly impossible to deal with problems because we try to fix what was caused by it in the first place.

It’s that place of hiddenness and what has been overshadowed where Jesus tries to lead the disciples in today’s gospel when he speaks of what has been hidden from the wise and learned but rather revealed to the little ones.  As is often the case, he’s speaking after an experience with the Pharisees where they once again found themselves in conflict with one another.  One way in which what we “pay attention” to rears its head is when things aren’t good enough or it’s never enough because the Pharisees continue to look through life through a rather narrow lens, which is what happens to all of us over time.  When it came to John the Baptist, they had problems.  When it comes to Jesus, it’s still not good enough for them.  More often than not they weren’t paying attention to the right things and got so caught up in the law that they become blinded.  It creates this tension and conflict and eventually to the violent act of the crucifixion.  He doesn’t necessarily react to their way but rather tries to expand the lens and understanding, which they often weren’t able to see but saw him as a threat to their way of life and thinking for that matter.

Whether you know it or not, it’s also what Paul speaks of in the second reading today to the Romans.  It’s probably one of the most misinterpreted passages in all his letters because we try to keep it only skin deep.  We probably have all heard it interpreted as “sins of the flesh”.  Like kids, that may work for a period in our lives, but that’s not the deeper meaning to what Paul is speaking of nor is it what he’s challenging them to pay attention to in their lives.  If we take out the word “flesh” from the passage and insert words like ego, what we pay attention to, or even that Pharisee within us, that’s more the point that Paul is trying to make.  Getting trapped in that place in our lives often leads to conflict and even hostility towards God and others.  It’s not a deeper life in the spirit as he speaks of, but one of conflict.  It ultimately is what Paul tries in his writings to lead people to learn to let go of; not their body, but their control tower, their ego, what they have been conditioned to pay attention to and yet now stands as an obstacle, which in other letters he also calls it.  This point where we don’t feel satisfied or things are never good enough, for Paul, is recognition that we aren’t living from the right place, from the divine, from the Christ within our very souls.  If we want to seek solutions to a world of problems, we must first be willing to make that journey ourselves and face our own violence and blindness.

It is the invitation that Jesus gives to the disciples and to us today as the gospel continues.  He says to come to him all who labor and are burdened.  Come to me all of you that are struggling in one way or another.  This invitation isn’t just about handing our problems over to God and somehow they disappear.  No, the invitation that Jesus gives is to move beyond the struggle, often defined by what we pay attention to, and move to the place of the Christ and learn to live from that place.  It is the place where the judgement and stereotype, division and separation, begins to disappear.  It is a journey inward and a journey downward, and quite frankly, a journey that takes great humility to finally begin to admit that maybe what I have paid attention to is not the fuller picture.  It’s learning to live our lives inward out rather than the outward appearance of things defining us, who we are, and what we do.  It is a path that is quite difficult but the only path to a fuller life and where we finally become agents of change in the world.

All too often we try to deal with problems in this city, community, country, and world, by doing the same thing.  It leads to people butting heads and as we have seen in this city, a great deal of violence.  We are trying to solve problems with what separates and divides rather than moving to this deeper place within ourselves that unites us with God, others, and even ourselves.  This city and our lives do not need more separation and division and certainly do not need more violence.  But it will continue if we try to fix things by an old mindset.  The healing begins with me and you.  The healing begins when I can finally begin to ask myself, “What am I paying attention to?” and is it leading to healing, reconciliation, forgiveness, and a more loving posture towards God and people or does it simply dig in my heels and lead to further violence.  If our faith and our religion are going to have any impact on our lives, it’s going to require change on our part, change in what we pay attention to, and be led to the deeper places of our lives, people of spirit and soul.  That is how we begin to make a difference here and everywhere, including our own families, in becoming the agents of change, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, while learning to let go of what only continues to separate and divide.  There’s no more time for any of that.  It’s time for a new way, a deeper way of living where we bridge differences and live lives filled with love, healing, and forgiveness.  First and foremost, what is it you find yourself paying attention to in life?

If You Are…

This feast, Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, is a fairly new feast in the Church, only 91 years. It began in 1925 by Pope Pius XI as a response to a rising secularism, especially in Europe. Of course, it doesn’t seem to have somehow altered that history. If secularism were a religion, and it is in some ways, it would probably be one of the largest on Earth. Pius XI saw the separation of religion from government that was worrisome. Today, though, it goes even further and maybe a step backwards to individualism. It’s now individuals who are separating themselves from something and someone larger than themselves not just governments. It seems to even escalate here in the States and in Europe this sense of separation, that nations become the center of their own universe. Only time will tell where it will lead us. In the past it has often led to war due to separation and this sense of isolation that causes speculation and mistrust.

When we do begin to separate ourselves from something and someone larger than ourselves is often when we find ourselves getting into trouble. We start to make selfish choices that we think only impact us and forget about those around us. David was such a person whom we hear from in Second Samuel today. He was considered the ideal king. He was young and had lots of energy. But it eventually goes to his head. He eventually begins to believe that he’s all that and not only the King of Israel but also the king of his own life. It begins to impact his relationships and will bring about a fall, a sense of humility has he’s put in his place in life and once again reconnects with the true King and he truly does go onto be one of the greatest. He comes to the realization that he can’t do it on his own and must keep his eye on the true Kingdom.

This tension that exists in our lives as well, between individualism and the reality of the greater Kingdom, plays itself out in today’s gospel from Luke. It’s the last we’ll hear from Luke this year as the liturgical year comes to a close. Jesus finds himself hanging between these two realities. He’s faced with the same temptation that he does in the desert that we heard back in Lent. There’s the crowd and the one thief that puts pressure on Jesus to prove himself. They’re so closed in on their own pain that they miss what’s really going on. There’s the temptation to do it yourself, in somehow I’m able to save myself and no need of a God or anything or anyone bigger than myself. Of course, though, on the other side hangs who we often refer to as the “good thief”. There’s an acknowledgement on his part that he is in need of something bigger, a need for mercy and forgiveness. And there’s Jesus, hanging smack dab in the middle of the two and standing in the middle of our own tension with that reality, that sense we can do it ourselves and don’t need God and a place within us crying out for something more, mercy and forgiveness.

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul, in one of the oldest hymns in the New Testament, tries to give community after community this same perspective in their lives. He speaks of not a Christ of the Universe but rather a cosmic Christ that has always been and continues to be to this very moment, unfolding within and yet beyond us. It’s a hymn that expresses the deepest desire of our hearts, this desire for expansion. But it is only the one who stands as mediator that can expand hardened and hurting hearts. The more hardened they become the more we rely upon ourselves, not in need of any God. Our own pride gets in the way. We want to blame everything under the sun as to why people don’t need God or want Church, from soccer fields to wanting to be spiritual and not religious, but there is always a deeper reality at play, that often goes unseen. It is often our own struggle with the two thieves in our lives and often giving into the one that steals our freedom and convinces us that I am enough for me and that salvation is up to me rather than seeing salvation as a communal reality.

This feast will hopefully continue to give us pause in our lives, not only today but with each passing day that we are given, not only as individuals but as community, nation, and world. The more we separate ourselves from the source of life the more we become hardened and no longer feel the need for something or someone bigger than ourselves. Not Christ but I become the center of the universe. We begin to fear expansion like globalization and try to hunker down and isolate ourselves as fear takes root in our hearts. What we truly desire is the expansion of our hearts, to embrace all we encounter and recognize the need for the other and the Other. There will always be that part of us that thinks we can do it alone, the rise of individualism in our own lives, but we must recognize the tension and the desire for connectedness and oneness, the seeking of that Paradise that is promised, not by me, but by the mediator, the one who stands at the center of this tension in our lives and world, Jesus Christ, the true King of the Universe.

It Begins With Me

2 Thes 3: 7-12; Luke 21: 5-19

By now I suppose most have had enough of politics. I’ve stayed out of it as much as I can because I believe as a preacher that it’s not my place to tell people how to vote and to take away their freedom to choose. But it’s over now and we now move towards a new reality, not only with a president but with a mayor of this city. I spent some time reflecting and blogging this week, even down to the point of how hard it was up to the point where I was filling in that oval square as to how I would vote. But I also reflected upon who are the losers in all of this. You know, I think the greatest losers in all of this are the two political parties with religious institutions a close third. It gets more and more obvious as to how politics influences religion much more than the other way around. We can tell simply by our reaction to it and we ask ourselves where it is we place our faith.

I thought of the losers coupled up against this gospel we hear today. If you ask me, the major parties as they stand have to lose. They have lost touch with people and in particular people who are truly suffering for a variety of reasons. Jesus makes the point at the beginning of the gospel today about the people that have become distracted by “costly stones and votive offerings”. It’s like the shiny object over here that distracts us from the real issues going on in people’s lives. It’s this facade that both of these parties have projected outwards that distract us and even worse yet, we begin to think that they are identity. I am red or I am blue. But you know what, it simply becomes another way for us to judge and distract. We not only judge by skin color, by sexuality, by religion, we can now judge by the color of our vote and because one votes one way I am somehow better than. We can keep going down this road, but the parties are going to destroy us as they continue to divide and even manipulate in a way that benefits them. Yet, all along, there’s war, famine, poverty, destruction, and great suffering going on over here being ignored.

We cannot keep dividing ourselves in these ways that continues to separate. Even the way we look at poverty. Sure there is great poverty in this city of Baltimore alone, but we even make judgements about that. We think somehow our poverty is greater than the poverty in rural America and we cast judgments upon them. You don’t need to drive very far to see it all around us. So yes, our politics has influenced our religion much more than the other way around because we’re called to something more and we hear that from Paul this morning in our second reading. He understands quite well in these communities how there can be divisions. He would understand our reds and blues. But Paul makes a point to lead people to their deeper identity, that there is something more than the color of my vote, there is the very fact that we are to model Christ, and Christ crucified at that. That is who we really are despite what these parties want to tell us. They want to convince that we are these parties and our lives depend on it. You know what, Christ crucified. That’s who we are and no one can tell us otherwise.

Of course, people even ask what Pope Francis has to say. He says he’ll certainly pray for the president but he says what matters most is what’s happening with the poor, the migrant, the immigrant, and the list goes on. We must continue to work for peace and justice but not because red or blue tells us to but rather because our faith demands it of us. However, in order to do that we must begin with ourselves. If we want peace we must first find it within ourselves. If we want to work for justice, we must first work to identity the injustice of our own lives, that’s me and you. I have judgements, I have stereotypes, I have all this going on in myself and I get easily distracted by the shiny object just as much as the rest, but this is a time to come back to center and come back to our truest identity. We cannot become what it is we hate. We cannot continue to blame others for the problems of the world. We must first begin with us, with me and with you. I must recognize my own injustice and my participation in the injustice of the world before I can begin to bring about justice in the world. We are more than all of it. If we want to be love and forgiveness and mercy, we must reconnect with our deepest identity in Christ and detach ourselves from our attachment to red and blue. It will destroy us because it’s not even real and we know deep down that we are more than it all.

This is a time of reflection for all of us, individually and collectively, to ask ourselves where we have become distracted and attached ourselves to something other than we really are and move towards oneness. We have to stop believing that we are this facade when we know deep down we are something much more. As Jesus says, it will all pass anyway. There’s no point holding onto it. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. It never is to let go of something we believe to be our identity. He speaks about how it does turn family and against family and against friend. But we must keep our eye on all who are suffering, including those beyond the bubbles we live in. We must keep our eye on the poor, the suffering, the fearful, the hurting, all suffering from famine. We don’t like to keep our eyes there and would prefer to be distracted, but that’s where we find our truest selves in Christ crucified and it is Christ that we are called to model to the world. We work for peace and we work for justice, but let it first begin with me.

Humbling Connectedness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Heart Problem

Galatians 3: 26-29; Luke 9: 18-24

As I watched coverage of the events that unfolded in Orlando last weekend, I was struck by the words of a minister that was speaking, not just about the events in Orlando but the fact that it’s also a year since another mass shooting, the one in Charleston last June. Of course, they were speaking about the senseless activity of taking the lives of innocent people for one reason or another, but what the minister pointed was that the real crisis we face in the country, or even in this city for that matter, is a crisis of heart. We have a heart problem. Our hearts become calloused and hardened that we can no longer empathize with the other, feel their pain, lost in this endless cycle of dividing and separating, while feeling helpless at the same time. We see that after all these events. We immediately divide into our camps and the leaders of our camp tells us how we’re supposed to think and decided what’s really wrong. We never get to the heart of the heart, the heart of the problem. When we don’t, we too become complicit in the crime.

There is more to it as well but also part of the heart problem. The heart reminds us who we really our, our true identity. These readings today touch upon that very reality and take us to the heart of who we are as people. Paul sums it up quite simply, we are “children of God”. That’s it! That’s as easy as it gets and yet so hard, all at the same time. That belief will eventually lead to his death, but until then, both here in this letter to the Galatians, where he’s really just getting started and will begin to go after them, but also in Corinthians, he uses this language of even back then they used to divide. There were Jews and Greeks, there are slave and free person, there are male and female, and we can add our own, there are black and white, there are gay and straight, there are Christian and Muslim, all this language that is used to separate. Paul tries to move them to a deeper identity. When we remain trapped in the separateness, it’s often for our own advantage. We want to feel superior in our own way but often at the expense of putting someone else in a lower position.

It’s what Jesus will confront with the Pharisees. They do it to everyone! Everything is viewed through their own lens of separateness and worthiness. If you somehow don’t meet their standard, then you fall into the unworthiness category; you become separated from them. So today Jesus is testing the disciples on this whole reality of identity. It’s really the heart of it all as to who this God is that they believe in. First he asks what everyone else says. Bear in mind, Jesus isn’t playing the popularity card. He doesn’t much care what they are saying. He doesn’t follow the polls like a politician and morphs into what they want to hear. Quite frankly, any label that they place upon him doesn’t do him justice. Elijah, well, alright, but still more than that. One of the prophets, well, alright, but more than that. As soon as we begin to box God in we no longer really know the true God, the God of endless mystery. But the same is true for other people. When we start to label them by what we see or who we think they are or who we think we are, it’s never enough. We start to limit ourselves and settle for something less than we really are, children of God, and at the heart of it, as the opening prayer stated today, is love.

Now it doesn’t come without great cost. As I said, Paul will die for it. Jesus will die for that reason. They don’t do it for some law or label that’s been placed upon people. They don’t do it for some kind of popularity, standing for nothing in the process. They have found and are this endless mystery and they reach the point where nothing else matters. They have found the great gift buried deep within their very being, that they are children of God, and at the heart of it, love. That’s it. Yet, it’s so hard for us to grasp because it is something that we just can’t and never will be able to grasp. All we can do is continue to fall into this deeper identity that goes beyond color, beyond religion, beyond sexuality, beyond it all, if we take up that cross, suffer at times greatly, and fall into love.
We have seen the best of religion in this moments and the worst. We don’t always want to admit the darkness that comes with religion as well, and yet, it’s there and it shows it’s weary head, trying to separate and divide. But you know what, there is only one that is content with dividing and separating. Only one. That one is evil. Where God tries to embrace, invites us to fall into, making whole and one, evil will try to divide and separate. It thrives on division. We see that in our politics and we see that in our churches. That’s not the work of God! It’s also not who we have been created to be and it’s not who we are at our very core. We have a heart problem, as that minister pointed out.

The readings should challenge us today to go deeper into our own lives but also as a city and country to look more deeply at the real issues facing us as a people. The amount of division is only going to increase the violence. The god we may have thought we believed in isn’t real and yet we find ourselves clinging to something that will bring us down as a people. But the real God can handle that. The real God invites us down into the depths of our hearts and souls, into hearts that have become calloused and hardened, for the healing and reconciliation needed to return to our deeper identity, our identity in Christ, our identity in love. The world needs love more than anything right now. If we’re not allowing ourselves to be transformed by it and into love, we too become complicit to the problem, fear holds us to the point of popularity, and the cycle of violence continues. We pray for our city, our country, and ourselves, that we accept the invitation to go to the heart of it all, hearing that question today, “Who do you say that I am?” and allow ourselves to fall into this endless mystery, into Love.

The Struggle for Soul

Daniel 12: 1-3; Mark 13: 24-32

It’s hard not to hear these readings today through the lens of so much violence that seems to be the norm in the world. It’s a complicated world and a complicated time to live. After the attacks in Paris the president of France said the response would be something like ruthless and merciless. Even Pope Francis used strong language saying we are living in a piecemeal third world war. On top of that, we hear these readings about darkness and destruction and so on that it’s hard not to think that the world is nearing the end. It is, in some ways what ISIS wants in the great battle with the West, this great battle between good and evil that remains timeless, and one this is really a wrestling for the soul. It can be the soul of Islam. The soul of the West. The soul of religion. The soul of this city which has seen now over 300 murders, whatever the case. It’s a battle all too familiar.

I’m not naive to know that these are complicated issues that face the world. At the same time, deep down, my deepest me tells me that it is wrong but it doesn’t stop me from wrestling with that reality and to know war and evil is real and if it’s going to hide itself anywhere, it’s going to do so in what is perceived as the place of virtue, in religion. Violence is quickly passed off as being done in the name of some God or that we somehow have to eradicate it in the name of religion because somehow God would want that. Not necessarily. That just stands as a justification for our own reaction by begetting more violence. What complicates it even more is that ISIS sees the West as evil and the West says the same of ISIS. That sets up a dangerous combination. ISIS may have some distorted view of God, but in many ways, the West too has abandoned God and faith. The response of France sounds a great deal like the response of the US after 9/11 and that should give us all pause as to how to proceed. Evil cannot be destroyed but must be understood. Evil too is mystery and finds new ways to manifest itself, while still knowing that the Mystery of God stands greater.

We also know that in the time of Jesus the religious leaders of the time were notorious for it all. But at the same time, that was the trusted source. They saw themselves as the guardian of the soul. They were the keeper of the law. They were the moral authority, while all along plotting to use violence in the name of God to take down God in Jesus Christ. Evil finds a way to manifest itself in the place where it is least expected and where better to hide than in religion. It finds a way to seep into the crevices of our thinking and disguises itself in ways often unknown and unseen. Over time, the soul is sold out. It’s not just the religion we know. Secularism becomes a religion. Nationalism becomes a religion. Fundamentalism becomes a religion. We have no patience to just sit with these opposing realities and struggle with them and to understand them and learn new ways to respond to them; these realities are nothing new. The means by which it’s done and accomplished may be completely different, but the battle between good and evil, God and the devil, the quest for one’s soul, or whatever way you want to put it is timeless and not just beyond us, but something that often battles within.

And so there is this Gospel today and the last time we will hear from the Gospel of Mark this year. We’ll hear from John next week and then move into Luke for Advent. He too uses some hard language about tribulation, and darkness, the powers in the heavens will be shaken. It seems as if there is something to fear. But the writers of these gospels as I have said before are not proclaiming a message of fear but rather that of love and hope in the midst of fear. They are about to witness the destruction of the temple of Jesus Christ but also the long-standing temple that has withstood the test of time. That destruction takes on a deeper meaning for what I have already said. It was the keeper of the law. It was the place of moral authority. But it was also the place where evil was just as present and had lost its way. In order for something new to arise from the rubble, as Daniel tells us in the first reading today, this transition into mystery must become the new reality. We must learn to sit with it and learn from it in order to grow from it. The battle that ensues out there on our streets, in our nation, and in our world is the battle that ensues in our very lives in our own search for the soul and our struggle with good and evil.

The events we are witnessing in Paris and right on our own streets can seem dark and dismal, and they are. It is the reality of a sinful people. It is the reality of war. It is the reality of evil that exists and remains just as much mystery to each of us. But the message of the gospel or that of Daniel in Israel being led out of exile, are not of destruction, even if it feels that way. It feels that way and it feels like separation, just as we experience in death. Everything we know is passing away, leading us to the unknown. We too quickly want to make it all about the end times, but in that regard, we then succumb to the thinking of ISIS and will once again finding ourselves reacting out of fear and perpetuating violence. We make this Gospel into something literal rather than as image and metaphor for deeper meaning and change in our lives, the search for one’s soul and a language that has been all but lost in the Western World.

There are no easy answers to any of it and probably the worst thing we can do is simply throw are arms up in the air and give up. At the same time, we want to react. We want to react with more violence somehow thinking that if we destroy it out there that it will somehow be wiped clean of the earth. That too is naive and a childish understanding of God and Evil. Rather, the invitation is to sit with the uncertainty and allow ourselves to be suspended between these realities. It’s where faith happens. It’s where dialogue happens. It’s where change happens. Because if there is something we always have to keep in mind, it’s not just ISIS that we think must change, it’s also us. When we allow ourselves to be suspended in the unknown of already and not yet, between now and forever, it will feel a lot like the gospel and in that moment, our lives are changed, we no longer choose sides, and we become agents of change in the world and seekers of our truest self, our soul.