Freedom?

plow-580x250It’s ironic. We hear a lot of talk about freedom these days. We’re all in danger of losing it. If you believe the political right in this country. Those “freedoms” that are usually left unnamed. You know, “our” freedoms?

Of course “freedom” tends to come down to me doing what I want when I want to. And that so-called freedom ends up not being freedom but slavery. We become imprisoned in a world we create. We find ourselves wondering why we are not happy as we sit among our riches.

Jesus understood that. So did the writer of 1Kings, who wrote about the encounter between Elijah and Elisha. “Just let me kiss my mother and father goodbye!” Paul understood it when he wrote: “For freedom, Christ set us free!” We mistake freedom for all the stuff of life that prevents us from getting on about the business of actual freedom. We always have something to do first. And that leads to one more thing, and then another, and finally we are lamenting that we can’t wait for retirement so “we can spend more time doing charity work”.  I hate to tell you this, but at retirement you will find more reasons to put things off–for just a bit of course.

Elijah, Paul and Jesus are trying to save us from ourselves. Left to our own freedom, we will become mired in acquiring things, building “security” for the future, getting ourselves into the position we believe necessary from which we can then, “follow Jesus”. In a word, we will never get to it.

True freedom is not in getting our way with the world. It’s not in bank accounts or houses. Elisha demonstrates how well he gets the message, when he turns back not to kiss his parents goodbye, but rather to “burn his bridges”. He kills the oxen necessary to his very survival, cooks them, and hands out the meat to all who are hungry. He now has nothing.

Jesus told the rich man that he should go and sell everything he had and follow him in order to secure the kingdom.

When we hear those words, we blink, and we look with begging eyes to anyone to assure us that we aren’t supposed to take that literally are we?

And indeed it should not be taken literally. Civilization would come to a screeching halt (some might think it should), if we all simply walked away from home and kin and went off to preach to each other? We would soon come to the conclusion that those farms were useful since we all need to eat. Somebody needs to build and maintain transportation. Someone needs to build and maintain shelter.

Of course it can be literal. Elisha was “called”, as were Jesus’ disciples. As were and as are others. Sometimes God is insistent that a particular person has a particular job in this time and place to accomplish and the call is literal. Radically give up your life as you know it, and FOLLOW ME.

But I believe that that call is there for all of us in a real sense too. We are all being called to follow Christ into a new but very real freedom that severs the slavery aspect of our relationship to things and ways of being. It is the radical realignment of our relationship to this world that is being offered in these passages.

While we respond to deadlines and mortgage balances with renewed dedication to acquiring assets, we are enslaved by our possessions. They own us. We have no time, emotional or real, to address the real issues of the planet, the issues of the Kingdom that Jesus lovingly called us to.

These are not small requests, but the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Today our world spins more and more out of control. Our political leaders are invested in a game of their own, one that involves the pursuit of naked power and riches. Our business community, structured as it is, places almost an exclusive premium on the “bottom line”. Profit drives the industrial machines of the world.

Meanwhile people are hungry, without shelter. People are sick, without care. The planet groans under the massive assault of an indifferent populace which rapes its bounty and leaves sludge and barren useless land. People labor in real slavery, unable to make a decent wage, unable to care for themselves or their families.

We are too busy in our “freedom” to address anybody else’s problems. We are lost in our own slavery to “the good life” however defined. We are not free to follow Jesus, because we don’t have time. See me next week, year, decade, and maybe I can do something, but not now. The mortgage is due and I need to work another overtime shift to make it.

These things are real. I don’t minimize them. But the way out of this morass is not less attention to discipleship but more. Paul warned us:

But if you go on biting and devouring one another,
beware that you are not consumed by one another.

No one is free until all are free. To follow is not to mouth platitudes. It is to do the work. Love your neighbor as yourself IS the law as Paul stated.

We are not losing our freedoms. We have yet to gain our freedom.

Today’s readings point the way and make that path straight. Follow it.

Amen.

Arise!

FAITH-RISE-350-1The readings today focus on victory over death. We are familiar with them both. In 1 Kings, Elijah returns the widow’s son to life. Similarly in Luke, Jesus stops a funeral procession, and returns to life a son to his widowed mother.

In a real sense two lives are saved, for as widows, both women were dependent upon their sons, the sons who would take care of them as soon as they were of an age.

But are these lessons about victory over death in a physical sense?

Surely we know that both of these sons would eventually die, their lives were being lengthened, they were not going to be immortal. So what are we to learn?

We learn of course that God has power that transcends all our physical laws. To us and our scientific understanding, all things that live eventually die. We know of no way to change that. It appears to be the way of life. Yet we know that our Creator must and does control even life itself. And if God does this, then, there must be something beyond our mere lives. If there was nothing else there would be no point in prolonging this life we each live, for in the end is mere dust.

Indeed when we look at the companion reading in Ephesians, it becomes clear. Paul faces and endures a different kind of death–the death of his old way of life. Born as a Pharisee, Paul rose through the ranks to be an exemplary Pharisee, following the traditions of his family and Judaism. He, no doubt, proudly persecuted these upstart Jews lead by Jesus.

Yet, all fell away from him in a moment of revelation. We know the story well, and Paul tells us himself that he was not “taught” this new way of being. He, seemingly instantly, sees. He sees that his entire life has been devoted to the wrong way of being, and he sees the right path. From that moment forward, he becomes an apostle to the Gospel. So sure is he of his new truth, that he feels no necessity to check in with those who had lived, eaten, slept, and walked for three years with Jesus. He needed no check. He literally had been reborn, raised from his own death.

Some in our times refer to the “coming to Christ” as being “reborn”. Indeed baptism is a death to sin and rebirth. But of course we continue to sin, for we are human. And wise followers of Jesus know that this death and rebirth are continuous events in our lives, hopefully occurring again and again as we mature in our discipleship.

The stories of the widows and the return of their sons to life bring us joy, not in the miracles described, but in the hope that we retain from pondering them. God has ultimate power over the very act of death, how much more over our foibles and shortcomings? God can and does call us patiently and with love to renew and reclaim our godliness in Christ.

God is always calling us to arise.

Do we hear?

Do we answer?

Amen.

I remember my childhood when the sunrise,
like my play-fellow, would burst in to my bedside
with its daily surprise of morning;
when the faith in the marvelous bloomed
like fresh flowers in my heart every day,
looking into the face of the world in simple gladness;
when insects, birds and beasts, the common weeds,
grass and the clouds had their fullest value of wonder;
when the patter of rain at night brought dreams
from the fairyland, and mother’s voice in the evening
gave meaning to the stars.

And then I think of death,
and the rise of the curtain
and the new morning
and my life awakened in its fresh surprise of love.**

From Rabindranath Tagore, Crossing

 

A Tale of Two Women

I confess that I am puzzled by the inclusion of 1Kings 17: 10-16 along with Mk 12: 38-44. They seem to be very different stories with very different lessons.

As you recall, in Kings, Elijah stops a woman gathering sticks and asks for a drink of water. She stops her work and begins to comply when he asks for bread as well.

She tells him she has only a bit of flour and a small portion of oil left, just enough for one more meal for her son and herself. After this, she expects to die from starvation.

Elijah tells her to bring him the cake anyway and then feed herself and her son, for the Lord will not let the flour be gone nor the oil. Indeed, neither went empty for an entire year.

In Mark, we have the famous story of the widow who enters the temple and gives her last two coins to the treasury while the rich give great amounts. Jesus reminds that she has given of all she had while they give only of their excess.

Both deal with the end of things. The end of the flour and oil, and the end of one’s entire savings. Both women would appear destitute. And indeed we do learn somewhat different lessons.

From the widow in Kings we learn that when we are near the end of our ability to soldier on, relief will come. We some how or from some one, receive the strength to go on. Just at the moment when we feel we cannot endure one second more, we find that we can. All of us have had occasion to marvel at someone who manages to keep going when things seem hopeless.

During the last few years we have witnessed countless people who have lost jobs, fallen behind on their mortgages and literally live hand to mouth each and every day. How often do they lament that they have no idea how they can pay this bill or find enough to purchase food next week? Yet they do, and they manage albeit in great difficulty. Until one day, one day, the new job comes or the bank finally agrees to a refinance. The dark days are over.

The widow in Kings reminds us that we must never give up hope and our faith that better days will come, that we can endure this present pain, that God continues to love and uphold us and we will, with God’s help, find a way.

In Mark, we have a woman who is voiceless in her society. She is the prey of the rich scribes and Pharisees for she has been taught that her first obligation is not to her own well-being, but to the Temple. She may well have given up the money for food that day. She shows us in her simple piety what true giving is all about.

The rich are proud of their foundations and their philanthropy. Many of us are proud of our service on Thanksgiving at a soup kitchen. Similarly we might be proud of the commitments we make to our churches, contributing to the fund that builds the new kitchen, or the new landscaping. We too, feel good when we drop our dollar in the kettles outside the stores at Christmas time.

But we are throwing our excess into the Temple kettle. We are almost never giving away that which will cause us great suffering or loss.

And the lesson is not that we should. An argument could be made that the widow in Mark is to be lamented that she would risk her very life in service to the Temple. Her first duty was to at least live so that she might guide others to a greater understanding of charity and love for her fellow beings. Similarly we should not give to the point where we become an unnecessary burden on society ourselves.

What we should learn from this teaching is that we should not think ourselves esteemed for our small acts. They should be not things to crow about but things that we do as often as we are able. If we cannot give greatly in funds, and even if we can, we should be looking for ways to serve those least among us with our time, and our compassion.

The widow in Mark should shame us as to our own lack of thinking when we casually make our offerings. She should shame us into remembering that our offerings are not just monetary but may come in many forms. We are resourceful, as the widow in Kings reminds us. God will help us if we call upon Him. We will find a way.

Amen.

 

What Is It?

 

 

I find it amusing that the writers of Hebrew Scriptures so often painted prophets as unwilling and protesting men. Again and again we are confronted with those called to serve God who are quick to demur for any number of reasons. “Choose someone else, God,” they seem to proclaim.

In today’s first reading, Elijah is no different. In earlier readings, Elijah has proven that Baal is no God but that his God is in fact the only true God. He has set about killing off  the Baal priests and Jezebel is after his head. He runs far away and collapses under a  broom tree, a tree that offers little shade. He is exhausted and falls asleep. He longs for death.

Instead, an angel appears and brings nourishment. Fed with the cake and water, he is able to resume his journey to Horeb.

We are of course expected to draw the parallel with the Hebrews, led by Moses, who were fed in the desert. If you recall, God sent manna to the Israelites which they could gather by day which gave them sufficient nourishment to sustain them until the morrow. Since they had no idea what the “food” was, they called it manna, or “what is it?”

Similarly of course, Elijah is also fed, though apparently the fare if familiar to him.

Not until Jesus discourse on bread in Jn 6: 41-51, do we learn what these food references are. They are, as Jesus tells us, God himself. “I am the bread of life!” he proclaims. What is it, is God.

We learn that God sustains us on our journeys, and without his sustaining power, mere food would never be enough. In other words, we are never enough. Our strengths and perseverance is admirable, but insufficient. It is God, through his great love for us, that allows us to carry on when we are too tired physically and emotionally to bear the burden any longer.

Some are wont to say that God burdens us with more than we can handle. But I think this is incorrect. God does not burden his children. We burden ourselves by our poor decisions, or we are burdened by the simple vagaries of life, the happenstance of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. God does not take over and choose for us, but when we find ourselves burdened, he graciously stands by ready and willing to offer us that which we cannot offer ourselves–the beyond human strength to continue.

We, or most of us, have had that experience at least one in our lives. We look back astonished that we were able to “get through it”. We recognize that God’s grace sustained us when nothing else could have.

Elijah, like us, doesn’t feel up to the task. We complain and whine. We bargain and resist. But when we offer ourselves to God’s hands, we find, that we can bear the circumstances we find ourselves in, and we can do the job we are being asked to do.

Those of us who believe that God, in some mysterious way, becomes the bread the wine for us, find strength in the Eucharist, not only in times of great stress, but in our daily normal lives. It is like a muscle that is exercised and grows in strength and endurance. With regular reflection upon the importance of this gift, we become more able handle the small issues of life, and thus are prepared when faced with serious problems.

Such is God’s love for us. As Paul says, let us be imitators of God–let us love this greatly all those we meet.

Amen.

 

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