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FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT – C – March 31, 2019

A reading from the Book of Joshua 5:9a, 10-12
A reading from St. Paul’s second Letter to the Corinthians 5:17-21
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

 

Dear Friends in Christ,

Someone asked me once if in all the Scriptures I had a favorite text.  Without a moments hesitation I cited the parable of the Prodigal Son that we hear on this Fourth Sunday of Lent.  When asked why, I said it depended on the mood I was in, but mostly it is because of the comfort I draw from the realization God is profligate when it comes to forgiving and lavish in loving.  I know I am a sinner in need of that forgiveness.  I long for that love.

When Jesus told the parable, he targeted a specific audience.  He was being criticized for the company he kept – Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus.  The Lord associated with those society despised and rejected.  Tax collectors were Jews who collaborated with the foreign rule.  They collected the Roman imposed tax and added to the bill the portion the collectors kept for their own support.  What did they talk about?  If they wanted to be in Jesus’ company, I doubt if he spent much time condemning their practices.  They may well have felt trapped in their occupation and thought there was no way out for them.  Had they steeled themselves against the judgments of their kith and kin?  Were they drawn to Jesus because they felt understood and accepted by him?  Were they comforted because Jesus told them God loved them?

And the sinners.  This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.  That was the charge leveled against Jesus that would lead to his rejection and execution.  To be publicly condemned must be the most bitter pill people have to swallow.  I suspect that today when many in the Assembly hear that term sinners, sinners are sanitized and seen not as doers of moral evil, but the misunderstood poor.  That is not what the text says.  Jesus gathered with sinners, people whose lifestyles made them unacceptable in polite society.  If they wanted to be with Jesus, I suspect the substance of the exchanges between them was not judgmental and condemning on Jesus’ part.  Only those who acknowledge sin in their lives and their helplessness in sin find comfort in numbering themselves in that group gathered around Jesus, yearning to know they are loved by God, even as they long for deliverance from the morass that enslaves them.  These are the ones for whom Jesus came.  The tax collectors.  The sinners.  The lost.  The abandoned.  Dare I say me?  Dare you think of yourself among them?

Please don’t think this to be hubris on my part, but I have often thought that in telling the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus saw himself as that Son.  The parable describes his coming into the world.  He emptied himself of all that was divine and took on our flesh – unredeemed and prone to weakness.  Remember his struggle in the desert with the devil?  The Word, eternally spoken by the Father, became flesh and dwelt among us mere mortals.  If Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them, was he judged to be one of them?

Is Jesus the son who took the inheritance and squandered it?  He poured himself out in loving service, first to members of the household and then to the gentiles, first to the accepted and then to the rejected, Gentiles, tax collectors, and sinners.  The very ones for whom Jesus came typified by the Pharisees and the scribes, the ones who thought heaven could be merited by strict observance of the Law, rejected Jesus, condemned him, and turned him out to be crucified.  In his abandonment, having taken on the world’s sin, he cried out: Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.  The Father ran to Jesus, embraced him, caught him up and took him to his place at God’s right hand.  Then the banquet began.

What about the Older Brother in the parable?  Jesus doesn’t tell us whether he went in to join the banquet, or chose to stay outside in the dark of night.  Does he represent the audience for whom the parable is intended, the scribes and Pharisees, the judgmental and self-righteous?  Does he stand for those who resent God’s attitude toward sinners, those who want others ostracized, condemned, excommunicated and excluded from the Assembly?  Does he represent those who in effect stand apart from those for whom Jesus came?

This Lent I am hearing the parable of the Prodigal Son for the first time.  The accent is on the word hearing.  I am comforted to hear how lavish God is in pouring out love and forgiveness, even in excess of expressed repentance. I am a sinner who is loved by God because I have been baptized into Christ who has taken on my sin.  What about you?  I am challenged by the parable to live the attitudes Jesus extols.  Or rather, not I alone, but we, the Church, the People of God must live those attitudes and values.  Only to the extent that sinners are welcome does the Church reflect God’s attitude toward sinners.  Only to the extent that there is a place at the table for the one who is rejected, abandoned, recognized to be a sinner, does the Church witness to her understanding of the parable and the desire to put it into practice.

My friends, this Lent, it is imperative that we listen to this parable and to Pope Francis who is calling the Church to conversion from attitudes that, to some, reflect those of the scribes and Pharisees.  Francis calls us to humility, to be a poorer Church, focused on the needs of the poor, to recognize Christ in the poor, and to minister to Christ there.  He challenges the shepherds in the Church to stand in the midst of the sheep, the people, and not to see themselves as being over them, but among them.  

Some in the Church do not want to hear from the pope that there are many paths to God.  The Jewish people remain the Chosen Race.  Even atheists can go to heaven.  Some reject Francis for such teachings.

And this Lent the Church has need to acknowledge the guilt of those priests, brothers, and sisters who abused power and molested children and vulnerable adults.  In this dark time there needs to be atonement.  There needs to be acknowledgement.  There needs to be reconciliation.

In our second reading, St. Paul tells us that whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come…all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us a ministry of reconciliation…and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

We gather this Fourth Sunday around the Table of the Word and are confronted by the Prodigal Son and the Father who is prodigal with his love.  As a forgiven people, we gather around the Table of the Eucharist, where all are welcome, to renew the Lord’s dying and rising, to continue our transformation into the Body of Christ through the sharing in the meal, and to be sent to bring the Good News to those poor ones who long to know that they are loved by God and by the Church.  Heaven awaits us all. 

 

Now let the Banquet begin.

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THE THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT – C – March 24, 2019

A reading from the Book of Exodus p 3:1-8a, 13-15
A reading from St. Paul’s first Letter to the Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-11
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 13:1-9

 

Dear Friends in Christ,

So many who preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ seem to forget the meaning of the word gospel.  The word means, Good News.  Jesus announced the Gospel of God’s love for all people.  It was not long before that central meaning seems to have been lost sight of, and a vengeful god eager to judge and to punish became a core belief.  This god is quick to punish and exact the pound of flesh from the wrongdoer.  Floods, famines, and wars are seen as coming from God’s hands as punishment for sin.  Poverty is God’s punishment, just as wealth becomes a sign of God’s favor.

Some find refuge in a spirituality that sees Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross as pleasing God, that God willed the awful death of the Son.  It was Jesus’ yes the delighted God, not the pain.  It was Jesus’ fidelity where others failed that expiated for sin.  Sin, after all and at its core, is saying no to God.  That is something Jesus never did.

A friend stopped by to see me one day.  As I came into the office, his back was to me.  He stared out the window at the sheets of rain.  When he heard me enter the room, he turned toward me.  I saw his tears.  I have always tried to be a good person.  I go to Mass every Sunday.  I give what I can of my time and money.  I’ve never been unfaithful to my wife.  Now I am dying.  I just found out I have cancer that will kill me soon.  What did I do to deserve this?  Why is God doing this to me?  Why am I being abandoned?

In that moment I wondered what he expected me to say.  What would Jesus have said?  I have no doubt that Christ would invite him to see in his sufferings a share in the passion and of his feeling of abandonment in the final moments.  But I have no doubt that the Lord would challenge the premises upon which my friend and others base their idea of the wrathful God who is pleased and appeased by suffer.  Certainly Jesus would chide him for asking, what did I do to deserve this?

There are so many such presumptions, carefully preached though they are, that these Lenten readings challenge.  God’s Chosen People are enslaved in Egypt.  People struggle with cancers and dementia and separation and alienation.  There are wars and famine and afflictions of the dispossessed and unjustly imprisoned.  Is God doing this?  And for what purpose?

Lent and these readings ask us to find a different God, or rather, to see God differently.  Imagine Moses in amazement as he first caught sight of the Burning Bush.  The first challenge is for Moses to recognize the holiness of the moment.  Take off your shoes.  You are standing on holy ground.  The first message that Moses hears is one of compassion for the enslaved Israelites.  And Moses will be the means whereby they will be freed when they hear and believe that YHWH has sent Moses to them.  YHWH has been watching over them, loving them in every generation since Abraham and Sarah.

The God of Hebrew Bible is a loving God who never abandoned and never exhausted dazzling displays to prove God’s love for the freed people being formed in the Desert, The famine and thirst became a means to strengthen the people, just as the water, the quail, the Manna and the Pillar of Fire in the night and the Pillar of Cloud in the day all confirmed God’s love for and presence in the midst of the people.  This is God who loves and is eager to forgive.  If truth be told, God forgives even before signs of repentance appear.  When we ask for forgiveness, that is a sign of the grace of forgiveness already at work in our hearts.

So, where should our focus be as we journey through this Lenten Desert?  Isn’t this an opportunity for us to look into our own hearts and confront attitudes that are there?  We can’t hear the Gospel this Sunday without hearing Jesus challenge our complacency.  There is work to be done.  That fig tree may not have produced figs to date.  That doesn’t mean it should be cut down.  Cultivate it.  Water it.  Fertilize it.  Then see what spring will bring.

Sin still has the power to thwart God ‘s plan.  Sin can still separate us from God’s love.  But the fasting, praying, and almsgiving that are supposed to be part of these forty days, not ends in themselves, are meant to create the hunger for a deeper relationship with God, open our hearts go God’s presence, and awaken us to Christ’s presence in the suffering poor.  All these Lenten practices are meant to rekindle the fervor that was ours at the time of our Baptism, our calling, and empower us to do what Jesus does – say Yes to the will of the One who chooses and sends us.

Remember, too, that there is a special group of people that we should keep in mind during these forty days.  There are those among us who are journeying toward the Font.  The Elect prepare for that encounter with the Water this fast approaching Easter Night.  If they see the Mystery being lived by and in us, they will be encouraged to bear the difficulties on the way, eager to die to sin and rise to new life in Christ.

Finally, remember that Lent is not a season of dread.  It is a season of joy as we are renewed in the Love that continually seeks and saves us.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus

PS.  I love the parable of the dormant fig tree.  Each time I ponder it, I thank the Lord for being the Gardener who tells me it is never too late for me.  This can be my second spring.

 

 

SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT – C – March 17, 2019

A reading from the Book of Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 3:17-4:1
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 9:28b-36

 

My dear Friends in Christ,

I remember a night, many, many, many years ago.  This young boy sat in the dormer window and gazed into the starry night.  Did he pray?  He wondered about God.  He thought about Jesus.  He wondered what Jesus wanted him to do.  His child’s mind sought reassurance, a glimpse into the future that would make a decision less risky.  As all children do, he wanted to know that everything would work out, that the dreams would be realized and he would be safe.

He asked for a sign.  Give me a sign so that I will know what you, Lord, want me to do.  Hubris?  From a mature vantage point it would seem so.  But not as I remember that moment.  There was too much pleading, too many tears for hubris.  I can close my eyes and that moment remains etched clearly and indelibly.  One word escaped my lips as I whispered into the night.  Please!  In that moment a bright ball of light arced through the sky, brilliant and brief, bright and beautiful.  All I could do was gasp and wonder what it was.  A sign?

Signs?  Omens?  Those who see them need sages to interpret for them.  But I have clung to that moment and returned to it in challenging times and found in it reassurance.

Abram had moments to remember that supported his faith in the God who promised multitudes who would claim to be his descendants.  But I had no history then, only the memory of my first encounter with the Lord in the Waters of the Font when I was seven years old.  Not many weeks intervened between that moment and that star-filled night.  I was just starting on The Way.

The gospel for this Second Sunday of Lent is one of the accounts of that majestic and transforming moment we call the Transfiguration.  The favored trio, Peter, James, and John, are at the start of a journey that is unprecedented.  They have responded to the invitation to leave everything familiar and follow Jesus.  That first encounter was powerful enough that they did leave their boats, their nets, everything with which they were familiar, all their security, and began the journey of discipleship.  But who was this Jesus?  They did not know that much about him.  Could he be the longed for Messiah?

They climb to the mountaintop with Jesus and there experience their transforming moment.  Their heads swim with what seems an affirmation of their belief in Jesus, that he is the Christ, the anointed of God, who will change history forever.  They see power and majesty in his transformation as he prays.  His face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.  They see conversation with Moses, the bringer of the Law, and Elijah, the Prophet, who, as did all the Prophets, proclaimed what God wanted the people to hear. They talk about the exodus that Jesus will accomplish in Jerusalem.

There is a strange note here.  We are told that Peter, James, and John nod off to sleep.  Don’t you imagine it had to do with the intensity of it all?  But Peter awakens just as the conversation seems to be ending.  He wants to cling to the moment.  He doesn’t want it to end.  Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.  This triumphal moment on the mountaintop seems to fulfill their wildest imaginings.  With this as a beginning, just imagine what could follow.  But then comes the cloud and in a moment the excitement turns to fright as they are enveloped by it.  Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”  And in a moment it is over.

We imagine ourselves there as this gospel is proclaimed.  What are our emotions?  How do we translate the moment?  What do we take from it?  Peter, James and John will have the rest of their discipleship, their journey with Jesus to try to figure it out.  They will have to cling to this memory when they come to the other hill outside Jerusalem and watch from a distance to see how it all will end.

Every Second Sunday of Lent a gospel of the Transfiguration will be proclaimed.  There are three accounts, one from Luke, this week, one from Matthew, and one from Mark.  The point is that we will need this epiphany moment recalled each time we begin the Lenten journey.  We will pray for some among us as they begin their first Lenten journey as they head for the Font for their dying moment and rebirth in Christ.  All of us need the telling because no faith journey is without hazard.  Each disciple walks with Christ on her/his own winding and twisting path.  Each one faces unexpected challenges to faith, moments that could elicit doubt, and events that could threaten to stifle and break the believing heart.

I remember sitting with a young couple in a hospital room.  The mother sat in a rocking chair and cradled the dead infant in her arms.  She rocked and hummed a lullaby as tears rolled from her eyes.  Her husband knelt and placed his head in her lap.  He wept, too.  Time passed.  A moment?  An hour?  Time froze.  Then the mother said, Jesus knows.  Jesus cares.  What was she remembering?

We will move from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  As the Assembly we will co-celebrate with the Presider in this transforming moment.  The bread and wine will become the sacramental presence of Christ.  We, the Assembly, will be renewed in our transformation into the Body of Christ.  And when the shared meal has strengthened us, we will be sent out into the market place to be Christ for a hungry and thirsty people who long to know that God loves them.  That is the message that Jesus urges us to continually proclaim in love, one that is most effectively proclaim when we choose to serve the least among us and in them recognize the Christ who saves.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus