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FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT – A – April 02, 2017

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel 37:12-14
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:8-11
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 11:1-45

Dear Readers,

I had not seen or heard from him in long, long time.  I recognized his voice with the first words that came to me over the telephone.  It was well past midnight and I had been in deep sleep when the ring woke me.  By the third ring I had lifted the receiver and, after a light cough to clear my throat, said, “Hello.”

“Do you know who this is? He asked.

Amazing, isn’t it, the images that can flood the mind in a moment?  I saw him as he sat across the table from me in a prison visiting room.  He always sat hunched forward, with his hands clutched and between his knees.  Occasionally he would look at me, but, for the most part, he stared at the floor while he spoke.  His voice was soft and often I had to strain to hear what he was saying.  When I was first getting to know him I had thought that was because he did not want to be overheard.  I came to understand that the softness of his voice grew out of the gentle spirit that was at his core.

He had talked about his ethnicity and was proud that he was Native American.  I do not remember the tribe, but his surname was Eaglefeather.  His heart, he said, could soar like an eagle even when he was behind prison walls.  There is no question that he was a criminal or that his crime was the result of alcohol.  In sobriety and serving the time to which he was sentenced, he said he was embarrassed by what wine drove him to do.

During those sessions when we were first getting acquainted, he told me about his childhood and the poverty from which he came.  He talked about the difficulty of living on the reservation and about alcoholism that plagued his family.  As a child he had vowed never to let alcohol dominate his life.  He had watched his father die and two of his siblings all still comparatively young, none of them reaching fifty.

He was oblivious of his surroundings when he sketched.  From an early age he had wanted to be an artist.  He showed me books filled with his work.  His drawings in the beginning were crude, but even the earliest line drawings gave evidence of the talent with which he was gifted.   As he refined his skills, he filled pages with details – leaves, flowers, profiles, hands, ears, and eyes.  And there were portraits of Jesus.  Some were obvious imitations of romantic religious art.  These, too, evolved as his Jesus took on features of people Eaglefeather knew or imagined, all of them suffering.  His Jesus was masculine.  Sometimes he sat against a wall with a cup outstretched, begging.  Or Jesus cowered before those berating him.  Or, he sat whittling, telling stories to a child at his feet.

Eaglefeather had a deep spirituality.  He told me that he prayed often, most often when he was drawing.  “I see Jesus in people, especially in the poor and the desperate.  I don’t know why it is so obvious to me.  When I was on the outside, I couldn’t pass by a beggar without giving something, even if it was the last dime I had.  And if someone was crying, I felt like crying, too.  I shared the suffering until drink deadened my spirit and dulled me to the pain that was all around me.”

During that last visit in the prison room, Eaglefeather talked about his faith.  He envied my being a priest.  “You get to do the holy things, to help us to pray and tell us that God loves us.  You get to touch the Holy, the Bread and the Wine.  Do you know what I have always wished I could do?”

“What is that?”

“I’ve always wished I could look into the chalice as you say the words to see the wine change.  Do you ever get used to that?”

“The look of the wine doesn’t change anymore than its taste does.  Faith tells me it is different, not my eyes.  The people you see, how do they change when you see Jesus in them?  Aren’t they the same before and after?  Does anyone else see the difference you do?  It is not your eyes that see the difference.  It is your faith that makes it so.”

A few days later I received in the mail an Eaglefeather sketch.  Two hands held a chalice.  The contents of the cup were shadowed.  Just beyond the table, his eyes covered with a cloth that knotted at the back of his head, clad in period-less garb, a man sat in rags and leaned forward, supporting himself with one arm, while his other open hand outstretched toward the cup.

* * *

“Do you know who this is?”

“Is that you, Lazarus?  It has been a long time, my friend.”

“I’ve called to say goodbye.”

“Good bye?  What do you mean?”

“I’m tired and I can’t do this anymore.  It’s been such a long struggle.  You never knew about this, did you?  Shortly after I got out of prison, my kidneys failed.  It wasn’t because of my drinking.  It was genetic and had to do with my high blood pressure.  I tried raging at God for a while.  That proved pointless.  Doctors told me that the only hope was a transplant.  In the meantime I would have to do on dialysis.

“Do you what that means?”

I told him that I knew what dialysis is, but that I had never dealt with anyone on the system.  He described how for four hours a day, three times a week, he was attached to the dialysis machine, an IV running out one arm and into the machine, and another, from the machine, into his other arm.  Four hours of purifying his blood of the toxins that, if allowed to build up in him, would kill him.  He said he was exhausted as he began the process and fatigued at its end.  The only day he felt normal and had any energy was the day after the treatment.

“I have a love/hate relationship with that awful machine.  I love it because it is a lifeline for me.  I hate it because I am enslaved to it and would die without it.

“I’ve tried to say away, to quite, telling myself it is not worth it.  But always before now, I have gone crawling back, limp, spent, and barely able to stand.  They would hitch me up again and the process started all over again.  I think I have done that five times now, quit and started up again.  This time I have decided never to go back again.  Ever.”

I heard the determination in his voice, even as I feared the implications of what he was saying.  And so, I said nothing.  My heart pounded in my chest.  Finally and with hesitation I said, “Lazarus…Lazarus, is there anything I can do?”

“You ‘re doing it,” he said.  “You’re listening to me.  I’m not telling you where I am so that you can’t come after me.  I won’t tell you where I am going so that you won’t be able to send help.  No one will find me until it is over.”

Tears welled in my eyes and my throat constricted.  I prayed for the right words, but nothing came.  I stood at the window of my bedroom and looked out into the night and the city lights.  I wondered if he could be in one of those windows looking out in my direction.  It was clear that he was alone at a time when no one should have to be.

“I want to ask you something,” he said.  “Do you think dying is the worst thing?”

“The worst thing?  I don’t know.  I do know that it is the one experience we will never understand until we go through it.  We can be with others as they die.  We can watch the last breath and see the palpable change as life leaves the body.  But we can’t know death until we die.  I believe there is more.  But that is not because of what I have seen.  It is because of what I believe.”

You told me once that we believe in the resurrection of the body because Jesus rose.  I’ve thought about that.  Will my body still be broken when it rises again?  Will my kidneys still not work?  Will I still be plagued with desires and feel the loneliness of my isolation?”

Oh, Lazarus, I don’t think so.  I don’t know what your body will be like in the resurrection, only that it will be.  It is mystery.  It will lack nothing.  Your kidneys will work very well, if they have to.  Even the feminine part of you will be as complete as the masculine.  You are made in God’s image, after all, just like the Earthling before the fall.  And you will know love, the inexhaustible love that is God.”

I’m blathering, I thought.  I felt desperate to find words that would soothe and comfort him.  I wanted to find a way to encourage him to try again, to continue with the dialysis process that he loved and hated.  But that was not what he was seeking from me.  He had said he wanted me to listen.  I think he wanted me to support him and assure him that everything would be resolved in God’s love.

“Lazarus, I want you to feel my arms around you.  In the strength of that embrace, relax, and rest your head on my shoulder.  I am with you.  I love you and will be with you to this journey’s end.  I promise you that.  That is all I can do.  And I will pray.”

I listened to the silence.  Then I heard a sob and a strangled voice cry out, “Oh, God!  Father, will Jesus be there?”

My cheeks were wet with tears.  I remember that my voice was clear and that I spoke with ease.  “Do you remember when you told me how you could see Jesus in all the people you met, especially in the poor and the suffering people?  God sees that way, too.  God is looking at you now and in your suffering he recognizes Jesus in his passion.  God loves you with the same love God has for Jesus.  God is with you.  Nothing will separate you from that love.  God will take you by the hand and call you forth from the grave.  God will embrace you and lift you up.  God will wipe away your tears and put fine clothes on you and prepare the feast….”

Is that where I stopped?  I don’t remember.  How did we say, “Goodbye?”  Could I have gone back to my bed and slept?  OR did I spend the night staring into the darkness, yearning for the first signs of dawn?

I read the story in the newspaper.  They had found Lazarus Eaglefeather in a campground on the other side of the mountains, seated cross-legged on a blanket on the ground and facing east.




Something happens to you as you sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his sermon.  You are being stretched.  If you have been listening closely, surely by now several times you have wondered, “Who can do this?”  You may even have concluded a time or two that what Jesus commands is beyond you.  If you have not had those feelings so far, you may well come to that conclusion now.

So, what is happening?  First, know that Jesus is not hiding anything from those considering being disciples in terms of the implications for disciples.  He is not like many contemporary recruiters who, in order to draw in new members, paint glowing pictures of all the benefits that come to you should you join their ranks.  They use words like “finest” and “bravest” in settings so noble that for some the attraction will be almost irresistible.  There is little or no mention of the downside, the risks, or areas prone to disappointment.  The listener is told to dare to join this elite group.  You owe it to yourself.

Jesus, on the other hand, without compromise, puts the demands squarely before you, so that you know from square one the implications of following him.  The command is to be satisfied with nothing less than perfection.  The standard?  Your heavenly Father.  You will hear it stated with absolute clarity in the present context: “You must be made perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Jesus is the full revelation of God.  He will say elsewhere, “Those who see me see the Father.”  What should begin to be clear to you is that the disciple is meant to be able to say, “Those who see me see Jesus, and if they see Jesus, they see the Father.”  That may sound bold, but that does seem to be what Jesus is calling his disciples to do and to be.

“Love your enemies, pray for your persecutors.”  Who came to your mind as you heard that phrase?  Who was the person that hurt you?  You might think of enemy in the broader sense, those powers that oppose our country, those with whom we are engaged in warfare.  They should not be excluded here.  But don’t stop there.  Go deeper.  Stay closer to home.  The enemy may be the one who does violence to you or to someone you love.  The enemy may be the one who destroys your name and reputation.  Put a face on any one of those whose recollection surfaces a painful situation with which you resonate and then hear Jesus say, “Love your enemies.”  How easy will that be to love that person who is the enemy that hurt you?

Every once in awhile there are reports of people that take heroic strides in the face of horrendous happenings to put the Lord’s command into practice.  A mother went to the trial and conviction of her daughter’s rapist and killer.  Before his sentencing, the mother made a statement in court.  She said that the killer had to know that she forgave him for what he had done.  She would hold him up in prayer every day.

Two parents went to South Africa when their daughter, a social worker there, was murdered by three from the very group she had ministered to.  The three were tried and convicted of the terrible crime.  The parents happened to be of considerable means.  They decided that they wanted to do something that would be a monument to their daughter.  During the trial they were moved to pity the killers.  They built a bakery that would serve as a training facility that would prepare the workers to find employment.  Then they went back to the courts and worked for the early release of the three Black men and brought them to the bakery, trained them, and help them to become managers of the operation.

In both of these cases, it was Christian faith that motivated the parents to action, to forgiveness, and to love.

It is instinctive for the one who is wronged to pray for vengeance.  At least it is true that many do.  When your name is destroyed, you want vindication.  That is not the course of action that Jesus puts before disciples.  In another place, when it comes to injury, Jesus will say, “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other.”  In other words, don’t react in kind.  The teaching demands that the wounded love the one who did the wrong.  There is no alternative.

“Pray for your persecutors.”  Martyrs are notorious for following this course of action.  Perhaps they learned from Jesus on the cross when he prayed, “Father, forgive them because they do not know what they are doing.”  Prayer does something to the one who prays.  It changes the heart.  Try praying for someone you dislike, someone who has hurt you, and you will find your attitude toward that person begins to change.  The same thing will happen when you pray for the one who did evil toward you.  Pray and you will find that you begin to think of forgiveness.  You may even begin to think of reconciliation.  Certainly, you will find the grace to let go.  You will begin to see possibilities for the other; or you will come to understandings about human weakness or the disorders that give rise to the bad things that people do to each other.  Once understanding becomes part of your consciousness, you are not far from being able to forgive.  Of course, you will have no control over whether or not your forgiveness will be received and accepted.  That requires grace working in the other’s heart.  But you have made the offer.  You are free.

Jesus tells us that there is no room for hatred in the heart of the disciple.  Why?  Because God does not hate.  God hates sin, but never the sinner.  Every person born is created in the image and likeness of God.  God loves every person and wants every person to live with God for eternity.  This includes those most despicable ones in human history.  A definition of Hell is, that place where there is no love – no love for God, no love for the other and no love for self.  Horrible to contemplate as it is, Hell begins when one refuses to love forever.

Some religious people think that God loves only members of their religion.  They have a corner on the way into heaven.  Some Catholics used to quote with satisfaction that “outside the Church there is no salvation.”  The assumption was that all others were destined for a place where God is not.  Vatican Council II changed that with the declaration that there are different paths to God.  Not a few where shocked and angered when Pope Francis opined that even atheists could go to heaven.

God wills the salvation of all people, the Scriptures said.  God’s will is realized more often than it is not.  “The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.”  That is what God does.  Jesus came to understand that his mission went beyond the Jewish community and was meant to embrace even Gentiles.  His proclamation is the universality of God’s love.  That must be the significance of disciples’ actions done in union with Christ.

The love that is commanded by Christ is not romantic love; it is the love that expresses itself in service.  In Eucharist, Christ gives his body and blood and invites the Assembly to eat and drink.  If we do that, if we take and eat, if we take and drink, they we are responsible to put the Eucharist into action by loving even the unlovable.  Let’s not romanticize this.  That is not easy to do.  It is what we must strive to do if we are to be with Jesus on the Way.  That is what it means to be a disciple.

If there are those who have injured and/or betrayed you, start with prayer.  Pray for the grace to let go of the injury.  Pray for the injurer or betrayer.  Pray for the grace.  Some things can only be done with God’s help.  Pray.  Let yourself be stretched.  The grace will be granted and you will find your way to love.



FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT – A – March 26, 2017

A reading from the first Book of Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians 5:8-14
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 9:1-41


Dear Reader,

Years have not dulled the impact of that encounter.  The mother had come to see me to beg me to visit her son.  I was embarrassed by the depth and anxiety of her pleading.  There was no need for her to beg, I said.  I would be happy to visit her son.

“Are you sure?” she asked.  “My son is dying from AIDS.  I was baptized Catholic ten years ago.  I go to Mass every Sunday.  I love the Lord.  But I weep when I think about my son and those like him who are judged as evil and deemed destined for eternal damnation.

“I remember the first time I held him, moments after his birth.  He nuzzled me to nurse.  As he suckled, his little hand reached up as if to caress my breast, the source of the nourishment that would sustain him.  Oh, how I loved him.

“I watched him grow.  I remember his first steps and his first words.  He is an only child and so I have no others’ beginnings to compare with his, no others to rival for my affection.  His father left me, abandoned us when our son was barely a year old.  My son was my joy and consolation.  He excelled in every facet of school.  He was a fine athlete and a linguist.  He painted and acted in plays.  He was popular.  And he carried his secret.  I didn’t know.  It was years after he was away from home that he told me, when he introduced me to the one he said he loved.”

She paused and reached for a tissue from the box on my desk.  “I’m watching you,” she said, “to see how you react.  If I see revulsion, I will thank you for your time and be on my way.  I am not looking for pity.  I am looking for a representative of my church to go to my son and tell him that God loves him and that Jesus’ dying has saved him.  He doesn’t need any more rejection.  There has been plenty of that in his life.

“Do you think God hates my son?  Do you think that God will send my son to hell because of who he is?”

I had been sitting in silence and listening to the mother’s story.  All I could do was listen and feel the pain in the woman who sat across the desk from me.  In those days, on my desk I had a picture of my parents taken at a reception in my honor.  As this mother talked my eyes drifted to my own.  I knew how she would have suffered if my brother or sister or I would ever have experienced the condemnation and rejection this woman’s son had endured.  I could almost feel my mother nudging me and whispering, “You know what you have to do.”

“Where is your son?” I asked.

“Not far from here,” she said.  “Will you go to him?”

“Of course,” I said.

“But do you know what you will find?  They live in a little house that is kept neat as a pin. It is small but airy, with windows that look out on a sweeping seascape of Puget Sound d.  They are fortunate in that regard.  My son can still sit in his chair and gaze out at the Sound and watch the gulls and eagles soar.  But there is not much left of him.  And there are odors.  There are signs that death is approaching.  He is fragile and can do very little for himself. “I thank God for the devotion of his partner.  I don’t know where my son would be without him.”

“I think we should go,” I said.


The house sat on a knoll overlooking the Sound, just as the mother had said.  It was autumn and a chilly wind tugged golden leaves from the maple trees and deposited them, sending them swirling across the lawn.  The late afternoon sun created angled shadows and haloed the house against the sky.  We walked up the path and I felt my stomach tighten, even as I prayed that no one would sense that.  Before one of us could ring the doorbell, the door opened and a young man in his early thirties ushered us in.  He embraced the mother and, after her introduction, he shook my hand.

In a low voice, he said that the son had just awakened and seemed to be doing much better than he had the day before.  “He has been agitated,” he said.  “He keeps pulling on a button on the front of his shirt as he looks out the window.  He hasn’t eaten today.”

He led us down a short hall to a doorway that opened onto a rather spacious room, given the size of the house.  A small gas fire burned on the hearth in one corner of the room, and next to it sat the son.  He didn’t turn to us at first.  His mother said, “Hello, dear,” and moved to kiss him.  Then she introduced me.  I shook his emaciated hand.  He was gaunt with deep-set eyes that still sparkled giving evidence of alertness and wit.  He was nearly bald.  We talked.

Reflecting on that day, I marvel at the journey we took in that room on that October afternoon.  When I first sat opposite him, he studied me.  I remembered what his mother had said to me early in our conversation.  “If I see revulsion I’ll thank you and be on my way.”  There was no revulsion.  Sicknesses, soars, even bleeding wounds do not make me squeamish.  The smell of cancer might make me queasy for a moment, but I am soon able to block out the smell and be present to the person at hand.  I don’t know why this is so, other than in my childhood, when my brother gashed his knee and I panicked about the sight of blood, my father told me to get over it.  “This is not about you.  You must care for your brother.”  And so it has been ever since.  It’s not about me.

In the first few moments, we talked about nothing of importance – the weather, how fast time goes, who would sin the football game on Saturday.  Abruptly he said, “I’m dying, you know.”  His mother protested and so did his partner.  I looked at him and was silent.

“What do you think about that?” he said.  I told him I was sorry that he was dying at such a young age, with what should be so much life yet to be lived.  “But death isn’t the end.”

He asked me what I thought the other side would be like.  I told him that I had no idea, only that it would be beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings.  I quoted the Scripture that says, “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, it hasn’t entered the human heart what God has prepared for those who love God.”

“Will I be aware?” he asked.  “Will I know and be known?”

“Eternity isn’t like anything we have experienced,” I said.  “We only know time.  But one this is for sure, it will take all of eternity to know the God who loved you into creation and sustains you in existence.”

His gaze shifted back to the view outside the window.  How long was the pause?  The only sound was from a ticking wall clock that chimed the quarter hour.  As a listener, I have learned that every pause in conversation does not have to be filled with another’s words.  I am not afraid of silence.  I waited.

There was a sudden intake of air and a shudder, or rather, something like the shiver that comes with a thrilling insight, or when the beauty of a symphonic phrase becomes almost unbearable.  He looked back at me and said, “Do you think so?  Do you really believe that?  Is that what death will be like?”

“Oh, yes,” I said.  “And Jesus will be there.  You will recognize him among those others more familiar to you that will gather around your bed to encourage you.  You might not recognize him at firs, because he probably won’t look like any of the romantic pictures of Jesus that you have seen.  But from the crowd, one will speak up and begin to thank you for all the good that you did for him when he was hungry, or thirsty, or naked, or in prison or hospital.  You will notice that all those standing about your bed will be nodding.  And when you ask, ‘When did I do these things for you?’  The answer will be, ‘Whenever you did it for one of these, you did it for me.’  Then the Lord will reach out and take you by the hand and say, ‘Arise and come.  Inherit the kingdom’”

Tears rolled down his cheeks.  He didn’t stop them from falling onto his shirtfront.  His chin didn’t tremble.  His hands didn’t fidget.  They lay quite relaxed in his lap.  Then he sat up and leaned toward the window.  “Look,” he said.  I followed his gaze.  Two eagles with wings outstretched, soared on the early evening currents, rising and falling like the waves far beneath them.  “I have a friend,” he said.  “He told me that when the eagles gather, it is the angels come to take you home.

“Can I be baptized?” he asked.  There was no transition, no preamble.  “Can I be baptized now?  My mother would like it.  I’ve thought about it and so would I.”

Silly the responses we make when taken by surprise.  I started talking about a preparation course and the proper time of the year when an adult Baptism should happen.  “Usually,” I said, “adults are baptized in the course of the Easter Vigil. “  I talked about the Night and the Fire and the Candle lit from that Fire.  I spoke of the church shrouded in darkness and the people assembled and how they would break into song proclaiming “Christ our Light” as the Candle is carried in procession to the Font.  And on that Night, the story of God’s love from the beginning is proclaimed in passages from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.  In the Candle’s glow, the Candle that is the sign of the Lord’s Resurrection, the Baptisms take place in the Font.

I found myself jabbering on, unleashed by the opportunity to talk about a favorite topic.  “The Litany of the Saints is invoked to pray with us, the Saints who are our ancestors in the faith.”  The Oil.  The white robes worn by the newly baptized.  I wasn’t really mindless of him.  I thought the information was important for him.  But still, he was fragile and his medications might make him drowsy and unable to follow.  Instead, he was riveted as I talked about the Font as tomb and womb, that in the early church those being baptized stripped naked, leaving the old self behind as they entered the Font to die and rise.  He thrilled when I said that the person dies in the waters to be born anew in Christ.  I said that when he would be baptized all creation would respond.  The earth would quake, the waters would part, the heavens would open and “God would call him by name and declare him God’s beloved son.

“Oh,” he said.  That was all.  “Oh.”  And he sat back in his chair and closed his eyes long enough for me to think that he might want to sleep.  I looked at his mother and his partner, meaning to apologize for having gone on so long and exhausting him.  Their eyes were fixed on him.  Each seemed to barely breathe.  And the clock chimed.

He didn’t open his eyes.  “Can we do it now?” he said.  “I don’t think I will see Easter from here next year.”

I thought about Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch.  They met and took a chariot ride together and talked about Jesus.  One ride.  One day.  And when Phillip was about to leave, the Ethiopian said, “Look, there is some water right there.  What is to keep me from being baptized?

I told his partner to fill the tub with warm water.  In what seemed like a moment, he returned and said the tub was ready.  I went into the bathroom to check the scene for myself.  I worried how awkward this might be if the tub were too small, or too high, or too deep.  None proved to be a concern.

I went back into the bedroom.  He stood naked, framed in the window by the light from the setting sun.  His robe and pajamas lay in a heap nearby.  His body was gaunt and covered with sores and dark splotches.  His mother stood next to him.  She held a burning candle.

“Are you ready?”

I reached my hand out to him.  He took it, tripped and faltered and seemed about to sink to the floor.  I moved toward him and caught him in my arms and lifted him.  His arm went around my shoulder and I marveled how light was the burden.  His mother led us into the bathroom.

We made our way to the tub.  His mother and his partner knelt on the tile floor.  Tears streaked their cheeks.  His mother’s hands were clasped around the candle in a tight grip.  Her eyes were closed, as her lips moved in what I was certain was a prayer.

“Don’t kneel,” he said, with sternness in his voice that I had not heard before.  “Stand and witness this.”

I held him over the font and asked him, “Do you believe?  Do you want to be baptized?  And to each question his answer was, “Oh, yes.  Yes, I do.”

His mother and his partner supported my arms as I knelt to plunge him into the water.  As he began to enter it, he looked up, and with his right arm, he seemed to point to the heavens.

“Lazarus, I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

* * *

We watched as the casket was lowered into the gaping grave.  His mother and his partner stood and watched.  Strange how silent the moment was.  I looked up and wondered if the eagles would gather.  I thought there should be a prayer to cover the moment.  Only silence.  “Eternal rest…” we prayed.  “And may perpetual light shine on Lazarus forever.”

We walked back to the waiting cars.  His mother held the crucifix that had adorned her son’s casket.  She stooped to enter the car, but then, she stood and faced me.  “You will never know,” she said.  She kissed me on the right cheek and touched the spot with her hand.  “You will never know.”