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THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT – B


Jeremiah 31:31-34

Hebrews 5:7-9

John 12:20-23

Hang on.  We’re almost there.  Next Sunday is Passion Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, and then it will be Easter.  The Season of Lent that began so long ago with the tracing of the ashes on your forehead will finally be over.  Has it worn out its welcome with you?  Remember how full the church was on Ash Wednesday and even on the First Sunday of Lent?  It will be that way again on Easter Sunday only more so.  Do you remember your motives for submitting to the ashes as you heard the minister say: Turn away from sin and believe the Good News?  I like that invocation better than the one we used to hear and I guess some still do: Remember Man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shall return.  Besides being sexist it does seem more than a little negative.  Where is the reason for hope?  No wonder the Season wears thin if the only message is negative.  Is that all there is?  Turn away from sin and believe the Good News (Gospel) should fill us with hope, the hope that began with our Baptism, that time we died never to die again forever.

So listen to Jeremiah this week.  Often characterized as being negative, an announcer of doom and gloom, Jeremiah’s prophecy this week is amazing as he announces the coming of a new Covenant God will make with the people.  The old one, the one that began when God led Israel out of Egypt, the one made with Moses through the stone tablets of the Law has been broken resulting in the collapse of the people and their return to slavery.  Slavery will not be a permanent condition.  After the exile is over a new Covenant will begin when God’s law will be placed in the human heart.  No one will have to teach the law because the people will know God as God forgives their sins and remembers the sins no more.

We believe in the mystery of the Incarnation.  We believe that the Word became flesh, that Jesus was born, the Christmas mystery.  What the Incarnation mystery actually proclaims in that God indeed took on human flesh when Jesus was born, but God also took on humanity’s flesh.  The chasm that separated the divine and the human has been bridged, healed in a way no mortal could have imagined.  God dwells in the heart of human kind, those beings Genesis proclaims to have been made in God’s image and likeness.

When we are Baptized we die in the waters of the font to sin and all that would separate us from God and we are clothed in Christ, united to Christ, loved by God with the same love God has for Christ.  In the course of the baptism the Church anoints with oil and seals us in the Spirit.  And Jeremiah’s prophecy, we believe, comes to pass in the baptized.  I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts.

Our life’s journey is a faith walk accomplished in union with Jesus doing what Jesus does.  When Jesus calls people to discipleship the invitation is always hedged with the command to take up the Cross daily and follow.  Jesus is the example as we hear in the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews.

I am unnerved sometimes when I hear Fundamentalist Evangelists invite people to come to Jesus and so find prosperity.  I have never found that in the Gospel.  That is not the Good News.  Jesus pled with God to save him from death.  Remember the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane?  The reading tells us that son though he was, he learned obedience through suffering and was made perfect.  The word perfect might not mean what you think.  It is the word in the original language used when a person became a priest in the temple.  When Jesus became Priest he offered the sacrifice and was the sacrifice and so is our salvation.  Remember the phrase: By his stripes we were healed?  That is the reality that we will celebrate in the middle part of the Triduum on Good Friday.

Prosperity may come to some believers, but that is not a Gospel promise.  We have been with Jesus in the desert these past several weeks contemplating him and making comparisons between our lives as we live them and our lives as Jesus challenges us to live them.  The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Did you know that that glorification happens on the cross when Jesus accepts death on the cross, confident of God’s love for him?  Life is not something to be clung to for its own sake.  Were that so, it would end in itself.  The promise is that if we pour ourselves out the way Jesus did, accept death, even death on a cross, eternal life will follow and our share in Jesus’ glory.

I remember sitting at my mother’s bedside in her final hours on this earth.  I watched the struggle, the shortening breaths, and heard the sighs that occasionally escaped.  I prayed the Why prayer.  Why did she have to suffer like this?  Why did it have to go on so long?  Then words failed and my prayer was silent except for a please now and then.  In a moment she opened her eyes and her right hand rose from the bed.  I thought she wanted something and so I stood, leaned over her and asked what I could do for her.  But she wasn’t seeing me.  It was something beyond me.  And then I heard her last word.  Yes.  Her arm came to rest at her side and within the hour she breathed for the last time.  And the life she had lived suddenly took on a whole new meaning.

 We do not spend our Lent learning how to die.  These forty days are to be spent learning how to live as disciples.  The questions we ask ourselves ought to be about how have we imitated Jesus in loving – loving God, loving our sisters and brothers in the human family, loving ourselves.  The challenge is to let the Spirit that was poured out on us in Baptism take the lead in our lives taking us perhaps where we otherwise would not go.  Someone asked me recently what my response was to all the misery of our times.  What am I doing about it?  I thought for a moment and then replied: I pray.  I write.  I try to serve where I am needed.  After my friend had left, I continued to think about the question and wondered if it hadn’t been Jesus doing the asking as I realized I haven’t done nearly enough.  There is a soup kitchen not far from here serving meals to the poor.  I’ve thought about it.  Maybe one of these days you’ll find me serving there.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to gather with the Assembly and give thanks to God as we continue to renew Christ’s dying and rising, as we continue to experience transformation, as we continue to be sent to be Bread broken and Cup poured out, as we remember there is work to be done until Jesus comes again to catch us up in glory.

Sincerely,

Didymus

 

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THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT – B


2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23

Ephesians 2:4-10

John 3:14-21

Why is it only hindsight that is 20-20?  Does it have to be only at the end and with final gasps that one comes to see in a different light?  Of course deathbed insights point to final grace, but why can’t this happen earlier more often?

There is much for us to consider as we celebrate the Fourth Sunday of Lent.  It may not seem like it but the season is flying by.  Some may think of these forty days as being interminable, but when you think about the formation and transformation happening in the community we call Church, no wonder it takes time.  We’re being molded, sculpted, we are marble being chiseled into something new.  God will do it if we let God do it.

It seems to have taken the fall of Jerusalem and the exile for the Israelites to come to their senses.  Before that it seems from our first reading that Israel had fallen pretty much into disrepute.  All those laws we heard about last week as signs of their covenanted relationship with God were being ignored.  It would be difficult to tell the difference between the pagan and the Jew.  The worship of idols and eating food sacrificed to idols, immoral practices, these evil deeds were done not only by the common people but also by their princes, the leaders of Judah.  On their tear, so to speak, they failed to notice their weakened condition and how vulnerable they were becoming to outside forces.

If they cried out to God in the midst of the rubble of their city, if they shook their fists at the heavens as they were being led off in slavery, if in the depths of their despair they listened they could hear God say: I tried to warn you.  Remember the Prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah?  They spoke for me to alert you to what was happening and to call you back, but you ignored them.  I constantly reached out to you and told you of my love for you and my desire to be your God and for you to be my people.  This was a people whose strength came from their fidelity to God and God’s ways and whose weakness followed on their corrupt ways.

Don’t stop listening because the tale of woes seems unbearable.  The beauty of the reading is God’s faithfulness to the promise evidencing a love that is eternal and unconditional.  I will bring you back and restore you.  Jeremiah prophesied that.  No one could have dreamed how the prophecy would be fulfilled.  God inspired Cyrus, the Persian king, their captor, to have a change of heart, to release the people and allow them to return to Judea, to their holy city and there to rebuild the temple.  Isaiah called Cyrus God’s anointed one, a messiah.  Did Cyrus even know God’s name?

Please be careful how you hear this reading.  Be careful not to fall into the cycle of sin-punishment, God sending the wrath of the Babylonians on Israel because of their sins.  One thing should be clear here.  That is not how God acts.  Paul underscores this as he writes to the church in Ephesus.  God acts even before we get around to repenting.  I say we because I hope we recognize ourselves and our inclinations in Israel’s story and our potential for grace and change in the stories of the early Christian communities.  God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ.  This remarkable passage written early in the Christian era tells us that it is all God’s doing.  It is all grace poured out on us whether we are aware of it or not through the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  We didn’t earn it.  We didn’t merit it.  God loved in the beginning and wants only our love in return – love that is evidenced by our loving others the way we are loved.  No specifics here.  Each life is unique and so is each response.

It occurs to me that the clear evidence for this mystery is manifest in our litany of saints.  Read the lives of some of the saints.  You will soon notice that no two are alike, no two stories, the same.  How can that be since there is only one way to being a saint and that is via imitation of Christ?  Each saint imitated Christ to heroic degrees.  No two saints are alike.  That means you and I can imitate Christ in our unique ways and fulfill the promise in our times of those who will love others so that they two can experience God’s love and come to know Christ.  The possibilities for imitation will never be exhausted.  Amazing.

Love changes everything.  Things that inspire horror and dread can become signs of love and grace.  Despair can yield to hope.  Look at the two symbols put before us in the gospel.  Moses fashioned a serpent of bronze, mounted it on a pole, and all those bitten by the venomous reptile that looked on the image were healed.  Now the seraph serpent is a universally recognized symbol of the medical profession.  Isn’t that amazing?  If not, it is only because we are used to it so it can’t shock.  The same is true of our most treasured icon.  The Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.  The cross in Jesus’ time inspired horror in all who beheld it.  The Jews were used to seeing the condemned writhing on them, lining the roadways, crying out in agony.  The death was slow in coming and excruciating.  How then came we to hang crosses around our necks, top the church spire with the cross, make sure that each liturgical procession outside of the Easter Season be led by the uplifted cross?  How did the cross become a symbol of hope?  Because the Son of Man was lifted up twice – once in crucifixion and once in resurrection.  The resurrection transformed the meaning of the Cross forever.  In the Cross is our hope.

And so the theme repeats.  God wills the salvation of all people.  Hear that.  God does not want to condemn.  Jesus comes into the world to proclaim God’s love and forgiveness.  The proclamation far exceeds the sinner’s awareness of sin, much less contrition.  Here is an interesting exercise.  Go through the Scriptures and see how often God’s forgiveness precedes even the sorrow for sin.  Repentance comes in response to the recognition of God’s love.  Certainly it is possible to turn one’s back or be deaf to God’s call.  But all who recognize that love and change their lives embrace the light that is Christ and rejoice at God’s action in their lives.  Is there anyone you think is beyond that pale?  Be careful how you answer that.  Remember, the gospel says that everyone who believes in Christ will not perish but will have eternal life.  Everyone.

Augustine is the great saint of repentance.  But so are Ignatius of Loyola and Camillus and Magdalene and the Samaritan Woman.  And if you read carefully, so are all the saints, so are all who recognize that lack of proportion between who and what they are and how great is the love in Christ that empowers them.  All those who live the truth come to the light, so that their works may be clearly seen as done in God.

Now do you see why the central action of our worship is Thanksgiving?  Eucharist means thanksgiving.  We constantly give thanks to God as we renew Christ’s dying and rising in bread and wine, as we share the meal, and, having been transformed by what we do, as we are sent to be Christ in the world until he comes again in glory.

We remember.  We celebrate.  We believe.  Continue on this journey that is Lent.  You’ll never be the same, if you do, not if you let God have his way with you.

Sincerely,

Didymus       

 

THE THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT – B

 

 

Exodus 20:1-17

1 Corinthians 1:22-25

John 2:13-25

In Jesus’ time it was not uncommon for the lawyers to sit around and argue about which commandment in the law was the most important.  There was a lot to argue about since what had begun as the Decalogue morphed into 613 laws in the Torah.  Practically every possibility of human thought, emotion, and action was covered.  It is one thing to know the law.  It is another to embrace it and be liberated by it.  How, you ask?  It all depends on attitude.

Some of the Jews gloried in the Law and saw in it a sign of their being God’s chosen people.  Living by the Decalogue would give evidence to the Gentiles that no other people lived in such intimacy with their gods as the Jews lived with Yahweh.  This is a jealous God who wants a singular place in the people’s devotion.  No other gods, no idols are allowed.  One day of every week the people are to rest in God and dedicate the day to God in the Sabbath rest.  Dedication makes it a holy day.

Ah, but there is more to the Decalogue than what governs our relationship with God.  Seven commandments dictate how the people are to deal with each other.  Primacy is given to parents and the honor and respect due them.  Then, there will be no killing, adultery, stealing, falsely accusing a neighbor, and coveting of house or wife or neighbors’ property.  There you have it.  In a nutshell, so to speak.  And there is the problem.  The Decalogue gives us the minimum, the least that is expected.  So many possibilities are not covered.

Don’t you wonder if scrupulosity plaid a hand in developing the other 603 laws?  The scrupulous one sees sin everywhere and self always sinning.  The word scruple in root means a small sharp stone.  Imagine one in your shoe and you know how the scrupulous conscience works.  Every eventuality must be covered.  What about this is a constant refrain?  Make the Law an end in itself and it becomes a millstone around the neck, something that imprisons rather than liberates.

Hence the question: Which is the greatest, or most important of the laws?  Those who wanted to trap him in error questioned Jesus about his opinion.  His answer amazed as he turned the question back on the questioners.  Hear, O Israel!  The Lord our God is Lord alone!  Therefore you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.  And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  Love.  If you love, the minimum is cast out.  Nothing is more demanding.  But demanding can’t be the right word since, as the song says, Love isn’t love until you give it away.  Love is freely given and does not look for a return.

That is what Paul says in his First Letter to the Church in Corinth when they asked about the possibility of living this Christian faith.  What is it all about?  Why should they change their ways?  Some of the Jews challenged Jesus for signs and were never satisfied.  The Greeks, living more in their heads, wanted an explanation that made sense.  Paul says: We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (Greeks), but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  Power, majesty, exaltation, and all other grandiosities traditionally understood and associated with God must be abandoned as we come to recognize God born in the flesh, the one who died for us on the cross, the embodiment of God’s love that sets the standards for all who follow Christ.  It is all about love.

In the gospel we are at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as he enters the Temple area.  It is the cleansing of the Temple and occurs in all four gospels.  We see Jesus in a rage, wielding a whip, albeit his belt, upending the tables of the moneychangers, and releasing the doves and other animals for sacrifice.  What’s wrong here?  The moneychangers were necessary if the Jews were to carry out the prescriptions regarding sacrifice.  Roman coins couldn’t be used because they had Caesar’s image on them.  The animals had to be purchased.  The implication seems to be that the laws had become ends in themselves and, perhaps, the moneychangers, rather than engaging in a holy work, were dishonest in their dealings, charging too much, weighing the scales.  Take these (doves) out of here and stop making my Father’s house a market place.

Two important ideas follow.  First, when Jesus is asked for a sign to justify what he has just done, he says: Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.  Those listening took him literally and scoffed because the temple had been under construction for 40 years and was not complete yet.  Three days from destruction to reconstruction?  Come on!  But Jesus was talking about his journey that would seem to end in his crucifixion (destruction) but actually would culminate in his resurrection.  Even the disciples who were with Jesus at the time didn’t understand what he was saying then.  It was only afterwards, when people announced that he is risen did they remember what he had said and come to believe the Scripture and his word.

Second, notice that some people began to follow Jesus because of the signs.  They are the ones who stand in awe and experience the thrill and wonder of the moment, those with incipient and untried faith.  Alas, it doesn’t last if it doesn’t go deeper and rest in Christ alone.  It isn’t a question of wondering what I am going to get out of this.  It is a question of wondering if I can love the way Christ does, if I can let the Spirit lead.

So we continue on this Lenten journey, driven into the desert by the Spirit to be with Jesus and make the comparison.  We fast because there may be a lot of which we must let go.  Sin.  Selfishness.  Self-absorption.  We pray so that we can be open to God’s love and the Spirit’s ongoing transformation.  God is not finished with us yet.  And we give alms, a sign of our desire to love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves.  Isn’t that what celebrating Eucharist is about?  Our transformation into the Body of Christ and our being sent in thanksgiving to be bread broken and cup poured out?

Don’t worry if you conclude that there is a lot yet to be done.  Imagine what can happen if you let go and let God do it.  That’s all God asks.

Sincerely,

Didymus