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.

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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.

Easter’s Good Friday

The Passion According to John

For a moment I invite you to look at this Passion that we just heard from John and this day that we now celebrate, Good Friday, from a different perspective. Over the centuries as a Church we have often only looked from one direction and that’s where we have just come from, the Lenten Season. It was a time of sacrifice, a time of giving up, but when we do we gather today in sadness despite the fact that on the first day of the Lenten season we’re told not to do that, not to be gloomy. That’s not the point of Good Friday despite the fact that we often do it not just with this day but with our lives, and in particular, we become fixated on our hurts and live a life of victimhood. What I invite you into, though, is to look at it as John did some 70 years after the death of Jesus and from the lens of resurrection, from the lens of Easter.

I have said for the past few weeks as we looked at the stories coming from John that he’s a very different interpretation than what we just heard back on Palm Sunday and Matthew’s Gospel. In John’s, from beginning to end, Jesus is conscious of what he does and is aware of not only the choices he makes but also how others respond to him and react to what he does and doesn’t do. Today’s Passion is no different and so it’s not just Jesus but John who’s writing to his community that views from that same lens. In the other gospels, it’s Jesus who is interrogated by everyone as the chaos ensues around him. But not in John’s. It begins that way, but being aware and being conscious of it all, Jesus turns the tables as he does throughout the gospel. It goes from him being on trial to him putting everyone else on trial and interrogating them, without getting trapped into their own chaos and confusion and struggle for power.

With that understanding, even to his own death, there is a point to everything that John conveys through images and events in the passion. One of the images that we tend to just flash by is the one, nearing his death, where Jesus has this encounter with the beloved disciple and Mary. He says behold your son and behold your mother. For John, the message he conveys to his community in that moment that a new family, a new community forms out of this moment. They are no longer simply bound by blood or by tribe but by something more. It’s not to say that blood or tribe just suddenly goes away, but as his community forms and this new family takes shape, it’s now the eternal Christ that unites them as a people. For John, what dies on the cross are the bonds that often separate us recognizing from the beginning, as his gospel begins, that it is the Word, the eternal Christ, that lives forever. It’s why it’s a solemn day but not a sad day. From the ancient Church it’s been this passion that we have heard as a people, not to embrace a victim mentality or viewing life through the lens of what was, but rather the new life and the new community that forms.

It’s followed up, as the death of Jesus takes place, when a soldier then thrusts a lance in the side of Jesus and blood and water flow out. For John, it all comes together in this moment, life and death, and the birth of a new people, a new family, a new community, flows when blood and water break forth. In the beginning was the Word John tells us and now in this moment, it’s not a lance that thrusts forth but rather new life. It’s the perspective that John tries to convey to his community. This celebration was about coming together to retreat and to reflect upon where we have come from and where the Christ now tries to lead us.

I can stand here and ask everyone of you in this church about the suffering of the world and our lives and I would bet that all of us would be able to identify the great sufferings that occur, from the smallest of children blown up by bombs to people killed on the streets, those suffering with great illnesses and so forth, but even that is about the perspective we have on life. It’s so easy to live the life of victim and that is one of the theories that has been drilled into us about Jesus and why this day happens. We could live in what was, embrace our hurts and how we have been wronged or somehow cheated out of something, but, quite honestly, then we might as well live our lives stuck on Palm Sunday and the lenten season and never move beyond. That’s not the grace of this day for John and nor should it be for us. That season of our lives has now ended and a new one is being given to us, a new beginning, as blood and water burst forth from the side of Jesus.

As we continue this journey and these days of retreat, we are once again invited to look at it from a new perspective, one that offers life rather than more resentment, loss, and victimhood. It serves us no good anyway. What are the symbols and images that seem to be touching our hearts at this very moment, where the Word now tries to break forth in our lives. We live our lives in hope and are called, as Jesus is in John’s Gospel, aware and conscious of who we are and what we do in the face of such suffering, often brought on by our own unawareness, and to be freed to embrace the new life. In the end, for John, it all comes down to this as Jesus breathes the spirit upon this new community as he takes his last breath. Yes, something dies but what remains is the eternal and it is the eternal Christ that stands as our truest bond as community and as family.

The Problem of God

Much has been written on the problem of Evil. It’s the ageless question of how to make sense of so much evil and destruction in the world and still believe in a loving and just God. One of the most famous of books was written by Jewish Rabbi, Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, writing of the process of trying to reconcile these seeming opposites in our lives. It’s a challenge for the most astute and keenly aware people, let alone those who have such sudden changes in their lives when it begins to feel as if everything is falling apart around us, when we feel as if we’re losing control over things, including our own lives and all that we have considered normal.

All of that is true, but I firmly believe that the struggle between God and Evil is so closely intertwined that it becomes not just a problem with evil as much as it is with God. It seems rather hard to believe that an issue in our lives is with God, but in my experience it’s so often more the reality, even in the face of evils and great suffering. Even in our political discourse in this country has a God problem, since politics and religion also have been so intertwined and institutionalized, parties often hijacking religious beliefs in order to support their own self-interest.

On the right, there is a very legalistic image of God that leaves very little wiggle room for encounter and the struggle with sin and human suffering, often leading to greater suffering but blinded by it. This view of God holds God tightly in a box, black-and-white, right and wrong, and so on and so forth. Sure, there are morals and boundaries that help us to function as society and are necessary in many ways, especially in raising future generations. However, that’s not an entirety of God. Quite honestly, whenever God is boxed in in that way there’s very little room for mystery and depth in life, God remains a distant reality that is always watching our every move. It often leads to a god of shame and judgement.

On the left, often quite the opposite. “Everything and anything goes” can rarely be sustained. There’s often more a pursuit of a utopia than of the Kingdom of God that Jesus preaches in the Gospel. It’s often a more acceptable means because at first it’s pursuit is good, equality for all and progress. However, it too has its shortfalls. In pursuing such a perfect place and institutionalizing it, we begin to lose the perfect and gradually no longer have a need for God, for the perfect is found here, in another ideology, but often at the expense of excluding others and thought that differs. We see this playing itself out in “safe spaces” and even the upheaval on college campuses of having opposing speakers come and voice opinion that differs. Again, if it’s of God, the factor of human limitation must be accounted for in our lives. It’s short-sighted in that it becomes yet another way to box God in but in a different way.

Both lack a desire for a seeking of truth and a deeper knowing, shallow in their approach when it becomes concrete and lived with such certainty. This problem exists in our politics but also in our churches around the globe, fearing a movement towards something deeper in our lives and using our own god to judge others and exclude. Sure, there is a problem with evil and we can name many of the atrocities that exist in our world, such as poverty, war, refugees, racism, and many others that have taught us to separate and to judge and to often believe in a God that isn’t even close to the deeper mystery that God truly is and can never be fully appreciated or experienced in our lives, managing to live patiently with the tension of these realities and learning to respond differently, not with ideology but with love.

What we’ve done over the past decades is to institutionalize these gods in one form or another rather than seeking the incarnate God in Christ Jesus. We have given them foundations that have become hard to break, but as time now presses on, we gradually see the collapse of the institutions on all levels, these internal structures that have defined us all for years now no longer serve the common good as gaps and divisions continue to widen. However, when it begins to happen, even in our own lives, and we are invited into something new, into deeper mystery, we fear the unknown and where it may be leading us because we have made them into gods for ourselves, giving us comfort and assuring us of some kind of known. All that we desire from religion becomes projected onto our institutions, which people no longer trust, which begin to make us feel boxed in, and become self-serving. Quite frankly, leads to an evil in and of itself. In other words, nothing to do with God but laced with godly language to cover-up. Both sides of the argument are just as guilty as the next for the death of God in this way.

If I’ve learned anything about God and myself over the years it’s that I am a hybrid of all of it. I am never, in this life, going to know and understand the fullness of this God in all God’s mystery nor myself or anyone else. There’s a lot I know from my own lived experience and suffering but there’s also a lot I don’t know. As a matter of fact, it’s that unknown that God seems to always be leading. At times I want to put up the gutter bumpers, somehow trying to maneuver a new territory and at other times desiring that utopia, where all is perfect, avoiding any type of suffering in my life but at the same time, rejecting the invitation to something more in my life. But we don’t live in a perfect world and somewhere in the middle this tension exists between the two which is mysterious in and of itself. It’s where my mind and heart are being invited to being opened to something new. But when I’ve institutionalized something that isn’t meant to be institutionalized, and quite frankly, is bigger than any institution, it becomes increasingly difficult to seek mystery, unknown, because as we hold on tight to what has been institutionalized and is in a dying form, we fear the unknown, and yet, the unknown is where God most often is and invites us.

The pursuit of truth and the ongoing call to conversion in our lives leads us to that place of tension and when we can no longer see or hear the other we’ve once again boxed not only God but ourselves in, closing ourselves off to that pursuit and a life of conversion, closed to finding not our way but a third way. I’ve seen it on both sides; we’ve all seen it on both sides. We have a problem with God because we’ve created gods we can hold onto and yet no longer trust. We have created gods that have been faithful to us to this point but now no longer serve us. Yet, rather than stepping back and allowing even a crack into our certainty, we hold on for dear life even though we know deep down that it’s not leading to life but further into darkness and death. It’s the ongoing struggle with the mystery of life and death that we all are, like it or not.

It’s not God, though, that’s dead or dying. Rather, it’s the gods, the golden calves, we’ve created and convinced ourselves of that are God, that are dying. They have been faithful to us but they’ve also helped create a sick codependency. They have brought us safety and security, in their own way, but have now stifled us from going anywhere. They have brought us certainty and total knowing, we like to think, but have closed us off to creativity and imagination. They have helped us pursue our agendas but at the same time forced us to settle form something less than we are as people. We convince ourselves that they have opened us up to freedoms and liberty, but in reality, have made us less free and bound, chained to our way of thinking. What they’ve done is closed us off to this deeper mystery we call God.

The death of something we cannot see and yet believe to be God is always a daunting reality. It’s almost easier to deal with the death of a loved one or a friend because of their finiteness. In order for us to get unstuck in our lives, as individuals and as country, then we must allow these gods to die and grieve their loss as faithful servants. Our faith, in its deepest liberating grace, moves us to that place in our lives, to let go of our addictions, not only to these tactile gods but also to our thoughts and our own institutionalized versions of these gods that have led to a deep mistrust. We are much more than it all because we are a part of this deeper mystery. We will always be limited and our ideologies will always be limited, but none of it should ever close us off to the pursuit of the limitless even in our finite world. That is not the pursuit of these institutionalized gods, but rather truth and this known and yet so unknown mystery we call God.