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?

Expanding Our Vision

I spent this past weekend helping to lead a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat which I believe I’ve done for nearly eight years now. I never leave the experience without some sense of wonder and awe, not only at what people manage to live through in their lives, but undoubtably the courage they have to see it through to the other side. Or if anything, to begin the process of passing through.

If there’s one thing about pain and suffering, it has a way of narrowing our world view and often to the point where the sense of the eternal seems all but lost. Everything that we see and experience is viewed through that one narrow lens that does not lead to reconciliation and conversion, but to greater isolation and separation. It seems like the endless spiral of life for so many, choice after endless choice only leading to greater violence towards life and to ourselves.

It is the story of salvation history, though, as well. All this season we hear these great messages of hope from the Prophet Isaiah, including this Sunday. It is certainly the story of people Israel who often found itself in conflict after conflict, leading to greater separation. In today’s reading, despite the message of hope, Jerusalem once again plans for an impending attack from beyond its walls but also from within as this ongoing separation that leads to greater injustice and suffering. Heck, even if you go today it isn’t much different from thousands of years ago. It’s probably one of the craziest cities I’ve visited. They are so focused on their own pain and the need to protect that it has led to building walls that separate, from our own faith, the place of birth from the marking of death, a separation of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. It’s led to great problems beyond the walls and in places like Bethlehem, leading to a greater degree of poverty and injustice towards the people. Their vision had become so narrowed and they start believing that they really are the eternal rather than seeing it all metaphorically, that it eventually leads to their demise and destruction, time and again.

Yet, the message for Jerusalem and for us this weekend is of hope. That somehow these seeming opposites in the natural world will somehow lead the way and bring example to us humans as to how it’s done. Is there possibility for reconciliation? Is there possibility for less separation and a working towards greater justice, especially for the most vulnerable? Isaiah likes to believe so. For as hard as Isaiah can be on people Israel, this season offers a message of hope to those who have only known darkness and despair, to those who have viewed their lives through their constant suffering and the greater degree of poverty it leads to in one’s heart and soul. Like so many of our own sins, even those who walk this horror movie through the experience of making a life-ending choice, are so often symptoms of something much deeper going on in our lives, both individually and collectively.

Certainly John the Baptist was aware of this and everyone around him was aware of it. It’s why he was such a threat to the leaders, who often perpetuated the darkness for their own benefit, but also to the structures of his time. He was leading a revolution to call out the injustices of the society of his time, but for John it began with himself and for those who followed. He called them to look at themselves and how they too have sinned on this deeper than cellular level of their lives. The Pharisees and Sadducees knew it and did everything to avoid the fear that arose within themselves before the one who threatened their perceived power. John’s message is to repent, to do an about-face in life and to be awakened from their slumber to a new way of life, a life with greater vision, expanded vision, of a true and lasting God that sets them free.

This is the God we celebrate today and the God we prepare for all at the same time. There is no denying the greater darkness that has ensued so many lives, defined lives, ceased lives, and has caused us so often to stop growing ourselves. We get to a place that begins to seem hopeless as our world continues to shrink and dissolve around us, as the storm seemingly collapses over and over again before and within us. But there is hope. With just a crack in the walls we have created, the light begins to shine forth and God once again begins to break through and we submit ourselves to the invitation. This is a season of hope and a season to not only celebrate but to prepare for as the eternal breaks in and is broken open before our very eyes on this Table. As we gather and go forth, we pray we may continue to allow ourselves to be open to something and someone bigger than ourselves, to expand our vision while healing our pain and suffering. It is the fullness of life God desires of each of us and a fullness of life promised in this season of Advent.

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.

Uncertain Certainty

2 Macc 7: 1-2, 9-14; Luke 20: 27-38

As we enter into this month of November, our focus in the liturgical year begins to shift to what lies beyond us. We remember all of our loved ones that have died and that sometimes weigh on us. The whole month has a different feel to it than the rest of the year as the liturgical year begins to draw to a close.

Death is one of those strange things that we must deal with in our lives. Many have sat in this very church when a loved one dies and feels as if time ceases. We tell ourselves things in order to bring comfort in the face of death. It’s as if a new clock begins to tick after we die, an eternal clock, which only leads to further separation. It becomes something we anticipate rather than allow ourselves to experience in this moment. There is, rather a continuity and a continuation of time. The very last line of the gospel today reminds us that for God all are alive. That means us here who are living and breathing but also those that have died and continue to live in the eternal time that we share. It’s a challenge for us to define our lives by the eternal rather than trying to define the eternal by our earthly ways.

That’s the challenge Jesus faces with the Sadducees in today’s gospel. You know, for all the tension that often exists between Jesus and the Pharisees, this is the one time that they are all on the same page. They all believe in the resurrection. The Sadducees, on the other hand, do not which creates this interaction today that we hear on what seems to be a rather ridiculous story about marriage. The Sadducees would be what we call religious philosophers. You know they look for answers to such questions. But with such answers they want certainty, and to know; they want black and white. They want to try to define what we call heaven on their terms rather than allowing themselves to be comfortable with uncertainty, the unknown.

They’re a lot like us. It is the stuff we tell ourselves because it somehow brings comfort in our grief. We want to know that all who have gone before us are somehow ok and safe. It’s in those moments that we start to separate ourselves from death and define the unknown in our own terms. We start to separate ourselves from the other half of the mystery that we are. It sounds morbid to us at times but we are all dying and the more we allow ourselves to learn to die and practice dying, the less we have to fear it and the more at ease we are with the unknown and with uncertainty. The Sadducees want to know and want answers. If we can’t see it then we’ll define it ourselves rather than embracing what we don’t know. It’s us trying to give comfort to ourselves by defining the eternal rather than allowing the eternal to define us.

We then have this story of the Maccabean Martyrs in the first reading today. It’s worth a read but not for the faint of heart. The king was a vicious guy. But like the Sadducees, operates from a different place than the brothers and their mother. But like the gospel, it’s not just about them refusing to eat pork. That would be rather ridiculous as well. These were men who lived their lives in a very different way. They were truly faithful in its truest sense. They had no fear of death but at the same time, they weren’t willing to allow the king to define their lives. They lived from a place where they no longer had to fear death and the unknown. They were certain not about what they could see but rather what was unseen and unknown. To be people of faith we must learn to embrace the fullness of the mystery. When we cut ourselves off from death, the unknown, we ultimately cut ourselves off from the eternal and we start to define it for ourselves, in certain terms rather than in its fullness.

It is what we try to do each week here at this Table. It is about making the invisible, visible. About what making what is unknown, known before our very eyes. We have often lost that in making this into something we simply are obligated to do rather than not only recognizing that it is who we are but is also who we are becoming. It’s about allowing the eternal to define us rather than us defining the eternal through our earthly means. It may give us certainty in our own minds, but it closes us off and cuts us off from a more fuller life by embracing the mystery in its fullness, life and death. We believe in a God who is for all who are alive, both living and breathing at this moment and all who no longer physically present. That should ease our anxiety that we create for ourselves about dying and the eternal and it no longer has to be something that we simply experience after we die and yet then as well.

This is who we are. We are a people that desires certainty and knowing and yet we never will. We are a people that want to feel comfort for all who have gone before us, but never will in the way that we think. Time does not cease to exist but carries on and everyone with us. When we learn to embrace this very mystery of life and death, the paradox is, we learn to live more fully. Why would we not want that for ourselves and our loved ones?

Disruptive Blind Spots

Sirach 35: 12-14, 16-18; 2Tim 4: 6-8, 16-18; Luke 18: 9-14

Anyone who drives is well aware of what we call “the blind spot”. We know the havoc it could cause for us as drivers if we are not paying attention to it. It’s our most vulnerable place as drivers and can cause great harm if we forget about it. The same is true, as we know, for Joe Flacco and other quarterbacks. They have their blindside. When his isn’t protected, as we’ve seen a lot recently, he finds himself on his back end more than anything. It’s his vulnerable point and has to be protected and not forgotten.

The same is true for our spiritual life and our lives in general. Like when we drive, it is our most vulnerable place and if evil and sin is going to work its way into our lives that’s precisely where it’s going to happen. Yet, we like to ignore it and are often so unaware of it that it has a tendency to control our lives, sometimes unaware that our lives can even be better than it is. They are our blindspots, our blindside, that can find a way to separate us from ourselves, from others, and from God.

In the stories we hear each week, our blind spot is often represented through the Pharisee. Even when Jesus uses other stories, they’re often about the pharisees and what they can’t see about themselves. However, as we march our way through Luke’s gospel, he seems to be more forward with them, specifically calling the one entering into prayer a Pharisee who finds himself disconnected from the tax collector and from God for that matter. Everything that he wants to point out about others are often his own faults and points of vulnerability and yet becomes blinded by them, presenting himself in a rather conceited way before God. What he does is what we often all try to do, thinking we can trick God into believing that we’re someone other than we really are, as if God is somehow not going to love us or forgive us if God really knows who we are. So what do we do? We created an affront and not always even consciously, but our blind spot is hard at work separating us and leading us to believe we can be someone other than who we are.

Paul knows it all too well. He is the master of the ego and knows all too well what life is like when the blind spot is directing life, often separating us from our own humanity. Yet, today we hear his continuation of his letter to Timothy. He’s imprisoned and nearing the end of his life, using such poetic language to speak about the constant need for turning his life over the Lord, seeking redemption and greater freedom. Everyone has abandoned him at this point because of the challenge he created in their lives. He wasn’t only good at recognizing his own blind spot but calling others out for theirs. They don’t want to hear that. And yet, to move towards holiness and wholeness in our lives, we have to come to the Lord and this Table as we are, entirely. We aren’t going to trick God into believing something about us nor are we going to trick ourselves. This sense that we have to come to the Lord perfect stands as a great obstacle to the good in our lives and an obstacle to holiness and wholeness and leading an authentic life.

Sirach also points out this need to be vulnerable before the Lord as the writer speaks of a God who shows no favorites. It is a God who is partial to the weak and hears the cry of the oppressed, a God not deaf to the orphans, or for that matter as with today’s gospel, a tax collector who acknowledges his own sinfulness and recognizes this deeper need for God’s mercy and forgiveness. It’s someone that realizes they no longer need to hide from God, no longer need to disguise or ignore their blind spot, but rather come to God as they are, in need of mercy and forgiveness. The reversals happen once again where the tax collector upstages the pharisee and God meets humanity at its most vulnerable point, redemption and salvation happens in a moment of oneness and connectedness.

As we come to this Table today, we pray we may be aware as to how we gather. Are we still trying to play games with God, presenting ourselves as “perfect” never allowing ourselves to be changed and transformed by this Eucharist. There is great freedom when we can come to accept that we don’t need to come here perfect but rather only as ourselves, sinners in need of mercy and forgiveness. Why do we want to put that pressure on ourselves to be something we aren’t? It keeps us from growing in relationship with ourselves, with others, and with God. It also becomes an obstacle from living an authentic life. We pray, like when we drive, that we are always aware of that blind spot in our own lives and to know the havoc it could play in our lives. We’re more than that not because of what it wants to tell us, but rather because of who we are, sinners, yet loved and always being called forth to mercy and forgiveness.

Neighborly Love

Deut 30: 10-14; Luke 10: 25-37

The gospel we hear today, the Good Samaritan, is one of those passages that is really hard to preach on. We’ve heard it a thousand times and so we know it and then have a tendency to tune it out. It makes it hard to hear it different and it makes it hard to says something different about it as well. Because it’s so familiar, even in our laws, we view it from our own particular lens. All of our lives and our baggage is viewed through the lens of the story. There’s also the backdrop of the revolving door of violence that we once again see in this city and country that really challenges us to look at the question of who is our neighbor and in what ways are we neglecting others. Lastly, there is the backdrop of the gospel itself and what was happening at that time when the story is told and written down that influences why it’s told. So there’s a lot going on to understanding and yet being challenged to hear and live in a new way through the story of the Good Samaritan, bearing in mind all of these backdrops that influence the story. Quite honestly, it would have been a whole lot easier if the story ended after the first question and answer, but Luke, unlike the others, has this way of throwing zingers into the story that make you stop, just as he does by adding the story of the elder son in the Prodigal Son parable.

One of the main backdrops of the gospel itself is this law of what it means to be clean and unclean. As a matter of fact, if you read the gospels through it’s as if they were obsessed with this law. The reality is, according to the law, the priest and the Levite in today’s gospel did nothing wrong. They did what the law had prescribed at crossing the street and avoiding the person that was beat up, robbed, and now half dead. However, their obsession with the law stands in the way of the essence of that very law of loving God and neighbor, as the scholar of the law asks of Jesus. Everything becomes about separation. They learn to separate themselves from the unclean, the impure, what they perceive as wrong and bad, all for the sake of their own self. Their entire relationship with God was tied up in this belief and still is for some, thousands of years later! As long as I separate from it and stay clean then I’m good with God and good with others. If the scholar of the law wasn’t so hung up on tripping Jesus up and winning this argument, he would have left it go at that point rather than posing the real question, then, who is my neighbor. The scholar opens the door and Jesus walks through.

In comes the Samaritan. The one the scholar would have considered the most unclean and the one that is hated enters the scene with the largest heart. There are probably a variety of reasons that we can say on behalf of the Samaritan. The Samaritan really has nothing to lose. Although the Pharisees would try to hold them to their obsession with the law, they don’t. That’s not to say that the Samaritan is perfect. They have their own issues with the Jews but the difference is, the Samaritans are already unclean and on the bottom of the barrel and they really have nothing to lose. The culpability comes on behalf of the Pharisees who are the holders of the law and have the perceived power; the Samaritans, not so much.

The one that really would find themselves in a bind is the one lying on the side of the road, beaten up, robbed, and half dead. They’re most likely a Jew coming from Jerusalem and now they have been cared for by the one hated the most and the one who is unclean, the Samaritan. We can only believe that there would be a crisis of faith on his part as to how to reconcile this obsession with the law and the experience of the essence of the same law by the one who had been separated from the rest. You know, it’s one thing to consider myself neighgor to the one that talks like me, acts like me, talks like me, looks like me, believes like me. But, you got to believe that was never the intention nor the demand of this gospel. Quite frankly, that plays from the place of comfort, from the place of the priest and Levite of ourselves. When we do this, that’s how so much violence continues to happen around us because we continue to separate and divide ourselves and deciding for ourselves who will be our neighbor rather than seeing all, especially those who are hurting the most as our neighbor. We can be complicit in violence simply by our lack of responsibility and empathy towards the other.

In his own farewell discourse today, Moses tries to convey that to the Israelites. They think they can’t do it without him, that somehow he’s the one who takes responsibility for their lives. He says in such a beautiful way that it’s not his responsibility! You don’t need to cross the sea or go up into the sky, the gift to bridge these divides is already within each of you. It’s the responsibility of all of us. We can choose to blame and not take responsibility for our own violence in our lives when we fail to forgive and reconcile or when we choose to cross the street out of fear of the one who may make me unclean, but deep down we’ll start to feel as if something is missing, something is separated and is yearning to return and unite.

We can make this story about what we normally do about going and being kind but what the heck does that mean anyway. The demand of Jesus in this story and overall is not kindness, albeit important, but rather love and mercy. If we continue to separate ourselves, and we do it with this city, that somehow that’s their problem and not ours. No. It’s all our problem because hurt is a human problem. So much violence connotes hurting people, people wanting to be heard, a voice crying out, and if we choose to ignore it, then we are no better than the priest and Levite in today’s gospel. According to the letter of the law, we’ve done nothing wrong, but at our very essence and the essence of our humanity, we are just as culpable because they are our neighbor and our neighbor is us. In what ways am I choosing to separate, often at my own doing and out of a deeply rooted fear, that which I have deemed unclean, impure, bad, or wrong, the Samaritan within myself, that helps me to empathize with the other; not just be kind to neighbor, but to love more deeply all our brothers and sisters, both here and beyond.

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.