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.

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A Weary World Rejoices

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Isaiah 9: 1-6, Luke 2: 1-14

A weary world rejoices…it is the night of our dear Savior’s birth

They are the words of the classic Christmas hymn, O Holy Night, which we celebrate this evening and there’s no denying that a weary world it so often seems…

The two great stories that identify us as Christians, tonight, of course, the incarnation of our God, God breaking in and taking on human flesh, and then the death and resurrection that we celebrate at Easter have many similarities to their surroundings as they unfold. If you reflect upon both there is great upheaval and chaos that is going on all around these events. Yet, all those who are so greatly connected to them don’t seem bothered by the fact. There of course is corruption by the political and religious authorities of the time, who all along plot the death of Jesus. There’s fear beyond belief. There’s yet another boot tramped in battle and another cloak rolled in blood as Isaiah tells us this evening. It is a weary world that Jesus encounters from the very beginning. All of it sets the scene for these two great events that define us.

But they also happen in darkness. It’s almost as if God can only seem to do something with people in darkness, when they are most vulnerable. And if that’s true, and it is true, then imaging the great things God is trying to do at this very moment in a world that continues to stand weary, and yet, on this night, manages to rejoice the birth of a Savior. But it doesn’t seem to destroy the darkness. It’s still there. The most vulnerable still are impacted the most by ongoing war and violence of a world plagued by fear. Who can get out of their minds, and maybe we’re not supposed to, the images of the children running for their lives out of Aleppo. Or as we lie down at night, others continue to remain very vulnerable on these very streets of this city, murder and death, night after night. It is a weary world and a weary world that welcomes the birth of the Savior and begins to make space for a God breaking through the weariness of the world.

But it’s us as well who experience such weariness in our own lives. It’s not just beyond us in outlying areas. It’s us when we are most vulnerable as well, as we lie down in the darkness of the night and we can no longer outrun our weariness and weighs upon our hearts and souls. As the day silences it only seems as if the mind begins to race, thinking of what hurts and worries us at this moment, a dying parent, a sick child, an unemployed spouse, a lost soul, all of this arises in the darkness of the night, when we too are most vulnerable for something, for someone, a God breaks through and begins to bring light to a weary load, no longer needing to figure it out on our own but a God who comes to ease and to point us in a new direction in life. It is the night, a night that lies weary.

It is the story of people Israel whom Isaiah speaks to today. They too know weariness and are searching for something and someone. Long before Jesus even enters the scene, Isaiah knows in his very being this Christ. It’s the only explanation for such words of hope to a people who have wandered in darkness and experience boot tramped in battle and cloak rolled in blood. They know ongoing war and violence. They know famine and poverty. And yet, when a new king ascends the throne, this great hymn is sung as if the past is the past and we begin anew. We no longer need to walk in the darkness and become victims of our own vulnerability, for a child is given us and a new leader will rule the earth. Once again, God desperately tries to break into the weariness of the lives of Israel, who so often try to go it alone. And over and over again, leads to further war and violence, famine and poverty. And once again, it is the most vulnerable that are forgotten, the faces of Aleppo that are now ingrained in our minds and hearts. That’s the irony of the story, it is in the most vulnerable places that God breaks in and it’s the place we will try to outrun and avoid. It is so often the place we fear the most.

Somehow, that fear takes hold. There is Herod, as well, who fears that another king has been born. In his own insecurities, someone is going to try to steal his power away from him, which, of course, isn’t power or peace at all, it’s fear that rules the land and Herod’s heart. But what Herod didn’t know because he was so encapsulated by himself, is that this king was different. This king wasn’t looking to ascend to his throne or somehow knock him off. This King wasn’t about ascending at all. This King was one who was descending into the depths of the earth, into the depths of our very being, to the most vulnerable place, our own poverty, our own weariness in order to give us life. Herod had nothing to fear and yet did and there was a price, a heavy price, that would be paid by the most vulnerable of his time.

And so chaos ensued. Darkness covered the earth and never seemed to lift. Yet, in the midst of it all in this couple, Mary and Joseph. Mary gives birth to the Savior as we see in this manger scene and now will have to confront the fear of Herod and their own fear. But they have nothing to fear. Mary doesn’t only give birth to the Savior into the world. Mary allows the incarnation to birth within her. Joseph allows this incarnation to be birthed within him. The shepherds, the most despised of their day, traitors, thieves, robbers, as they were, hear the message of the angels and their souls felt their worth. They too allowed the incarnation to be birthed in them and their lives are forever changed. In the midst of the chaos and darkness, a weary world rejoices for it is in those very moments that God desires to break into our lives, to meet us in our very humanity. Sure we like an Almighty God who ascends to the throne, but first, and most importantly, descends into the weariness of our lives. This is a vulnerable God, a scandalous God, that desires to love the places where we find ourselves most weary and to birth new life, to break into and through our own weariness. It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth and a weary world rejoices.

It is easy for us to get caught up in the nostalgia and sentimentality of the season, and maybe that’s easy for some of us to do. It’s an opportunity to block out the weariness and emptiness of our own lives, the poverty of the soul that desires worth. Yet, it’s not the peace this night provides or desire of us. Because as we gather, chaos still happens. Darkness is still the reality for many. War and violence haven’t stopped simply for Christmas. No, the world remains weary and will be weary, just as our lives very much can be even at a night when we rejoice. The message tonight is of hope, of a God who desires to love so much that is willing to do the unthinkable, a God who’s willing to descend from on high and meet us where we are, to birth us once again, so that we may be the bearers of light to the darkness, to the war-driven streets of Aleppo and Baltimore, and even to our most vulnerable places, where we feel most weary this day, for today we rejoice that our Savior has been born, breaking into our world and lives, and points us to a still more perfect, fulfilling way of life. Merry Christmas!

A Seismic Gift of Love

Isaiah 9: 1-6; Luke 2: 1-14

We all remember where we were and what we were doing on September 11, 2001. It’s a day when life changed, forever. I dare say, it was a day when a seismic shift took place in this country that rattled us in our very soul and something we still grapple with to this day, coming to some sense of understanding of who we really are. It was a day when our innocence was lost. It was a day when the illusion we held about ourselves and others thought of us were shattered. It was a day in which we recognized our vulnerability and were no longer invincible. It was day when we saw first had our own mortality as people and a nation. It was a tremendous seismic shift in our lives when the ideal separates from the brokenness of our humanity. As much as we want to and will always try to go back to what it was like before that day, we never can. It simply becomes an invitation to enter into our brokenness and pray for redemption and that the true God will lead us to the fullness of life we desire.

As people, it’s the same shift that takes place in our own lives. As children, when we too lose our innocence and become vulnerable to the pain of the world and our own families we begin to separate. Just think about how life was for us when we were children. Everything and everyone seems so big, filled with adventure, endless opportunity, a gigantic world. And then we are hurt, some to the extreme, and our world begins to shrink and become smaller. As I preached on Sunday, we begin to view the world through the lens of our emptiness, that empty crib that sat here on Sunday. We view life through the lens of our hurt and loneliness and see the world that way, only longing for the fullness of days past. But on this day God invites humanity into that seismic shift in our own lives, from death to life. We try to live our lives over and over where our Bethlehem becomes separated from our Jerusalem, our full crib separated from our empty crib. God wants to bring about a seismic shift in our lives from gazing at the emptiness of our crib to viewing life from the crib, in all it’s fullness.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, but they know the darkness as well, but not separate from the light. This reading we hear from Isaiah today, in all its beauty, was often read at the coronation of a new king. It was a message of hope to a people who have often felt lost in their darkness, their own emptiness and sin, a people who somehow forget to view life through the lens of the faithful God who brought them out of exile and through the deserts of the exodus. Of course, like we are when a new president or leaders are elected, we have traditions like this reading that we convince ourselves that somehow all will be different and life will be better, but Isaiah looks beyond the earthly king and speaks of a child to be born, one who brings wonder, peace, faithfulness, in the flesh, the birth of the Christ child, the only who who shows and leads the way from the emptiness of the cross to the fullness of the crib.

Mary and Joseph become the icons of that journey in their own sense of having to leave their home and journey to the unknown of Egypt with the newborn king. They too are called right away to abandon all that they know and the life they knew because of the terror of King Herod. Herod, threatened by the news of the Christ and certainly not viewing the world from the crib, seeks and kills all the newborns, a feast we call Holy Innocents, celebrated during this season of Christmas. Herod held onto the illusion of power and his kingly role, trapped in the worldly desires, trying to fill his own emptiness and longing, all to be seen through that lens of illusion as a threat, rather than the invitation for change and a seismic shift in his own world. His illusion becomes the threat to the promise that Mary and Joseph bear. Just think about it, in a world that we live today and the issues we face, it is often the children that are threatened the most, their innocence and vulnerability, stripped from them, because of our own hurt and our own illusions.

On this Christmas, God now invites us into the seismic shift. Where and how are we viewing life? Do we continue to view it only through the empty crib, our own emptiness and longing, our own illusions of life? Can we pray for the grace to not only know our emptiness, and we all know it and we all know suffering and will always be a part of who we are in our brokenness, but also to see it from the crib? That doesn’t make us naive or wearing our rose-colored glasses. Rather, it brings about wisdom because our Jerusalem, our empty crib, is no longer separated from our Bethlehem, the fullness of the crib. As people and as a nation and world, we must pray and find silence to welcome the seismic shift and not run back to what was; when such a seismic shift happens our natural inclination is to blame because we only see what we see and feel what we feel and know what we know. Christmas welcomes seismic shifts so we can see through the lens of the unseen, to feel through the unfelt, and to know through the unknown, to reignite a spirit of wonder and innocence in a world that hurts and suffers. We are a people and a world that knows all too well the realities of the empty crib. Today God invites us into the crib to view the world and our own hurts through the lens of the largess of the Christ’s love for us and the world. Merry Christmas!

A Greater Vineyard Envisioned

Isaiah 5: 1-7; Matthew 21: 33-43

So how about those Orioles? They’re looking pretty good these days. I remember when I had moved here back in 1999 and they were on that, well, you know, little slide of losing seasons and it seemed as if it would never turn around. Heck, I remember just a few years ago they were practically giving seats away at $1 and they still couldn’t sell them! After so many years, it seemed as if we had to just settle that this is the way it is and there’s nothing we can do about it. We could complain, because we like to do that, but settle we had to do because that’s just the way it is. Then they hire a manager that wasn’t about to settle. There was something greater to strive for than losing season after season, and now, that seems all but forgotten when new life and winning seasons have become the way. There has been no more settling for less with this team even if we may continue to in our lives and world.

It seems all too often that we are willing to settle for less, often because that’s just the way it is. I wonder what it will take to turn things around. For most of us, it takes a jolt out of the way we’ve always done it and no longer settle for less. Quite frankly, we settle for malaise, for mediocrity, and death; yet, when jolted, we don’t know what to do. It takes death, sickness, cancer, loss of jobs, a test of our mortality before we often turn that corner in life.

We have to believe that Isaiah knows what’s to come. Both him and Jesus use the same story of the landowner and the vineyard. Everything is going along just fine for people Israel. Isaiah tells this beautiful story as it unfolds, but the whole time he’s building a case against their own settledness. Despite all the care, the nurturing, the protection that has been given to this vineyard, it’s still produces something otherwise. We, as a people, become stuck in just coasting by and thinking everything is fine. He goes onto say, “he looked for judgment and sees bloodshed; justice but hark, the outcry.” As many go about their business settling for what is rather than seeking a greater vineyard, the poor, the oppressed, those that are perceived on the bottom only suffer greater. There is bloodshed and outcry for the poor, and yet, often falls on deaf ears. We’re content with the status quo rather than stepping into the unknown. We’re content and satisfied with the settling for something less, as long as it doesn’t impact my life all must be well.

Jesus takes it a step further as he again speaks to the elders of the people and chief priests as he did last week. He speaks of all those coming on behalf of the landowner only to be killed. They don’t want change. Again, as long as it doesn’t impact their lives and change things on their status quo, the get bigger and bigger and the oppressed get pushed further down. The landowner takes drastic means in sending his son, of course, Jesus. We could ask, “Why would he do that? After all he has seen done to the others, why would he risk the life of his son and His Son?” But haven’t we as well? How many of our sons and daughters, how many of our brothers and sisters have been put in the same situation and have lost their lives just so things don’t have to change? When is enough, enough?!? When are we going to confront the real problems of our community and world and I’m sure even our parish that will push us to change and to become the vineyard that God demands of us? We settle for bloodshed. We settle for outcry. We settle for the poor being poor and the oppressed being oppressed. Yet, in the end, so are we if we allow it.

God wants more out of us. God demands more out of us. We don’t have to sit through years of losing seasons of life. We don’t have to wait until it somehow impacts me personally before I take action in recognizing the wild grapes and the weeds that have accumulated. We don’t have to settle for less because God didn’t settle for less in sending his Son into the vineyard to show us a different way. God wants to do it for and to us today, jar us out of our own malaise and often apathetic ways towards politics, towards this city, and often in our own lives. It’s not, “just the way it is” because of anyone else but ourselves. We become stuck, which is our own sin, that God wants to free us from today. To prune us and trim the weeds, and awaken us from our deep sleep that we become comfortable with in order to become that great vineyard that Isaiah and Jesus speak of in caring for our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters because that’s all of us and God wants the best vineyard for each of us, in our hearts, in our community, and in our world. Yes, it demands change, but that’s life. Yes, it demands a leap from the known to the unknown and a leap into trust, but we are guaranteed, by faith, that new life will flourish as we take these babysteps into the great vineyard of our Lord.

A Hungering for Life

Genesis 2: 7-9; 3: 1-7; Romans 5: 12-19; Matthew 4: 1-11

In the beginning God created.  Male and female he created them; in his image and likeness.  And it was very good.  Then this happened, the fall.  Adam and Eve in the garden who have everything except one thing.  It wasn’t enough and they became envious of God and wanted to be God and the fall happens.  Born in his image and likeness and it’s very good and yet, not enough for the two of them.  Deep within them and us, there is a hunger that can never seem to be satisfied by anything.  It’s as if God created us with that longing to return to Him!  The entire commercial industry is based on that one premise, that we’ll never be satisfied and always want more and if I just have that one more thing…I’ll feel “full” and it never happens and the fall happens and we begin the journey home once again.

Much has been written about these creation stories of Genesis from those who see them literally as historical figures, giving room to easily blame them for the downfall of humanity and all that goes wrong to myself who sees them as the great mythological, iconic figures who aren’t someone out there or of the past, but rather, Adam and Eve are me and they are you, born in God’s image and likeness, very good, and yet, at times, unsatisfied with what we have and wanting more or to be God, thinking somehow we know better than God and constantly try to fill the hunger and longing within and again, fall.  It’s not that we can avoid the fall or that it somehow won’t happen; it’s going to happen.  Leaving the garden is part of life only to find ourselves wanting to return.

Yet, it is the story of salvation history that continues to unfold within our very lives.  It was the journey of Adam and Eve, it was the story of the Israelites, seeking out the Promised Land, and it is our story.  When we fall, and we will fall as we learn from these iconic figures, the pilgrim journey and the journey of this Lenten season is about going home, back to the Garden, returning to God with our whole heart.  Yet, like them, we are tempted to believe in the midst of our own doubts that somehow we are less than we are and something that we are not.

The temptations or testings of Jesus aren’t just about this one moment in time when he is driven out into the desert.  He enters the scene already hungry, Matthew tells us.  He is at a vulnerable time in his life.  Before he begins his public ministry and is confronted with the realities of his time, he is tested in the same way as Adam and Eve; his story is enfolded in their story and journey.  He will confront these same temptations throughout his ministry through the aspirations of his own disciples and their own misguidance and wanting to be him.  He will ever so gently try to lead them back to the Garden, reconciling their sinfulness and the sinfulness of the world with who they really are; born in God’s image and likeness and it was very good.

Paul continues in his Letter to the Romans today that where sin increases in our lives grace overflows all the more.  It so often seems that we have a much easier time believing in our fall then the grace that flows from the fall.  We tend to identify ourselves with our sinfulness, our hunger and longing, and try to hide it as Adam and Eve do, in shame they cover up their bodies seeing themselves not as who they really are but how they have identified themselves.  It wasn’t enough to be born in God’s image and likeness they wanted to be God and nothing else is going to compare.  Yet, that’s how we get ourselves into trouble and yet at the same time, open ourselves up to the grace of God.  It seems as just when we are on the cusp of believing it and returning to the Garden through conversion in our own lives, we fall and the process begins anew, to a deeper understanding of who we are.  We aren’t our sin as much as we want to tell ourselves.  Yes, a part of us but not our whole or our worth.  It’s no accident that just prior to the fall of man in Genesis and the temptations of Jesus in the desert, their true identity is revealed.  Born in God’s image and likeness; this is my beloved Son.  And yet at that moment, we stumble and fall.

As we begin this journey as individuals and as a community, we enter into it mindful of who we really are…sinners loved by a God who is always calling us home, even in a mess of temptations that exists in this battle of good and evil that we often find ourselves.  We are a people who long and hunger for God and a return to the Garden and everyday we will go every which way to try to get there, thinking something will fill the hunger. How are we filling that hunger in our lives? It will only be in God’s voice calling us back to the Garden that will fill us and we know it’s where we belong because deep down, despite and in spite of and even through our fall, we still know who we really are.  In the beginning, God created.  Male and female he created us and it was and it is very good.