Friday of the Seventh Week of Easter (School Mass)

Today’s readings

Jesus’ words to Peter in this Gospel reading are a mixture of comfort, challenge, and warning.  We have to think back to what happened between Peter and Jesus just before Easter.  Peter had just messed up in the worst way possible by denying his friend not once but three times.  People asked if he knew the Lord, but he denied him every time.  Then came Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection.  Peter and Jesus hadn’t yet had a chance to talk about what happened.  So today’s Gospel is the first chance they’ve had for a heart to heart since the resurrection.

Jesus asks him: “Peter, do you love me?”  And Peter says “of course.”  Then he asks him again, and a third time even.  He asks Peter three times not because he didn’t hear him, and not even because he didn’t know what Peter would say.  He asks him three times because Peter denied him three times.  So Jesus comforts Peter in this way, because with each asking, Jesus is healing Peter from the inside out.

After Jesus heals Peter, he challenges him:  “Feed my sheep.” When we are forgiven or graced in any way, we, like Peter, are then challenged to do something about it.  Feed my sheep, follow me, give me your life, come to know my grace in a deeper way.  These are the ways Jesus calls us when we have been redeemed.

Finally, Jesus has for Peter words of warning: “when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”  This foretold that Peter would give his life as a martyr for the faith.  He denied his Lord three times, but he would never do it again!  Martyrdom was certainly a scary idea, but when we give ourselves over to God, that necessarily means that we might have to go in a direction we might not otherwise choose.

At the end of the reading, Jesus brings Peter back to comfort and healing once again by saying “Follow me.”  Yes, Peter had messed up, but Jesus knew that he was better than that.  We mess up too, don’t we?  But Jesus doesn’t write us off, either.  No matter what we disciples have done in our past, no matter how many times we have messed up or in what ways, there is always forgiveness if we give ourselves over to our Savior and our friend.

So Jesus asks us all today: “Do you love me?”

Tuesday of the Eighteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel reading is one of my favorites.  Truthfully, though, it always makes me a little uncomfortable.  Which is what it’s supposed to do.  This Gospel wants us to get out of the boat, too.

We can tend to give Saint Peter a lot of grief over this incident.  If he was able to walk on the water for a few steps, why couldn’t he finish the journey?  What we see happen here is that while he has his eyes on Jesus, he can accomplish what seems impossible: he walks on water.  But when he gets distracted by the storm and the wind and the waves, he begins to sink into the water.

Our spiritual journeys are a lot like that, I think.  It takes courage to get out of the boat, but the boat is where Jesus is.  We won’t get to him unless we make that leap of faith and step out of the comfort of our boats – whatever those boats may be.  And we do fine while we have our eyes on Jesus, but the minute we get distracted by the storms raging all around us, we begin to sink into the ocean of despair that surrounds us.

When that happens, we can be depressed about our progress.  We can be very hard on ourselves for falling yet again.  But we have to understand that Peter, and we, are not the biggest losers in this whole incident.  There were eleven guys who never had the courage or the faith to get out of the boat in the first place.  And so, like Peter, we can reach up to our Lord and let him pull us out of the swirling waters once again.

For those of us who take the leap of faith with Peter today, we may be of “little faith,” we may even doubt sometimes, but our faith in Jesus will always keep us safe.

Friday of the Seventh Week of Easter

Today’s readings

Jesus’ words to Peter in this Gospel reading are a mixture of comfort, challenge, and warning. Peter had just messed up in the worst way possible by denying his friend not once but three times. But then comes the question not once but three times: “Peter, do you love me?” This is comfort because with each asking, Jesus is healing Peter from the inside out.

Then words of challenge: “Feed my sheep.” When we are forgiven or graced in any way, we, like Peter, are then challenged to do something about it. Feed my sheep, follow me, give me your life, come to know my grace in a deeper way.

And then words of warning: “when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” When we give ourselves over to God, that necessarily means that we might have to go in a direction we might not otherwise choose.

But then Jesus brings Peter back to comfort and healing once again by saying “Follow me.” No matter what we disciples have done in our past, no matter how many times we have messed up or in what ways, there is always forgiveness if we give ourselves over to our Savior and our friend.

Second Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

“Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.”

So the prophet Isaiah begins our Liturgy of the Word today.  Those words made me think back to a time many years ago when I sang in a “Do It Yourself Messiah.”  Such “Do It Yourself Messiahs” are Christmas traditions in many places.  This particular program was being put on at my voice teacher’s church, and I had been practicing the first song of it, which is called “Comfort Ye My People,” for months.  I was to sing it as a solo.  Now understand, the prospect of a voice student singing in a church he’d never been to for people he’d never met, and being the fist voice they’d hear that afternoon – well that experience was just a little daunting.  I was feeling anything but comfort!

But the text of that particular song is taken directly from the first three verses we get from Isaiah today.  This text is easily one of the most beautiful in all of Scripture, and I have to admit it’s always been one of my favorite parts of the Bible.  But as I reflected on it this week, the words almost seem to ring a bit hollow.  The headlines in the newspaper spoke of 533,000 jobs lost in just the month of November – the worst unemployment statistic in 34 years; a $14 billion bailout of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler; the deepening of foreclosures in the housing market, fueled this time by job losses – and we can’t forget the recent bombings in India, and the wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan, to say nothing of unrest in other areas.

And I know that as I say all that, there are some of you here who probably didn’t need to read it in a newspaper.  Either you have had to suffer from some of this, or someone you know did.  And so I can’t help but think that Isaiah’s promise of comfort seems to ring a bit hollow today.  So this comfort of which Isaiah speaks, when’s that going to start?

Advent certainly has snuck up on us this year, I think.  We’re all in different places now than we were just a year ago.  Even if the recession and the danger in foreign lands hasn’t affected us, we might have experienced the loss of a loved one, a serious illness or injury of someone we know or even ourselves, maybe even a broken relationship.  Maybe these times find us needing the peace that Isaiah proclaims now more than ever.

So I think the comfort that Advent finds us hoping for this year is not some kind of placid, easy comfort.  It’s not going to be found in hot chocolate or mashed potatoes, or even being wrapped in a warm blanket next to the fire.  It’s not the kind of comfort that prohibits us from trying something new, or taking a risk – God has no great love for that kind of comfort, to be quite honest.  And it’s not going to be the kind of comfort that waves a magic wand and makes all our troubles go away.

I think the kind of comfort that Isaiah wants us to know about is the kind of comfort that comes from being in a hard place and having someone walk through it with you.  There is a real comfort that comes from that.  And that, I think, is the authentic kind of comfort that God brings us in our daily struggles.  We all know that our frustrations don’t disappear as quickly as we’d like them to.  We all know that we would certainly prefer not to have to walk through those low points at all.  But our faith teaches us that when we do walk through those valleys, we are never ever alone.  God is there, bringing us his comfort.

And truly, this is the kind of comfort Isaiah is speaking about.  This reading is from the second part of the book of Isaiah.  In the first part, Isaiah was crying out to the people, warning them that God was not happy with the way they had turned away from him, that God was angry about the way they treated the poor and broke the commandments and didn’t trust in him.  But the second part – from which today’s first reading is taken – speaks to a people who were suffering the consequences of those sins.  They had been taken into exile; their homes and everything they knew were destroyed and now they lived as slaves, bitterly oppressed in a foreign land.  They too had no love for someone proclaiming a false comfort.  But Isaiah wasn’t proclaiming that kind of comfort or peace.  He was proclaiming a comfort and peace that could only come from God.

And so it’s the great Saint John the Baptist who has the fulfillment of the promise in today’s Gospel reading.  These are the opening words of the Gospel of Mark, of which we will be reading a lot in this coming Liturgical year.  Mark has preliminaries: no genealogy like Matthew, no story about Elizabeth or the Annunciation like Luke.  He seems to rush breathlessly in and get right to the point, beginning with John’s Baptism.  He takes up the message of Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”  The old promises are being fulfilled and we are being offered a new way of life, one that finds us filling in the valleys and straightening out all those rough and winding roads.

I find myself in these Advent days reflecting on some of my favorite Advent hymns.  The one that really expresses the Scriptures we have today is called “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People.”  It was written for the feast of the Birth of St. John the Baptist by German composer Johannes Olearius in 1671.  It was translated into English in the nineteenth century.

Comfort, comfort ye My people,
Speak ye peace, thus saith our God;
Comfort those who sit in darkness,
Mourning ’neath their sorrow’s load;
Speak ye to Jerusalem
Of the peace that waits for them;
Tell her that her sins I cover,
And her warfare now is over.

For the herald’s voice is crying
In the desert far and near,
Bidding all men to repentance,
Since the kingdom now is here.
O that warning cry obey!
Now prepare for God a way!
Let the valleys rise to meet Him,
And the hills bow down to greet Him.

So Advent this year finds us waiting for two things.  First, we hear the call to repentance and await our own wholehearted return to God.  We are probably not going to get any part of the $700 billion government bailout.  We are going to have to depend instead on God in ways different and much deeper than we ever have before.  And that’s certainly not bad news, because nothing is more dependable than God.  Which brings us to the second thing for which we wait, and that is God’s comfort, a comfort that walks with us through good times and bad, a comfort that never lets us down, a comfort that makes us completely new.  We pray for that comfort along with our Psalmist today: “Lord, let us see your kindness and grant us your salvation.”

Saturday of the Fifteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

There is a wonderful, comforting message in today’s readings, and it’s a message that speaks to all of us when we’re at the end of the rope in our faith life.  That message is that God hears the cries of all of us who are poor in one way or another.  Whether we’re actually poor, or whether we’re oppressed, or are spiritually poor and struggling, or our relationships are poor, or we’re just feeling impoverished by a life that is one struggle after another: God hears us.  He can’t help but hear us. 

The Psalmist echoes the cry that goes on in all of us when we are in the midst of hard times: “Do not forget the poor, O Lord!”  How often when we are being tested, do we wonder where God is and demand that he do something right now?  It might even feel like we’ve been forgotten.  But today’s readings say that isn’t so.  God is with us, God hears us, and will always be with us in our need.

That’s what Micah is reminding Israel of in today’s first reading.  They can’t be ignoring the poor, because God doesn’t.  They can’t be oppressing the innocent, because God doesn’t.  They can’t be living evil lives, can’t be cheating people out of their inheritance, can’t be taking what is not theirs, because God does notice, and God will not ignore the evil deeds of this sinful people.  There will be justice for the poor, God will reach out to them in their need. 

Jesus, in the Gospel, was almost running for his life.  He knows that the Pharisees are turning up the heat and trying to kill him.  But he will not miss healing the sick and broken along the way.  He warns them not to make him known, but he does heal them.  Because he cannot be deaf to their cries for wholeness and healing.

That message of comfort comes to us this day.  Wherever we find ourselves this morning, whatever need we may have, whatever brokenness in us needs to be bound up and healed, we can know that God is aware of our needs, and will be with us in good times and bad.  No matter what.