Thursday of the Second Week of Lent: Letting Go of Passing Things

Today’s readings

I’m going to say something that is probably going to make you think I’m wrong. And that is that the great sin of the rich man was not the sin of neglecting poor Lazarus. Sure, that was certainly bad, but his greatest sin, I think, was that he trusted in himself instead of in God. That’s the deadly sin of pride, and the Fathers of the Church often tell us of the devastating effects of it. So for the rich man, well he had everything he thought he needed in life, and he trusted in himself and in his own means to get it. But he never had a relationship with God; he didn’t see that as something he needed. You don’t see him praying in the story or even giving thanks to God for his riches. All you see is him doing is enjoying what he has amassed, to the neglect of the poor.

So later on in the story, in death, he wants the good things God will provide for those who trust in him, people like Lazarus for example.   Lazarus has suffered much, and as the Old Testament Prophets proclaim, God is especially close to the poor and needy, so now he is exalted. But the rich man isn’t. He has already made his choice, and unfortunately now, trusting in himself doesn’t bring him anything good.

So the problem with this is that we are often the rich man and not so much Lazarus. We have a lot of stuff, we are blessed on earth more than most of the people in the world today. But sadly that often puts us at odds with the things of heaven. We can’t reach out for those when we’re holding on to the passing things of this world. We can’t take the hand of Jesus when we’re juggling the stuff life throws our way. That’s why fasting is so important during Lent, as well as almsgiving: both bid us let go of passing things so that we can have, like Lazarus, things eternal. Both bid us trust in God, not in ourselves and other human beings. Jeremiah says it plainly today: “Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the LORD.” But, conversely, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose hope is the LORD.”

So the question is, in whom do we trust? In ourselves? In other people? Or in God? “Blessed are they,” the Psalmist says today, “who hope in the Lord.”

The Fifth Sunday of Lent (Scrutiny III)

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, “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. The action is, of course centered around Jesus, and as I tell our school children, if on a religion test they write something about Jesus, they should always get at least partial credit! Our Gospel today is about Jesus, who through baptism and grace is 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 it 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.

There are three groups of catechumens in today’s Gospel. The first group 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 catechesis 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.

But 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 see past their grief. For the Apostles, they had to get over themselves and realize that Jesus was in charge. For the Jews, they had to get past 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.

This reading is all about baptism, brothers and sisters in Christ. Is it a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and resurrection, well maybe a little. But it is more about baptism. Because baptism is a kind of death. As Saint Paul says this morning, 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.

Fifth Sunday of Lent [Scrutiny III]

Today’s readings

I love when our readings lead us down a path and we have them all figured out, and then out of the blue, we find out they mean something completely else!  So here it is, brothers and sisters in Christ, I’ll just say it: this story about the raising of Lazarus isn’t really about Lazarus at all!  I mean, look at the story: Lazarus is easily the least significant character in the whole episode. Even though he would seem to be the center of attention, he is dead for most of the story, never says anything himself, and Jesus only says three words to him in a five-minute reading. All of these are big red flags that the Gospel writer has been playing a little joke on us and the real story is somewhere else.  I love it when that happens!

And it might be easy to accept that. Okay, the story isn’t about Lazarus, but it is about how Jesus can raise people from the dead, right? Well, yes and no – it depends on what you mean by dead, I guess. Certainly, Jesus has the power to raise people from any kind of death, we know that, but I absolutely don’t think that simply resuscitating people from physical death is what the story is about. Actually, even though the story talks about eternal life some day, I’m not even sure the story is even about that kind of death and life. After all, Jesus doesn’t wait until some future resurrection to bring Lazarus back to life; he does it now, right before our eyes.  I think we have to look a little harder and find the life that is right here and now.

Maybe today’s first reading can shed some light on what Jesus was talking about by death. Here the people of Israel are, for all intents and purposes, alive. But they are in captivity in Babylon, so as a people – as a nation, they are pretty much dead. They have no place to worship, they are subject to the harsh cruelty of their captors, and their whole way of life is being systematically exterminated. That’s a kind of death that’s hard to miss. But even now, the prophet tells them, God will open their graves and have the people rise out of them. God will heal their affliction and give them life in spirit. The kind of life God will give to the Israelites is, as the Psalmist says, “mercy and fullness of redemption.”

So the kind of death we’re talking about here is a death that comes about as a result of our daily living. It’s a death brought on by situations in which we find ourselves. We experience death in too many forms to name. For example: wars have left scars for generations; poverty sucks the life out of families, neighborhoods and nations; conflicts divide Christians and set religions against one another; rivalries and ambition among church people give scandal to outsiders; rancor rips apart families; the innocent are abused, political corruption in poor countries depletes essential resources, and so much more. Jesus comes to bring life to people dead in those situations.

And there’s also a kind of spiritual death that St. Paul talks about in our second reading today. “But if Christ is in you,” he says, “although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.” We all experience some kind of spiritual death in our lives and it is so painful to deal with it. Patterns of sin drag us down from our relationship with God. Addictions tear us apart from our loved ones and from our Lord. Indifference, apathy, and even scandal break us away from the human family and from the Church. Jesus comes to bring life to all of us who struggle with sin and experience this kind of spiritual death.

And he brings life to us in these situations right now, if we will let him. He doesn’t wait until some far-off resurrection time to make it happen. In another place in the Gospel, Jesus makes it clear that life is his primary mission. “I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly,” he tells us. Even so, Jesus is not put off by our death. As embarrassed as we may be about our own brokenness, as dejected and frustrated as we may be about our failure to drag ourselves out of the sin in which we find ourselves, Jesus still comes to us. Martha makes a big point about how Lazarus has been dead four days, as if there were nothing Jesus could do about it. That’s because the Jews believed the soul of a person hung around for three days, and after that he or she was really, really dead. But Jesus was able to raise Lazarus anyway. So it doesn’t matter how dead we are, because our death and our sin are never, never, never more powerful than the mercy of God. Never.

And the Tempter would try to convince us that we are not worthy of this kind of mercy and love and forgiveness and resurrection. He may convince us that, like Lazarus, we have a big heavy stone sealing us off from God. Our sins might seem that big sometimes. But Jesus will have none of that: “Roll away the stone,” he says. The Tempter might want us to be so embarrassed about our sin that we become convinced we actually stink of death, that there will surely be a stench. But Jesus assures us that if we believe, we will still see the glory of God and our stench will be dispelled by the breath of God’s Spirit. The Tempter might even make us think that our sins have bound us up so much – like Lazarus in his burial cloths – that we can’t even take a step forward to come out of our graves. But to all of that, Jesus says, “untie him and let him go!”

The Elect have been hearing special readings at the Masses they have attended these last three weeks.  They are readings about our baptism, and so they relate well to the conversion they are experiencing and the preparations they are making for becoming one with us at the Easter Vigil in less than two weeks.  But these are also readings for you and me, that we might look back at our own baptisms and recommit ourselves to our Lord once again.  Conversion is something that goes on all of our lives if we are attentive to it.

So these readings have been incredible, particularly the ones from the Gospels.  Each of these readings has been focused around one person who could well have been a catechumen, one of the elect, someone undergoing conversion to the faith.  Two weeks ago, the woman at the well found Jesus to be the source of living water, a water that gave relief to the dryness of her faith. Last week, the man born blind washed in the pool at Siloam and came out able not only to physically see, but also to come to see Jesus as the way, the truth and the life. Today, I think, the Elect one is Martha. She experiences death in the grieving of her brother. But she comes to new life as Jesus attends to her faith and raises not just her brother, but her too, to new life. At the end of it, she goes to her sister Mary – this Mary who in a previous story sat at Jesus’ feet rather than help Martha cook for their guest but now refuses to even come out to see him. Martha has to go and tell the little white lie that Jesus is asking for her before Mary will leave the house. But this is how Martha witnesses to her faith, a faith which is made new and given new life with the raising of her beloved brother.

We’re all on different places of the journey in these closing days of Lent. Maybe, like Lazarus, we are all bound up, stinking of our sins, and sealed up in the tomb. Maybe, like Mary, we are hurt by all our resentments and refuse to even come out of the house. Maybe, like Martha, we have a fledgling faith and throw ourselves to Jesus asking to be made whole. Maybe, like the apostles, we don’t really get it, but are willing to go and die with Jesus anyway. Wherever we are, whatever our brokenness, whatever our sin, however long we have been dead and buried, Jesus comes to us today and beckons us to rise up and come out and be untied and to live anew.

And 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 before and after next Saturday’s 5:00pm Mass, and then again on Tuesday the 30th at 7:30pm, and we invite you to come and have the stone rolled away and to be untied from your burial cloths. Perhaps in these last days of Lent, you have relationships you have to renew with the new life that Christ gives you. Wherever you find yourself, I urge you, don’t let Easter pass with you all bound up and sealed in the grave. Lent ends just before Vespers or 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.