The Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

This weekend we continue our preaching series at Saint Mary Immaculate called “A Crash Course in Catholicism.”  Please continue to pray for the success of this preaching series, and for the openness for all to receive the grace God is pouring out on us in these days.   So far we have spoken about the fundamental Good News of our faith that we are saved by Jesus Christ.  God did not abandon us in our sinfulness, but in love sent us His Son, Jesus, to free us from sin and death by His own life, death and resurrection. God desires our salvation and healing.

In following God’s plan, we connect our lives to His through prayer, which we spoke of at length last week.  Hopefully over the past week you’ve had a chance to reflect on the way you pray, why you pray, and perhaps even tried some new way of prayer.

So this week, we are reflecting on our call to discipleship, our living of the Good News of Jesus Christ in such a way that it is infectious to others.  This call to discipleship isn’t just for Sundays, or even primarily for Sundays, but an everyday decision to follow Christ and walk in the way he has marked out for us.

Looking at the parable in today’s Gospel reading, I’m going to be very bold and say, you know, the Pharisee was quite right. His righteousness was beyond reproach. He has been innocent of greed, dishonesty and adultery. He has been more pious than even the law requires. Fasting was only required once a year, on the Day of Atonement, but he fasts twice a week. Tithes were only required to be paid on one’s earnings, but he pays them not only on his earnings, but also on all of his possessions, basically, he paid the tithe on his total net worth. He was probably quite right about his own righteousness, and he may well have been right about the failures of righteousness in the tax collector as well.

And, in those days, tax collectors were despicable human beings. There was no taxation with representation, so the tax collectors worked for the Romans and were in league with the foreign occupation. They were told what they had to collect, and whatever the collected over and above that was theirs to keep. Now certainly, they were entitled to some income, so a modest markup would have been understandable – that was how they were paid. But mostly the modest markup was far from modest, and often bordered on extortion. The tax collector in our parable today does not deny that he has participated in those activities. He does not even pray about anything he has done except for one thing: he has sinned. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner,” he says.

Both of these men were right in what they said about themselves. From an objective point of view, they have presented themselves honestly before God and everyone. So what’s the problem? Where has the Pharisee gone wrong and how did the tax collector, of all people, end up justified?

It’s pretty easy to see what went wrong when we step back and look at the nature of their prayers. The Pharisee uses the word “I” four times. It’s all about him. The tax collector does not use the word “I” at all; he uses the word “me.” What’s the difference? Think back to your grammar lessons: “I” is the subject, “me” is the object. So, for the Pharisee, it was all about what he had done through his own righteousness, and not about what God had done or could do. The text even says that the prayer he prayed, he said to himself.  Did you catch that?  Not to God, but to himself!  For the tax collector, it wasn’t about him at all. He acknowledges his sinfulness and asked God to have mercy. And that’s the second difference. The tax collector asks for something, namely mercy, and receives it: he goes home justified. The Pharisee asks for nothing, and that’s just what he gets: nothing.

So I think today’s Liturgy of the Word is asking us a very important question: have you been aware of your need for a Savior? Because sin is exhausting. Anyone who has struggled with sin, or a pattern of sin, in their lives can tell you that. Those who have been dragged down by any kind of addiction or who have tried to work on a character flaw or striven to expel any kind of vice from their lives often relate how exhausting the sin can be. Sin saps our spiritual energy, weakens our resolve to do good, and causes us to turn away in shame not only from God, but also from family, friends, and all those whose spiritual companionship we need in order to grow as Christians. That’s just the way sin works.

But today’s Liturgy gives us very good news. Sirach says in today’s first reading that “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds, judges justly and affirms the right, and the Lord will not delay.” We see that very clearly in the parable in today’s Gospel. The lowly tax collector cannot even bring himself to raise his eyes to heaven. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner,” he says. It is the perfect Act of Contrition. He acknowledges his sin, he prays for God’s mercy. And God responds. He can go home justified.

So who here was the disciple?  It would seem like it would have been the praying, fasting Pharisee.  But is it?  Discipleship involves discipline – they have the same root word – a discipline that binds oneself to God and is committed to real change.  The Pharisee was self-righteous: he prayed to himself, did what made himself look good, it was all about him.  The tax-collector, on the other hand, had a righteousness that came from the mercy of God.  Because he depended on God, he was able to find forgiveness, bind himself to mercy, and go home justified.  Disciples don’t follow themselves, they follow Jesus.  They don’t pray to themselves, they follow Jesus.  They aren’t righteous in themselves, they are righteous in Jesus.

Disciples aren’t perfect – certainly the tax-collector was not – but disciples are open to conversion, open to a true change in their lives that allows the mercy of God to make them a new creation.  Disciples think of everything in terms of their walk with Christ and living the Gospel.  They do it every day, not just Sunday.  When a decision needs to be made at work, they think about Jesus’ example and how the decision might affect others.  When deciding where to spend their family’s resources, they think about the good they are called to do.  When working through a relationship issue, they think about where God is in that relationship and direct their energies in that way.  Disciples see themselves first and foremost as sons and daughters of God, and everything else in their lives falls in line with that identification.  They may not be perfect, but they are open to being perfected.

Disciples find themselves in the Church, receiving the Sacraments the Church offers them in order to perfect their lives of faith.  They receive the mercy of God in sacramental confession, and they live on the strength of God by receiving God’s Word and the Body and Blood of our Lord at Mass.

Just like the Pharisee and the tax collector, we have come to this holy place to pray today. What is our prayer like? Are there sins that have become a pattern for us? Do we have addictions that need to be worked out? Have we failed in some way in our daily life? What dark corners of our lives desperately need God’s light and God’s mercy? In what ways do we need a Savior? Have we asked for God’s mercy, or have we been like the Pharisee, asking for nothing and receiving exactly that?

I want to give you the opportunity to pray with this today…

Pray the tax collector’s prayer after me: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

The Fifth Sunday of Lent (Cycle C Readings)

Today’s readings

Back in the sixth century before the birth of Christ, the Israelites were in a bad way.  They had been separated from their God by sin: against God’s commands, they had betrayed their covenant with the Lord and made foreign alliances, which he had forbidden them to do.  He forbade this because he knew that as they made these alliances, they would give in to the temptation to worship the so-called gods of the people they with whom they allied themselves.  As punishment, God separated them from their homeland: the cream of the crop of their society was taken into exile in Babylon, and those left behind had no one to lead them and protect them.  Because they moved away from God, God seemed to move away from them.  But he hadn’t: I think it was really they who had exiled themselves from God.  In today’s first reading, God shows them that he still loves them and cares for them, and promises to make them a new people. I love the line: “See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?”  God would indeed bring them back and create their community anew.

The Israelites were in exile, but exile can take so many forms.  And Saint Paul had a good sense of that.  For him, the exile was anything that was not Christ; a sentiment we should embrace.  Saint Paul knows that he has not yet taken possession of the glory that is promised him by Christ, and so he wants to leave behind the exile of the world and strains forward to all that lies ahead, the goal and prize of God’s calling in Christ.

Which brings us back to the woman caught in adultery.  We certainly feel sorry for her, caught in the act, dragged in front of Jesus and publicly humiliated.  But the truth is, just like the Israelites in the sixth century before Christ, she had actually sinned.  And that sin threatened to put her into exile from the community; well, it even threatened her life.  The in-your-face reversal in the story, though, is that Jesus doesn’t consider her the only sinner – or even the greatest sinner – in the whole incident. We should probably wonder about the man with whom she was committing adultery; that sin does, after all, take two. And as serious a sin as adultery certainly is, Jesus makes it clear that there are plenty of serious sins out there, and they all exile us from God.  As he sits there, writing in the sand, they walk away one by one.  What was he writing?  Was it a kind of examination of conscience?  A kind of list of the sins of the Pharisees?  We don’t know.  But in Jesus’ words and actions, those Pharisees too were convicted of their sins, and went away – into exile – because of them.

Sin does that to us. It makes exiles out of all of us. The more we sin, the further away from God we become.  And it doesn’t have to be that way.

Jimmy and Suzy went to visit their grandparents for a week during the summer.  They had a great time, but one day Jimmy was bouncing a ball in the house, which he knew he shouldn’t be doing.  It didn’t take long for the ball to hit grandma’s favorite vase, knocking it off the table and breaking it.  He picked up the pieces and went out back and hid them in the woodshed. Looking around, the only person who was around was his sister Suzy.  She didn’t say anything, but later that day, when grandma asked her to help with the dishes, Suzy said “I think Jimmy wanted to help you,” giving him a rather knowing look. So he did.  The next day, grandpa asked Jimmy if he wanted to go out fishing. Suzy jumped right in: “He’d like to, but he promised grandma he would weed the garden.”  So Jimmy weeded the garden.  As he was doing that, he felt pretty guilty and decided to confess the whole thing to grandma.  When he told her what had happened, grandma said, “I know.  I was looking out the back window when you were hiding the pieces in the woodshed.  I was wondering how long you were going to let Suzy make a slave of you.”

That’s how it is with sin: it makes a slave of us, and keeps us from doing what we really want to do. It puts us deep in exile, just as surely as the ancient Israelites.  And it doesn’t have to be that way.  You see, it’s easier than we think to end up in exile.  All we have to do is a good examination of conscience and then think about the way those sins have affected us.  Have they made us feel distant from God, family and friends?  Have they caused us to drift in our life and not feel God’s presence in times of hardship?

Exile is heartbreaking. And to the exile of sin, God has three things to say today:

First, “Go, and from now on, do not sin anymore.”  That sounds like something that’s easy to say but hard to do.  But the fact is, once we have accepted God’s grace and forgiveness, that grace will actually help us to be free from sin.  Of course, that’s impossible to do all on our own.  But God never commands us to do something that is impossible for us, or maybe better, he never commands us to do something that is impossible for him to do in us.  God’s grace is there if we but turn to him.

Second, God says: “Forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead.”  Once sin is confessed and grace is accepted, the sin is forgotten.  God is not a resentful tyrant who keeps a list of our offenses and holds them against us forever.  If we confess our sins and accept the grace that is present through the saving sacrifice of Jesus, the sins are forgotten.  But it is up to us to accept that grace.  We truly have to confess so that we can forget what lies behind and be ready for the graces ahead.

Third, God says: “See, I am doing something new.  Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”  We are the ones who get stuck in the past, always fearing to move forward because of past sins, hurts, and resentments.  We are called today to be open to the new thing God is doing in our lives.  The way to open up is to confess our sins and get rid of the past.

For a long time in my young life, I didn’t go to confession.  I didn’t think I needed to.  I grew up in that whole time of the church when it was all about how you felt about yourself.  Garbage. I knew something was wrong when I was in my young adulthood and felt lost.  I took a chance and went to confession at a penance service, and the priest welcomed me back.  In that moment, I knew exactly the new thing God was doing in me, and it felt like a huge weight was lifted off of me.  In fact, I was released from the exile of all my past sins and hurts.

I never forgot that, and whenever anyone comes to me in confession and says it’s been a long time since they went, I am quick to welcome them back.  Because that’s what God wants, and it’s a great privilege for me to be part of that.  He wants to lift that weight off of you, to end your exile.  All it takes is for you to see that new thing he is doing in you, and to strain forward to what lies ahead.

So we have just a few times left to receive that grace before Holy Week and Easter.  We have confessions on Friday at 6pm, and Saturday at 3pm.  Come to either of them that fit your schedule.  If you miss that, please check the bulletin today for a schedule of confessions at parishes around us.  Would that we would all take this opportunity to forget what lies behind, and strain forward to what lies ahead.  God is doing a new thing in all of us these Lenten days.  May we all be open to it.

The Fourth Sunday of Lent (Cycle C Readings)

Today’s readings

At the heart of it, Lent is about two things.  First, it’s about baptism.  That’s what the participants in our RCIA program are reflecting on these days, and eleven of them are preparing to be baptized at our Easter Vigil Mass this year. And baptism leads us to the second purpose of Lent, which is conversion: forgiveness and reconciliation and grace. Baptism is that sacrament that initially wipes away our sins and gives us grace to be in relationship with Jesus Christ, who leads us to the Father.

Jesus paints a picture of a very forgiving Father in today’s Gospel, so this story is of course perfect for Lent, when we ourselves are being called to return to God.  Now, I don’t know about you, but when I heard this story growing up, I was always kind of grumpy about what was going on.  I guess I’d have to say that I identified myself with the older son, who tried to do the right thing and got what seemed to be the short end of the deal.  Which is in and of itself sinful, to be honest.  But that’s not what the story is about.

We often call this parable the parable of the Prodigal Son, but I don’t think that’s right because I don’t think the story is about the son – either son – at least not primarily about them.  This story is instead about the father, and so I prefer to call this the parable of the Forgiving Father.  That puts the focus where I think Jesus intended it to be: on the father and his relationship with his sons.

So let’s look at what the forgiving father was all about.  First of all, he grants the younger son’s request to receive his inheritance before his father was even dead – which is so presumptuous that it feels hurtful. Kind of like saying, “Hey dad, I wish you were dead, give me my inheritance now, please – I just can’t wait.” But the Father gives him the inheritance immediately and without ill-will.  Secondly, the Father reaches out to the younger son on his return, running out to meet him, and before he can even finish his little prepared speech, lavishes gifts on him and throws a party.

There is a tendency, I think, for us to put ourselves into the story, which is not a bad thing to do. But like I mentioned earlier, it’s easy to identify with the hard feelings of the older son sometimes.  But let’s look at these two sons.  First of all, I’ll just say it, it’s not like one was sinful and the other wasn’t – no – they are both sinful.  The younger son’s sin is easy to see.  But the older son, with his underlying resentment and refusal to take part in the joy of his Father, is sinful too.  If we’re honest, that kind of sin is much more common and much more destructive because it’s easy to overlook it or suppress it.  What amazes me is that the Father comes out of the house to see both sons.  That’s significant because a good Jewish father in those days wouldn’t come out to meet anyone – they would come to him.  Probably on their hands and knees, begging for forgiveness.  But the Father meets them where they are and desperately, lovingly, pleads with them to join the feast.

So, both sons are sinful. But remember, this is a parable, and so the characters themselves are significant.  They all symbolize somebody.  We know who the Father symbolizes.  But the sons symbolize people – more specifically groups of people – too.  The younger son was for Jesus symbolic of the non-believer sinners – all those tax collectors and prostitutes and other gentile sinners Jesus was accused of hanging around with.  The older son symbolizes the people who should have known better: the religious leaders – the Pharisees and scribes.  In this parable, Jesus is making the point that the sinners are getting in to the banquet of God’s kingdom before the religious leaders, because the sinners are recognizing their sinfulness, and turning back to the Father, who longs to meet them more than half way.  The religious leaders think they are perfect and beyond all that repenting stuff, so they are missing out.  As I said, that kind of sin is easy to overlook and suppress.

So again, it’s good to put ourselves in the story.  Which son are we, really?  Have we been like the younger son and messed up so badly that we are unworthy of the love of the Father, and deserve to be treated like a common servant?  Or are we like the older son, and do we miss the love and mercy of God in pursuit of trying to look good in everyone else’s eyes? Maybe sometimes we are like one of the sons, and other times we are like the other.  The point is, that we often sin, one way or the other.

But our response has to be like the younger son’s.  We have to be willing to turn back to the Father and be embraced in his mercy and love and forgiveness.  We can’t be like the older son and refuse to be forgiven, insisting on our own righteousness.  The stakes are too high for us to do that: we would be missing out on the banquet of eternal life to which Jesus Christ came to bring us.

For us, this Lent, this might mean that we have to go to confession.  Even if we haven’t been in a long time.  We have confessions at 3pm for the next two Saturdays, next Saturday we also have confessions at 8am.  For the next two Fridays, we have confessions at 6pm, and next Sunday, the 7th, we will have several priests here to hear your confession at 2pm until all are heard.  Please don’t wait until the last minute; we will not have any confessions during Holy Week. Lent is the perfect time to use that wonderful sacrament of forgiveness to turn back to the Father who longs to meet us more than half way with his prodigal love and mercy.  So don’t let anything get in the way of doing it.  If you haven’t been to confession in a very long time, go anyway.  We priests are there to help you make a good confession and we don’t yell at you, don’t embarrass you – we are only there to help you experience God’s mercy.

We are all sinners and the stakes are high.  But the good news is that we have a Forgiving Father, who longs to meet us more than half way.  All we have to do is decide to turn back.

Tuesday of the Third Week of Lent

Today’s readings

The book of Daniel the Prophet is one of my favorite books of Scripture. If you haven’t read that book, that would be a great one to take in during Lent. It won’t take terribly long, but be sure you read it from a Catholic edition of the Bible because other editions won’t contain the whole thing.

The story goes that Azariah, Hannaniah and Mishael were in the king’s court along with Daniel. They had been well-educated and cared for, and in turn advised the king on matters of wisdom and knowledge. They were better at doing this than anyone in the king’s court, except for one thing. The king, who worshiped idols, had crafted an idol that each person in the kingdom was to bow down and worship several times a day. But Azariah, Hannaniah and Mishael were good Jews and would only worship God alone. So they were bound up and cast into the fiery furnace, to their certain demise.

Now you may know this as the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, which were the names the king gave them when they entered his service. If you know the story, then you know the flames did not harm them, and an angel appeared in the furnace to protect them. During that time, Azariah prayed the beautiful prayer we have in our first reading. He acknowledges that his people have been sinful, but prays that God would deliver them because the people currently have no prophet or anyone who could lead them. God’s deliverance of Azariah, Hannaniah and Mishael from the fiery furnace is a symbol of God’s planned deliverance of the people from their captivity, which in turn is a symbol of God’s deliverance, through Jesus Christ, from our captivity to sin.

We forgiven and delivered people have to be people of forgiveness, though, as we hear in today’s Gospel. Our own redemption is never complete until we untie the others in our lives whose sins or offenses against us we have bound up. Until we forgive from our hearts, we will never really be free from the bondage of sin. That doesn’t mean we have to be doormats and take abuse from other people. It just means that we let go of the hurt and forgive as we have been forgiven.

Monday of the Second Week of Lent

Today’s readings

These readings for the weekdays of Lent are especially challenging, aren’t they?  They’re supposed to be.  They speak of what it means to be a disciple and take up the cross, and they speak of it with urgency.  We have to be willing to have our whole world turned upside-down; to do something completely against our nature; to let God take control of the life we want so much to control.

“For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”  I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty ominous to me.  Because there have been plenty of times when I’ve failed to give someone a break.  The measure I sometimes use ends up being a bar set pretty high, and I would sure hate to have to leap over that bar myself.  But that’s what Jesus is saying we will have to do.

The real measure of compassion is the compassion of God himself.  He is our model, He is the measure for which we are to strive, His example is how we are to treat each other.  But when we do that, it means we can’t judge others harshly.  It means that we have to see them as God does, which is to say that we have to see Jesus in them and to see the goodness in them.   And that’s hard to do when that person has just cut you off in traffic, or has gossiped about you, or has crossed you in some other way. But even then — maybe especially then — we are called to stop judging others and show them the compassion of God.

“Lord, do not deal with us according to our sins.”  That is the prayer of the Psalmist today.  We are given the promise of forgiveness, but we are also warned that if we do not forgive others, we will not be forgiven either.  The measure with which we measure will in turn be measured out to us.  I don’t know about you, but I’m going to try real hard to give people a break today.

Tuesday of the Sixteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

The prophet Micah, in our first reading, proclaims the whole reason for our being here this morning.  What is incredible about our God is his limitless compassion, his relentless pursuit of a people who often spurn him, his steadfast faithfulness and consistent, unconditional, unending, unmerited love for all of us.  He actually delights, Micah tells us, in compassion and clemency, abandoning his righteous anger in favor of restoring us to life.

This is a God unlike any of the so-called gods of old.  Our God is the one who chooses to forget his anger, and instead grant unmerited clemency – clemency that is given before it is even requested.  He knows our sinfulness, yet chooses to cast those sins into the depths of the sea rather than remember them and dwell on them.  He shows faithfulness to Jacob and grace to Abraham, not because we have kept the covenant, but because his faithfulness will not allow him to abandon those he has covenanted to love.

The Psalmist sings our God’s praises well today, reflecting on the unmerited grace we have received:

You have favored, O LORD, your land;
you have brought back the captives of Jacob.
You have forgiven the guilt of your people;
you have covered all their sins.
You have withdrawn all your wrath;
you have revoked your burning anger.

Friends, this is the grace that gets us out of bed in the morning.  No matter how we have turned away, our God will not turn away from us.  No matter the darkness of our sin, our God will not refuse to bathe them in light.  God’s wrath could indeed be devastating, but our God chooses to forget his rage as he forgets our sins, and instead brings us back to life.

“Who is there like you?” Micah asks.  No one.  And that’s what brings us to celebrate this morning.

Thursday of the Thirteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings Amos and Jesus are prophetic voices that we hear in our Scriptures this morning.  Unfortunately, as is often the case with prophets, neither is a welcome voice.  Amos makes it clear that he is not speaking on his own, or even because he wanted to. If it were up to him, he’d go back to being a simple shepherd and dresser of sycamore trees. But he knows that the Lord was using him to speak to Amaziah, and he had no intention of backing down. In today’s Gospel, Jesus could have cured the paralytic with one touch and without much fanfare. But that wasn’t what he was there to do. He was there to preach forgiveness of sins by the way he healed the paralyzed person. Jesus used that simple situation of healing to be a prophetic voice in the world, saying to everyone present that real healing only comes about through the forgiveness of sins.That unnamed, gender-unspecified paralyzed person could be you or me today, or someone we’ll meet during this day. Who among us is not paralyzed by sin in some way? To whatever extent we are the ones in need of healing, may we all hear the prophetic voice of Jesus saying to us: “Your sins are forgiven. Rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home.”

The Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Where are you?

Today’s readings

Where are you?

This is the question God asked Adam and Eve early on in our first reading today.  And for them, the answer to the question was that they were not in an especially good place.  We know the story: God had given them everything they need to live in the Garden of Eden, instructing them that the only thing they could not do was eat from the fruit of the tree in the center of the garden.  The fall was already at work in them even then, because they found that the one thing they were not permitted to do was the one thing they wanted to do more than anything, and so they give into the seductive suggestions of the serpent and eat the fruit anyway.

They soon find that they cannot hide from their sin: they are naked in the garden, and the sin is apparent, and so they do what fallen human beings have done ever since: they try to hide from God.  Which would certainly be easy to do if God did not create man and woman out of love for them.  But he did that, and continued to seek relationship with them, and so he asks the question, the answer to which he certainly knows: “Where are you?”

Explaining that they had found their nakedness, the weight of their sin is apparent.  They desired something more than they desired God. That’s what sin is.  And what ensues is the first recorded instance of “passing the buck:” the man blames the woman (and also blames God for putting the woman in the garden with him in the first place), the woman blames the serpent. So it has gone ever since: we desire something more than God, that sinful desire drags us down, we try to hide from God, and when we can’t, we blame someone else.  Sin has entered the world and now darkens it in ways that are heartbreaking.

Where are you?

If you’re not seeing the face of God in your life; if you find yourself desiring something more than you desire God and the blessings God is giving you, it’s likely you’re not in a very good place right now.  Maybe we have just lost track of where we are, who we are and where we should be going.  Maybe we just plod along, very busy, very scattered by the rush and routine.  Or maybe, like Adam, we are hiding out, afraid to face or deal with something that needs addressing.

But that’s no way for us to live our lives, friends.  God made us out of love, made us for love, made us to love, and he pursues us no matter how far we have wandered or to what depth we have fallen.  If we come clean with God, name our sin and refuse to blame someone else, we can have forgiveness, we can have mercy.  We can have God.

That “unforgiveable sin” of which our Gospel seeks is exactly the kind of thing that got us into trouble in the first place.  It’s not something we’ve said or done to someone else, or even to God, but instead hiding from God and not wanting his mercy.  It’s like having a world-class chef offer you a sumptuous meal, but refusing to eat it because you don’t want to sit down with him and eat, so you go away hungry.  If you refuse God’s mercy because you don’t want his grace to change your life, you go away unforgiven.  You sin against the Holy Spirit.  It’s not that God won’t forgive, it’s that we don’t want to let God change our nakedness.

Where are you?

In these summer months, sometimes our routine changes.  Maybe there isn’t that constant daily hustle of getting the kids to school and then practices and activities and all the other things that make life crazy. Perhaps there’s a little leisure time, maybe even a vacation that provides a little more room for us to reflect on our lives and where we are and where we are going.  This is the time to see our lives for what they are, and come humbly to our God if we have been hiding.

Sin is not who we are, sin is not part of human nature.  Sin has certainly entered our world and we have to deal it in our daily lives, but it cannot ever define us unless we let it.  Jesus was the most perfect example of human nature, completely free from sin. We can approach that glory when we stop hiding ourselves from God, when we let God into our lives, and when we let his grace change us into what we were created for.  We are better than our sins.  God doesn’t ever stop pursuing us in love.  All we have to do is answer his call and say, “I’m right here, God. Standing before you in need of your mercy.  Pleading for your grace.  Wanting you and what you want for me more than anything.  I’m right here.”  Maybe we can make that our prayer today.  I know it’s going to be mine.

Where are you?

Advent Penance Service

Today’s readings: Malachi 3:1-7a | Matthew 3:1-12

This evening, as we prepare for Christmas, we have some powerful images to guide us.  The first is the image of burning up what doesn’t belong here, as we have seen in our readings.  the prophet Malachi warns of the LORD who will come as a refining fire, purifying not just silver, but also the sons of Levi, those priests who were charged with true worship of God.  Refining is a process of melting down an impure metal so that that all that is left is the precious metal; in this case silver.  In the Gospel reading, Saint John the Baptist warns the people to repent, lest they be burnt up in the fire that was coming with Christ.  He is one who would purify the people by burning off those who are impure just like a farmer burns up the chaff that is separated from the actual grain.

The second image we have comes from the season of Advent itself, particularly today.  During the last week of Advent, so now, we have the “O Antiphons” as part of the liturgy, particularly Evening Prayer.  The “O Antiphons” are the various titles of Jesus as given to us in Sacred Scripture, and they manifest our longing for the appearance of Christ.  Today the O Antiphon is O Oriens, or O Dayspring.  It could also be translated O Morning Star or O Radiant Dawn.  Today we pray that Christ would come and enlighten our hearts and brighten a world dark in sin.

In essence, this is what Advent is all about: the season of Advent recognizes the darkness of the world – the physical darkness of a season with later sunrises and earlier sunsets, sure, but more than that, the darkness of a world steeped in sin, a world marred by war and terrorism, an economy decimated by greed, peacefulness wounded by hatred, crime and dangers of all sorts.  This season of Advent also recognizes the darkness of our own lives – sin that has not been confessed, relationships broken by self-interest, personal growth tabled by laziness and fear.  Advent says that God meets all that darkness head-on.  As we continue to light the candles on the Advent Wreath, we see more light all the time, up until the feast of that great light which we will celebrate in just four days.

And so tonight, we come together acknowledging that we have stuff in us that needs to be burned off so that we can be the bright lights the world needs to see right now.  Our prayer is that God would take away everything in us that is not him, so that we can be his presence, his light, in the world.  There was a Christian song several years back called “Empty Me” that expresses this well.  Here is the refrain from that song:

Empty me of the selfishness inside
Every vain ambition and the poison of my pride
And any foolish thing my heart holds to
Lord empty me of me so I can be filled with You.

Because the world needs us to be the bright light of Christ.  There’s always so much darkness: war, scandal, poverty, homelessness, greed, terror, crime, hatred, bigotry … the list goes on and on.  Every glimpse at the news reveals a world mired in everything evil.  The only thing that will change that ever, the only thing, is Christ.  The only thing that will dispel the darkness of this fallen world is the light of Christ.  And we who have chosen to be his disciples must always be the bearers of that light, nothing less.

So today, we pray that God would burn off all in us that is not him, so that we can burn brightly in a world dark in sin and death.  We pray:  Come to us, O Oriens, ORadiant Dawn, O Morning Star: scatter the darkness of our world and of our hearts.  Shine on your people who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.  Burn away every bit of foolishness in us, everything that is not you, so that we can be your light to all the world.  Come, Lord Jesus.  Come quickly and do not delay!

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