The Fifth Sunday of Lent – Scrutiny III (Cycle A Readings)

Today’s readings

“Lord, by now there will be a stench.”

That’s one of my favorite lines in scripture.  It begs the question I want you to pray about this week, which is this: “What in your life really stinks?”  Because we have to have that stench washed away in order to really live.

If you know my preaching, you’re not going to be at all surprised about this, but I have to tell you honestly, our Gospel reading isn’t about Lazarus.  Yes, he got raised from the dead, so good for him, but he isn’t the center of action in the story.  In fact, he’s dead for most of the reading, so he doesn’t play a major part.   Our Gospel today is about Jesus, who gives us baptism and grace, those helps that are the remedy for all that stinks in our life.

So Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus is ill.  He knows that Lazarus will die, and he knows that he will raise Lazarus up, so very much like the rest of John’s Gospel, Jesus is in full control.  He delays going to see Lazarus because it will give him the opportunity that will increase faith in the other players in the story.  So when he arrives, Lazarus has been dead four days.  That’s an important detail because it tells us that Lazarus is really, really dead.  The Jews believed that the soul of a person hung around for about three days, but after that, well, he or she was gone forever.  So if Jesus had raised Lazarus on the second day, no big deal.  If on the third day, that would have been a foreshadowing of himself.  But on the fourth day, he raises up someone who is really, really dead: someone just like us.

So just like the man who was born blind last week, we are born dead, in a way.  I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but stay with me.  We are born dead in our sins, and there is nothing we can do to raise ourselves up out of that sinfulness except for the grace of God.  So the movement in our Gospel today is from life that is so mired in sin that it stinks, to life that is so free of death that burial bands and tombs cannot contain it.

During Lent, we have been journeying with our catechumens, who are now called the Elect, as they prepare to be baptized, confirmed, and receive first Holy Communion at the Easter Vigil.  Much like them, there are three groups of catechumens in today’s Gospel.  The first group of these scriptural catechumens is Mary and Martha, those friends of Jesus that are part of John’s Gospel a few times.  Here, the rubber meets the road in their faith.  Here, like so many of us, they have something tragic happen in their lives, and now they have to grapple with whether their faith helps them with that or not.  Mary is so troubled that she doesn’t even go out to meet the Lord until her sister tells her a white lie that Jesus was asking for her.  Both she and Martha, when they first see Jesus, complain that he should have come sooner so that he could have saved Lazarus.  But Martha has a little faith.  She says very importantly that “Even now, I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”  That’s the beginning profession of faith.  She knows that Jesus has power over life and death.  So then they have a little catechetical dialogue about life and death and eternity, and at the end of it, Martha professes that Jesus is the Son of God who was coming into the world.  The sisters move from their grief, to faith in Jesus, even before he accomplishes the miracle.

The second group of catechumens is the Apostles.  God bless them, they’re still trying to make sense of Jesus.  We can’t be too hard on them, because they’re a lot like many of us who are trying to be men and women of faith, but don’t really have all the facts right now.  “Let us also go to die with him,” Thomas says.  And they will, of course: they have to go through the cross before they see and understand Jesus fully.  We too will have to take up our own crosses before we can understand the salvation that Christ has won for us.

The third group of catechumens is the Jews.  A bunch of them are weeping with Mary, and they go with her to see Jesus.  Along the way, they complain that if he could heal the man born blind like he did in last week’s Gospel, why couldn’t he have healed Lazarus?  But seeing the miracle, they come to believe, in the very last verse of this long reading. They are a lot like those of us who are skeptical for a long time, but see something wonderful materialize in the life of another and finally decide there’s something to this Jesus that’s worth believing in.

Key to all of these catechumens is that, in order to move to belief, they had to have some kind of stench in their lives washed away.  For Martha and Mary, they had to get past the stench of their grief.  For the Apostles, they had to get over the stench of trying to figure things out and realize that Jesus was in charge.  For the Jews, they had to get past the stench of their skepticism and let him perform miracles among them.  For all of us, on the journey of faith, some kind of stench has to be washed away, in order to come to full faith in Jesus.  And that stench is, of course, sin.  The way it gets washed away is in baptism.

So if you take away anything from today’s Liturgy, let it be this: this reading is really all about baptism, brothers and sisters in Christ.  Is it a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection?  Well, okay, yes, maybe a little.  But it is more about baptism.  Because baptism is a kind of death.  As Saint Paul says in our second reading today, baptism is the kind of death that gives life to our mortal bodies.  It’s hard for us to imagine that kind of thing when the baptisms we’ve seen are just a mere pouring of water over a baby’s head.  But baptism in the early church was full submerging in water while the formula was pronounced, after which they came up out of the water gasping for air.  Believe me, they got the connection of baptism with death and resurrection!

Baptism is what washes away the stench in our lives.  It does that with original sin, and if we live our baptism by participating in the sacraments, it does that with the sins of our daily life.  The sacrament of Penance is an extension, in a way, of the sacrament of Baptism, in which the sins of our lives are completely washed away, leaving us made new and alive in ways we couldn’t imagine.

So today, Jesus sees us dead in the flesh, stinking of our sins.  But he calls us forth in baptism, rolling away the stone of sin that keeps us from relationship with him, releasing us from the burial-bands that bind us, and calling us to new life.

So maybe in these closing days of Lent, we still have to respond to our Lord’s call to live. Maybe you haven’t yet been to confession before Easter.  We have confessions tomorrow at 2:00pm until all have been heard, then Friday at 6pm, and Saturday at 3pm.  Come to any of them that fit your schedule.  If you miss that, please check the bulletin today for a schedule of confessions at parishes around us.  We invite you to come and have the stone rolled away and to be untied from your burial cloths.  Wherever you find yourself at this point of Lent, I urge you, don’t let Easter pass with you all bound up and sealed in the grave.  Lent ends just before Evening Prayer on Holy Thursday.  That gives us around ten and a half days to take up our Lenten resolutions anew, or even make new ones, so that we can receive new life in Christ.  Don’t spend these days in the grave.  Come out, be untied, and be let go.

The Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time [C]

Today’s readings
The parts in brackets were done at the 5pm Mass which included the Rite of Acceptance into the Order of the Catechumenate.

Today’s readings remind me of one of my favorite theological facts: we were all created for something.  I think it takes the better part of our lives sometimes to see what that purpose is, but rest assured: God has a purpose.  In our first reading, God says, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you…”  Those words are spoken to the prophet Jeremiah, but also to all of us.  God has personal knowledge of every person he has created, and dedicates each one of us to some special purpose.

It’s an important thing for us to hear in this day and age, I think.  Sometimes I think we take the cynical scientific position that each life is a happy accident.  Molecules have just come together in the right way, and so here we are.  Whatever becomes of us, then, is either fate: something we inevitably take on, or happenstance: we take on the persona of whatever is expedient at any given time.  So if all that is true, then there doesn’t have to be a God, or if there is one, he has set things in motion and stepped back to observe our progress like someone viewing an exhibit at the zoo.

But our faith teaches us that none of that is true.  Faith tells us that God is really active in the world, that he has personally created each one of us, that he desires our happiness, that he gives us grace to become what he created us to become.  That doesn’t mean that every life will be easy and that there will never be suffering or pain.  Sin is a consequence of free will, and the evils of disease and disaster and sadness all run through the world as a consequence of that.  If God desires our happiness, Satan certainly desires us to be unhappy, even unto eternity.

So if there is purpose to our lives, and if God desires that we be happy, then that purpose is well expressed in today’s second reading from Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  This letter is certainly familiar to anyone who has been to any number of church weddings.  It’s easy to see why so many couples would choose that reading: the romantic nature of the love they have for one another wants a reading as sweet and beautiful as this to be proclaimed at their wedding.  But I always tell them that they should be careful of what they’re asking for.  Because the love that St. Paul speaks of is not something that you feel, it’s more something that you do.  Or, even better, something that you are.

Because, in any relationship, love is a choice.  If it were just a feeling that you automatically had for someone close to you, it would be so much easier.  If love happened automatically like that, there would be no abusive relationships.  Young people would never turn away from their families.  Parents would never neglect their children.  Spouses would never separate.  We wouldn’t need the sixth commandment, because no one would ever think to commit adultery.  Priests would never leave the priesthood because their love for their congregations and the Church, and above all, for God, would stop them from any other thoughts.

And that’s why St. Paul has to tell the Corinthians – and us too! – that love is patient, kind, not jealous, and all the rest.  In fact, that passage from St. Paul defines love in fifteen different ways.  Because love absolutely has to address pomposity, inflated egos, rudeness, self-indulgence, and much more.  All of us, no matter what our state of life, must make a choice to love every single day.  If you are married, you have to choose to love your spouse; if you are a parent, you have to choose to love your children.  Children must choose to love their parents; priests have to choose to love their congregations, and the list goes on.  Love is the most beautiful thing in the world, but love is also hard work.

As today’s Liturgy of the Word unfolds, we can see that love – true love – makes demands on us, demands that may in fact make us unpopular.  In the first reading, Jeremiah is told that he was known and loved by God even before he was formed in his mother’s womb.  That love demanded of him that he roll up his sleeves and be a prophet to the nations.  God gives him the rather ominous news that his prophecy won’t be accepted by everybody, that the people would fight against him.  But even so, Jeremiah was to stand up to them and say everything that God commanded him, knowing that God would never let him be crushed, nor would God let the people prevail over Jeremiah.

For Jesus, it was those closest to him who rejected him.  In the Gospel today, while the people in the synagogue were initially amazed at his gracious words, soon enough they were asking “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” as if to say, “Who is he to be talking to us this way?”  When Jesus tells them that his ministry will make God’s love known to the Gentiles – those whom God had supposedly not chosen – it is then that they rise up and drive him out of the city, presumably to stone him to death.

So we have been created in love, created to love, and created for love.  God is love itself, love in its most perfect form, and out of that love, he set us and the world and everything there is into being.  Out of love for us, God continues to be involved in our lives and in our world, giving us grace, and revealing himself to us when we seek him with all our hearts.  And when we seek him with all our hearts, we do that out of love for God, which is in fact God’s gift to us!  Love is a complex and beautiful thing and love is the purpose of our lives.  Love is a still more excellent way than anything we have in the world!

[God continues to love so much that he calls people to come close to him every day.  Today we celebrate with Korrin her call to become part of God’s family in our Church.  Today, she has joined the order of catechumens, one of the ancient orders of the Church.  Unlike unbaptized people who are not catechumens, Korrin and other catechumens have rights in the Church.  They have a right to assistance as they grow in faith by learning about the teachings of the Church and participating in works of service in the parish.  They also have a right to be married in the Church and to receive Christian burial, which we hope won’t be necessary any time soon!

[Korrin’s call is an important one for us to witness.  As we see her grow in her faith, we recognize that God continues to call all of us to grow closer to him as well.  Her journey, which we will observe in the public rituals of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, calls us to continue the journey wherever we find ourselves on it.  God’s love continues to call Korrin and all of us to grow closer to him each and every day.]

May the call of all of our lives remind us that we are all embraced in God’s love, and that because of God’s love, we all must decide to love in our own way, according to our own vocation and station in life, every single moment of our lives.  May our love for God, our love for others, and our love for ourselves permeate and give new purpose to a world that has forgotten love, and forgotten how to love rightly.

Thirty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Why are we still here?????

Have you ever thought about that?  Why is it that Jesus has been so long in returning?  Why hasn’t he come back to put all things to their proper conclusion?  Why do we still have wars being fought all over the earth?  Why is there still terror, and death, and sadness, and pain?  Why do our loved ones still suffer illness?  Why do relationships still break down and why do people still hurt one another?  Why can’t God just wrap things up and put an end to all this nonsense?  Why can’t we all go home to be with our Lord and our loved ones?

If you relate to those questions, then you probably can relate to the readings that we have from the prophet Daniel and from Mark’s Gospel today.  These are what we call “apocalyptic writings” which are usually written to give people hope in the midst of very hard times.  So you can see why they would be so important to us today.  Because we have hard times of our own, don’t we?  I would venture to guess that everyone sitting here is either affected in some way by the economic downturn, or else they know someone who is.  Do you know someone whose son or daughter was stationed at Fort Hood?  Judging from the number of funerals we have had here lately, I would say that a lot of you have lost loved ones recently, or know about someone who has.  And that’s to say nothing of the day-to-day stuff like relationships ending, and the darkness of our own sin.

When these things confront us, who among us wouldn’t call to mind the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel?  “The sun will be darkened,” he says, “and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”  It often seems like our whole world is falling apart, and we are desperately looking for some sign of hope.

They are hard readings today, really kind of dark in nature.  They remind me of the darkness of the days that we have at the end of the year.  The sun sets a lot earlier than it did, and the skies are often cloudy.  It’s a darkness we can almost feel, and these readings that we have at the end of our liturgical year really echo that sentiment for me.

But I think that’s the point.  A lot of fundamentalist folks have spent the greater part of their lives trying to figure out when all these things would take place.  They want a day and time when the end will come, and they sometimes tell us they have figured it out, only to have the time come and go, and they have to return to their lives, if they can.  But these readings aren’t supposed to be a roadmap.  They are supposed to accompany us when our lives are as dark as the autumn nights.  The message they give us is one of hope.  No, we will not be spared the disappointments, frustrations, and sadness that can sometimes come in our lives, but we never ever ever have to go through them alone.

God will be with us.  He will, as the Gospel tells us, “gather his elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.”  As the prophet Daniel tells us, “At that time [God’s] people shall escape, everyone who is found written in the book.”

And so that is why we are here today.  That’s why we are still here.  We are here to allow God to gather his elect, and we are here to help him do that. To that end, we have gathered eight of our brothers and sisters today, to welcome them and support them in their journey to become one of us.  Two of them are now promoted to the Order of Catechumens.  Catechumens are those being instructed in the ways of the faith.  This pertains specifically to those not baptized.  At the Easter Vigil Mass, they will receive all three of the Sacraments of Initiation: baptism, confirmation and first Eucharist.  Catechumens have rights in the Church: they can receive a Christian burial if they are called home before the Sacraments can be administered; they can be married in the Church sacramentally, and they have a right to the sacraments.

The others being welcomed today are candidates for full communion with us.  They have been baptized, some Catholic, some not, and so they already share with us the foundation of grace and are being called to confirmation and first Eucharist to complete their union with us.

If we take the readings today seriously, and I think we should, then these eight people are simply a nice start.  We know that one day, we won’t still be here, that Jesus will return to complete all things and initiate the reign of God’s kingdom.  And we want everyone to be there.  In many ways, we cannot any of us go if we all don’t go.  It’s not just “me and Jesus.”  Salvation is not an individual thing, it’s something we all receive together.  And that’s why we have the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults.  That’s why we actively reach out to those not among us and call them to communion with us.  We need to gather up all God’s people so that, one day, we can all be seated around the banquet of God’s people in heaven.

Back to my first question, then.  Why are we still here?  We’re still here because there is work still to be done.  There are many more people to gather from the four winds so that their names can be written in the book of life.  God is still working salvation among us; we need to cooperate with that saving work.  It’s not going to be easy, and some days may seem oppressively dark, but we are never alone.  Heaven and earth might pass away, but God’s word is forever.  It will not pass away.

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