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.

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The Capacity for God

I must admit, when I agreed to participate in priestly renewal at Notre Dame this summer, I really had no idea what I was signing up for at that time.  I knew it had a name, the Bishop D’Arcy Program in Priestly Renewal, part of the McGrath Institute for Church Life.  I knew it was free.  I knew it was at Notre Dame, a place I’ve always wanted to visit.  Of course, I also knew it was about priestly renewal.  Even that, though, I probably have my own idea and judgment about what exactly that means and how it can be defined by each of us, based on our own needs and desires.

Shortly after beginning his pontificate, Pope Francis often used the image of the Church as field hospital.  We all know that when it comes to hospitals, there is some knowledge or acceptance on our part that we may be sick, whether something minor or even terminal.  When it comes to Church life and the understanding of the image of field hospital, the second half of the equation is not always known and we often live in denial of the illness or for that matter, blame others for it.  Sometimes when you’re so close to the sickness you become immune or even numb to it, ultimately making you a part of the problem rather than an agent of healing and conversion.  We become blind to the deeper issues that we need to face while trying to band-aid when often surgery is the necessary route, or at least some restful care to regain the capacity to once again thrive.

I know this is all a rather long introduction to my point, but a point that is necessary in understanding what this week at Notre Dame has been for me.  Here’s the thing, those closest to me knew that I was burned out by the end of June, feeling fatigued and simply exhausted.  It was a transition year for me in moving from being pastor of one parish and taking on a second.  Despite the fact that they are a mere mile apart, it, over time, began to take a toll on me, especially interiorly.  My point is, I was in need of that field hospital myself without even knowing it at the time, while being immersed in the day to day routine.  That should have been a sign that a check-up was needed; everything was becoming routine.  I was becoming numb to it all, gradually forgetting why I was a priest in the first place, allowing myself to be pushed to the triage unit, which I was unfamiliar and new to trying to navigate, when, at times, I was the one in need.

Now don’t get me wrong, I never stopped doing what I needed to do, such as celebrating Mass and even having the time for personal prayer, but over the course of time, and after having the time to step away this week, to reflect, to listen, to allowing myself to be ministered to, I began to realize that the clock seemed to be managing me much more than the other way around.  Over time, it was easier to just escape for awhile, knowing that I had reached the bottom within myself, often without the capacity to give or receive, and try to gain enough muster to get through another day and another week, at least until the field hospital opened its doors to me and am once again breathing without a ventilator and no longer feeling like I’m on the brink of death.

One of the dangers of Church life and ministry is to become consumed by the weeds, which Jesus himself uses as metaphor.  Dealing with problems, fires, people, and the multitude of personalities and agendas , and now times two, began to consume me and I didn’t realize how ill I was becoming and in need of that field hospital, to mend wounds, deal with resentment, theologically contextualize the reality, and to reconnect with the larger priesthood that I am a part of and was ordained to for now thirteen years.  The crying child within, overwhelmed by the noise, needed to be cared for and loved.

For the past ten years, I have taught high school juniors not only the need for conversion but also have led them through that process.  Any of us knows that, just because we can lead others doesn’t mean we can always lead ourselves there.  The best leaders are often those that know how to follow.  It requires the help of the field hospital, a team, to lead you back to health and to a deeper understanding of the mystery of the life in which I have felt called and the capacity to fall into that mystery without the feeling of drowning, it’s arch-nemesis which likes to disguise.  There’s no book and no six steps that can bring about the perfect priest or parish, for that matter, (whatever that means anyway), all we can do is continuously allow ourselves to surrender to the mystery of God’s grace and mercy in our lives and through it we are changed, our environments are changed, the lens in which we view life is changed, broadened, and deepened, and ultimately the world begins to change.  The first step, though, is to acknowledge there’s a problem, even when we don’t know what it is and allow ourselves to be checked into the field hospital for care.  It may only require some medicine to sooth the soul, but it at least prevents something more terminal.

Each night I’d end my day down at the Grotto here on campus, often being bit alive by mosquitos, but there nonetheless.  Each night I’d watch people come and go, renewing a sense of wonder in myself as to what brings them there, seeking prayer and understanding, lighting candles for someone or something.  I sat, I listened, even to a young man in tears next to me one evening, knowing that this spot was a field hospital for him, in need of some kind of healing in his life and quite possibly in the life of someone he loved. Each night he’d return and pray, light more candles, making his offering to the Divine Physician. No words were necessary.  Simply a light, some tears, and an openness to the grace at hand.  I suppose the one good thing about field hospitals is that they are 24-7.  At least for the past week, whether at the Grotto, hearing confession with young people, in sessions with other priests, laughter, connecting with some of the people I encountered on campus, or simply walking through this campus, this became the necessary field hospital in my life, first to acknowledge that I had become ill and then to accept the doctors and the Doctor and the care they provided to bring about healing, the capacity to give and receive this mystery, and of course, renewal.

No Room in the Inn

Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32

Context of the Prodigal Son is important and the lectionary today gives us a taste of it at the very beginning. It says that tax collectors and sinners were drawing near to listen to Jesus while the Pharisees and scribes were complaining. That context sets up the contrast of what we then proceed to hear in one of the most beloved stories in all of scripture and is certainly a hallmark to Luke’s Gospel. We have the sinners and tax collectors on one side of the story and the stark contrast of the Pharisees on the other, with Jesus, of course, standing in the middle, trying to pull these two sides together; that of the younger son and the elder.

Of course, we have a tendency to focus so much on the one who has been named the prodigal. He’s the one that goes off and lives a life of dissipation, for whatever that means, and a life of total filth, literally with the swine. If there was ever a character that gets caught up in the moment and without a great deal of depth, he’s our guy. He likes to have a good time until he can’t anymore. He comes off as entitled until he can’t anymore. He can come off as lazy and avoiding the family duty of work, literally wishing his father dead and living that way, running off and losing it all. For him, maybe that’s the point, and possibly the link between these two brothers. He has to get to the point where he loses it all, gives it all away, before he can be free to return home. Those of us with a few years on us can simply smile sometimes at that part of the story, of course, unless it’s still a part of our lives or the lives of our children and grandchildren that can cause great anxiety in our lives, still living in hope of their return.

But of course, for most of us, it’s the elder son that should make us a little uneasy in our seats. He’s the one that seems to have it all together. Life has been all about duty. It’s about living this honorable life, or so he thinks and tries to project to the world. Things finally fall into place for him. His brother has left. All his judgments have proven true. There is now nothing that stands between him and his father and the inheritance. Everything is just perfect. Until that moment…the brother returns and all that seems honorable and dutiful begins to seethe from within him. There is no room in this house for the two of them. Not only that, but he witnesses the father’s love, which he thought was about duty and honor, only to witness something much different. The life he tried to project onto the world was no more, a crack in the facade and what do we find? Envy, jealousy, resentment, anger, bitterness. You name it and this guy is holding onto it. Makes you wonder what their relationship was like when they were together or was it even a relationship. This young man had no space within to welcome his brother home and for that matter, his father. He had no space for love. There literally was, no room in the inn, within his heart. He fell for the trap as the Pharisees did, that what they did and their role was their identity and that defined them. When love is presented they have no space for it.

We can go on and on with this passage and there is nothing more you can than to find time to sit with it and sit with these characters. They are us and it is love that Love asks us to make room for within our hearts. Jesus doesn’t hate the Pharisees. All he does is try to move them to a place where they can see that they are something more and they can give up the facade, the image they are holding onto. However, the more we hold onto it, the more all that stuff that the elder son had within continues to grow within us. We want and desire love but we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s about something else. We want and desire relationship and reconciliation but we’ve convinced ourselves that we know better. It’s the story of the scribes and Pharisees. There was no room in the inn at the beginning of the gospel with the birth of Jesus and there still remains no room in the inn. We want to judge the other who sins without recognizing it within ourselves. Somehow their sin is greater than my own!
All these lost and found stories of Luke’s gospel have that same reality and why he says tax collectors and sinners are closer to the Kingdom of God. They’re the ones moving in on Jesus at the beginning of the story. Something within speaks and is luring them in, looking for something more in their lives, looking for love. The Pharisees, the elder son, eh, well, they have what they want and it sure isn’t love. At the center of our lives stands the Father, the Christ, welcoming us home, where there are unlimited rooms and unlimited space. The invitation is always there, but it then rests on us. Do we come running home only to find the Father already coming to meet us or turn our backs once again on the invitation, on love, for something we think will satisfy our deepest longing? Oh, it seems so easy but we know how hard it can be to get to that point of giving it all up, whether it’s the actions that have separated us or the interior muck and illusion we continue to hold onto about ourselves. No matter what, the Father awaits.

Winners and Losers then No One Wins

I enjoy watching sports as much as the next person. It’s ingrained in our culture and certainly a part of Americana. We all want to see our teams win; yet, with a win, someone else must lose and experience the agony of defeat. It was that way Saturday evening at Camden Yards, all tied up in the bottom of the ninth, Red Sox versus Orioles. It would take an extra inning, but the Orioles, with a walk-off home run, would pull one out on one of their fiercest rivals, the Boston Red Sox. It was a thrilling win and hopefully a turning point after a rough start to a season.

As much as winning and losing in sports is a part of the fiber of our being in this country, life isn’t always that way. Yet, it has trickled over into other aspects of our lives where I must be superior over the other, come out on top, be the winner despite the fact that someone then must lose. What does that do to the relationship? Can a relationship exist when it’s about winning and losing, rather than finding ways for a ‘win-win’, understanding, and reconciliation? Where does that leave the one that ‘lost’? What does it do to my own ego, the self-proclaimed winner in the face of the agony of such defeat and who else must I defeat to build on that thinking?

On Saturday evening, the winning and losing at Camden Yards was the backdrop of a larger reality that unfolded outside the stadium. Late in the game it was announced that fans must stay put in the stadium rather than venture out onto Eutaw Street to go wherever it is they were heading. Peaceful protests, regarding the death of Freddie Gray, turned sour with people injured, property destroyed, more than thirty arrested, and a city trying to grapple with a reality that, as we do so often, has drawn a line in the sand asking the wrong question of who’s the winner and who’s the loser, who’s right and who’s wrong, within the context of the death of a young man and yet problems that are much larger and deeper than his death. That’s what we like and it’s what we want, or so says our minds and our ego. It deepens divides that already exist and we never find resolution and healing. It gives one side proof that they’re right while the other is wrong and vice versa. It makes for great news drama and the way the story is spun by different broadcasts. It fuels tension and an already deep-seeded anger and mistrust which will always find a way to makes its way out into the world, often violently against ourselves and others. We find ourselves at a stalemate. We find ourselves between a rock and hard place, so wanting to choose sides, and how easy it is to do when one man is dead on one side and the “proof in the pudding” on the other as the violence erupted on Saturday evening and continues to unfold. Who am I to side with on this; who wins and who loses? Yet, I feel helpless, trying to sit in the tension of what is happening trying to make sense and peace with all of it.

If you’re anything like me, it’s hard to put yourself in the place of Freddie Gray. His life is not my own and his reality, if stories are correct, was nothing like the reality that I grew up and the reality I live in, despite living in the city of Baltimore. First of all, I’m some white guy trying to put myself in his place, which I can’t do; but I also believe it should not be so difficult for any of us to empathize with him, considering his life was cut short, and if it were someone in my family or yours, we too would be outraged. It’s safe to say, no one deserves that type of treatment and to be stripped of his dignity, regardless of his lived reality. However, ever-so subtly, lines are drawn and speculation is presented. He was dealing drugs. He was in trouble with the law many times over. The police were just trying to be preventative. The bottom line, so it is said, he was a troublemaker. All of that, begins to cloud my vision and what I see and the person I see as Freddie Gray. I begin to make judgment, no thanks to the news. Maybe he got what was coming to him? There’s one less ‘problem’ in the city. He brought it on himself. How can I even begin to think like that?!? I begin to make winners and losers in the case. It’s hard for my mind and my own brokenness not to devolve in such unhealthy ways and to react out of judgment; it happens in an unconscious way for all of us, especially if we’re not aware of it happening, and before you know it, sides are chosen, winners are chosen and resentment and anger builds and spills out into the streets.

But I also have a hard time putting myself in the place of police officers and politicians, including the mayor. I wouldn’t want any of their jobs. I can’t even begin to imagine what the roles they play does to one person. However, like Freddie, they too are human; something we can all relate to. They face a reality everyday unlike my own with much bigger problems that I would say, just as in the life of Freddie Gray, are beyond my understanding and can be extremely complex. The city faces problems that go way beyond politics, a reality that goes beyond judgment, it just is the case. Poverty, inequality, and so on go much deeper than the color of one’s skin or their mental state. Yet, that automatic pilot within me kicks in once again. I make judgments on what I have seen. If the police can break minor traffic laws that I’ve witnessed in my neighborhood, who’s to say what else is done when I’m not or someone else is not looking? Does it automatically put an element of doubt in my mind, especially after seeing the violence on Saturday evening? Maybe the police are right? What if I were in their place and pushed to such limits at times, what would I have done? Maybe they’re just doing their job and we all just have to live with the consequences and chalk the whole thing up as a mistake? Can we then live with such a reality since it then defines how we go forward in the future? How can I even begin to think like that; and yet I do, and maybe it’s my own uneasiness of such anger and the loss of control, but can’t that be said of everyone? Have I not been outraged at injustice and hurt in my own life, burying it deep within, only to have it spill out into my own life and actions? Again, sides are chosen, winners and losers are drawn; feeling helpless becomes the lived reality.

Winners and losers are great with sports, but in real life, when there are winners and losers, we all come out as losers and no one wins. No one wins when everything is kept on the surface, judged by behaviors, and within my thinking patterns and never moving below the surface because I will always dig my heels into the ground. We so often refuse to deal with the deeper issues at hand because it forces all of us to look at ourselves, no matter whether we are police or citizen, black or white, or however else we have drawn the line and split reality, because then we all are put in a position to change our thinking and our behavior and the way we respond to issues that present themselves, responding with love, compassion, and understanding. When we can no longer see each other as the same, and I’m not always sure that’s entirely possible, but when we no longer even try to see each other as the same, violence will always erupt because sides will be chosen, my position in the community will define where I stand, winners and losers will happen, resentment will grow deep within us, and a split reality will take shape, where in the end, a win-win becomes impossible, relationship breaks down, and unfortunately, no one wins and everyone loses.

That is the true reality of where we are at in this city, lost in the midst of a great divorce, trying to pick up pieces, not speaking to one another or simply speaking past one another, questioning the truth and lost in speculation, wondering what’s next, deciding on who’s right and wrong, what side will I choose, and so on and so on; the unending conveyor belt of questions that loom in my mind, split from my heart and quite possibly, the heart of the city. Anger, bitterness, and resentment loom on this cloudy afternoon. The city, after a tumultuous weekend and now spilling over into a new week, is left with such questions engulfed in a debate of the culture within, but also an invitation into the deeper questions on identity and who the city wants to be; can it be reconciled and healed? That can only come through honest dialogue, free of judgement and legalities, through person to person, side to side, coming to a common ground, found at its core, charm city as she’s known, a winner in my books. The city, and each of us, stands at a threshold before we are too quick to choose sides, draw lines and act out of our own judgments, a few things for all of us to ponder as we try to breathe deeply these days, trying to respond with dignity, love, and compassion. Do I go back to what has been once again and a reality that has not worked and is not working, leaving all of us lost in the end or do I use the opportunity to cross over into something new, a greater lived reality where we all come out with a win and free? It’s not just a question for the mayor or the police department or any one neighborhood; rather, it’s a question we all must sit with and reflect upon if we are to confront problems and change culture, honestly and head-on, and rise above to become what we all dream this city to be, a city that has lost a lot but lives with the opportunity for some great wins in the future.