My sister and I fought like cats and dogs when we were younger. She was known for her biting skills while I was known for my aim in throwing plastic toys to hit her in the head. At the slightest provocation—just catching each other’s eye across the room—we would leap at one another like spider monkeys until one of our parents yelled and threatened us within an inch of our lives. We are wonderful friends now, and we talk every two or three days, but there for a while our parents were not sure if we would both make it out of our teenage years alive.
As odd as it seemed, as a child, I could not imagine NOT fighting with my sister. I just assumed that was what siblings were for, that was how we were supposed to act. That was their purpose, of sorts: something to fight against, to push against. It was the assumption I had about the way things were. And that makes me embarrassed now, to even say that out loud.
Sometimes “the other” turns out to be your closest family member—so how can we even imagine loving our neighbor when that person might be of another faith, of another socio-economic bracket, of another culture, of another political opinion. It’s one thing to speak about loving your neighbor; it’s another thing all together to risk breaking through my assumptions.
It makes me think of this passage in a formative book I often return to: Eknath Easwaran’s work on the Beatitudes, when he tries to describe why we get stuck in such unhealthy, superficial, illusory patterns in life. He says in this work that we should always remember that we don’t see reality the way it is; rather, we see reality the way we are. It’s a contemplative truism. We project our assumptions onto a situation or onto a person, oftentimes avoiding the more costly, deep spiritual work that could lead to a breakthrough in our own growth. We shortchange ourselves, miss the mark when we protect our own egos rather than risk being vulnerable.
So how can we even imagine living into Jesus’ call today to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven”? How can we imagine entering into a relationship with “the other,” as it describes in Greek, the odious ones, those we hate, the others whom we consider threatening to our existence, our way of life? In my own life I unfortunately resisted my own sister so much that I didn’t have time to even realize I was called to love the black person or poor person or Hispanic migrant worker who had moved into the other side of town. I was battling with the person across the hall!
When we encounter such teachings from Jesus, my experience is that we do one of two things: either ignore this verse altogether and pretend that we didn’t hear it, or begin this intriguing rationalizing process we have as human beings and do some spiritual gymnastics to preserve the very assumptions we have been called to release.
On Tuesday, Cynthia and I met with a small group to explore the texts for today, and one of them rightly mentioned how we hold so rigidly to these dualisms in our lives: us and them, black and white, good people and bad people, rich and poor, safe and threatening, white and Hispanic, liberal and conservative, Episcopal and…everyone else who has not seen the light…and on and on…blah blah blah. And we impose values on the people we assign to these categories: values of worth, of dignity, of respect. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll see that, while some of this labeling helps us make sense of the world, our greater motivation is to protect our egos, make ourselves feel more secure, more certain in the way we see the world—to protect our own power.
And, we can go a step further, and say that this is sometimes a helpful and useful thing, this certainty, yet, it’s a slippery slope to grasp onto this so tightly that we stop seeing reality the way it is and begin seeing reality the way we are.
Yet we catch glimpses of the Spirit at work! I listen in on Outreach and Compassion Cluster meetings and I hear risky, vulnerable talk. I hear stories and searching and yearning to stretch out into unfamiliar and uncomfortable spaces, to seek out those who have been ignored in our city and county—and beyond. I hear people ask, “Where is help needed?” “Where are we being called to offer compassion?” “What structures would we need to break through in order to explore some new vista of grace?” This is holy work!
“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” At first glance this call of Christ seems impossible, yet if we stay in this holy tension of stretching and vulnerable compassion, we come to see that this image of perfection isn’t an impossible bar we will never reach. It is actually a holy nudge to imagine a different way of being a human in this world. It’s shocking for us to hear that “perfection” is what is called of us from Jesus. And in that moment of shock, perhaps, we stop seeing reality the way we are and catch a glimpse of the way reality really is—reality in God. In Buddhist terms, we experience our own koan—we have this moment of enlightenment.
It is indeed a bringing together of opposites, isn’t it? It’s a breaking down of those dualisms that we have imposed. And we see this image in the text itself. Jesus tells those gathered that if we “greet only our brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?” How are we any different if you maintain the same, old structures of labeling and assigning value? And Jesus wants us to be different, not in the set aside, special, prideful way, but in the noticeable, self-sacrificing, vulnerable way that is the hallmark of Christian discipleship. We feel that space, friends, when we let go of “our Jesus” or “the Jesus we’re comfortable with” and yield to a wilder Jesus, Jesus driving out the temple money-changers, challenging Jesus, renegade Jesus, crucified, dead, and buried Jesus…resurrected and ascended Jesus! The Jesus that doesn’t just stay within our comfortable box…
This word “greet” that the writer of Matthew’s Gospel uses is intriguing. The word in Greek is actually made up of two smaller words: alpha and a word meaning “to draw or to pull.” With alpha, it’s the first letter of the alphabet, the origin point…the singularity if you will, the point of union. So, when Matthew describes this call “to greet” he is actually painting an image for us of a vocation that seeks to draw or pull disparate or divided parts into union. It turns out that the truth is found in relationship, in community, in union—not just with those who we would choose to encounter but with all those who God has created. It’s a tough sell, I know, but there we have it…
You may have heard that I am going to a special gathering for ten days this August in Houston and Snowmass, Colorado, at St. Benedict’s Monastery. I’ve been invited as one of twenty people from seven countries in what is being called the “New Contemplative Exchange.” The four “founders” or teachers within the Christian contemplative tradition for the past forty years, Thomas Keating, Richard Rohr, Tilden Edwards, and Laurence Freeman, have asked the twenty of us to come and wonder together:
How is the Church being called to stretch and live into the challenges we face today?
Where can hope be found to face the resistances we see in the world—and in the Church itself—to God’s inviting and challenging grace?
How can practices of prayer and a grounding in contemplative awareness shape a way of leadership and discipleship in the Church today?
And, how do we teach this, offer this, nurture this in the next generation through this new, global network of contemplative scholars and practitioners. This is our charge…
We are a group of people in our 30s and 40s: Rhodes Scholars, Oxford professors, Brazilian authors, Dutch contemplatives, Czech leaders in the World Council of Churches, Australian pioneers–and a Gainesvillian. Such diversity, yet sharing a common passion that the cultivation of a practice of prayer empowers us to see God’s reality—and gives us courage to step into that reality, scary and vulnerable as it is sometimes.
Last week I got an email from Fr. Thomas Keating that laid out his initial hopes for this New Contemplative Exchange. He started with a question: “What is the self?”
Who are we? How do we understand ourselves as human beings, in community, as followers of Jesus Christ, in the world today?
Are we just distinct persons, separate, opposed to one another, in competition with each other in a zero-sum race? Are we going to continue the old patterns of life that seem to repeat themselves over and over again: the “otherization” of those people, the preservation of our own assumptions, the cordoning off ourselves from each other?
Or…can we imagine a new way of living and being in the world that roots itself in God’s graceful and challenging presence? Can we imagine the reality that Jesus craves for us?
Can we imagine the Spirit truly alive and at work in our lives, always inviting us lean into those risky, life-giving, reorienting spaces of hope and fulfillment.
Can we imagine taking a step past complacency and comfort…into a contemplative awareness that both challenges us and envelopes us in the permeating presence of Christ?
Let this be our prayer.
Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Epiphany 7, Year C
February 19, 2017