Encountering Hope

John 18: 33-37

One of the themes of John’s Gospel, as I see it, is that anyone who comes in contact in a personal and intimate encounter with Jesus has hope of a changed heart.  It appears that there is always possibility, no matter who the person is or their position, something seems to happen in the encounter that surpasses the other gospels.  That includes the encounter we hear today with Pilate.  Unfortunately, because of the other three gospels Pilate has been type-cast and so it’s hard to look at him through a different lens.  He’s simply the enemy who gives into the conspiracies and fears of the religious leaders of the time.  The same is true in John’s Gospel; he’ll wash his hands clean.  But there’s something very different about the encounter with Jesus here today that is unlike the rest.

The tell-tale sign of all of this in John’s Gospel is what often follows the encounters, no matter with whom it takes place.  There’s chaos.  It seems like a rather odd sign that somehow God is at work but after the initial encounter, it appears that lives are turned inside out and upside down.  It appears that what they thought was right no longer is.  It appears that what was considered norm somehow seems to fall away and they all begin to see in a different way, as if a new created order begins to take shape out of the chaos.  This is the real point of John.  The gospel writer takes us back to the beginning of Genesis where God creates a new created order out of the chaos, whenever God speaks.  So, when Jesus speaks, and they listen to his voice, the chaos that ensues turns into a new created order.  It’s not a one-time deal.  There seems to be a need for consecutive encounters before anyone begins to trust that voice of truth but eventually leads to belief.

So today, the one who is seen to have unlimited power, or so he thinks, now has his chance on the stage when Jesus encounters Pilate and vice versa.  Pilate walks into this situation thinking he has the ultimate power and that Jesus is just going to be like the other religious authorities of the time, merely a push-over.  He thinks this is open-shut case until the actual encounter takes place and for the first time, Pilate begins to experience before him true unlimited power.  Like all the other characters in the gospel, his head starts to spin and chaos follows.  He doesn’t know what to make of this guy Jesus who turns the tables and puts him on trial instead, leaving Pilate looking for a way out.  The chaos that Pilate experiences within himself plays itself out with a constant change of scene.  He’s inside the praetorium now and then goes out to the crowd, and goes back and forth not sure who to trust or believe.  It’s as if he keeps returning to the crowd because they feed his power, rooted in fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, reminding him that Jesus threatens it all, fearing to appear weak.  Yet, he keeps returning for more in encounter Jesus.  There’s something appealing about Jesus in this encounter.  Does he trust the screaming voices of fear or trust the voice of God speaking within?

Of course, Pilate succumbs to the fear but we never know how the story really unfolds for him.  He thinks he can wipe his hands clean, but does he really?  He’ll eventually go onto ask his most infamous question, of “what is truth?”  It is often interpreted as Pilate’s finally giving in to the religious authorities but is it possible, for the first time, Pilate shows signs of question and doubt of his own limited power in the face of the unlimited power of God, standing before him.  Pilate gives into the destructive force of chaos but would it change in subsequent encounters with the Lord, if there were more time.  When both the political and religious authorities see themselves as having this unlimited power, fed by fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, they place themselves as the agents of salvation, trusting in worldly power rather than the eternal kingdom that Jesus promises.  Yet, because they can’t see and become blinded by their own power, they see that kingdom manifested in an earthly sense, marked by land boundaries, within their own kingdom, now under threat by this new “king”.  Once again, though, the blindness of power leads to a misunderstanding of Jesus and the kingdom that lies within.  If we look to religious and political leaders as somehow offering us salvation, we too need to check ourselves and our own fears.  It’s the way they preserve their own power, clinging to what was rather than arriving with a sense of openness.

As much as every character that encounters the Lord in the Gospel begins with a sense of hope and the possibility of something, the thought of change scares people back into their own way of thinking.  More often than not Jesus invites, over an over again, to see things differently, to gain a new perspective, even to being led to chaos, to questions and doubts.  That’s the point, though.  If we never question the earthly powers we cling to and all that we think gives us power, we simply become part of the crowd yelling at the top of our lungs to crucify!  We can no longer hear the quiet voice of God, the breaking in of the kingdom within our own hearts, leading us to greater fear, anxiety, and uncertainty.  Quite frankly, it leads us more deeply into chaos, not just in the world but in our own hearts, which is then played out on the world stage.

If there is any semblance of hope for us it’s that in a time when we find our world often spinning out of control, controlled by fear, and the thought of change, unmanageable, it’s that only God can bring a new created order out of such chaos.  If we allow ourselves to step out of the way and trust in the true God, in our own encounters, then change is possible and we don’t need to find ourselves stuck as a country and world.  The chaos and level of uncertainty says more about us as people and this ongoing idea that somehow, whether religious or political, leaders can pull us out of such chaos.  We’re more like Pilate than we’d ever care to admit.  It’s so easy to be allured by the fear and the noise of the crowd and world.  It is only, though, by creative means, that a new created order, through the ultimate power of God found deep within, can lead us out of the chaos, that quite frankly, we created and only God can transform.

Needed Endings

Daniel 12: 1-3; Hebrews 10: 11-14, 18; Mark 13: 24-32

In some of his letters written from prison, German Lutheran theologian, spiritual writer, mystic Dietrich Bonhoeffer, urged his fellow co-conspirators to think and act of future generations.  Despite the fear and anxiety that will be thrust upon you of that age, and our age, the mindset must be forward and for future generations.  He himself had the opportunity to stay here in the States but felt for the sake of his own integrity and the integrity of the message that he must return to Germany during Nazi control and found himself imprisoned and eventual lead to not only his death but the death of several family members.  He knew how the message would be received by those in power, not as a message of hope, as anticipated, but rather feeding into their own fear of the threat of losing power.  When we become trapped in this moment and cannot see beyond or even trust the unknown, fear and anxiety rule the day.  His message was not only timely in the early 1940s as Germany and all of Europe reeled with a World War, but even to our own day.

His message, like that of Mark’s to his own community today, are meant to be messages of hope to people who find themselves waning on their commitment to the common good, future generations, and doing what is right.  There is an onslaught of pressure at this point of the story from not only political but religious authorities of their day who see not only Jesus but his very followers as a threat to the status quo, to what they are most comfortable with, to their way of life that they have deemed to be most fitting.  Fear and anxiety becomes the name of the game, but the message intended by Mark and Daniel, and even Bonhoeffer, was to persevere in the suffering and the darkness that you are experiencing at the moment.  For the sake of future generations, fear cannot move us to give up and become depleted in the mission that is given us by God. 

As Mark and Daniel tell us today, it will certainly feel as if the world is falling a part and feel like all we know is crumbling around us, but it has to.  It has to.  Many things need to die in order for the next generation, which may even have conflicting values, but for the betterment of society.  Instead, like in the time of Jesus, we have political and religious leaders looking more like bumbling fools at times, stumbling through, trying to avoid the pain, often all in order to cling to what was and what was is dying and has to die.  What was can no longer be.  The name of the game with God is surrender, trust, letting go, even learning to die, pushing through the pain, in order to learn to trust the unknown and the unfolding of mystery in our world today.  It’s a message of hope in the face of the many trials and tribulations that we have faced as generations of people.  Yet, every generation, as Jesus tells us today, clings, and all these things will come to pass before they learn to let go.  Do we really want to leave a mess for future generations in the church and country?

Whether we like it or not, things are going to change and many things will die, and need to.  People from other countries are going to come here, as they have for generations.  We need not fear as Bonhoeffer had written.  We need not fear people that are different and that we even perceive as a threat to our way of life.  Our way of life, for that matter, is also dying.  If you know anything about future generations, they live very differently.  They don’t necessarily value what older generations value, even in terms of economics.  At some point the trials and tribulations are only enhanced by our own need to control and to hold on to what was.  We become nostalgic of the past, as if everything was great.  Yet, all generations that have passed have lived through the same trials and tribulations and the same uncertainties that we face in our present day and age.  The more we learn to embrace the reality of life and death, that the two are so intertwined, the more we learn not to cling, but to let go, surrender, even the face of persecution and in the midst of the fear and anxiety that is thrust upon us by political and religious leaders, along with a great deal of our media that continues to feed into the narrative of the end times.

Well, guess what?  The end times are upon us.  They’re always upon us.  We’re always on the threshold being left with a choice to cling to what was, leading us further into despair, or we learn to trust the unknown, trust what is unfolding within and beyond us, the mystery of life and death.  All of creation, as the readings tell us today, knows that process better than any of us.  Despite the horrific loss of life and property in the wild fires of California, it’s all the forest knows.  Fires, despite the loss of life, are the only way forests recreate themselves and foster new growth.  As naturally as creation does it and allows it to be done unto it, here we are, the advanced ones of creation, clinging rather than embracing the freedom of the unknow, opening ourselves to future generations.

Bonhoeffer’s words continue to ring true to this day.  We too have a great deal of fear and anxiety thrust upon us from many different directions.  There is nothing easy about any of it.  His message, though, that in order to think and act in that way, we must learn to walk through the darkness, the pain, the suffering, that comes with letting go and surrendering ourselves over to the will of God.  If we find it as an ominous message rather than the message of hope that was intended, we probably find ourselves clinging in life, as if something is being taken away from us.  The message of hope delivered by these prophetic voices, Daniel, Jesus, Mark, Bonhoeffer, was one of trust in the face of adversity.  It may be painful in the immediate moment, but that more than ever is the time not to fall prey to fear and anxiety.  When we trust, despite the trials and tribulation, life is promised in death.  Sure, it’s hard and we’d rather hold on, but the message of hope is one of life, despite our fears.  Lean in and trust the unknown for the fullness of life awaits.

Paying The Price

I Kings 17: 10-16; Hebrews 9: 24-28; Mark 12: 38-44

As Jesus and the disciples now make their final march towards the ultimate battle and war, at the Cross, which we’ll hear in two weeks on the Feast of Christ the King, the gap between what Jesus calls them to as disciples and how they see things seems all but insurmountable.  Like us, the disciples too are a product of their own experience and their experience tells them that life has more to do with what the scribes, along with the other religious and political leaders, do than it does with Jesus.  All Jesus can do, as he does today, is keep moving them to look at things from a different perspective so that when they do finally face the Cross and the scales begin to fall from their eyes, things will begin to make sense and they will see what Jesus was about all along.  It’s hard to change when our own experience tells us something different than what we’re being invited into.  There’s feeling attached to it, emotion, and all the rest, that as we’ve seen in our own political and even religious institutions, we can overlook facts and truth all for the sake of holding onto what we think.

Yet, when they make that final march to the Cross, things begin to change and the disciples, like ourselves, are given a choice.  They’ve been given a choice all along and consistently reject the way of the Lord, but when their eyes are opened, the choice will become more obvious, do we follow the ways of the Lord, that have been pointed out to us along this journey, or do we continue to consume the ways of the world, often blindly following the political and religious leaders of the day who often feed into that lived experience rather than inviting us into something new, a new way of seeing and a new way of living that isn’t so much about consuming as it is sacrifice.

Jesus, once again today, tries to offer a different perspective by sitting off at a distance with the disciples and simply observe people, people watching as we call it.  He knows he can’t force the disciples to see as he sees, but as we’ve heard throughout Mark’s gospel, tell no one.  He just doesn’t want it to be some secret.  Jesus is aware that they don’t yet understand nor do they see what really matters.  They quickly, as we’ve heard these weeks, become enthralled with power, with honor, with wealth, and once again, the scribes prove it to them.  The temptation is so strong as they watch.  They see how people fall over them and how they manipulate and take advantage of the lesser of their society.  So, as only Jesus can do, he observes and contrasts the scribes with a widow, as we also heard in today’s first reading.  It’s not just because there was something so special about this particular widow.  It’s the fact that any widow of that time has nothing.  It’s not even simply about money.  She has no status and no voice, no nothing.  Yet, she gives the most.  As the scribes consume the honor, the power, the wealth, a particular attraction, this woman finds it all in sacrifice, in the nothing that she has.  That’s the point to the disciples as they look on.  You can have all the given power, honor, and wealth, but it’s not necessarily the way of the Lord.  As much as we love to consume, the way of the Lord is often just the opposite, letting go and sacrificing.

As you know, today we mark the 100th Anniversary of the ending of World War I and also celebrate Veterans Day, others who have gone to the ultimate battle.  If you read about the world wars, you quickly learn that there was also a very different mindset as a country and people.  It wasn’t just the one’s who went off to war who had to sacrifice, and sometimes their entire lives, but there was a call for everyone to sacrifice.  Since the events of 9/11, though, our attitude has been quite different.  After that and beyond it has been consume, consume, consume.  It’s not just things we’ve been challenged to consume, we consume media and social media now that feeds into the lived experience and how we see the world that it becomes harder and harder to change, to let go, to sacrifice.  As a matter of fact, the more we consume the more we think we need and the more we feel anxious when we don’t have it all.  It’s a consumer mindset that is eventually going to do us in and there will be a price.  Like the disciples and their experience of the Cross, it often takes something drastic to move us to change and for the scales to fall from our eyes.  At some point we just can’t consume anymore because it prevents us from dealing with the hurt and pain that resides below the surface.  The widow faced the cross.  Long before Jesus, the widow in the first reading faced the cross.  They knew what was most important, in particular when they were pushed to the point of losing it all.  The harder we cling, the harder it is to let go, especially of our way of thinking.

Over the past few weeks the writer of Hebrews has been pushing us to change our perspective as well, inviting us to step back and look at what really matters.  So often what we see with our eyes is what we think is most important.  Jesus himself will go on and speak about the destruction of the Temple, as it too consumes, becomes bloated, and becomes a source of corruption.  Hebrews keeps pointing us back to the Christ, that it is that relationship that offers salvation.  Don’t cling so hard to what you see because at some point the scales will fall and the questioning and the real choice will be revealed.  It appears, at least in plain sight, that Elijah is all about himself as he approaches the widow who’s at the point of death!  He simply wants food and drink for the journey as she watches her own son die.  Yet, she moves from her own lived experience as widow and still offers a hospitality that by sight seems senseless.  Yet, like Jesus, she finds strength and learns to trust even more deeply in those moments.  Elijah himself will continue to learn as his journey continues just what it means to be prophet.  Like the disciples his time wandering and in the desert will open him to new possibility and to find true power from his own emptiness and longing, sacrificing it all, including his way of thinking, rather than feeding the narrative that had been his lived experience.

At some point, we too are left with the same choice as the disciples as to how we will proceed in life, as individuals and even as community and country.  The more we consume what we think it’s all about, the more the gap grows as it did between Jesus and the disciples.  All Jesus or any of us can continue to do is invite us to look at life from a different perspective and set up the differences as to what’s most important and what we truly value.  Those who have nothing in the gospels point the way towards trust and faith in the God who often cannot be seen with the eyes, especially eyes clouded through our consumption of goods and media and whatever else we think we can’t live without.  Like the disciples, though, a day will come and it always comes, leaving us with the choice as we stand at the Cross and look on.  Do I choose the way of the Lord, which so often demands sacrifice and letting go to begin to see what really matters or will I continue to blindly follow the ways of the world, the political and religious leaders of our day?  It’s a hard choice but God has shown time and time again, there is but one way, the way of the Lord.  Today a rich widow simply points the way by giving of her whole livelihood.  Are we willing to do the same, even if it means sacrificing what we think is most important in our lives?

A Fractured Humanity

Of all the world religions, I’ll never begin to understand or grasp the level of disdain that exists for the Jewish faith.  Now maybe it was my own upbringing or simply the fact that over time my own image of God has expanded, transcending any of the ideas, theories, metaphors, or other means of trying to box God in to a convenient package that we can somehow control, and even worse yet, understand the motivation of the workings of God and Evil in our world, hearkening back to the original accounts of the desire to eat from the tree in the middle of the garden, the knowledge of good and evil.  The temptation to know and to control, if anything, limits our purview of God and over time distorts our ability to see clearly, a God who leads us to fall into greater depths of mystery.

Shortly following World War II, Karl Rahner, SJ, wrote warily of the shunning of our humanity, after witnessing the annihilation of our Jewish brothers and sisters in the concentration camps, recognizing that it is only in our limitation as humans where we can experience and find the existence of this mystery.  He writes, “They say there is no God because they are confusing the true God with what they took to be their God.  And as regards what they are actually referring to really does not are quite right.  The God they were referring to really does not exist:  the God of earthly security, the God of salvation from life’s disappointments, the God of life insurance, the God who takes care so that children never cry and that justice marches in upon the earth, the God who transforms earth’s laments, the God who doesn’t let human love end up in disappointment.”  It is precisely, he’d go onto say, in our often felt despair when clinging to such a God where the true God, the God of this mystery, of unknowing, resides.

It is quite difficult listening to news stories of tragedies as what unfolded in Pittsburgh, PA earlier this morning, as a people who awoke from the darkness of the lingering night sky, began their sabbath as they do weekly, gathered in prayer.  Who would have ever thought that their day would unfold the way it had?  Who would have thought that they’d be the ones now facing that despair in the face of a God that had been faithful throughout the trials and tribulations of a people on a journey to greater depths and understanding.  A people that has such a storied history in the face of evil, and more often than not, in the name of another religion, whether historically with Christians, Muslims, or the rise of atheism and secularism that has contributed a great deal of animosity towards all religion, clinging to their own Gods and yet blinded by them at the same time.

In reading of the gunman, it was rather ironic or maybe even paradoxical, that his own animosity had grown even more acutely in thinking in his own mind that “the Jews” were somehow sympathetic towards the “caravans” of people fleeing Latin America violence, blaming them in this way.  If there is any truth, it’s in the metaphorical reality of a people that has the history of being a “caravan” people, fleeing the violence of Egypt in seeking the Promised Land.  It’s not to say that people Israel has been perfect, rather quite the opposite.  It is only in their own recognition of their limitation in fleeing persecution and slavery, that they begin to see the frail side of freedom and power, and, at times, become what it is they hated about Egypt.  Their story is our story, all of us.  We are a caravan people who continue to seek the Promised Land, but in the process of seeking and being found, we continue to cling to our Gods, as Rahner writes, and only then can we begin to catch glimpses, and only glimpses, of the deeper mystery we call God.

We live in an age when we find ourselves not only disconnected from our storied history but from our own humanity as well.  The warning of Rahner following World War II remains a warning to us all, maybe even more so in the age of technology when a persistent barrier prevents us from looking the person we loathe in the face and seeing them for more than a religion, a belief, a color, their gender, or any other means that we’ve accustomed to separating ourselves from one another. 

Certainly our own history, as a Christian, has often fed into these realities with faulty interpretations of Scripture that have long been outdated for our age and a clinging to our own Gods of dogma, security, and this senses of certainty that only gives an earthly assurance to us but never moves us to a place of trust and faith as it did people Israel in their own time of wandering.  It is in wandering that we find ourselves, blindly following the Gods of our times, calling us to consume information, consume by buying, consume by taking in and hoarding, somehow giving us the satisfaction and security we desire but creating a blockage in our hearts to understand and accompany the other in the caravan we call life.  The story of our Jewish brothers and sisters is our story as well, never fully known and always unfolding.  When we lose sight of that, we begin to not only box God into what we want and choose to define, but we box ourselves in as well.

We are a people held captive often by our own doing.  We are a people held captive by our thinking, our ideology, our politics.  We are a people that fails to recognize and accept our own limitations in freedom and of our humanity, seeking a “more” that is never fulfilled, leaving us angry and resentful towards the other that we have deemed worthy of such life, resorting to violence, hatred, judgment, bigotry, and all personified by a political system that is fed in that same way.  We are a people held captive by our own doing, still thinking that we too can eat from the tree in the middle of the garden, the knowledge of good and evil, taking matters into our own hands, not being abandoned by God but rather abandoning God all together.

Today, as so many in the past, one person took matters into his own hands, thinking in his own mind that what he was doing was good and failing in the way humanity has since the beginning of time.  We consistently toss ourselves from the garden, the paradise we desire, in order to create our own rather than living in trust and faith.  Our distorted religious culture continues to feed into a narrative that evil can be eradicated from the earth by our own doing and more often than not, violently.  Despite the fact that our Jewish brothers and sisters have at their helm the celebration of their own Passover and we Christians, a Cross, we still fail to learn that the only answer, and the most difficult, is the power that comes in and through love and forgiveness.  Once again we are given an invitation from the true God of our faith to respond to a senseless violent act against a people of faith, how will we respond?  Do we respond by arming ourselves with guns, failing to learn from our past of becoming what we have hated or do we respond in the way all people of faith are called to respond, with love and forgiveness?  If we desire to restore a humanity to our civil discourse, our religion, and even our culture, it is only through the deepest desire of our frail humanity, as Rahner states, with love and forgiveness, even in times of despair.

Faith’s Uncertainty

Jos 24: 1-2, 15-18; John 6: 60-69

We’re at a turning point these days.  It’s a turning point in the life of the Church.  It’s certainly a turning point in our collapsing political system.  All we’d need is for the same to happen in our economic structure and we’d be opening ourselves to major transformation.  Turning points, though, are quite difficult.  We’re no longer over here where we used to be and our old way of thinking and yet we’re still not over here, crossing into the promised land.  Rather, as uncomfortable as they are, turning points land us straight in the middle, in this liminal space where nothing seems certain and what we had deemed knowable at one time no longer is.  A “dark night” as the great mystics would define these moments.

Turning points, as people Israel finds themselves in the first reading, as well as the disciples in the conclusion of the Bread of Life discourse in John, often leave us with two choices, as it does for all of them today.  One, they can proceed as Joshua and Jesus will, in faith and trust of the God that has seen them this far, trusting not in structures but in the very essence of who they are or they can retreat.  They can retreat to their old way of life, their former way of life, and abandon it all while clinging to what they can be certain of, no matter how dead and non-life-giving it really is, as some of Jesus’ followers do in today’s gospel.

People Israel finds itself on the cusp of the promised land as they proceed with Joshua.  It would seem like a rather simple question and answer that is posed to them today, as if they have much choice about moving one step closer to what has been anticipated for forty years now, wandering through the desert.  Yet, as easy as the answer is as to who this God is they will follow, there’s been nothing certain as the forty years proceeded.  Remembering their own history opens them up to hesitation and even a desire to life of slavery in Egypt.  It’s hard for us to imagine that anyone would want to return to such a life, but it’s what they had known.  It’s the structure in which they operated and lived and so anything other than continuously opened them up to fear. Despite not the essence of who they are, they’d rather cling to structures than step into the unknown.  It was and is much easier to retreat to our old way of life and our old way of thinking where we can be certain and all-knowing, rather than taking that one step forward to a new way of life, a new way of thinking, a new way of being people.  It’s scary on a personal level let alone on structures that find themselves disintegrating before our very eyes and need to!

There is, though, in today’s gospel a sense of tragedy and a sense of sadness in all of it.  John tells us straight out that some leave.  They just can’t handle who this Jesus is and the very identity in which he leads them.  Understand, though, that they too were under intense pressure to conform to the ways of the political and religious systems of their day.  They lived with this sense of oppression but their identity is wrapped up in it all, binding them to a system rather than to their essence as people.  Some just couldn’t handle what was being asked of them and so it was easier to leave.  Self-preservation would stand with greater importance than taking this leap of faith.  Heck, even some of those that stay are nothing to be cracked up about.  Not only will they have Jesus killed but he will also be betrayed from within the community.  If he was aware of this, it only begs the question, why did he pick such people as leaders in the first place?  It’s a question with no answer but certainly one we can reflect upon in our own turning points in the Church and politically.  They finally stand before who it is they had awaited and still can’t handle it.  Of course, because they still haven’t let go of their old way of thinking and can’t see beyond what they expected rather than who they have received. 

Peter, although probably unaware of what he’s saying as he often is, probably says it best to his fellow followers and to us today, asking not where to go but to whom should they follow.  Peter recognizes in those words that if we cling to anything other than the essence of who we are, the very one we can’t cling to, we will fall into the trap of self-preservation and clinging to structures, trusting institutions, rather than putting our faith and trust in the person of Jesus Christ.  It’s the essence of who we are that calls us back here each week to this table and it will be this very essence that will see us through these turbulent times.

You know, they’re only bad if we allow them to be.  The very premise of John’s gospel is that of glory, that God can take any situation and allow it to be transformed into a new way of life and thinking.  Of course that requires an affirmation on our part, as it does through Joshua today, that we will only follow but one God, the God that has continuously throughout history seen us through the deserts of our lives.  The God who has seen us through the darkest of nights, teaching us to trust and what it really means to have faith.  It is the God who marks us from the beginning with that very essence of who we are in relation to God.  Honestly, it’s too easy to retreat.  It is, though, our deepest sense of faith and trust when we can stay and commit ourselves to the living God who brings us to these turning points of our lives, into this liminal space.  As it is with people Israel and the disciples, we are left with a choice in these uncertain of times, do we put our trust in the God who has and gives life from the very beginning or do we retreat?  More often than not we retreat, out of fear, but with hope that the promised land remains just one step ahead.

A Vulnerable Mission

Amos 7: 12-15; Mark 6: 7-13

I don’t know what Jesus is talking about today.  When I travel anywhere I tend to overpack!  So I was at a conference this past week at a retreat house right on a beach in Jersey.  Now there was no swimming in that spot so it was quite nice and quiet, but I couldn’t help and watch everyone else doing what they do on the beach.  If you’ve been to the beach you probably have noticed, or have been the one, who appears to bring everything with them when they come to the beach even to the point where they can barely carry it all.  It’s crazy.  It looks as if they’re moving in despite knowing that they’re going to have to haul it back in a few hours.  I also, at times, feel like I grew up in antiquity watching them.  I saw a woman with her two daughters.  The two are running while the woman is practically hunched over carrying stuff.  I refrained from saying anything but I couldn’t understand why the kids weren’t carrying it!  If we couldn’t carry it, it didn’t get to the beach!  Not a good way to learn to live without.  We carry a lot of baggage.  If it’s true that our environment says something about our interior landscape then there are many that are carrying serious baggage.

Maybe Jesus has a point then about taking very little.  You know, for a gospel that doesn’t give a lot of specifics, Mark is pretty specific on this point.  You notice there’s not much about what they are to do but it’s very specific about what they should take and not take.  Sure, carrying a lot of stuff, like at the beach, becomes exhausting after awhile, but there are deeper reasons for sending the disciples out in such a fashion.  All that they know about Jesus up to this point is that his encounters have been with the most vulnerable.  He encounters the poor, the sick, those who have been shunned from society and outcasts for one reason or another.  They’re the people that have nothing to lose and pretty much have nothing, including no status in the life of the community.  An encounter with the most vulnerable needs to be met with a great deal of vulnerability and trust as well.  It’s the deeper reason to send them with nothing. 

Yeah, they’re pretty simple guys, simple fishermen themselves.  Although they may not be carrying much physical baggage, they still carry with them ways to avoid the most vulnerable, building walls around themselves to somehow prevent getting hurt, avoid rejection.  It becomes easy to hide behind status, role, career, our belongings, all of which prevents the authentic encounter with the vulnerable one.  As the disciples are sent out two by two today, they aren’t being sent to fix people’s problems or anything like that, but in the process of encountering the vulnerable they also become more aware of themselves.  They become aware of their own demons that act as baggage in their interior life.  It’s how they begin to become aware of it around them and to not give into the fear that they often invoke.  Will they always get it right?  Far from it.  Will they be perfect at it?  Absolutely not.  They’re not Jesus nor are they supposed to.  Will they face rejection like the prophets?  Absolutely, but that too will become a point of meeting and encountering the vulnerable and learning to trust over and over again.

The same is true for Amos in today’s first reading.  Again, a rather simple man.  He’s someone that would prefer to go back to his own way of life of shepherding.  Things seemed much easier for him as that and quite frankly doesn’t want much to do with God or being this prophetic voice.  He learns, though, today, about shaking the dust off of his feet or shaking out the sand and moving on.  Amaziah wants nothing to do with him or his message of God.  Like most of the prophets, the message often sounds quite harsh to the powers that be because they try to maintain the status quo.  They prefer to invoke fear in the people but often at the hands of the most vulnerable.  The poor become forgotten and take the brunt of what is done.  The women and children, the refugees, people fleeing the violence that is often sparked at the hands of the political authorities of their day.  Amos, as he learns of himself as well, learns the difference of when that word falls on deaf ears and moves on.  It doesn’t stop him from being the prophetic voice.  Some are just unable to hear and receive the message.  Just as at times we aren’t.  There are times when people try to reach us and we’re unable to hear and see because we trust more heavily on our own baggage rather than being open to the possibility of God.  Jesus has every reason to send them out today with very little in order not to create a barrier, separating them from the most vulnerable and learning to trust that God will give them all they need.  When it’s not being heard, they shake off the dust and carry on.

We tend to carry a lot with us.  We have all learned ways to avoid pain, suffering, being rejected, but in doing so we close ourselves off to love.  We build walls to separate ourselves rather than allowing ourselves to be vulnerable.  These readings challenge us in our own lives to be aware of what it is we use in our lives that acts as that barrier.  There are times where we need to literally go to the most vulnerable, whether the poorest of the poor on the street or even someone suffering in pain or loneliness in the home next to us.  When we go with a sense of openness and vulnerability, it does as the disciples do today, heals.  It heals not only the other but our own hearts and souls.  The most authentic encounters we can have are when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable before the other and the Other.  It’s too easy to close ourselves off but today Jesus invites us on a different path and a different encounter, one of great vulnerability, opening ourselves not only to the possibility of hurt, but more importantly a great deal of healing, love, and compassion for others and ourselves.

A Living Icon

Deut 4: 32-34, 39-40; Romans 8: 14-17

Image result for rublev trinity

One of the most profound interpretations of the feast we celebrate today is Rublev’s Trinity.  It’s a 15th Century Russian icon that is probably one of the most known.  At face value it actually is a story that we don’t hear today but did at some point this past year, of three visitors, or angels, that visit Abraham and Sarah who are about to turn their lives upside down when they are told they will give birth to Isaac.  Rublev has these three images that all look alike and yet dressed differently sitting around a table or altar.  Now I’m not sure if it was intentional or not, but there is a similar scene in the movie version of The Shack when the father is at wits end and finds himself gathered at the table with the three persons of God.  It is believed that that was Rublev’s intention that the fourth one to gather at table was you and me, humanity.  The more you find yourself invited at table the more you participate in this force of love, union, and oneness, and you become that mystery.

One such person that certainly exemplifies that is Moses who we hear from in the first reading from Deuteronomy.  Moses often found himself being drawn back to that table to gaze into the eyes of God that he becomes one of the great figures of salvation history.  He’s well aware that others are not in the same place as him on this journey, as they still wander seeking their own gods, but he’s there to remind them of what he has experienced in that participation with mystery and how it is transforming his own life.  He recalls for Israel today their own history as a people and the many times they have not only wandered, but how the true God of mystery, unfolding within and among them, has seen them through some of their most difficult challenges as a people.  He takes them back to the beginning reminding them of their own creation as a people and they have been created in that image and likeness of God.  Now Moses doesn’t keep returning to the mountain to convince God that God is someone else or give to give God pointers on what needs to be done and what the people want, rather he returns to that place to soak in that mystery and allow it to consume his life to his deepest core, a core that is that image and likeness.  Like Israel, where we fail and find ourselves wandering is when we want to create God in our own image and likeness rather than allowing ourselves to be transformed by the unfolding mystery.  It’s the mastery of Rublev’s icon because you can’t take your eyes off of it as you gaze at it’s beauty and mystery, drawing you more and more into the mystery of God and the mystery of our own lives.  Without mystery, life becomes dull as do our relationships.

It is, as well, the pinnacle to Paul’s message to the Romans in today’s second reading on becoming the adopted children of God.  Paul is fully aware that people wander.  He himself has wandered in his own life, seeking that sense of meaning from something beyond the divine indwelling.  His view for the Romans comes from the masters who have had their own experience and literally adopt one of their slaves as their own.  This experience at table with mystery has a way of breaking down the many barriers that we create for ourselves, separating ourselves, one from another, as was true in a master-slave model.  Paul, though, like Moses, continues to take them back to the beginning and remind them of who they have always been as children of God, born in that image and likeness.  Like Moses, the more he gazes and the more we gather at table with that mystery that unfolds and in its almost seductive manner, transforms without us evening knowing and grow into that image and likeness.  We become living icons, where we’re not God, but our lives simply point to the mystery that has drawn us in and have fallen in love with while participating in that love and that mystery.

As we celebrate this great feast, we gather in the name of that one God who invites us to Rublev’s table and to participate in their radical hospitality of drawing us into love, mystery, and union.  We will never completely understand any of this and shouldn’t think we can.  We will never completely know it because it is beyond knowledge as we know it.  Rather, it is a knowing that lies deep within, where heart speaks to heart, often being dragged in like the guy in The Shack, finally moving to a place of surrender.  It takes utter faith and trust on our part, a dark night as it’s known, to trust in such a way.  When we allow ourselves to be used that way, by mystery and love, we become transformed in such a way that we are the living icons for a world that has enough of its own gods, we simply point to the one true God.  This is a God that keeps expanding our hearts and that very table for it is only in love that we have space for all, no matter, color, where we’re from, background, lifestyle, the many who have wandered far from “home”.  The mastery of Rublev’s Trinity is that there is space for everyone, knowing like Abraham and Sarah, when we finally surrender to mystery, our lives may be turned upside down, but better that than anything else.  We pray for the grace to become these living icons in the world today, where all we do and say points to love, to mystery, to union and oneness, to the one true God who continues to unfold that very mystery in the world today.