That Ugly Word

In the midst of deliberations in Rome at the Synod on the Family right now, I am reminded of my own homily on Mark 10:2-16, preached quite a few moons ago in a far away pulpit. For what it’s worth, I am sharing it here below:

It was not easy to prepare this sermon. I attended two Bible studies and read a number of commentaries on today’s readings. The Gospel in particular provoked quite a gamut of responses and opinions, such as:
“It is important to speak strongly of the Church’s teaching on divorce.”
“How can we uphold Church teaching when divorce is so prevalent around us?”
“Do not use the text as a whip to punish divorced people.”
“These texts have been used to keep victims in abusive marriages, so preacher beware.”
These thoughts, and more, probably go through our heads too as we hear Jesus’ words today. In the midst of this world, our world, full of broken relationships, we take time to hear Good News in these words of Jesus.

Divorce. The very mention of the word wrings our hearts and wrenches our stomachs. The breaking up of what God intends to be “one flesh” rips through all of our lives. We have all seen and touched the pain — if not in our own situation, we have seen that pain in loved ones whose lives seem permanently scarred by marriage break-up. The private experience of divorce between two people affects the whole community. Because divorce is more than just a marriage break-up.

Divorce is merely the public recognition of a private reality that precedes its necessity. Behind the legal process lies the alienation and separation of a woman and a man. Behind the legal term lies the pain of having lost confidence, dignity and respect.

Sometimes unhealthy behaviours of abuse, power and control violate marriage vows long before divorce is pending. Sometimes a growing apart creeps in over time, driven by over-focusing on individual self-fulfillment or just plain boredom. We stop loving, and the “one flesh” is far to be found. Even if we never seek divorce, every marriage risks falling prey to a daily flatness and drudgery, far from the “one flesh”-union that spells fulfillment for each partner. Even when enjoying a healthy, loving marriage chances are very big that we experience the pain of break-up in other ways with those close to us.

Whether we call it divorce or break-up, we are all prone to get burnt in relationships. We invest ourselves in another, giving and receiving closeness and friendship. But even the best of friendships are tainted with the pain of separation, rejection, alienation. Husband or wife, parent or child, friend or foe, none of us are safe. Within our parish community, within our own selves and even with God, separation hurts and scars. It is not good for us to live alone. It is not good for us live cut off from the human community, cut off even from God.

It is that reality, the sin of human alienation, that Jesus addresses here. It is that reality, more than the law on divorce, that is judged as not part of God’s intent at creation. The Pharisees come to Jesus, asking a question to test him. We too are all ears to hear the answer. Like the Pharisees, we get caught in living our religion, and our relationships, like keeping a balance sheet. If we keep the religious laws, we will earn God’s grace. If we keep the minimum rules of getting along, our marriage will last. Jesus does not buy into that system. Jesus confronts us with both the sinfulness of all separation and with the glorious grace of God’s reconciliation. Legalizing divorce does not take away its sinful character, nor does it alter God’s original intent of joining man and woman into one flesh. Legalizing divorce does not make any broken relationship right,
nor does it take away God’s forgiving and healing action toward us. We suffer from hardness of heart, but God is still the God of forgiving and healing love.

It is not our job to pass judgment on others, nor to bury ourselves in guilt and shame over our sin. It is our job to face our own hardness of heart. We try to be God, in our own life or in someone else’s life — and our heart hardens. We presume, with the Pharisees, that we can earn our way into heaven by keeping religious laws — and our heart cuts itself off from compassion and understanding. We seek only our own gain — and our heart grows cold to the pain we inflict on others. We are obsessed with hiding our woundedness — and our heart buries itself in the illusion of perfection and false humility. We help sustain a culture that promotes individualism and self-gratification — we help grow the collective hardness of heart. We help sustain religious attitudes and practices that contradicts the spirit of community — we collude with the sin of not supporting one another when our marriage feels adrift. One’s marriage is such a private affair, we think. Before we know it, our “non-interfering”, and our inability to seek help grows hardness of heart — wherever we turn. We may not call every break in relationship a divorce. But every time we find ourselves alone, without support, cut off from our partner, alienated from community, we experience the pain of divorce. That is why it is not good for us to be alone.

Jesus levels the playing field. As men and women we are equally free to enter relationships. Once committed, we are equally responsible to grow in God’s love toward one another. Jesus urges us to take the sanctity of relationships, especially marriage, very seriously. Creation may be broken and fallen from God’s original intent. Our culture may be adrift in how to support lasting relationships. But these are not reasons for despair, nor for ignoring Jesus’ answer. Jesus asks us to be responsible for the quality of every relationship in which we find ourselves. As a community of faith we are called to account for the measure of support we offer one another. Far beyond quarreling over the permission to divorce, we are called to change our behaviour — to show more compassion than criticism, to listen more than we talk, to relate to one another as equals before God. Jesus condemns all separation and brokenness as sin. On this level playing field, we all stand wanting.

Before God, we are reminded of the purpose and goodness of creation. Before God, we are all called to become “one flesh” — in the community of marriage, in our parish community, in the world. In the daily routine of living, it is not good to be alone. As followers of Jesus, it is not good for any of us to be alone.

Children know that it is not good to be alone. Children do not hide their need for love. Children are ready to forgive and reconcile, often long before adults are. Children reach out without shame. In the middle of his serious conversation with the Pharisees, Jesus takes the child onto his lap.

In a society where children had no rights or social status, Jesus models before our eyes God’s kingdom of right relation. No matter how painful the separation, or how big the fight, children continue to reach and ask to be held in loving care.
No matter how foolish our questions, how fearful our doubts, how great our shame, God gently reaches out to us and nudges us toward right relation with one another.Despite the sinfulness of separation, as God’s children we may experience the reconciling love of God in Jesus Christ. Held by Jesus, not stopped by anyone, we come to see all our relationships as holy places where God’s own presence and power is at work. That loving power of God in and through Jesus is infinitely greater than any of our sinful separations can ever be.

Jesus draws attention to this realization by welcoming children. Following the lead of today’s Gospel, I too will end with a story featuring children: a girl in elementary school had to do a project for science class. She decided to build a model of the world. So she took a rubber ball for her globe, carefully cut construction paper in the shape of all the continents, and glued them on to the ball. When she finished, she set the project on the table and went outside to play. About this time, her little sister Sally came in and began to play with the globe. She took Africa and tore it off; she began to chew on China; and she took a crayon and coloured all over Europe. Just then, her older sister came back in.
When she saw what had happened, she screamed at the little girl: “Sally, look what you’ve done. You’ve ruined everything. I hate you!” … Well, the little girl was utterly crushed. She ran away in tears. But when her sister realized what she had done, she found her little sister, threw her arms around her and hugged her close, saying: “Sally, you’ve messed up my world, but I still love you.”

You mess up my world, and you mess up relationships, but I still love you, and I continue to create you in my image, male and female, called into one flesh… — says the Lord our God… AMEN

Prairie Encounters

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Barefoot and Preaching

I wish I had come up with this title, but I confess one much smarter — and younger! — than I is to be credited with this captivating name for her new website/blog BAREFOOT AND PREACHING.  My dear friend and sister in faith and ministry has just joined the cyber-publishing world — welcome Leah! Do check her out, she’s a force to be reckoned with:

BAREFOOT and PREACHING

Prairie Encounters is my little site where I share my ministry ware.

By way of exception, I will not add a comment section, as this is simply a joyful “birth announcement” 🙂 🙂 🙂

I have another entry in the draft section, so stay tuned. It should be up in a couple days.

To die for?

Recently I lead a retreat on the question “What is Truth?” Echoing Pilate’s perennial question to an accused Jesus, we began by exploring the layers of truth in the award-winning, and made into a movie, novel Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

life-of-pi-poster2Religious belief is one of the most fascinating themes in Life of Pi. Throughout the novel, Pi’s beliefs mature. His introduction to religion comes through befriending his mentors who are a Catholic priest, a Jewish Rabbi and a Muslim Imam. He willingly joins each religion through their various initiation rituals and catechetical instructions. Pi is equally comfortable praying in a church, a mosque or a synagogue. One of the most amusing scenes in the story is the chance encounter on the street between Pi and his three mentors, each “claiming” Pi as their own. However, only when he is on his forced journey at sea, does Pi realize that he truly believes in God. His faith is tested in a way that it was not tested earlier in his life.

Earlier in the novel, Pi notes that religion puts many people off today because they believe it constrains their freedom. He criticizes such people for not realizing that ‘freedom’ outside of safety and comfort, status and order can be incredibly frightening. Pi learns that the stakes at sea are much higher, when there is less order and no comforts of any kind; every day he faces life or death situations. It is his religious faith that gets him through, which is an implicit rebuke to those who believe faith limits freedom.

It is often said that faith grows our best and most enduring qualities in times of trial and hardship. Pi seems to experience exactly that on the open seas; many will resonate with this insight. Faith can deepen in times of suffering. It doesn’t justify the suffering, however — never. And the potential to grow through suffering is only that — a potential. God honours our human freedom like none other. We have to choose the growing. There is good reason why Jesus asked regularly, ‘do you want to be well?’ I am reminded of an especially painful experience when a close friend gently said: “I’m not denying your pain — it is real, it is justified and deserves to be honoured. Take all the time you need to grieve. Just remember that God is eagerly waiting to teach you many things through this hardship.” And so, when I was ready to slow down my weeping and wailing, I asked God to teach me — I willed it. And God did, in ways that far surpassed my expectations and hopes.

Pi’s insights into freedom and his faith development really got me thinking about today’s so-called “secular” culture and Christian faith, including my own. His discovery of false and true freedom helped me understand why our western culture seems so much less inclined to embrace a religious faith, whether traditional or even contemporary. So many of us live comfortable lives cushioned  by material goods and job security (although that’s eroding more and more), by a long-established social order and a taken-for-granted freedom of expression. Who needs religion?

While not necessarily so, such a question could arise from an adolescent-type arrogance. Our so-called post-modern culture not only questions the need for traditional religion, but looks bolstered by a sense of freedom that seems more centered on self than on others and the common good. Interestingly, Pope Francis’ instructions for this year’s Lenten season echo a similar concern: ““Usually when we are healthy and comfortable, we forget about others; we are unconcerned with their problems, their suffering, and the injustices they endure. Our heart grows cold.” Before we dismiss the need and value of religion, humility and caution would be well-advised lest we risk falling into an outright denial of our origin and daily sustenance of life: if God would ever stop loving us we would cease to exist.

My own parents embraced this idea that religion was obsolete, but for slightly different reasons. Having grown up themselves in a rather restrictive form of Catholicism as well as in poverty and hardship, they wanted nothing more than to “free” themselves from both these yokes — understandably so. As a result, both of them opted for a non-religious funeral. When I began to immerse myself more deeply into a traditional Catholicism, all they could see was a going “backwards” (their word, not mine) into a thing of the past. Sad, really, as their example of love, service and sacrifice laid strong spiritual foundations for me, but they could not see that.

Have our spiritual needs really changed that much from our ancestors? Is our freedom to “do what we want when we want and with whom we want” an authentic freedom? Or are we suffering a massive dose of collective delusion, lulled asleep by affluence, blissfully sinking into amnesia about the fact that our deepest needs and hungers remain spiritual in nature? Who is really free — those who have everything but still feel empty, or those who have nothing yet burst with joy, generosity and hospitality and those who can sing even as they meet death? Just asking.

A lot of horrific things continue to happen in the world in the name of religion. No rationalization can ever justify that. However, sometimes true inner freedom is on full global display as a fruit of religion. That is what I saw and heard when the 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians were beheaded in Libya last month. Martyred for their faith in Jesus, their witness was immediately elevated to sainthood (incidentally, more Christians have been killed for their faith in the past century than in all previous centuries combined).

The icon above, currently circulating in cyberspace, was written within weeks of their brutal murder by the artist Tony Rezk (Read the artist’s own blog entry here and an interview with him here). It depicts the new martyrs receiving the crown of glory in heaven. Some will consider this image incomprehensible and even outrageous; others see in these 21 Christians a powerful illustration of authentic freedom. I have not watched the beheading-video, and I will not, but I have heard that the sound on the video was praying: “Ya yesua irhammi — Jesus, have mercy on me.”

No matter our feelings about religion, we can honour these 21 new martyrs by showing a personal interest in their stories, by letting our hearts be moved by the unspeakable sorrow of their families. And while we’re at it, may their brutal, innocent death bear fruit in our stopping to reflect: in what or whom is my sense of freedom and faith grounded? Is my freedom a freedom from or a freedom for, born of God and serving my neighbour in need? Is my own faith strong enough to hold me steady in the trials and storms of life, encouraging me to choose life and growth in the midst of the painful seasons of my existence? What or who am I willing, freely, to die for?life of pi4

“If you stumble over believability, what are you living for? Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?” (Life of Pi, Yann Martel, 2001)

“Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can. But life leaps over oblivion lightly, losing only a thing or two of no importance, and gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud…”  (Life of Pi, Yann Martel, 2001)

For a Lenten reflection related to the above content, read Margery Eagan’s column here.

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