Grounded in Love

Jeremiah 33: 14-16; I Thess 3: 12–4: 2; Luke 21: 25-28, 34-36

Ben Sasse, the Senator from Nebraska, has a new book out entitled, Them:  Why We Hate Each Other—And How To Heal.  For the record I have not read the book, just articles about the book as well as the free sample on my Kindle.  The basic premise, though, for Sasse, is that the problems that divide go much deeper than the political rhetoric that we have become accustomed to hearing.  Rather, he says, that the deeper problem facing American society is loneliness.  Now it may not necessarily be in the way we use that word, but he goes onto say that there has been so much upheaval and uprooted-ness in our society that we no longer have a grounding.  When it comes to technology, our work place, and even our home life, there is so much change that the natural inclination is to turn in on ourselves and the deep pain that often inflicts us.  He says that it leaves us wandering as a people, leading to greater suicide and drug addiction because of this deep loneliness that is leaving us uprooted.  If we understand that, then we can begin to see different situation and the way many react to them, like globalization or even people crossing into this country, we pull back in fear and anxiety because some are left wondering just how much we can change and be uprooted, losing our grounding as people and losing that sense of community that once defined us.

We don’t have to look far, not even into history books, to find this same reality lived out.  The story of wandering and being uprooted is Israel’s story and so ours as well.  As a matter of fact, it’s probably more their story than not.  We often think we’re the first to go through such an upheaval and it’s just not true.  All the prophets we’ll now hear from in Advent and Christmas are going to deliver one message to Israel and that’s of hope.  Wandering became a way of life for them, never at home, always feeling uprooted, and more often than not believing that God has left them to wander.  Jeremiah gives them that same message today.  Here they are, once again in exile and wandering, and it’s gone on longer than they even could have imagined.  They are beginning to despair.  For hundreds of years they were promised of the new King that would sit on the line of David and that would somehow make everything right after war and exile became the name of the game.  Nation stood against nation.  Despair and darkness seemed to rule their hearts.  You could only imagine that even as Jeremiah proclaims this message of hope, that God would root up a new sprout to bring them hope that it would go on deaf ears.  However, exile and wandering is often a necessary part of the journey towards trusting this God that leads them through the darkest moments of their lives.  They may not always know where they are going or what this new way of life looks like, but all they can do is learn to let go of all the rest and trust in this God of mystery.  We mustn’t give into despair otherwise fear too reigns in our hearts.  As Jesus reminds us, tribulations will arise, and they certainly did for Israel, and all one must do is continue to push through in hope and the promise of life will be fulfilled.

It’s also true of the Thessalonians whom Paul writes today.  It’s the earliest of his writings to this community, a community as well that finds itself struggling and trying to find its way.  Paul’s message is quite simple to them today, and to us for that matter.  This is a community that is beginning to see itself fracture, and thinking as insiders and outsiders, us and them, as even Sasse warns us about.  They want to cling to a tradition that no longer serves but rather needs to be recreated.  Paul reminds them today that the deepest roots you have as community is none of that which passes away in this life; rather, it’s love.  Paul reminds them that if they are a community that is rooted in love they will never lose hope in the trial and tribulations that will arise.  The problem is they want to be rooted in their politics or even as Church in dogma and doctrine, but if that’s the case we quickly become uprooted.  None of that can ground us as people and so we’re left wandering when all else begins to fail us.  It begins to feel just as Jesus describes in today’s Gospel, as if everything is in flux and all is being turned upside down and inside out.  It’s a painful process of new life.  Any parent here can tell us just how painful it is to give birth to a child.  It’s no different when God is trying to give birth to a new people, a new nation, a new community that is grounded in something much more, grounded in love.

Advent provides us the time, albeit quick, to pause and recognize our own pain at this time, how it is we may be experiencing that loneliness as well in our lives as God tries to free us to give birth.  Fear and anxiety have a way of taking hold of all of our hearts, but more often than not, our way of thinking is what needs to die.  It not only has to die; it needs to die quite often, in order for new life to take root.  In the process, as Jesus tells us, our heart begin to become drowsy and the darkness of the day begins to set in.  How quickly we want to give into despair when we see all the reactions, but more often than not, it’s because we refuse to deal with the real issues, the underlying pain that exists as a human race and that becomes what we cling to the most.  It’s often the last gasp we have.  In the midst of all of it, just as it is for Israel, we mustn’t lose hope.  It is hope that will give us the grace to continue to push through the new life promised.  It’s a life not only anticipated at Christmas, but a life that God promises us at this point in our life and at this very moment.  We can’t rush it; all we can do is trust.  Israel returns from exile and finds its grounding once again, but now in a deeper way.  My friends, we are invited to the same.  Where are we rooted and even being uprooted in our lives?  Sure it may feel fearful and painful, but the promise of life and the hope of the season will see us to the light of a new day.

Suffering Silence

Isaiah 50: 5-9; Mark 8: 27-35

If you follow Church politics, and it’s really hard not to at the moment, then you know there’s been this debate about Pope Francis being silent on the accusations brought against him, and many others for that matter, except the guy making the accusations.  Now I’m not here to judge whether it’s right or wrong.  I don’t know it all nor all the facts so it’s hard to make such a judgment in the first place.  However, in the age we live we demand answers and justice.  We somehow think we deserve to know it all.  We want to react and overreact to everything without ever taking the time to step back and allow things to sink into the silence.

All that said, it’s important to keep in mind that both have been silent on it, both Pope Francis and the former diplomat who made the accusations.  There is, though, a difference in their silence.  The former diplomat is in hiding, not unlike the disciples on that first Easter when they were locked in the upper room out of fear.  Quite frankly, it’s easy to throw a lot of dirt and then run, but that is a silence rooted in fear.  It leads to secrecy and shame, a silence we’re all too familiar with in our own lives and from the Church for that matter.

There is, though, a silence that accompanies suffering.  It’s a silence we’re often less familiar with because we do everything in our power to avoid it.  It’s a silence that creates space for uncomfortableness, rather than fear and anxiety.  It’s a silence that moves us to deeper places in our own hearts, to a place of freedom, a place where the truth can be revealed.  It’s a silence that requires patience, quite frankly, to simply be in our suffering rather than reacting demanding truth, because, quite frankly, for us, it’s a truth that will never satisfy our own restlessness, other than maybe a few days or so, it’s thinking as humans does rather than as God, as Jesus points out today.

It’s this type of silence that Mark writes about throughout his gospel including what we hear today where he warns them not to tell anyone.  However, it doesn’t take long for Peter, and the others, to start doing the inevitable.  With each passing story there is a small bit of information and fact that is revealed, just as it is today, and they immediately think they know it all.  They think they have all the truth and will begin to abuse it.  They know what they know but they don’t know why and certainly don’t know what they don’t know.  The rest of Mark’s gospel will begin to reveal that mystery until it’s ultimate climax in the paradox of the Cross, the crossing of life and death that will reveal the deeper truth that they desire.  So when Jesus warns Peter today about shooting off his mouth, Mark tells us he looks at all of them to do it, warning the crew about their inevitable sin of not being able to sit with what is revealed and allow the deeper truth to continue to be revealed.  The next scene is the transfiguration in Mark’s Gospel and following that they will begin to argue about who’s the greatest, who’s has higher stature in the group, and so on, unable to allow the pieces of the puzzle to be revealed, step by step, and learning to live into that mystery, into that silence.  It’s painful, and like us, they want nothing to do with any of it.  Yet, it’s the only way for truth to be revealed, a truth that goes beyond facts and knowledge.  That forces us to stay on the surface and never delve into the deeper problems of a broken humanity.

It is also Isaiah’s struggle in the first reading today.  This is a reading we normally hear on Palm Sunday so it accompanies the passion and death of Jesus.  He reveals elements of the suffering servant.  He too, learns to sit in the silence and allow the deeper truth to be revealed in and through him.  Quite honestly, people have had enough with Isaiah at this point.  They’re tired of hearing what he has to say.  Not unlike us, they’re bombarded with it all.  They’re quick to judge, demand stuff, feel abandoned, and getting swallowed up in their own suffering.  Isaiah, though, today tells them that God has given him an ear to hear.  Sure, there is that physical ear he has like the rest of us, but that’s not what he speaks of here.  He speaks of the eyes and ears of his heart.  Our physical ears and eyes are too quick to judge.  They want proof.  They want answers.  They demand justice.  All Isaiah can do, though, is sit with it.  He’s aware they don’t want to hear it.  He learns to sit with the suffering and allow that silence to deepen they mystery and allow that truth to be revealed.

In an age when we are bombarded with noise, silence becomes all the more necessary.  We have politicians that are constantly throwing stuff at us and more often than not out of fear.  They try to manipulate and deceive with perceived facts and truths and all the rest and more often than not because we can’t sit in our own suffering.  We want to share it with the world rather than learning to sit in silence with it.  It’s the only way to transformation and the only way to move to the deeper places in our own hearts in order to experience the real truth.  We can demand and expect all we want, as human beings always do, but only leads to greater dissatisfaction and it’s never enough.  We end up acting upon our fear, our anxiety, our own uncomfortableness in life rather than allowing truth to be revealed.  It is only in the paradox of the cross where the deeper truth is revealed, not in facts or figures, but in Christ crucified.  It’s the piece of knowledge that Peter and the others didn’t want to hear and we often don’t want to hear either.  It really is easier to judge, invoke fear, accuse, demand, react and overreact, but it’s a whole other thing when we can simply sit in the uncomfortableness of the suffering that comes with the silence Jesus demands, for, in playing the long game, it is the only way in which the real truth will rise up and be revealed.

Will We Ever Learn?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belonging

Leviticus 13: 1-2; 44-46; ICor 10: 31–11: 1; Mark 1: 40-45

I was listening to a podcast this week with Brené Brown.  If you don’t know her, she in some ways rose to fame with a TED Talk she had done a few years ago on vulnerability and has since written many books.  The episode I was listening to, she happened to be speaking about “belonging”.  Belonging, according to her, demands us to be who we are, our most authentic selves even if the group expects something else from us.  She would say that the deepest pain that we can experience is a loneliness that comes with not feeling like we belong, even within our own family and community.  The paradox, as she puts it, is that feeling of loneliness actually is fed when we try to live up to the expectations of the community rather than being our authentic selves, sacrificing our truest selves for the sake of a false sense of belonging.

This sense of belonging and not belonging strikes a cord many times in Scripture, especially in the healing stories of the lepers that we hear today.  Their separation, even more so, has nothing to do with their own choosing.  The community, the law, the authorities, and certainly the fears force the leper to be separated and not belonging to the community.  They are inflicted with the rejection of the community simply because their disability is seen with the naked eye.  It’s all based on this sense of being unclean and somehow they are going to pollute the community.  Yet, here comes Jesus.  His approach seems rather radical for the community and the leaders because he sees the leper for who he really is.  He’s going to step out of the comfort of the illusion of being clean to encounter the human person in their suffering and pain and their sense of separation that feeds into that lived reality.

We’ll hear many stories like it throughout the gospel and probably scratch our heads and why this is so much of a problem for the community and leaders of the time.  What happens when the leper returns to the community?  The leper simply shows back up like nothing ever happened and reintegrates into the community.  Or so we would think.  And we think that the leper even cares about such things anymore.  The healing that takes place with the leper has implications on the community and their way of thinking and their judgment of this fellow human being.  The judgment of the community upon the leper now becomes challenged and is also revealed in the healing of this guy.  Their own shortcoming and what they have deemed important is revealed along with the healing.  They will be left with a choice as the story goes on to whether believe in Jesus or continue to surrender themselves to the law, the prescriptions, the expectations, and most especially their fear and judgment.  That’s the rub that these healings invoke within the community.  We can be grateful for the healing, but we all know that the pain runs deeper and can the person stand as they really are, owning that sense of belonging now in the face of this newfound uncertainty.

As the story unfolds and we move into the Lenten Season, we’ll see that the community will move to this false sense of belonging, giving into the fear of the political and religious figures, around the common enemy in Jesus.  There will be an unwillingness to encounter these characters in the healing stories in their own humanity because meeting people in their own suffering reveals our own sense of worth, and lack there of at times.  It reveals our own insecurities on life.  It reveals our own fears and judgments that we have towards others who may be different, even when it’s not their own choice.  It reveals, at the heart of it, just how difficult it is for us to change in the face of it and to see what’s most important for and in our lives.  Their sense of belonging, the lepers and all the rest we encounter and who have been pushed to the margins for one reason or another, has nothing to do with us.  Brown will go onto say that it’s a matter of the heart.  It’s a matter of accepting ourselves as we are, belonging to ourselves, and ultimately belonging to the Christ.

Paul tells us in today’s second reading about imitating Christ as he has and that imitation comes in the form of going out and meeting the other as they are, as a human person.  Most of what divides us is of our own making and choosing.  The implications of our own sin not only impacts us but the life of the community.  We imitate the Christ when we show compassion, when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, when we meet suffering head on in our lives and in the other.  Paul understood that when he seeks the benefit of the many and not his own.  He understood his own insecurities and judgments but wasn’t going to allow his own thinking to prevent him from imitating Christ in that way.  If anything, Paul teaches us that our own sense of belonging comes first with an acceptance of our belonging in and with Christ.

The greatest paradox, more than anything, is these healings not only reveal the far reach that God has in trying to heal one who has been separated, rejected, unloved in going “outside the camp” as we hear in Leviticus.  When we recognize that our own sense of belonging has bearing on it, the demand of the Gospel is to do the same.  It’s much easier to give into the expectations of the community and the fear associated with not fitting in, being rejected, but the fullness of life and the restoration of that life can only come when we belong in and with Christ.  The implications of our own choices should weigh on our hearts.  As a community, a country, a world, we need to see the other as we are, as human persons, who are often hurting and suffering in less obvious ways that the leper and in need of that human contact that binds us as one.  When we feel we can’t, more often than not it’s our own fears, the expectations we’ve created, the laws and prescripts that have been decided on by the group, that prevents us from taking that step as Jesus does today out into the world so that what we do here really matters.  When we find our sense of belonging in Christ, we recognize that there is only one choice in who belongs and who doesn’t and it isn’t even ours to make.  When we see each other as human persons rather than our judgment then we all belong.

Meaningful Wandering

Isaiah 63: 16-17, 19; 64: 2-7; Mark 13: 33-37

Although no expert other than what I’ve studied in Christian classics, I do know that one of the main themes in the writing of Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings trilogy is that of wandering. Tolkien saw wandering as a journey in and of itself and necessary, even if we don’t particularly care for it or if it feels lost. He is the one that coined the phrase, “Not all those who wander are lost.” If you’ve read or watched any of the stories you know the characters are often on the move from one place to another, often facing obstacles, at times wanting to give up and questioning the purpose of it all. Yet, they remain persistent in the pursuit of what he’d consider the idyllic or archetypal king, just as we do during this season as we seek that idyllic king in the birth of the Christ at Christmas. Wandering, even as the Magi will do, is necessary in order to create the space necessary for something new to begin to take shape.
The same is true for people Israel. As a matter of fact, they have made an art out of it as part of their history and the same is true when we hear from Isaiah today and will through these weeks of Advent. They find themselves on the backend of the Babylonian Exile, a life of bondage and enslavement, and as they return home they return thinking they can pick up where they left off, that home would be the home they had always known, despite history telling them otherwise. More often than not they believe it is God that wanders from them, abandoning them in their hour of need, but Isaiah in his lament towards God, speaks of how they find themselves in this position that they have been all but familiar with of wandering from what they have known and still creating space for what is new.
However, they hold onto the expectations of returning to normalcy and they return with the expectation that the way they’ve experienced God before would once again be the same. They wanted to return to what was, but after years of exile and now wandering themselves they begin to see that that’s not true and they can’t return home in the way they left. Home was no longer home for Israel. They feel lost and alone. Isaiah, though, at the very end of his lament reminds them of who this God is, the one who has seen them through the Red Sea and the one that has once again brought them out of exile to return a changed people. He uses the image of a God who is like a potter and the people his clay. And like the potter and his clay, it’s always being reformed into something new, softening the edges, molding it into a new masterpiece. It is a finished product that is never finished but refined as they turn their faith and trust to the one that has remained steadfast and faithful, this God of mystery that leads them from what had been known into the great unknown. Like Tolkien, Israel searches for that idyllic king and not always recognizing that it is them that are being called to change and to become.
The same is true of Mark’s community as we now switch gears from Matthew’s Gospel. Mark is very bare bones compared to Matthew and very much focuses on his community in Rome and learning how to hope even in the midst of suffering, just as it often was with Israel. Mark’s community was in constant tension with Nero who was a tyrant and bully towards them. They were often to blame as a minority for all wrong-doing and so they consistently felt the wrath of him and his people. It was a city that lived in fear of what he was capable of at that time and Mark’s community was an easy target. Today we hear near the end of the Gospel as Jesus’ death is soon imminent. Much of this chapter is filled with this ominous language that seems more like doomsday. But that was the reality in which they lived. It wasn’t so much God that they feared coming in the dark of night or early morning, it was the political leaders of the time under Nero and so they had to be at watch and aware while resisting the fear that was imposed upon them. Needless to say, this often led the community to feel like they had no home, wandering aimlessly and suffering at the hands of others. The language we hear was a message of hope for Mark’s community, as Isaiah was today, for faithful followers of the way who had no home and needed to continue to trust this faithful God who has seen them through and is constantly molding them into something new. They find themselves wandering from what had been to a new life being formed even through their suffering.
As we begin this rather brief Advent season, we come mindful of our own wandering. In many ways, in the world we live, we seem to always find ourselves in transition from what has been known and yet wait with anticipation for what the newness is that God is inviting us into and to trust entering into the unknown. We too seek that idyllic king who is always molding and forming us, more often than not when we find ourselves wandering and waiting; not necessarily lost but often feeling that way. We pray for the grace to wander as a people, in our very hearts and souls that are being called to be cleansed of our old way of thinking in order for that space to be created for the embodiment of love at Christmas. It’s hard. It’s painful. And at times we want to go back to what was, clinging to our old gods. In moments of grace, though, we are invited to let go and surrender as we wander while opening ourselves to the gift of new life and the embodiment of God’s word in our lives, changing us forever and yet still being molded and formed into something new and unknown.

What Matters Most

Malachi 1: 14–2: 2, 8-10; I Thess 2: 7-9, 13; Matthew 23: 1-12

If you follow what we call, the opioid crisis, you may have heard last week from Chris Christie mentioning that over the span of three weeks, this country loses as many people to overdose as we did back on 9/11/01.  That’s every three weeks and yet we have plenty of money to try to make us safer and secure but we can’t seem to find it within ourselves to deal with this continuing growing problem.  Maybe because it’s a problem that lies beneath the surface and can’t always see with our eyes.  We’re much better at reacting to what we see rather than dealing with the interior, unseen.  Just think about it, though.  If there are that many who are trying to mask themselves think about the amount of pain that is hidden in plain sight.  We somehow think that taking away the heroin, the pain pills, the guns, or whatever else will solve all our problems but all it does is tackle the seen and rarely pushes us to deal with the pain below the surface that leads us down the path of opioids or other means.

It’s the challenge Jesus often faces with the Pharisees, as he does again today.  Keep in mind, the Pharisees weren’t bad people.  They were well-intentioned and whether we care to admit it or not, there’s a Pharisee in all of us.  They seem to only care about how things are seen with the eyes, how they look, and keeping people distracted by what might be less important.  Along comes this Jesus who doesn’t seem to need them so much, despite the relationship with the Pharisees being one of need and dependency.  Jesus, rather, encounters the people where they are and with what matters most, their pain and suffering.  He’s not the least concerned about how things look, titles, being seen, or having the attention on himself, all he cares about is so often zoning in on the pain, not by medicating or numbing it, but entering into with the one who suffers.  It’s a radical approach to faith as they had known it.  The approach of the Pharisee is one of superiority and allowing yourself to be seen as “good” and blaming others for your problems.  For Jesus, it’s about going below the surface and bringing about radical change that can only come by a holy encounter in pain.

In the words of Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians, it’s a God who is like a mother who nurses and cares for her children’s hunger and need.  It wasn’t about being seen or about who’s in and who’s out.  No, rather for Paul it too was about this radical healing that needed to happen in people’s lives.  More often than not Paul would go after the communities for separating themselves from what mattered most even what was seen with their very eyes.  Their focus tended to be on themselves rather than the poor and people dying in the streets and encountering them in those very places.  Paul uses that image today to remind us of this God who doesn’t care about what we have or our bank accounts or how we are seen in the public eye.  Rather, it is that mother, as he tells us, who cares for her children’s very needs, needs that are so often not noticed on the surface but internally, as if instinctual, a deeper pain and hunger.

For the prophets it was no different just as with Malachi in today’s first reading.  He too uses language of a parent but now rather a God who is a faithful father.  Malachi is going after the priests who too had lost sight of what was most important.  They were much too worried about the Temple, in some ways as we often do, the façade of the building.  Somehow as long as things look good and fine on the surface we can ignore the deeper problems in our lives, city, and country.  All along, though, we become eaten alive by our pain that continues to lead us further into a virtual life that eases and numbs the pain rather than seeking that holy encounter within the pain so that it may be transformed and we may live life more fully.  They were no different than us, focusing on what separates us and divides us rather than the deeper issues facing our community, city and country.

When Matthew writes this gospel he too was worried about his own community.  That presence of the strong Pharisee was separating and dividing his community and he worried that they’d come apart.  Matthew worried how fear had crept in and was eating away at the community as he tried to unite them around the one who knew their pain, the Christ.  That Pharisee within each of us will always look for the short-term solution to our pain, turning to opioids, heroin, pain pills, guns, or whatever our choice is all that we can continue to function in our lives and world while being eaten within ourselves by our pain that keeps being pushed down and numbed.  It’s so easy to get caught up in the less important things that we see with our eyes rather than to be led to the unseen, the pain within our own hearts, that prevents us from loving in the way that Jesus has loved, like the nursing mother and the faithful father.

The amount of pain that exists in this city and country is even hard to imagine and in the short-term it appears we’ll continue to avoid and numb as long as we look strong and secure.  But deep down we know there is more, in the unseen parts of our heart lies a deeper pain that desires more than anything a holy encounter and a radical healing so we too can focus on what matters most, the lives we are called to go out to as missionary disciples, not to separate and divide but to gather together around the Cross of the Christ where radical healing, in our most vulnerable state, is brought forth.

\ ˈem-pə-thē \

If you were to look up the word, empathy, in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, you’d find the following:

The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also :the capacity for this”

From time to time I make the mistake of going to comment sections of articles and posts that I happen to be reading.  It doesn’t take long for me to realize that I’ve made a mistake by doing it and yet I do it anyway.  Maybe there’s a part of me that hopes it has changed, that somehow since the last time I made this mistake that the world got a little better and more understanding.  Needless to say it didn’t go so well and was reminiscent of times past.

The one thing I could never quite understand is how people can lash out at others that they don’t even know, complete strangers going after one another because of opposing viewpoints but never making any effort to get to the heart of their own anger and why this is all coming up inside themselves. When I can’t be sensitive to another’s feelings, thoughts, and experience, I simply then project it all onto them, making them the embodiment of the demon that lies within myself, becoming enemies rather than seeking understanding of a person’s view; and that’s all it is, a view.  I’ve been the victim of it myself and I’m sure the projector at times in my life.  It’s a sign of just how unaware we are as a culture and society when we don’t take responsibility for our own baggage and prefer to share the wealth with others.

When it comes to pain and suffering we are often the worst.  We have to look tough, stoic, to others and the world.  It can explain a great deal of the opioid epidemic that has arisen in this country and our constant need to be medicated and numbed.  That pain has been taken advantage of by advertisers, politicians, and drug manufacturers alike, all of whom have benefited from our inability to deal with pain.  Dealing with our own pain, rather than numbing it, is the only answer to the epidemic but also our inability to empathize with others and to understand another person’s experience which is often different from my own.  Pain has a way of sucking us in and yet projecting outward, seemingly that we stand at the center of the world and carry the measuring stick of judgment of all life’s challenges, experiences, and pains, even if I’ve never actually experienced it myself, all in the name of defense of some one or some thing.

As a culture and society we have distanced ourselves from pain and suffering (the cross) so much that we no longer know how to handle it, embrace it, enter into it, feel it.  It’s as if we walk into the ICU of a dying patient or into a funeral home to mourn with a family and we become so uncomfortable that all we know how to do is make trite statements, hollow at best, because of the fear of going to where we hurt and in those very moments, to realize that that person is also me.  The pain of sitting with the uncomfortableness is too overwhelming in those moments that we have to do something with it.  We just can’t bring ourselves to do it and so we project it all outward, onto each other, onto the country, other countries, and to the world.  Heck, for that matter, there are plenty of examples of it in Scripture that, more often than not, we do it to God as well.  It has given us distorted images of each other and the Creator and there are examples of it everywhere, often including our own lives.  Again, if we’re willing to take a step back, become self-aware, and see what I too am doing to the other and this world.  There’s no wiping our hands entirely clean if we’re willing to take responsibility for our own undealt with pain.

It’s probably the easiest way to understand the gospels and Jesus’ own encounter with the Pharisees and other leaders of that time.  They had such venom towards him, mainly because he challenged their way of thinking and understanding of the other.  All they could do is try to divide and conquer, and in the end, they believe they won. They believe, in the short term, they have won the battle with Jesus once he is crucified, a projection of their own disdain for God and human life and the suffering one endures.  It was and is inevitable in the case of Jesus that hatred would appear to be his demise.  Hate, anger, unfinished hurt, always thinks short term in order to protect itself from deeper pain but always fails to see the big picture, avoiding it at all cost.

We see it in war, violence, resentment, hatred, bigotry, racism, disdain, blame, all rooted in this deep fear of our own pain, separating us from the other in isolating fashion.  Little do we know that when we make decisions and choices from such destructive tension, life becomes much more about survival that living life fully.  It’s as if we’re drowning in our own pain and all we can do is cling rather than to take the hand of someone who may look different, live differently, have a different experience of my own, simply because I couldn’t bring myself to admit that I may have been wrong.  When life is about winning and losing we, without a doubt, always lose even if it feels like a short-term win, protecting myself once more while gasping for air until the next attack, the next exposure of my short-coming, my imperfection, my shadow, my own pain that has taken hold of my life.

We have a lot to do in our society, a lot of work in dealing with the deep-seated pain that we continue to hold onto, clouding all our decisions and choices for the future, while at the same time blaming the future for all our problems.  We’re leaving that very future one hell of a mess to clean up if we soon don’t learn to stop, quiet ourselves, and sit in that ICU, sitting with the dying patient, and learn to die with them.  Pain and suffering has so much to teach us and is often the key to living a fuller life when we no longer dance around it but rather jump in, head first, rather than sharing it with the world.  In times when we retreat, isolate, and believe it’s about us first, we can only begin to understand such action when we’ve been there ourselves, wallowing in our own pain and suffering, feeling it’s the only way for us to survive.  I can empathize with that because I’ve been there myself.  It feels like it’s the only answer to the loneliness experienced when we suffer.  The capacity to empathize with the other, the nation, all suffering everywhere, the world, can only come when we’ve done our own work and continue to do our work in life, creating the necessary space in our lives for someone and something more than ourselves.  It’s the task at hand if we are to move forward for the way forward is through.