Standing in the Pit of Fear

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” It all sounds so simple – don’t worry! How many times in my life have I been consumed with fear about tomorrow, and someone comes along in my life and says, “Don’t worry.” Often times those words do not offer me comfort or consolation. If anything, they make me angry because when I am in the pit of worry, I do not feel that the person offering me the well-intentioned advice really understands what I am suffering.

Being in the pit of worry – that is a compelling image to describe what we might feel in those moments where we are preoccupied about what might happen to us tomorrow. We literally feel in a pit – and having encouraging voices calling out to us from outside the pit does nothing to console us. But, were one to enter into the pit of fear with us, then I know the consolation of no longer sanding alone in my fear. That is exactly what God does for us in Jesus. He stands in the pit of chaos with us. He did it in Calvary, (“He descended into hell”), and he does it for all people for all times. “I am with you in this, and together we trust in the Father’s providential love.”

This is the call to be in solidarity with those who are consumed with fear – not to offer advice or pious platitudes, but to experience the powerlessness with that person and in union with that person to cry out to God for help. I feel that we as a parish are called by God to be in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in this community who are facing fears regarding their future status in this country. We can stand outside of the “pit” and debate politics and enter into heated discussions as to why a pit even exists in the first place or how “those people” got into the pit. None of that discussion brings solace to those who are actually in the pit. We will hear debates about TPS (“temporary protected status”), DACA (deferred action for childhood arrivals), DAPA (deferred action for parents of Americans) and in those debates find ourselves taking sides or hurling invectives against the “other side.”

We may choose to stand outside of the “pit of fear” in our debates and discussions, or we may choose to enter into the pit and stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who face these fears on a daily basis. What does that mean? First it means to listen with an open heart. I am praying about ways that this conversation can take place in our parish. Secondly, when all of us can say that we feel that fear and uncertainty with our brothers and sisters, then we pray with them. Again I would like to explore ways in which that mutual prayer can happen. Jesus “descended into hell,” and lovingly chose to enter into the chaos of our lives. In his name may we do the same for one another.

Capable of a Radical Love

More harm is incurred by people who take offense than by people who give offense. Perhaps too often we concentrate on the evil-doers, the perpetrators, the “offenders” as the ones who are the cause of all the problems in the world. And for sure there are some bad hombres out there whom I may have to watch out for. But maybe it is about time we started to look at the greater harm that is incurred by people who take offense, who hold onto the hurts of the past, and who refuse to believe in the power of redemption. So much energy is spent on nursing past hurts, vilifying the offender and maintaining a list of wrongs that justifies why I feel the way I do about certain people. That energy is supremely self-destructive, and so, more harm is incurred by people who take offense than by people who give offense.

The most challenging words of Jesus in his public ministry are the ones that are recorded in today’s gospel: “Love your enemy, pray for your persecutor, offer no resistance to one who is evil, turn the other cheek.” I can imagine the feeling of disbelief that must have overcome the hearts of the listeners to this very first sermon that Jesus preached, now concluded with the most impossible demand, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Perhaps those followers just shook their heads and said, “Well, that ain’t going to happen!”

The question comes down to this: am I capable of a radical love? Now before you answer the question, just think of the ways you have loved radically – when you have made great sacrifices and were looking for nothing in return, when you gave totally of yourself in response to a situation which others may have ignored, when you showed a heroic generosity that went above and beyond the call of duty. Yes, you are capable of radical love because you are made in the image and likeness of God who is love. So, being “perfect in love” the way your Father is perfect in His love is not as outrageous as it first may seem.

So what gets in the way of radical love? In the moments when I “take offense,” I have put up a roadblock to what is most natural in me. We think that the desire for revenge (an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth) is natural. We think that hating the enemy is natural. However, revenge and hatred are the most unnatural things about human nature. We are literally wired to love in a radical way for it is that moment we find our deepest joy in life.

To say that more harm is incurred by people who take offense, we realize that we become the victims of our own revengeful plotting by allowing our souls to be marinated in the loathing of another. We are not truly ourselves in those moments of unloving. Maybe on those occasions when we become obsessed with the hurt that was delivered to us and we find ourselves steaming in our own misery, we might be able to hear the gentle whisper of Jesus say to us, “I know you are so much better than that.”

Guilty as charged!

This morning, I received in the mail an envelope upon which were written those ominous words: “Notice of Liability.” Sometime back in January, I got caught by one of those traffic-light cameras. On the notice were three photos of my car as I was making a right turn from Merrick Avenue onto Stewart Avenue. Now, these are some of the thoughts that went through my mind: “Sure, Nassau County is making me pay for their $100 million dollar deficit.” “That right-turn arrow was still green when I went through it.” “I bet there was a big truck in front of me and I never saw the light change.” “Wasn’t it snowing that day? Maybe I was trying to avoid a collision!” “Why don’t they go after the really bad drivers!”

In all of those thoughts, never did it cross my mind to think, “I’m guilty.” I actually had to watch the on-line video to convince myself that I was wrong. And so I paid – and hopefully learned my lesson.

Most of us think of ourselves as decent, law-abiding citizens. That’s perhaps why these traffic cameras irritate us – they are so precise with little or no wiggle room.

In today’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t give much “wiggle room” to his listeners who, I am sure, thought of themselves as law-abiding citizens. They weren’t the murderers, the adulterers, the corrupt and dishonest. Yet, in each of these three cases, Jesus raises the bar and talks about the interior attitudes that are murderous, adulterous, insincere. Using abusive language, holding onto lustful thoughts, or not being absolutely honest puts us at risk in not inheriting the Kingdom of heaven.

Guilty as charged! Today’s gospel has an equalizing force that puts all of us, saints and sinners alike, in the same category: guilty. If the playing field is leveled and we all stand guilty of transgressing the spirit of the law, then there is no room for arrogance or pride or even self-righteousness. We are all made of the same clay - and that clay is half-baked!

If that were the end of the story, however, there would be no good news to proclaim! For the good news is that salvation has come to all, not just to the wretched refuse at the bottom of the pit of society. Jesus has come to offer more than just a new law, one that is more sublime than the old. He has come to offer more than just a new rule book. He has come to offer power, grace, the gifts of the Spirit that can empower us to produce good fruits. Sincerely seek that grace of having a heart that is more tolerant, a heart that is more chaste, a heart that is more sincere – and allow God to do His re-creative work in us this very day.