Illusionary Violence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Flooded Awakening

Jeremiah 20: 7-9; Romans 12: 1-2; Matthew 16: 21-27

Like most of you, I’m sure, I witnessed many remarkable stories out of Texas this week.  I think it’s just amazing what people can do when they’re pushed to that edge when nothing else matters but life.  You know, it wasn’t just in Texas either.  There were more than 41 million people in South Asia impacted by similar flooding this past week but because of our own devastation we didn’t hear as much about it.  I happened to catch an interview on the Weather Channel from a woman who had lost everything like so many others.  You know, I had it on as background noise as I was doing some work but I came to attention as I listened to her speak.  She had commented about losing everything except a few personal belongings, but it was what she went onto say that struck me.  She said, “You know, I had no idea how blind I had become.  I had no idea how blind I had become to what I thought was important.”  Right there, on the Weather Channel, a witness to a God moment.  First an acknowledgement of her own blindness and then a recognition of what really matters in life, what’s most important.

I don’t know why it is, but as humans it seems to be that we only ever get to that point when we’re pushed to that edge.  For whatever reason, over the course of time, we buy into the lie, into the illusion, that somehow these things can’t and won’t happen to us.  Whether it’s our desire for safety and security in our life and fear of losing it all or maybe buying into the ways of the culture of what it means to be successful, that somehow we need the newest and the best and the biggest.  For whatever reason, as humans, we seem to be lulled into believing that there are more important things that are going to satisfy us, bring us fulfillment, make us happy, and without them nothing else matters.  It’s often only when we lose it all, when it’s washed away in the floods, when we can say just how blind we had become and finally begin to question what’s most important to us, what do we value most in life, the relationships, the people, the life that God has given to us.  Whether we like it or not, it’s going to happen to us and is happening to us, and as Saint Francis would say, it’s best to enter into relationship not only with life but with Sister Death, so that when the ultimate death arrives we can surrender much more easily.

It is the wrestling we do in this life that also encounter in these readings this weekend.  No, not in the form of floods and the loss of all personal belongings, but very much in the sufferings of trying to be true to oneself and living from that place of the divine, from what matters and is valued the most within us.  Jeremiah seemed to perpetually live that with struggle with what it was God was inviting him into and the ways of the world.  He feels that he was somehow duped by God, seduced by this God, into this way of life that has led him to a place of ridicule and being made fun of by others and eventually even threatening his life from the powers that be.  As much as he thinks God has duped him it’s really the ways of the world that dupes!  He tries constantly to live the life that God had planted within him, to the point where he could feel the fire burning within his very being if he doesn’t.  But the people of the world want nothing to do with it as he threatens their own sense of security and success.  No one wants to hear that they may be living a life that is less fulfilling than it can be.  But he realizes if he doesn’t live the life God had given him, he sells his soul in the process and is it worth gaining the whole world for the sacrifice of one’s integrity and one’s authenticity.  As that woman said in that interview, she had no idea how blind she had become.  It’s not even that we want all of it but it happens over time, convincing ourselves over and over again that somehow that will be the trick to my unhappiness or my dissatisfaction in life.  Jeremiah reminds us it is only by being true to the divine calling placed within ourselves.

Paul also speaks of it in today’s second reading reminding the Romans not to conform to the ways of the world.  Jesus reiterates it to the disciples asking them what is most important and what is valued most.  Just last week Peter was given this place of authority in the group, this prominent place among the other disciples and already he’s buying into the what success means of the world.  Somehow he even thinks that Jesus is free of suffering and loss.  He begins to think as we often tell ourselves that it’s not going to happen to us.  Somehow we will be free of suffering in our lives despite the fact that we know one of the only things we can be sure of is that at some point Sister Death will come knocking and is knocking, trying to awaken us from our own blindness and move us to greater depths within ourselves and asking what’s most important, what do we value the most.  The more we give into this false sense of security and success and even this invincibility, the more we separate ourselves from the divine, from the soul, from what matters most to us.

We are being given a graced moment right now.  Sure, we are called to help our brothers and sisters in Texas and throughout the month we’ll be collecting money through the poor box here.  But we also mustn’t forget that they do not walk this suffering alone.  We stand on that edge with the people of Texas, the people of South Asia, and with anyone suffering at this moment we stand with them.  The silver lining in it all for us is that we don’t have to wait.  As Saint Francis testified with his own life, learn to let go of the illusions and lies that the world tries to sell us, that there is something better than the divine indwelling.  It so wants to rob us of it and assure us that it’s the be all and end all, what is most necessary for fulfillment in life.  It will happen to all of us, maybe on in severe flooding, but in the testing of our own mortality, our midlife crises that creep up on us, loss and suffering, all of it seems to be one of the few ways to wake us from our blindness as it did that woman in Texas.  We don’t have to wait in our lives.  The question remains with us no matter what.  It’s a matter if we can be aware of it and even begin to stand on the edge with it, asking ourselves what really matters, what’s most important in our lives and is any of it worth sacrificing our own lives, our own souls for it.

Shattered Illusions

1Kgs 19: 16, 19-21; Gal 5: 1, 13-18; Luke 9: 51-62

I think it’s safe to say that none of us have and probably will never have an experience of being homeless. It’s just not our reality. However, we know we don’t have to go far to experience it and see it, and before you know it, when we find ourselves there that sense of uncomfortableness is right there with us, especially when someone is sticking a sign in our face. But that has nothing to do with them. It’s me and you that feel uncomfortable, and maybe deep down that’s because we know it can be us and is us, in some ways.

We must be mindful when we hear this gospel today that Jesus and the would-be-disciples are those very people. They are always transient and on the go with “nowhere to rest” their heads. This call to discipleship and a commitment to the Lord is one that is to lead us beyond what makes us comfortable, secure, and safe. As a matter of fact, they are all but illusions anyway and stand in our way of growing deeper in our faith and in our commitment to the Lord. He seems rather terse in his language today, with no time for compassion for anyone, but right to the point. There’s not even a regard for going to bury the dead. Let the dead bury the dead he says to the would-be’s. For Jesus it’s about the breaking in of the Kingdom, living it, and preaching it with our lives! It seems as if it has nothing to do with what we make of life of comfort, safety, and security. As a matter of fact, he seems to lead them to just the opposite.

Him and the would-be-disciples are on their way up to Jerusalem but not without a stop in Samaria. Now, you don’t need a scripture degree to know that this is going to cause a problem for them. We all know that they don’t like the Samaritans and the Samaritans don’t like them, yet, Jesus seems to lead them to this place of conflict, to this place of uncomfortableness. Again, mindful, they are traveling with nothing so all the comforts have been taken away. They have no way to defend themselves against the Samaritans. But what’s their first reaction, James and John want to send down fire upon them. Jesus will immediately rebuke the use of violence against them, but rather move to and meet them in their uncomfortableness, the Samaritan within themselves. Violence only begets more violence. He moves them to this place of freedom within themselves.

It’s that freedom that Paul speaks of in his letter to the Galatians. It’s not freedom in what we speak about when it comes to religion and speech or bearing arms, for Paul it was something interior. That idea that Pope Francis speaks of that we need to be a poor Church is the freedom that Paul speaks of, that it goes beyond financial but rather to an interior poverty that frees us from the illusions that we create of comfort, safety, and security. He tries to lead them to that place of poverty, that homelessness within themselves rather that becoming trapped by the illusions of the flesh as he says it. Even that we have had a tendency to limit to the body and sex, but for Paul, it was the illusions we create rather than being led by the Spirit, from that place of poverty within.

And so maybe the story of Elijah and Elisha says it best. Once Elisha accepts this call to be the prophet raised up by the Lord, he goes and burns everything. Everything! All that he has and owns he knows is going to only get in the way and weigh him down from trusting that deeper place within himself. Like us, the would-be-disciples, Elisha understands the trappings of life aren’t even necessarily the material goods we hang onto, but the illusions that the create for us, that feeling of being comfortable, of being secure, and of being safe. It’s all an illusion and it’s what Paul warns against to the Galatians and it’s what Jesus warns against in the gospel to the would-be-disciples. It seems as if they had no other choice but to give it all away, to walk into the uncomfortableness of not having, and finding a fuller life through it.

As the would-be-disciples, we’re called to do the same. Again, it’s not always about the actual material goods in our lives, but rather the illusion that they give us that isn’t even real to begin with; rather, they make us feel secure, comfortable, and safe until we find ourselves encountering the one who has not, not only the homeless one but our Lord. Quite possibly the only way to experience the Lord and accept that call of the would-be-disciples is to be led as he does in the gospels today, to what is unknown or to what we think we know and have the illusions shatter. When we do, we begin to see what we’re truly missing in life and that’s life itself. It’s no longer about feeling uncomfortable when we face that homeless person but rather, knowing that, deep down, that person is me and all I have and could put my trust in is the Lord who calls, ultimately, to life itself.

A Yearning for Mystery

Exodus 3: 1-8, 13-15; I Corinth 10: 1-6, 10-12; Luke 13: 1-9

As imminent and edgy the message is from Jesus today about repenting, changing, seeking conversion, whatever way you want to describe it, it’s really Paul that sends up the flares to the people of Corinth today that they need to change their ways less their world is about to fall apart around them. We hear at the end of that reading that the one that thinks his life is secure should anticipate a fall. As a people that are obsessed with safety and security, I think it’s something we can relate to in our own circumstances. Maybe the reality is that this journey that we participate in, not only during Lent, but throughout our entire lives, is more about falling than it is safety and security. As a matter of fact, when it comes to faith, there is no safety and security, there is only falling freely into this deeper mystery, into the great I AM.

But the people of Corinth, like us, look for something to hold onto, something tactile, something known that gives us the illusion of safety and security. For them, as often us, it’s their way of life. In particular here, he calls them out about the way their treating other people and the traps of idols that they have created for themselves. He has even witnessed how they celebrate the Eucharist. It’s not like we celebrate it here, where anyone can walk in off the streets. In Corinth it’s still done in small communities, in homes and it had become a celebration of the elites, excluding others or at best offering them the scraps left over. These were a people that were caught up in greed, power, sex, and it was beginning to take a toll on the larger community, the common good of the people. Paul wants to warn them that this will all pass and fall apart for it’s not grounded in faith. They have the yearning within for something more, love, God, the promised land, whatever you want to call it, but they seek it and try to fill it in all the wrong ways. As it goes, the larger you build and try to protect yourself, feeling safe and secure, the harder you’ll fall when things that will pass begin to crumble.

The story of the fall is also that of people Israel. Even Paul makes reference to that in the reading to the Corinthians where many perished during their time in the desert. Of course, it’s no easy experience for them individually or as a people. Of course, the one charged with leading them in that experience we hear from in today’s first reading from Exodus, none other than Moses himself. Their journey, though, is first Moses’ journey. He too must learn to let go of what has given him security and safety and learn to fall into this mystery, into the great I AM that he encounters today. Anyone that allows themselves to participate in such an experience knows how difficult that is, in letting go and feeling like the world is falling apart around them. He will soon head out to meet Israel, finding itself in the throws of slavery in Egypt, not only at the hands of the Egyptians, but their own way of life, which is why the desert becomes central to their journey and ours.

Remember even that experience, though, as the build the golden calf as they seek the promised land. They too look for something to hold onto, something that will give them some sense of security and safety, albeit it an illusion, but there nonetheless. Like Paul, Moses becomes frustrated with them, and yet over and over again, encounters this mystery inviting him to fall into the hands of I AM, a God that weeps for people Israel. A God that weeps for the people of Corinth. A God that continues to weep for his people that have such a desire deep within, a yearning for love, for relationship, for the promised land, and yet they prefer to hold onto their old way of life, a life that no longer satisfies, a life that no longer fulfills. How much better, and yet, how much harder to allow ourselves to fall into mystery. That’s faith. That’s the spiritual journey we walk together.

Throughout it all, God remains faithful, calling forth to this new place, never giving up. Despite that imminent call to repent in today’s Gospel, it’s coupled with this parable of the fig tree that no longer bears fruit. What once was no longer gives life. The immediate reaction, as is often ours, is to destroy it, get rid of it, it no longer produces. The gardener, though, like God, doesn’t see death but rather opportunity for growth in the face of no longer bearing fruit. Rather than destroying it, cultivate the plant, nurture it, and hope for life to be given. If anything, we can be thankful that God doesn’t just discard us and dispose of us, but rather remains faithful through it all, inviting us into the deeper yearning of our hearts and fall into the the mystery of I AM.

These are tough readings to preach on and to hear but readings we need to take to heart in our own lives and especially during this lenten season and we have our own experience of exodus. I know the natural response is safety and security, to hold onto things even if they no longer give us life, but we are called forth today as individuals and community to look at our lives and ask ourselves what we’re holding onto, that no longer feeds us and no longer bears fruit. No, it’s not the call to destroy; God takes us warts and all. Rather, it’s an invitation to let go of what has given us security and to fall more deeply into love and in love with the mystery Moses encounters today in the burning bush, the mystery of the great I AM.