It’s been a while since I’ve posted, hasn’t it? If I have any loyal readers, thanks for you patience.
I’ve been trying out an idea from the author of the book Rebuilt, Father Michael White. He is pastor of a parish that has become rather famous in the Catholic Church of the U.S. because of their seeming success in revitalizing their parish using many of the practices of the “mega-church” movement. The leadership at the Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland (home of Rebuilt) think preaching using the organizing principle of a “message series” is an idea that will engage parishioners. So, the last few weeks I organized a “series” based on the Sermon on the Mount that the Catholic Church was reading in the Sunday Lectionary called “Turn On Your ‘Kingdom Positioning System’ Or Be Lost.” The Sermon on the Mount is a kind of “directional system” for how to navigate the Christian life, like a GPS guides your route in a the physical world. Parishioners did remember the theme but I’m not sure how much practical life-change as Fr. White in the link above describes in his reason for using the message series.
So for Lent I’ve planed out another series called “Root Cause.” I’ll be exploring the “root cause” of why humanity is in the mess it is and ultimately needs the redeeming work of Christ to save it. Hopefully I’ll give some practical ideas on how to experience life-change (conversion of heart is the goal of preaching and liturgy). I’ll try to post each week’s “Message,” here on the blog. By the way, apparently it’s called a “message” instead of a homily because folks don’t want to be preached to but get advice and teaching on how to live their life as a Christian. Hmmmm….isn’t that what a homily is?
Root Cause: From Tree to Tree (Lent Week 1)
Parents know children will ask questions about the world. Why is the sky blue? Why does it have to thunder? It scares me! Parents realize kids won’t understand all the technical science language of light refraction that produces blue so they tell a story of how God likes to paint the sky with His favorite color. As for thunder; how many times have children been told it’s the angels bowling instead of the difficult concept to explain to a 4 year old that electricity in lightning supercharges the molecules of air that produces a sound wave boom across the sky. Stories have always been told to make sense of serious questions.
I like to think that thousands of years ago children seated around a campfire in a middle-eastern desert while traveling to some proposed “promised paradise” were asking their parents why humans have to work so hard to survive and then die anyway? (Besides asking “Are we there yet?”) And so, because truth has to be told in ways that the children could understand, a story is told. The story uses images anyone could relate to. A tree full of delicious fruit would seem like heaven to people wandering around without anything sweet in the hot, dry desert. Snakes, ugh! The ancient dessert travelers probably had seen their share of illness and death caused by the slithery creatures the embodiment of danger. The Adam and Eve tree story reveals that humans had it perfectly good and then “the evil one” tricked men and women into thinking they could ultimately control their lives. So humans had to leave their perfect life. They rebelled against God and suffered the consequences. Now we’re doomed to our fate because humans make bad choices to reject the Law God gave us. Those choices perpetuate illness, trap us in suspicion of others and cause death. Like a fairy tale about witches who build houses out of gingerbread and lure children in “for dinner” humanity was given the chance to choose the good, to love; or people can choose to fill their selfish bellies and believe the evil witch or snake or devil really has what satisfy their soul hunger that isn’t for food.
The truth revealed in the scripture story of the tree in Eden is this: evil is real. Evil tempts us with a false “world view” where humans don’t need God. Humans are tricked into believing in our own power to save ourselves, that the individual is the center of the universe and that other people who want what we have are obstacles to our happiness. Or to use the language of our present day national leaders the “evil one” presents “fake news” and “alternative facts.”
Our message series this lent will invite us to consider that the “Root Cause” of humanity’s sorry state is revealed in the human freedom to choose self-interest over self-offering of lives for the good of others. The evil one isn’t a snake, but evil is heard in the voices that tempt people to think they can or should be able to dictate how life should be lived instead of submitting themselves to the will of a God that doesn’t seem too be concerned enough to intervene. Ultimately the root cause of all things that deprive humans of a fuller life is the lie that took root in the human heart that God isn’t in charge, so humans can be.
Jesus, in his temptations in the desert comes face to face with evil. I suspect Jesus is wrestling with his human nature, the fact that every human being thinks they are the master of their life. In the desert with nothing to distract him Jesus must face the very human, deeply rooted sense of self-importance expressed in selfishness. This confrontation with the voice of evil reveals three roots that drink from deep veins in the soil of the human psyche of alternative facts about human relationships. The devil in the story tries to get Jesus to choose to believe disordered relationships can satisfy better than the perfect order of life God created.
One root reaches into the image we have of ourselves. Jesus is tempted to think of “me-first.” He’s invited to have a distorted sense of self-importance. We too hear the voice when our egos start to get the best of us. It’s been a hard day. Those kids have been a pain. My spouse has no clue about how much I give up to make her happy. I deserve a break. No body will notice if I spend a little of our money on myself. When ever we begin to think “me-first” or “it’s all about me” the evil one is probably whispering in our soul to choose to eat of the tree rooted in the bad soil of self-interest. Jesus rejects the suggestion of taking care of self before all others. He chooses to be a man who is concerned about the hunger for the Bread of Life that overcomes death that he alone can provide.
Another root branches out into the realm of the proper relationship between humans and God. Jesus is tempted to distort the relationship with his Father, to test God. When we tell God what to do instead of seeking his will we put down another root into soil that won’t produce good fruit. Thinking we can make God do something, thinking I know what I need better than the Father can lead to separation from the source of life. Negotiating with God in prayer, reminding him I took care of the poor or I’ll give so much money to the church if you grant me a favor, anytime we make the I in our prayer more prevalent than God the focus is off. God is in control and will always provide our daily bread. It’s our job to trust, to seek his will, to ask for his grace to persevere but never demand or to think we can manipulate the Father.
The third cause of root disease that Jesus is asked to prefer over a healthy root system to the tree of life is to see himself as ruler instead of servant. The devil promises what he can not give. Power to control the lives of people, to make them servants to Jesus’ desire. Christians who refuse to see themselves as servant to those who are brother and sister in the human family are going to find themselves cut off from the fullness of life. When we use people to make ourself feel better, when we refuse the identity of servant in the image of Jesus we were baptized into, we let evil influence our free will. Christ chooses to be servant, not a ruler. So should we.
Trees will produce good fruit if planted in good soil with strong root structure. The root cause of the messed up human condition is a decision. Not a decision by characters in a story named Adam and Eve, but each individual’s decision to be swayed by the evil that whispers in our heart. You can do better than it seems God is doing for you. It’s my hope that our message series this Lent will help this parish confront that voice of temptation like Jesus did. Refute the fake news with Good News. Here’s the choice we confront once again this Lent. Do we put down our roots in bad soil? The soil of self-interest, making ourselves the center of the universe? Or, do we put our roots down in the promise of Jesus causing the tree of our life to become full of fruit that benefits the rest of humanity.
We children of God wander the desert land the limited span of the time our life will last asking questions. Why are things in this world such a mess? Why are humans constantly at war or making life so miserable for each other? Lent begins with the story of a tree of life and knowledge at the center of a perfect garden. Lent ends with another tree, the tree of the Cross of Jesus which gives life and knowledge, the Good News. To chose to eat of the fruit of sacrifice of self that hangs on the tree of cross is how we “get back to the garden,” the perfect life God desires for all humanity. Choose to recognize the root cause of our troubles and be a part of the cause that roots out evil and produces the fruit that offers the fullness of life eternal to humanity.