Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Retreating Like Jesus

Jesus in the Wilderness
The forty days of the season of Lent find their inspiration in Jesus’ forty-day retreat.  It is a time to get ready, a time to prepare for Holy Week and Easter: for the hard spiritual work of dying and rising.  You can’t just dive into this kind of thing.  You need to ease-in.  You need some retreat time.

Jesus provides a pattern of living for us to imitate.  It starts with his baptism.  His washing in the River Jordan under the guidance of John the baptizer is a kind of consecration.  It fixes his intention to live a consecrated life, a life with God.  His baptism is a ritual drowning, which symbolically prefigures his death and resurrection, his willingness to let go of everything that inhibits life with God so that he may receive his identity from God alone.  He rises from the muddy river, and is given to know that he is God’s Beloved, in whom God delights. 

It all begins with baptism, but it is just a beginning.  Baptism is not a magic act.  It signifies an intention.  It reveals our true identity.  But it remains for us to live into that intention and internalize that identity.  Baptism is a symbol that provides the grace to make real what it reveals.  It initiates a process of making it real.  The first step in that process for Jesus is this forty-day retreat. 

Let’s be clear that this is a retreat – it is not a vacation.  It isn’t a time to chill, much less a way to disconnect and escape from reality.  Retreating like Jesus is about connecting to reality at a deeper level, moving beneath the superficiality and artificiality of our routines.  It is a kind of interior work.  It requires a significant investment of time and energy.  It isn’t easy.  In fact, it can be scary.  The whole point of retreating like Jesus, after all, is to acquaint ourselves with the devil.

“Jesus . . . was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”[1]   Let’s break that down a bit.

led by the Spirit – Jesus didn’t truck into the wilderness under his own steam.  It wasn’t his own bright idea.  He was led there.  Mark’s Gospel puts it even more strongly: he was driven there.  Jesus was willing to submit to the leading of the Spirit, to a deeper desire, a spiritual hunger that only God could satisfy. 

One of my teachers, Tilden Edwards, says that

the Spirit is dropping the bottom out of everyone’s self-imposed spiritual floor ever more fully as we’re ready and willing for it over our whole lifetime . . . The deep spiritual tradition tells us that this process continues through and beyond this life until there is no trace of deluded or willful separation left between us and the Loving One in whose image we are made, or between us and the community of creation.[2] 

This is what happened to Jesus when he was about thirty years old.  The bottom dropped out, and he found himself being led by the Spirit to a place where he could more fully integrate this spiritual breakthrough.  Acknowledging and trusting our spiritual hunger is foundational.  Do you even recognize your desire for God?  Do you trust it?

Lent is a time to acknowledge our profound spiritual hunger, our desire for God, and see where the Spirit leads us.  She will, no doubt, lead us in the wilderness.

in the wilderness – Making a retreat requires time and space apart from our normal routines and familiar surroundings.  That is what the wilderness represents.  There is a geography of the Spirit, a sense in which retreating like Jesus requires a particular kind of environment. 

I don’t think it is a coincidence that so many monasteries are located in deserts, mountain tops, and remote islands.  There is something about renewing our intimacy with the natural rhythms of life that supports our interior work.  It frees us from the markers of culture that shape our identity, and allows us to stand naked before God.   The wilderness is a liminal space, where we can die to old ways of being and be born again. 

I want to emphasize here that the Spirit led Jesus in the wilderness; not into the wilderness, as if the Spirit brought him there, dropped him off, and said, “Good luck.”[3]  The Spirit leads us while we are in the wilderness.  In fact, I suspect the Spirit brings us there so that we can discern the Spirit’s promptings more clearly, without the distractions and filters of civilization. 

Lent is a time to go into the wilderness.  It may not be a literal wilderness.  Ocean Beach or the Presidio can do in a pinch.  Getting your hands dirty in the garden will certainly help.  Let the Spirit lead you to the place where you can let go – an art studio, house sitting for your neighbor, a quiet room set aside for meditation.  Go there.  You know you want to.  Trust your desire for God.

for forty days – retreating like Jesus isn’t a quick fix.  It took him forty days to hit bottom after the Spirit pulled the floor out from under him.  It takes time to let go.  It takes time for the mind to descend into the heart.  It doesn’t just happen (well, except when it does – you never know with God).  Normally, we require some time to detox before we can rediscover our true identity.

The rains fell for forty days until the floods rose and the earth was renewed.  Moses spent forty days on Mt. Sinai while God revealed the Torah to him.  Israel spent forty years in the wilderness preparing for the Promised Land.  There is nothing magical about the number forty.  It symbolizes for us the fullness of time, our need to accept that God’s slow work in us takes as long as it takes to come to completion.

Lent is an invitation to use these forty days – as much of it as we can – to retreat like Jesus.  Maybe its 20 minutes a day for forty days – or for the rest of your life.  Maybe it is a three-day weekend retreat.  Perhaps you and your spouse can gift each other with one weekend day where one of you has the kids, while the other has a retreat day.  Maybe it is one minute at a time, 20 times each day, as Charlie Gregg once suggested to me!  Let it take however long it takes.  What is truly more important?  It isn’t your time anyway.  It is God’s time.  You’ll know it has been long enough when, not if, the devil shows up.

he was tempted by the devil – I said that retreating like Jesus is no vacation.  The devil is the proof of it.  Here, we need to get over our modern, rational contempt for the idea of the devil.  The devil is real, and an important component of the New Testament witness.  Jesus speaks of the devil, or Satan, and demons with some frequency.  What does this mean?

In the language of the New Testament, the devil literally means “divisive obstacle”[4] and satan means “accuser.”  What is symbolized here is a kind of prosecuting attorney placing divisive obstacles in the way of our communion with God.  Interestingly, in John’s Gospel, the Holy Spirit is given the title of the “Paraclete,” which means “advocate” or attorney for the defense, defender of victims.[5]  The devil, then, is a personification of what RenĂ© Girard describes as a “self-organizing system”[6] and James Alison as the “governing principle”[7] of human culture. 

In John’s Gospel, satan is called a murderer from the beginning and the father of lies, which is to say that human culture in its origin is founded on violence that is dishonestly justified as necessary sacrifice.[8] Jesus’ execution as an innocent victim reveals the sacrificial violence upon which human culture is based, and triumphs over it by unmasking the lie.  We can no longer pretend not to know what we know. 

The temptation story shows us in narrative form how human culture turns God’s good gifts into obstacles, distorting our desire for them into violent rivalry with God rather than peaceful obedience to God.  The irony is that Jesus, by allowing God to peacefully constitute his consciousness, is actually enabled to become the bread of life because, in his teaching, he feeds us with God’s word; he becomes, in his death, the king of kings, who rules through serving God alone; he becomes the Temple, the place where we meet God, because, in his refusal to test God, he recognizes life is a gift, and not ours to squander.[9] 

During his wilderness retreat, Jesus engages the deep, interior work of identifying the demonic cultural messages he has internalized, and refusing to allow them to run his life anymore.  In my own retreat experiences, I’ve uncovered a few such messages myself.  You may recognize some of them as well:

·      I must be perfect to be loved
·      If people really knew me, they wouldn’t love me
·      I can’t depend on anyone other than myself
·      Money is the measure and store of value
·      Order depends upon violence
·      Only that which can be seen and measured is real

Lent is a time set aside to wrestle with the devil, to let go of the lies we’ve internalized, so that we can receive our identity and values from God.  Lent is a time to rediscover that

The Spirit’s desire, as Jesus taught, is for our deeper common life in God through our individual deepening.  That deepening is shape by our graced willingness to embrace the radiant Love shown us through all the fragments of our lives, through all our experiences and options.  In that process we find ourselves loosening our grip on anything that would separate us from realizing that Love as the heart of who we truly are and the heart of all creation.[10]


[1] Luke 4:1-2.
[2] Tilden Edwards, Embracing the Call to Spiritual Depth: Gifts for Contemplative Living (New York: Paulist Press, 2010), p. viii.
[3] Mark Davis makes this point forcefully in his translation of the passage at http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2013/02/twice-led-not-fed-well-read.html.
[4] James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998), p. 158.
[5] RenĂ© Girard, “Satan” in James Wilson, ed., The Girard Reader (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996), p. 201.
[6] Girard, p. 202.
[7] Alison, p. 156-157.
[8] John 8:44.
[9] Alison, p. 159.
[10] Edwards, p. viii.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Fragility of Being Seen

When my son, Nehemiah, was a toddler, he would generally wake up around 5:30 a.m., run into our room and yell, “Wake up time!  Wake up time!  Do you want to play with me?”  Occasionally, he would try to contain himself.  My husband, Andrew, would open his eyes and find Nehemiah standing right next to the bedside staring at him, just waiting for him to wake-up.  He needed our attention!

This is true, of course, of all of us from the moment we are born.  We need to be seen.  We need to be held.  We need to see ourselves reflected in the loving gaze of an other.  Infants who are not held and spoken to, die.  If they are not comforted when they cry or otherwise feel abandoned, they find it much more difficult to bond with others and handle trauma as adults.

Toddlers who do not receive positive responses to their “high quality” attention seeking behaviors (pointing at things, sharing objects, laughing and smiling), will turn to “low quality” attention seeking behaviors (also known as melt downs).  “Look at me, look at me” isn’t self-centeredness in a three year-old.  It is simply how we come to know who we are and where we are in the world.  If you do not pay attention to me, my self-worth – even my sense of existence – will come into question.   

How vulnerable we are to the perception of others!  I was reminded of this last week during our preschool chapel service.  As the children gathered, four year-old Elle brought me a picture of herself she had drawn and carefully colored.  She handed it to me with a huge smile.  Her actions were communicating, “Look at me!  What a gift it is that you can see me!”  And she was right.  After the service, little Bella came up to me and, without saying a word, just gave me a hug: “I exist, I’m safe here!” 

We never really outgrow the vulnerability of childhood, the fragility of being seen. We know all too well the danger of receiving unwanted attention, of seeing ourselves reflected in the malevolent, or even simply indifferent, gaze of an other.  Both being ignored and receiving unwanted attention leave us feeling very insecure about our identity.  In response, we either engage in attention seeking behaviors to shore-up our sense of self, and not always in “high quality” ways, or we seek to disappear to protect ourselves.  We become adults who find ourselves on a treadmill of continually trying to prove our worth, often at the expense of others, or we retreat into an interior world to shield ourselves from harm.

We need to be seen, but this being seen is a tricky business.  It can leave us feeling like we are never good enough, either trying all the harder or just giving up.  We engage in an adult version of hide and seek with one another, and even with God.  We need to be seen, but we are afraid to be vulnerable.  I want you to pay attention to me, but only if I can control your response. 

It is with this in mind that I hear a certain childishness in the plaintive tone of the prayer of the people that Isaiah records: “Why do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”[i]  “Look at me, God, look at me!”

The people of Israel are shocked that their fasting isn’t getting them the attention they want.  They delight to draw near to God, but they don’t know how.  They are caught in the loop of “low quality” attention seeking behaviors:  self-interested self-seeking, exploitation of workers, and violence.  The prophet, speaking on God’s behalf, suggests trying some “high quality” attention seeking behaviors instead:  loosing the bonds of injustice, freeing the oppressed, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked.[ii] 

“Don’t ignore your own kin!  Give them the attention they need.  Then your light will shine,” says God.  “Then I will see you!”  If we want to draw near to God, we have to become willing to draw near to those who need our attention.  It is hard to see them, because it makes us aware of our own vulnerability, our own fears of being seen or being invisible.  We must become willing to see what we’d rather ignore, and to reveal what we’d rather hide.  Only then can healing spring up quickly.  Only then will God say, “Here I am!”  I see you!  I’ve got you!  No more hiding. Just seeking and finding.[iii]

This isn’t about earning God’s attention through good works.  It is about moving into the flow of compassion so that we can see and be seen, rather than hiding from our own kin, from our neighbors, from our Beloved, God.  It is about becoming willing to risk being seen by God, just as we are – not hiding behind a mask of pseudo-piety – so that we might be given to see ourselves truly and whole, reflected in the eyes of the Beloved.    

Jesus picks up on this theme from Isaiah in his subtle teaching about being seen.  “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who sees in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”[iv]

Jesus understands the fragility of being seen, all the ways we are tied into negative feedback loops of fear, envy, rivalry, and shame because of our experience of being seen by others in ways that reinforce a negative identity.  We settle for the reward of receiving our identity from the social other, become attached to securing that identity, and surrender our freedom in the process. 

Jesus invites us instead to become willing to receive our identity from God, and to allow that identity to shape what we value.  Then we will find real treasure, the reward of receiving our heart’s true desire.[v]  As we allow ourselves to be seen by God, we grow in our own capacity to perceive reality, unimpeded by the cultural lenses that obscure our vision.  “If the eye is healthy,” Jesus says, “your whole body will be full of light.”[vi]  Then our light will shine, and we will see and be seen in ways that allow health to spring up.  And we will be free:  free to serve God rather than being slaves to wealth – to the culture’s source of value and identity.  As Jesus put it, “No one can serve two masters.”[vii]  

Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving help us to detox from the cultural values, perceptions, and loyalties that inhibit our ability to see and be seen.  They open up some distance between our true selves and the false self we have internalized, to make space for God’s slow work of restoring his image within us.  They nurture our freedom to respond to God’s invitations to love, to allow ourselves to be seen as God sees us, and to see others as God sees them.   They help us to recover our freedom to love and serve in ways that offer healing attention to a broken world.

Today, we will be marked with ashes.  It is, in one sense, another way of saying, “Look at me, God!  Look at me!”  If it is simply a mask for our “low quality” ways of getting attention, it will not provide much of a reward.  But it can be a genuine mark of vulnerability, a sign of our willingness to be seen by God in our brokenness and mortality, accepting the fragility of being seen trusting that God will handle us with great care and tenderness. 

In accepting the sign of ashes, we acknowledge all the ways we play hide and seek with each other and with God, settling for the reward of social approval or disapproval, whichever best reinforces the mask that we hide behind.  We take off the mask, and allow our selves to be seen. These ashes are also a sign of our mortality.  Life is short, and we don’t have time for playing games that reward our false selves.  See, today is the day of salvation.[viii]  Now is the time to receive the reward of God’s loving gaze, the reward of the Mother/Father who sees in secret, who knows our secrets, and loves us anyway.  It’s time to play a different game.

We need to be seen.  Our God comes to us in Jesus shouting, “Wake up time!  Wake up time!  Do you want to play with me?”  Do you? 

[i] Isaiah 58:3.
[ii] Isaiah 58:3-7.
[iii] Isaiah 58:7-9.
[iv] Matthew 6:5-6.
[v] Matthew 6:19-21.
[vi] Matthew 6:22-23.
[vii] Matthew 6:24
[viii] II Corinthians 6:2.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Becoming A Saint

When I was a college student at Indiana University, my New Testament professor was Luke Johnson.  Luke is a Roman Catholic, a former Benedictine monk who later left the order to marry his wife.  He is a charismatic speaker, an unapologetic apologist for catholic Christianity, and a gifted teacher.  I learned a lot from Luke about the New Testament.  I also learned what little I know about how to write well from his patient critique of my papers.  I owe a large debt of gratitude to Luke for my intellectual and spiritual formation as a young adult.  But what I remember most about Luke is a particular conversation I had with him in his office one afternoon. 

I was a college senior, wrestling with what to do after graduation.  Should I go to graduate school or seminary?  Did I want to become an ordained minister or an academic?  What did I want to be when I grew up?   Luke let me dither on for a bit and then said simply, “The only thing worth becoming is a saint.”  He didn’t elaborate and I was too stunned to ask him to clarify what exactly that was supposed to mean.  What could it mean for me to become a saint?  What could it mean for you to become a saint?  Is that what we really want?

I’ve thought a lot about Luke’s advice over the years.  I’m still pondering it.  Rereading this passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth gave me pause to consider this question anew:  Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.[1]

It is a curious passage.  Saint Paul seems to being saying something rather amazing.  We are being changed.  We are being given the freedom to look into the mirror with unveiled eyes and discover that the image reflected back to us is the image of God!  We are being changed, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, such that we come to perceive the image of God when we look at ourselves in the mirror!  How weird is that!  How wonderful is that!

Notice, here, the passive voice:  all of us . . . are being transformed.  It is not that I am changing into the image of God.  It isn’t my achievement.  I wouldn’t even know how to begin!  For years, I thought that becoming a saint was about moral perfection, or doctrinal correctness, or ritual performance, or all of the above.  It was something I had to do.  But it isn’t something I do.  It isn’t a change that I produce by dint of effort.  It is something that I undergo, that I am given to receive from the hand of an Other.  

For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.[2]  Jesus is the mirror in which we see the glory of God reflected in ourselves.  As we gaze into that mirror, we are being changed by God’s power.  That power is love.  And in that love, who we are is revealed to us. 

There is a paradox here.  There is no way for me to become who I already am!  The transformation of which Paul speaks is like the removal of a veil from our eyes, a veil of ignorance that blinds us from seeing the truth.[3]  We are blinded by fear, envy, and greed, by the disordered desires we internalize from the false gods of this world, the idols from which we seek to receive our identity.  If only if I could be like _____ [fill in the blank], then I could be fulfilled.  We are driven by a thousand manufactured impulses to imitate the desires of others, to become who we are not, as if we would then be happy.  Possess more! Consume more!  Do more!  Just watch the Super Bowl commercials this afternoon to see what I mean.

But the truth, as Anthony De Mello forcefully put it, is that You don’t have to do anything to acquire happiness.  The great Meister Eckhart said very beautifully, “God is not attained by a process of addition to anything in the soul, but by a process of subtraction.”  You don’t do anything to be free, you drop something.  Then you’re free.”[4]  We are being transformed as the scales are being removed from eyes, and we let go of the illusion that we need to become someone other than who we are. 

Religion is one of the biggest perpetrators of this illusion.  This is why Paul is so hard on his own Jewish faith.  He gives Moses such a hard time because Paul knows from his own experience how religion can create a veil that hides us from the truth about our self, that separates us from God.[5]  Paul’s own zeal for religion caused him to persecute those who disagreed with him.  To be a good Jew, he had to expel those bad Christians.  To be a good Christian, we have to expel those bad Muslims.  Moses wasn’t the only one wearing a veil. 

This isn’t a Jewish problem.  It is a human problem, a problem of religion making God into an object we can manipulate to control others.  We make God in our image, rather than realizing that we are made in God’s image.  That is how the train goes off the rails. “Only in Christ is the veil set aside”: this doesn’t mean you have to become a Christian.  That is about religious identification.  It means you have to become willing to look into the mirror. 

Imagine a patient who goes to a doctor and tells him what he is suffering from.  The doctor says, “Very well, I’ve understood your symptoms. Do you know what I will do?  I will prescribe a medicine for your neighbor!”  The patient replies, “Thank you very much, Doctor, that makes me feel much better.”  Isn’t that absurd?  But that’s what we all do. The person who is asleep always thinks he’ll feel better if somebody else changes.[6]  Nobody else can look into the mirror for us.  We can’t force others to look into the mirror either.  It is only as God wakes us up and we look in the mirror, that we begin to be transformed.

Being “in Christ” means being in love.  Peter, James, and John see Jesus unveiled on the mountain top, and immediately Peter wants to build a monument to religion.  He wants to reconstruct the veil as quickly as possible, to objectify the experience so that he can control it.[7] 

But being in love means being vulnerable.  It means letting go of the illusion of control.  It means becoming willing to receive our identity from an Other, from the God who is the Source of love, the Beloved, and Love itself; not trying to construct an identity under our own steam.  Peter wants to make Jesus an object of veneration.  He resists the invitation to become Jesus: to become who he loves. 

Peter could have taken a cue from St. Clare of Assisi, who said, We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become. If we love things, we become a thing. If we love nothing, we become nothing. Imitation is not a literal mimicking of Christ, rather it means becoming the image of the beloved, an image disclosed through transformation. This means we are to become vessels of God’s compassionate love for others.

What does it mean to become a saint?  I think the first step is to simply become willing to look in the mirror.  According to St. John of the Cross, What we need most in order to make progress is to be silent before this great God with our appetite and with our tongue, for the language he best hears is silent love.  We have to quiet the imperious urges to satiate the longing that only God can satisfy, let go of our need to justify our self before God, refuse to hide our fear, and shame, and envy behind a veil of religion. 

It is only as we allow ourselves simply to be before God, that we begin to undergo a transformation.   James Alison describes this transformation beautifully:  The experience of prayer is that of the gradual learning to rejoice in my induction by an entirely gentle, trustworthy power, into freedom from all my ways of being tied in to the place of shame, one by one, and discovering this as given to me as a “real me” in a series of new desires for new projects which share the huge affection and gentleness toward others that I have found myself receiving.[8]

We become compassionate vessels of God’s love – we become who we already are, in Christ – by becoming willing to patiently receive this love.  We are being changed.  The only thing worth becoming is a saint.

[1] II Corinthians 3:17-18.
[2] II Corinthians 4:6-7.
[3] II Corinthians 4:4-5.
[4] Anthony De Mello, Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality (New York: Doubleday, 1992), p. 82.
[5] II Corinthians 3:7-18.
[6] Ibid., p. 83.
[7] Luke 9:28-36.
[8] James Alison, “the strangeness of this passivity . . .” in On Being Liked (New York:  The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2003), p. 144.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Get With The Program

Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany
January 24, 2016
I Cor. 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21

When I was a boy, I knew I had crossed the line when one of my parents would say, “You need to get with the program!”  I wasn’t always sure what the program was, but I knew I had better find out really quick!  There is always a program, and there is always somebody trying to make sure we follow it. 

This isn’t always a bad thing.  Part of the program for me was learning not to run out into the street without looking both ways first, learning how to do my own laundry, and learning to tell the truth.  We all need a program, a set of rules, a culture to internalize until we have the wherewithal to self-regulate.  Sometimes, we do need to get with the program.

But, sometimes, we need to be willing to pay the price for not getting with the program.  Recently, the Primates of the Anglican Communion, the chief bishop from each of the 38 Provinces of the Anglican Communion, including The Episcopal Church, gathered to meet with the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace.  They voted to suspend The Episcopal Church from participating in any decision-making related to doctrine or governance of the Anglican Communion for three years, because we refused to get with the program of excluding same-sex couples from the sacrament of marriage.  Being unwelcome at committee meetings seems a small price to pray for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in the sacramental life of the Church. 

Even so, it is tempting to want to get with the program.  It makes us feel safe.  It makes us feel like we are part of the in-crowd.  It makes us feel in control of our lives.  When other people refuse to get with the program, it can make us feel really anxious.  Religion too often is reduced to “getting with the program.”  But it isn’t about conformity to rules.  Authentic religion is about commitment to relationships.  The program has to serve people; not the other way around.

This is why Jesus drove the religious and political establishment crazy.  He refused to get with any program that diminished the life of anyone or undermined our sense of connection with them.  His program was to challenge the dominant program, to undercut it at every turn for the sake of real human beings. 

Jesus announces his program, quoting from the prophet, Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[i]

Jesus celebrates his relationship with the poor, the prisoner, the oppressed, those who are excluded or marginalized by the dominant program of the day.  They, too, can experience the “year of the Lord’s favor,” the liberation and life promised to all of God’s people.  And that favor is available here and now.  “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  God’s favor is not restricted to those who get with the program.

God’s love, embodied in Jesus, undoes our programming, risking everything for the sake of relationship, for the sake of reconciliation.   It can be hard to let go of the safety and familiarity of our programming, to allow this love to transform us.
Dennis Linn relates how he came allow this love in.[ii]  Linn is a pastoral counselor, who tells of Hilda coming into his office one day because her son had attempted suicide for the fourth time. She described how her son was involved in prostitution, drug dealing and murder and then ended her list of her son’s “big sins” with, “What bothers me most is that my son says he wants nothing to do with God. What will happen to him if he commits suicide without repenting and wanting nothing to do with God?”

Pastor Linn tells how he personally believed in the popular version of God being something like a stern father, but the counselor in him didn’t want to tell that to this struggling mother. Instead, he asked Hilda what she thought. But Hilda was trapped in that same idea of a punishing God. “Well,” she replied, “I think that when you die, you appear before the judgment seat of God. If you have lived a good life, God will send you to heaven. If you have lived a bad life, God will send you to hell.” Sadly, she concluded, “Since my son has lived such a bad life, if he were to die without repenting, God would certainly send him to hell.”

Again, Pastor Linn didn’t want to admit he agreed with her so he tried another counseling tactic. He had Hilda close her eyes and imagine herself sitting next to the judgment seat of God. He also had her imagine her son’s arrival at the judgment seat with all his serious sins and without repenting. Then he asked her, “Hilda, how does your son feel?” Hilda answered, “He feels so lonely and empty.” So Pastor Linn asked Hilda what she would do, to which she responded, “I want to throw my arms around him.” She lifted her arms and began to cry as she imagined herself holding her son tightly.

Finally, when she had stopped crying, Pastor Linn asked her to look into God’s eyes and watch what God wanted to do. Hilda saw God step down from the throne, and just as Hilda did, embrace her son. And the three of them, Hilda, her son, and God, cried together and held one another.  What Pastor Linn said he learned about God that day is this: God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us the most.   Even more:  God loves us unconditionally.  

To which, I would add, we can love God only as much as the person we love the least.  Jesus’ program is about continually pushing us beyond the conditions we place on love until God’s favor is available here and now, to each and all.

St. Paul gives us the beautiful metaphor of the body to help us understand this love.  We are all united in one body – the Body of Christ.  We cannot be whole unless we love each member of the body, unless we recognize our mutual dependence upon one another.  In fact, 

God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.  If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.[iii]

This love turns our programming upside-down.  We have to let go of our ideas of who is in and who is out, of who is worthy and who is not.  It is the poor, the prisoner, the outcast, the most inferior members, who are to be honored most, so that we may suffer and rejoice together.  We need to let go of our our ideas, our programs, so that we can get with Jesus’s program. 

Pope Francis expressed this sentiment beautifully in a speech he made last year to a global gathering of community organizers:

We do not love concepts or ideas; we love people... Commitment, true commitment, is born of the love of men and women, of children and the elderly, of peoples and communities… of names and faces which fill our hearts. From those seeds of hope patiently sown in the forgotten fringes of our planet, from those seedlings of a tenderness which struggles to grow amid the shadows of exclusion, great trees will spring up, great groves of hope to give oxygen to our world.[iv]

God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us the most, and we can love God only as much as the person we love the least.  When we gather around this table each week, we are reminded that we have been baptized into the Body of Christ.  We recognize the Body of Christ, not only in the sacramental bread and wine, but also in the holy bodies that receive it.  It images a feast where all are welcome.  It is spiritual food to strengthen us for loving service.  The only way to get with the program – with Jesus’ program – is to love and love and love some more.  Amen.

[i] Luke 4:18-19; quoting Isaiah 6:1; 58:6; 6:2.
[ii] The following story is from Dennis, Sheila & Matthew Linn, Good Goats: Healing Our Images of God (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1994), pp. 8-11.
[iii] I Corinthians 12:24b-26.
[iv] Pope Francis, Address at Expo Fair, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, 9 July 2015, accessed at http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2015/07/10/pope_francis_speech_at_world_meeting_of_popular_movements/1157291.