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Neshama Interfaith Center

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mmonahan200Marian Monahan, a founder of the Neshama Interfaith Center, speaks in the voice of a prophet. She preached these words on Mother’s Day at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Atlanta, and has graciously allowed me to share them here:

Those of you who know me are aware that I’m quite involved in the interfaith community in Atlanta. I am one of the founders of the Neshama Interfaith Center: no brick and mortar yet. We’re essentially nomads. One of my co-founders—an esteemed colleague and very dear friend—Rabbi Mitch Cohen and I have had many interesting and provocative conversations about who Jesus was and what his mission was. I love to engage my Jewish friends with questions about how they understand who this 1st century itinerant healer and teacher from Palestine was. In one of our recent animated talks, Mitch said that he thought Jesus was a reformer. Agreed. Christians would add to that description: son of God, savior, messiah, prophet.

Yes, prophet. After all, what was the role of the Jewish prophets but to speak into the lives of their contemporaries a message of reform and hope, and to call them back when they had veered off the path of justice, especially when the needs of the widow and the orphan, the foreigner and the poor were not being met? And isn’t that what we see Jesus doing over and over again in the scriptures?

We clearly know from the gospels that Jesus remained in his tradition, faithful to the Hebrew Scriptures and to the rituals and feasts of his Jewish faith, including fellowship meals and Passover. Yet he added new and more expansive interpretations to ancient texts and nuances to some of the rituals. The religious authorities of the day didn’t appreciate the man or the message. And let’s face it, that’s what got him into trouble; he pushed the boundaries of religion and social/cultural mores. And he pushed them because he knew that the God they worshiped was too small, and he knew that the hand of God reached all the way to the fringes of their community, the outcasts. Jesus was subversive and the God of his understanding was dangerous.

We humans sometimes have difficulty reinterpreting or entertaining new ways of thinking. Not everybody thought that Martin Luther King was a hero. Some people refuse to see immigrants as people worthy of the same respect that everyone else deserves. The last hundred years have been full of new discoveries about what it means to be fully human and about the inherent dignity of all people regardless of gender, race, religion, ethnicity or orientation. But growth and change can go hand in hand with pain and resistance, and it’s not always easy to open ourselves fully to what is new and/or different. A closed stance can mean shutting the door to new ways of perceiving or learning and ultimately closing the door to fullness of life.

What a problem this can be when life’s experiences, or those we love, ask us to embrace change! More importantly, we can impede our own spiritual growth by closing and shuttering the windows to our deepest self. God is always calling us beyond the horizon of what we thought was possible.  The Spirit is in the business of more: more compassion, more unity, more diversity, more unconditional non-judgment. We see this especially in the life of Jesus, our safe gate, the door opener, to God.

What Jesus offers in today’s Gospel reading from John is “abundant life” as the “gate for the sheep” and also as our “good shepherd.” Now who could object to such an offer? Yet we know not everyone who heard him or met him got on the Jesus train. His use of shepherd imagery not only recalls Psalm 23 but also must have reminded his hearers of a profoundly powerful text from the prophet Ezekiel:

For the Lord Yahweh says this: Look, I myself shall take care of my flock and look after it. I shall rescue them and shall gather them back from the countries and bring them back to their own land. There they will browse in rich pastures on the mountains of Israel. I myself shall pasture my sheep; I myself shall give them rest. I shall look for the lost one, bring back the stray, bandage the injured and make the sick strong. I shall be a true shepherd to them, declares the Lord Yahweh.

Through Jesus, the compassionate shepherd, we are invited into the rich pastures of our own hearts and the loving heart of God; he promises safe passage and life in abundance. But a gate can keep people out or swing open wide. So how might we interpret this sheep gate?

Scholars of scripture tell us that chapter 10 of John is a further response to the amazing story of Chapter 9: the man born blind. Jesus, once again, pushes the envelope and heals on the Sabbath. The Pharisees, who represent for John the religious establishment, are outraged. The upshot of course is that the blind man is the one who ultimately sees or perceives, and the religious folk, who should see, are blind to the great new work that God is doing in Jesus. This Jesus, reformer, prophet, shepherd, beloved of God, is living and teaching a message of radical inclusion and unconditional love for ALL: lepers, women, the sick and the poor, blind beggars, the imprisoned, the immigrant, the widow, tax collectors and even Samaritans! Jesus stands with—even identifies with—the suffering masses.

So what are the implications for us? I’d like to suggest two things:

First of all, can we dare to believe that the totality of who we are, and nothing less, is loved and loveable; that the desire of God’s heart is that we might have compassion on ourselves? After all, transformation and growth take time. Can we trust in our inherent goodness and believe that we carry within us the divine spark, divine DNA?  Jim Finley says in his book, Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of God: “The beloved says from the other side of the door: ‘open the door and come in, so we can experience just how one we might become.’ God has left the door unlocked and even slightly ajar. God is waiting for you to open it and come walking through to experience that oneness with God that is the fullness of life itself.”

I’m aware from personal experience and from my ministry of Spiritual Direction that this is work, and the work of a lifetime. So let today be the day you open your heart a little bit more. Joyce Rupp says that while Jesus miraculously opened eyes and ears, his deeper message centered on an interior releasing that led people to the freedom of becoming their truest selves. Your authentic self is beautiful and infinitely loved. This is safe passage through the gate.

Secondly, we must now be the shepherds who lead. We must point the way; we must be the reformers and prophets! We must now open our hearts more fully to “the other” and stand with those who suffer. Awareness is key: we must awaken to the societal and cultural injustices that keep people from the fullness of life. Then, once awakened, we must roll up our sleeves; in a city like Atlanta there’s plenty of work to go around. How? Emails and calls to our representatives in government; lives of engagement and nonviolent resistance to classism, racism, sexism, trafficking of our young people; and volunteer work in ministries that alleviate the suffering of the homeless, the poor, the hungry and the undocumented (which the Shrine does so well). To insure safe passage for those who don’t believe or who believe differently, coupled with dialogue across traditions and with those who claim no tradition, to build bridges, not walls. How about an invitation to the “unaffiliated,” who might be seeking ways to be involved yet don’t find their place inside a church, a synagogue or a mosque: “come, let’s work together so that our community, city, neighborhood, and world is a little more compassionate.”  Regardless of a person’s spiritual path, the life of Jesus can provide a template for a joyful, meaningful life, and life in abundance; we find our truest selves when we lose ourselves in loving service.

Richard Rohr says that “that there is an unexplainable goodness at work in the universe” which some of us call God. I see and know this “unexplainable goodness” in my husband, my children, their spouses, my friends, in you. Resurrection means that the Christ works in us, through us and as us, and this is available to all of humanity. We are the human face of Jesus now. Let’s swing the gate wide open.

neshama profile picMarian Monahan is a Spiritual Director, retreat leader and religious educator, who is also trained as a Life Coach through Coaches Training Institute (CTI).  The Neshama Interfaith Center is a community for exploration, spiritual growth and healing; offering diverse classes and services designed to nurture the whole person in a setting where all faith expressions are valued.

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Comments (1)

Thank you, Marian — I love this. What beautifully challenging words. I often think that if we make any mistake in our understanding of God, it’s that we are thinking too small, too narrow; how could we possibly be thinking too big? Thanks for inviting us to go bigger!

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