5th Sunday of Lent C

When they caught the woman “in the very act of committing adultery,” what made the Pharisees think they had the perfect plan to ensnare Jesus?  This is clearly not about the law.  If it had been, they could have enforced their brutal punishment on the spot when they first apprehended her. (By the way, the guy got away scot free.  Not shocking.)   No, this was a trap to get Jesus to deny the Law of Moses right in the Temple, at the heart of what it means to be Jewish.

You see, the Pharisees had been studying Jesus for a long time, following him and asking questions.  They believe they had found his weakness.  He was too merciful.  They knew he had claimed the authority to forgive sins.  They had heard him say to his disciples they should forgive others seventy times seven.  They had witnessed his astonishing and scandalizing fair and open treatment of women.  They had heard stories like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son and know that Jesus would choose mercy every time.  Now was their opportunity.  With this woman caught in adultery, they had the clear law on their side, Moses on their side and the Temple on their side.  After all, the Pharisees lived for the law and its enforcement.  They were not interested in making exceptions to the law.  They hated the way Jesus practiced mercy.  It threatened them.

It seems that Jesus had only two choices.  Show mercy and defiantly deny the Law of Moses which he followed and treasured or pick up a stone himself and start hurling.  Of course, it always seems that when Jesus has only two choices, he does the third thing.  So first, he chooses time.  Don’t you wish you had the wisdom when confronted with the overwhelming to choose time as well?  He bends down and writes on the ground as they demand an answer from him.  When he straightens up, he responds with an idea so creative, it reminds us creativity is that the only remedy for violence.  Jesus asks a bloodthirsty, plotting and angry mob to reflect as he challenges them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then, with great courage, he gives them time and resumes, all Clint Eastwood like, writing on the ground.  They go “away one by one.”

For my whole life, I had assumed they had left because of their guilt.  But with this reading, I paid attention to the elders leaving first, the wisest and most respected among them.  Maybe there is more than guilt going on here.  Maybe they reflected on and appreciated the mercy they had received in life.  The many times God had forgiven them.  The times their life was spared. The moments they knew the love of God.  Their reflection led to the recognition that mercy is the ultimate law of God.  They understood they could not take a breath without the mercy of God.

Many people have a fine habit of doing an examination of conscience at night.  They look back on their day and think of when they might have sinned, hurt someone or not paid enough attention.  They ask God for forgiveness and go to sleep with a clear conscience.  But I suggest one more strategy for sleeping even better.  Have an examination of mercy.  Consider all the ways that you loved and were loved that day and let it wash over you.  This weekend, I could recall how happy I was to have breakfast with a friend I had not seen for months; I was in awe of a rush of former students anxious to honor our own Melanie Anchukaitis as they sang their hearts out for her at Notre Dame Bishop Gibbons and the contentment in her face.  My examination would include spending time with another friend after the show as we got something to eat.  (The mercy thing is not always good for my diet or my sleep.)  And finally, the wedding of John and Jaclyn, who I have known and treasured for all ten years of their relationship.  I will never forget their heads bowed in prayer, the light in their eyes as they laughed and cried and the hope that radiated from their union.

What will be part of your examination of mercy tonight?  Besides this great homily, what will you marvel at from among God’s gifts?  Did your child say that they loved you?  Did you touch someone and they let you know?  Did someone touch you and you let them know?  Did you look outside and see a color you had never quite seen before?  All these are among a hundred moments of beauty which brush by us each day.

Back to our story though, for it is not quite done.  After everyone has left, Jesus is left alone with the woman and we suddenly remember that he can condemn the woman for Jesus is without sin.  He has the right to exact punishment, but he is full of mercy.  He lets her go saying, “Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”  He is convinced that the reason she will change is not because of her guilt, or her getting caught or the harrowing experience of nearly dying.  No, it is this act of mercy that will change her life.  Isn’t that what changes our lives as well?  Shouldn’t that be the way we change the lives of others?

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4th Sunday of Lent C

What is it about the Prodigal Son that makes it so beloved?   Sure, we want to hear a story of forgiveness and mercy and know that we can always come home again.  But other stories share these same traits.  I think we are attracted to the distinct characters in this perfect parable. We feel we know the forgiving Father, the older brother and of course, the younger, prodigal son.  We identify with them, we root for them and defend our favorites.

I more admire the forgiving Father than identify with him.  I am not sure I would choose to be him for his is a difficult path.  We should all want his patience, mercy, generosity, and compassion even if in the back of our minds perhaps we think he might be a little naïve, or weak or even enabling. Yet, who would not want to be known for that of kindness and humility?

Then there is the older brother.  I identify with him because I am an older brother.  Actually, because I am the older brother.  I doubt my brother would argue that he was the more difficult child to raise.  The older brother is upset by the lavish treatment of his wayward sibling receives and refuses to enter the celebration.  I have heard many people express sympathy for the older brother. (Is the support of the older brother reveal our reservations about the Father?)  Yet, I always point out that there is a great party going on celebrating mercy and love, and the brother is out in the cold.  Ultimately, the story points to his jealousy and arrogance.  I was proud to be with the older brother.  Now I recognize that pride is what I share with him.

The younger son is a mess; just ridiculously bad.  Imagine asking your parents for your share of the inheritance while they are still alive then splitting for a faraway place.  Luke wonderfully says, “He squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.”  Before I understood what the words even meant, you could sense the emptiness, the waste.  After a famine struck, he hires himself out to take care of pigs and is actually jealous of them.  And that is really funny in a kosher society.  His return is hardly nobler.  He does not come back because he realizes how much his Father loves him.  He returns because he is desperate and hungry.  He even develops a canned speech, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”  While he is still a long way off, his Father spots him as if he were looking for him every night, runs out to meet him and cuts off the planned speech.  He insists that he put on the finest robe, a ring on his finger and slaughters a fattened calf to celebrate for his child, “was lost, and has been found.”

I don’t identify with the younger son because I do not want to.  I don’t want to admit to my own darkness, my own sin.  I don’t want to dwell on my selfishness, whom I have hurt and when I have not acted as Christ.  A man once leaving church told me his greatest regret and said, “The greatest thing about our faith is that we can be forgiven for anything.”  When I don’t want to admit that I can be the younger son, I am missing out on the Father’s mercy.  I am away from that loving embrace the Father extends to me.

Pope Francis has a wonderful line.  “We may weary of asking God for mercy, but God never wearies in giving it.”  To know the compassion of God, we must admit of our sins.  So take a while and think of your greatest regret or your worst sin.  Stay with it for a moment…

 

Now picture God running to embrace you.  Not an angry God, not a disappointed Father, a reluctant forgiver, but one anxious to celebrate our return.  Imagine now the peace, the freedom and the love God lavishes upon you.  Know you are forgiven, loved and healed.

On April 12th, I will be sharing the sacrament of Reconciliation for 24 straight hours again.  And all we will be doing is enacting the story of the Prodigal Son by wrestling demons and celebrating the mercy of God.  Come and be forgiven.  Enter the feast.

3rd Sunday of Lent C
Last time I was on the Journey Retreat I gave a shorter sermon than normal and I received shockingly, and disturbingly, few complaints so I thought I would try it again.
The Baptismal Rite for infants begins with an interesting question. What name do you give your child? It is not because the priest might have forgotten or that we do not have adequate paperwork. (The Church might not get everything right, but no one doubts we are good at paperwork.) It is because this is the beginning of a relationship between God and the child. And like any relationship it starts with a name. “Hi, my name is …”
But it meant more than that in the culture in which the Church began. We think of names as an identifier, something to differentiate one from another. You call me Bob so you do not confuse me with Bill for example. But then a name carried more significance; it carried your essence. It was who you are. For someone to know your name was for them to be a part of you. In sharing my name, I would not be just saying this is what you call me; I would be sharing my “Bobness.” There is power in a name. Our children’s names strike a resonance within us. We bow our heads at the names of Jesus and Mary.
That is important as we hear the reading of Moses and the burning bush. Moses, understandably, is overwhelmed by God’s call to free his fellow Israelites from slavery in Egypt. He is not even welcomed in Egypt and has no leverage with Pharaoh. He argues that it should not be him; that indeed what God is asking would be impossible. Yet, the God of his Fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob insists he end the suffering of God’s special people. Moses needs more. He dares to ask for God’s name. You can sense the reluctance of God to give a name. After all, no person could handle the essence of God. Sharing the name would shake the foundation of the world. So when God reveals the divine name, it is not as if God says, “I am the Lord your God, Eddie.” Or “I am Phyllis the almighty.” Instead, the name is more of a definition of God. “I am who am.”
This is a breathtaking statement. God is the ground of all being. Actually, God is being itself. And that is definitively true. But scholars, especially the great American Jesuit John Courtney Murray, look at the translation and the circumstances in which it is said (Moses’ mission to free Israel) and concludes the more accurate translation would be “As I am I shall be there with you.” What a revelation! The essence of God is to be there for us. What a beautiful name for God. Our God is truly love.
So when his son came into the world with a very common name, he lived up to the name of his Father and elevated his own so “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend.” (Philippians 2:10). He would be “there for us” in his healing, in his praying and in his suffering. He would be there for us in giving his life on the cross. He took up the mantle of the divine name with his life.
We, who dare to call ourselves Christian, also claim a part of the divine name. If we are truly made in the image of God and then we must be able to say “As I am I shall be there with you.” We are now the agents of God’s peace, mercy and blessing. We are consecrated to the mission that no one is forgotten as God did not forget his people; that no is alone as Christ welcomed all; that no is excluded from the grace of our God. It is our duty, responsibility and life to follow the name of our God. We must be able to define ourselves, “As I am, I will be there for you.”

2nd Sunday of Lent C

Jesus, Moses and Elijah go up a mountain sounds like the beginning of a great joke but indeed is the story of the Transfiguration.  It is a moment of stunning glory, an affirmation of the highest order of Jesus’ mission.  It is meant to sustain the apostles in hope as they are about to make that fateful and dangerous journey to Jerusalem.  For us, it is a flash of Easter glory in the midst of our Lenten sojourn.  Heaven invaded earth on top of the mountain.

Imagine the shock it must have been for Peter, James and John when they finally woke up.  (They do seem to be a sleepy bunch throughout the Gospels.)  They see Jesus their friend with the two great leaders of their faith.  They crane their necks to hear what they are talking about. It is one topic summarized in one untranslated word.  As Luke relates, they “spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.”

Now exodus can be translated as leaving or departure and sometimes is.  But you don’t translate it when you are talking to Moses.  Of course, Exodus is the title of the second book of the Bible.  It tells the story of Israel’s dramatic escape from slavery in Egypt and its forty year trek in the desert to the land God had promised to Abraham.   In that journey, there would be heroes (Moses foremost among them) and villains, stories of triumph and failures of obedience to God.  It is ultimately a story of liberation, a journey to freedom.  Jesus too would have his own Exodus experience as he led us to a promised land of eternal life that would include the desert moments of rejection, betrayal and death on a cross before the full glory of his mission was revealed.  You don’t get to where you intend without some time desert in your life.

We too know the desert reality on our way to the promised land.  We know of times of wanderings, loss and testing.  In the middle of the desert, far from your destination, you may forget where and why you are headed there.  You may know that you are no longer slaves, but you do not quite feel free.  You may buy into what feels like freedom for a while – money, power and possessions.  But you soon realize they may possess you as much as you possess them and you are merely slaves of another master.  And we wonder, “How can I accomplish my exodus? How will I make it to the promised land?”

I am just finishing a brilliant one volume history of the United States by Jill Lepore, a history more of ideas than politics.  Among those ideas are freedom.  What is it?  Who is entitled to it?  A question we have always struggled with and still do.  How do we finally reach our goals as a nation?  Our Church both possesses the promised land for we have the truth of the Gospel and we are about to receive Christ, yet still we are clearly wandering in the desert. And each of us is in the midst of our exodus for we are baptized into the life of Christ and are destined to share the path he walked.

Back to the mountain.  Suddenly, this brilliant scene is literally overshadowed by a foreboding cloud.  The blissful joy of the apostles turns to fear and trembling.  We too live in the midst of shadows.  This week, we live in the midst of shadows of the tragedy in New Zealand where in the city of Christ Church, a name that slices me like a hot knife, people were killed for simply coming to worship God as we chose to do this morning.  We live in a time where we seem to be much better at counting our enemies than loving them.  And we are familiar with the shadows of our own life – despair and depression, addiction and loss and violence.  But there is a way.  For from that cloud came a voice.  “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”

We have to listen to him.  We have to believe that we must welcome the stranger, feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty.  We must love and accept everyone as he did.  We must act with compassion and mercy and deny the forces of violence and hate.  We must be aware of our own redemption and the beauty of our brothers and sisters. We must choose forgiveness over vengeance and peace over division.  “Listen to him.”  It is the way to true freedom.  It is the path of liberation.  Can you think of another way to make things better?…neither can I.  Nothing else will change our situation.  Not one of the 128 people running for President will make that kind of difference.  Listen to him.  It is the way to the Promised Land.

1st Sunday of Lent C 2019

Last week I marveled at how perfectly Jesus understood human nature.  This week we meet another character who understands it very well – the devil.  He knows what to do to make us succumb to his temptations.  The devil goes after Jesus likes he goes after the rest of us.  He attacks when Jesus is it at his weakest, when he has been fasting for forty days in the desert.  He is hungry, vulnerable and far away from anything or anyone who can help him.  But it is not just where and when the devil attacks, but how.  He tempts Jesus with those things we all desire – security, power and invulnerability.  Give the devil his due, he knows what we want.

After all, who after not having eaten for forty days would not want to point at a rock and turn it into bread?  If you were born to rule over the nations, who would not want to have them given rather than suffering such hate and pain to gain them?   If you faced the dangers and threats that Jesus knew were coming, why would you not want angels to rescue you?

Notice, Jesus does not say that he cannot do these things.  Stone could turn to bread and angels would gladly serve.  But there are no shortcuts with Jesus, no easy ways out.  For if he were to turn bread into stone, he would only serve himself.  If he were to accept kingship over the nations, his power would be power over, not power for others.  If angels rescued him as he fell from the Temple, he would never share in our sufferings.  Jesus chooses hunger over plenty, service over subjecting others and suffering over invulnerability.

My track record in rejecting such temptation is not as good.  When we are at our weakest, we all too often travel the road more travelled.   We grab what is in front of us in order to satisfy our needs regardless of the consequences.  We desire power so we can protect ourselves and manipulate people and things giving us the illusion of control we so endlessly seek.  We consider success to be far from pain and hurt, rather than honestly entering into it.  And our falling into temptations does indeed bring us temporary benefits and comfort.  But those benefits corrode us.  We ultimately find ourselves more isolated, more selfish, more lonely and grown a little colder.

And isn’t it something that when the Church fails, it fails in the same way we do?  This wonderful Church that does so much good, that stands up for so many, that serves like no other institution in the world; this church I love and have given my life for falls into temptation.  It falls when it chooses the easy way of silence and cover-up over the messiness of honesty and accountability.  It falls when it relies on power over others rather than the power of mercy.  It falls when it turns a deaf ear to the victim, the poor, the struggling and the excluded.  The Church falls when it seeks to preserve its status rather than absorbing its wounds and becoming an agent of healing for those whom it has wounded.

How do we get better?  How does the Church get better?  Well, we can only resist temptation the way Jesus resisted it.  It can only be overcome by choosing as Jesus chose and living as Jesus lives.  To resist evil and to proclaim the good news, we have to get down to the Jesus of it all and follow only him.

What would that look like for us and the Church?  It would mean not choosing the easiest or fastest way out, but instead walking only as fast as the most injured of our brothers and sisters. We must talk openly with those who feel ignored and listen carefully to those who have been silenced.  We must welcome all because it seems to me that the thing Jesus made easiest for everyone was to get to know him.  We must get to know him again.  That is getting down to the Jesus of it all.

We must reject the notion of power over others for Christ’s power was of service, love and mercy.  For “the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  Our idea of power must be stripped of everything else besides the power of Christ’s love and grace. That is getting down to the Jesus of it all.

We must not protect ourselves in a cocoon of invulnerability, but be led by those who have been hurt.  We must apologize in all humility and acknowledge and turn to those whom we have damaged.  For Jesus, there was no child too small that he would not bless, no woman too scorned that we he would not engage.  Indeed, those who should not have been around – sinners, a hemorrhaging woman, lepers, they all vied for Jesus’ attention and gained it.  For he said, “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”  We must be the wounded healer.  That is getting down to the Jesus of it all.

This is the path that each of us must take.  This is the path the Church must take.  There is no other way.  And I promise you this will be the path our parish will take. We will only be of Jesus, for Jesus and with Jesus.  I can make that promise because that is where you have led me; what I have learned from you.  This Lent and for all time going forward, let’s get down to the Jesus of it all.  Let us be about nothing else.

8th Sunday in Ordinary Time C

There is a great line in the Gospel of John.  “[Jesus] did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well.” (John 2:25)  Stories as in today’s Gospel today prove it.  Isn’t it remarkable that Jesus could speak in a time so long ago in a culture so different from ours and the words still ring true and describe us so well?  Like a great piece of art, his insight his timeless.

This is apparent in that snippet of a parable of the man with a wooden beam in his eye who attempts to remove a small splinter in the eye of his brother.  Now this is understandably hyperbole, for no one walks around with a whole wooden beam in his eye.  But in another sense, we know that guy.  We know the gravely injured person who walks around with his hurt on the outside, but never seems to fix it.  The pain is so embedded it feels there is nothing you can do about it.  You meet him on the street, and after you leave you might say to a companion, that guy should really so something about that big wooden beam in his eye.

You wonder why he doesn’t.  But after a while, one gets used to a hurt and lives around it.  What is odd becomes normative.  He has adjusted as best as he can.  There is a resistance to change in all of us and what we are “used to” is more valued than what might be best.  What if the wooden beam comes out?  Would there be too much light? Would I see too much?  What would I be without this thing that has defined me for so long?

So on he goes with the wooden beam and somehow he notices the splinter in the eye of another.  He wants to take it out, but the guy with the splinter, says, “Whoa, I am letting wooden beam guy perform this delicate operation.”  A decision has to be made.  He must change to help his brother.  He removes the wooden beam.

I find it fascinating that so one so impaired could spot something as small as that sliver of wood in the eye of another.  Maybe, despite his deficit, he just know something about wood in an eye and he could find it in another.  Once he removes the wooden beam, his brother most likely think he is the best person to take out the splinter.  After all, he has already done something far more complicated and dangerous.  What’s more, they share a bond in their common pain.  They are connected.  The man who had endured the wooden beam for so long is, in Henri Nouwen’s famous phrase, a wounded healer.  The hurt he has endured has made space in the life of another for healing.

Perfect people drive me mad.  Always being right takes all the fun and need out of a relationship.  You are so lucky you do not have a perfect pastor.  There is a mysterious line in the Letter to the Hebrews that Jesus was made “perfect through suffering.” (Hebrews 2:10)  He could not be like us in sin, but he could be like us in suffering.  As we are about to embark on our Lenten journey, we recognize Jesus as prime wounded healer, whose cross ensured we knew that he faced our every fear and shed our every tear.  As we determine what we will give up this Lent, let us remember that our every sacrifice, our every want and our every hurt allows us to welcome people into our lives.  Let us dare to be make perfect through suffering.

 

 

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time C
So how do you love your enemy? Well first you have to define the terms. Love in “Love your enemies” is clearly a verb. You won’t get noun love with your enemies – that sense of comfort, trust and delight we have with our loved ones. Our enemies are not going to suddenly appear on our Christmas cards. [Here are the kids, the dogs, and my greatest enemy.] I believe what Jesus is calling us to is to apply the principles we use in loving one another even to our enemy. A good, classical definition of love is to “will and do good for someone.” Love is s decision. It is what we do every day. It is what we decide to do after our parents have been completely unreasonable; when someone is aloof and distant. We renew our decision to love.
Fascinatingly, we kind of do the same thing when we hate our enemy. We make a decision. We draw a circle of all those things that we treasure in relationships – peace, harmony and hope and keep our enemy on the outside and decide they are unworthy of any of this from us. Indeed, to hate is as intentional decision as to love. Hatred and love are not the opposite ends of a line, but they are part of a circle that begins with love and comes around again to hate. And that which joins them together is intentionality and intimacy.
The first step in loving your enemy is to admit they are a real person. When you fall in love there is often a period of infatuation, when we idealize our vision of that person. Then we might date them, get to know them, marry them and we no longer have that perfect idea. And that is better because we end up of loving a real person. When we hate our enemy, we choose something not real. We objectify them and make our enemy not a “he” or a “she” but an “it.” Even our language betrays this when we say that person is a “monster” or someone is “nothing to me.” We have given ourselves permission to not treat them as we would other human beings. We no longer owe them our respect and their dignity. But there is a flaw in the plan. That is not how God sees them. Yes, even our enemies are loved and created by God who looks over them and cares for their welfare. And it is our duty and privilege to see them the same way even if it cracks our hostility.
The second key is context. Everyone has a story. For our loved ones those stories are precious to us; we honor them. We know their stories so well that we make excuse for the ones we love. “You gotta understand:” it is because of where they come from or what happened earlier. But we deny a narrative to our enemies. We invent a caricature of them that boils down to the way they hurt us. A moment frozen in time and in our mind. But we would never want to be remembered for only our worst action or our worst thought. Our enemies have a story, something that pushed them in a direction. We will likely discover their offense comes from a place of pain or loss. We know this, for when we hurt others it comes from our pain and our loss. If we allow our enemies to have a story, it will not justify their actions, but we can begin to understand them. Then something new happens – sympathy. I will prove it to you. If you are thinking of someone right now, would you rather be them? I thought not. And suddenly, our enemy, who was nothing but a red hot blur to us, takes on a face, a reality, a life.
Finally, we can take back our power when we love our enemy. We believe we were put on this planet to befriend and love; not to make enemies or hate. Yet, when we make the decision to hate our enemy, we choose to live the opposite of our purpose. We live beneath our promise. We give our enemy the power to make us less than we are. And it takes up energy and space in our minds and in our hearts for we do not casually hate and there are not casual enemies. They are deeply embedded in our marrow. But if we can find a way to compassion, mercy and hope for our enemies, if we can push to forgiveness one day, then we will be free from the burden of our hate; free to be who God created us to be.
Jesus did not just say “Love your enemies,” he actually loved them. When they came to arrest him and a disciple saw in one of the soldiers, the embodiment of all who were coming to crush Jesus and he cut off his ear. But Jesus saw the person, not the symbol and healed him. Women kept showing up who were to represent the enemy – a sinful woman, a woman caught in adultery, a woman at the well who had been married five times, but Jesus knew their stories and loved them for it. And when he was dying on the cross, he proclaimed, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do,” turning an instrument of hate into the universal sign of love. We can turn the world upside down as well if we follow Jesus’ most challenging commandment and love our enemies.