Tuesday of the First Week of Lent

Today’s readings

Ancient sources say that we are to pray the Lord’s prayer at least seven times daily. Why? Because the Lord’s prayer in all its wonderful simplicity reminds us that we can turn to our heavenly Father who knows our needs and cares for our welfare. It reminds us that the best opportunities we have to live the Gospel come when we turn to God who is bigger than our sins, more than generous enough to cover our deepest needs and longings, more than holy enough to sanctify our poorer efforts at discipleship and charity. It reminds us that God is God and we are not.

To those of us who are concerned with our own prestige and dwell on our own ego, the Lord’s prayer says “hallowed be God’s name.” When we would like all of our problems solved on our own terms and everyone to do things our own way, the Lord’s prayer says, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done…” For those times when we over-consume the goods of the earth, or want more than we can afford, or covet things we don’t need, the Lord’s prayer says, “give us this day our daily bread” – because that’s all we need. For us sinners who prefer to hold grudges against others, the Lord’s prayer says, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And when we stray into all sorts of temptations and give in to all the wrong things, the Lord’s prayer says “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

The Lord’s prayer is powerful in all its simplicity. Whether we say it seven times a day or even just once, we need to say it with full thought of what we are asking of our God. And God will hear and answer that holy prayer. For his is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

First Sunday of Lent

Today’s readings

We’ve gathered here on the first Sunday of Lent, and as we might expect, our readings give us the motivation for how to spend these days of Lent. I’m not always sure that we get the idea of Lent as straight as we should. If we think Lent is just about giving things that we like up for forty days so that we can remember how awful we are, then we’re certainly on the wrong track. Is Lent about repentance, about changing, about becoming better Christians? Well, yes, but even that’s not primarily it.

Lent means “springtime” which is a little hard to appreciate on days that are still in the twenties and thirties, and when there’s precious little spring-like growth in nature. Spring conjures up images of new growth, flowers and leaves budding, the return of singing birds, that kind of thing, and certainly we’re not seeing any of that yet. The newness of spring is yet to come for us. But I think the “springtime” that Lent calls to mind is a springtime in ourselves. It’s another chance to get it right, another chance to grow, another chance to remember what we are about.

And I think it’s the flood that gives us the biggest clue here. It’s mentioned in both the first and second readings, which is kind of unusual for our Liturgy, so that kind of highlights its importance. And the story is familiar enough for us, isn’t it? We know about the ark, we know about the animals two by two, we know about Noah and his family, about the destruction of the wicked and the saving of the good, we know about the forty days and forty nights of rain, and we know about what we see in today’s first reading: the rainbow.

So I’d like to focus on two things today: the water, and the rainbow. First, the water. I remember a time many years ago now when I was leaving my job in Naperville to go work at another company. I had to go one day for my pre-employment physical and drug test, and when I was leaving to go home, it started to rain pretty hard. Overnight, the rain just continued to pour down, and when I was leaving to go to my job in Naperville the next morning, it was nearly impossible to get there. Somehow I found a few dry back roads and made it to the office, but I was certainly one of the few. My boss was even shocked I tried to make it there, considering I had already given notice that I was leaving.

We watched out the window as some people tried to make it down flooded Jefferson Avenue and of course got stuck in the water, which I fear was higher than some of their cars. The electricity was out, and the damage was huge. It took a long time for the water to recede, and even longer for everything to get cleaned up. It was a nasty picture of how devastating the power of water can be. Many of us have experienced floods in our lives, maybe some of you remember the one I am speaking of. But we know that all of this is but a small sample of the flood that happened in today’s first reading.

So what was the point of this flood? Was it so that God could take delight in punishing the wicked? Was this a vignette of sinners in the hands of an angry God? Was this the only way God could rid the world of its evil and make a way for goodness? Hardly. I think the flood meant something more, here. St. Peter tells us the reason for the flood in today’s second reading: “This prefigured baptism, which saves you now.” Whenever we see that much water being spoken of in Scripture, we should always think baptism. Baptism is, essentially, a washing away of the bad and cleansing the person so that goodness can take root and grow. Baptism is the precursor to a springtime of new life in all of us.

The second symbol is the rainbow. When our family was on vacation last year, we had kind of a stormy day one day. In the evening, just as the sun was setting, there was a beautiful, double rainbow over Lake Michigan. We all watched it for a while, and took some pictures … it was a really peaceful end to a rainy day. In today’s first reading, the rainbow is established as a sign of God’s covenant with us. The author has God saying it will be a reminder for him “so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all mortal beings.” But I think the reminder is more for us.

When we see a rainbow, we should make ourselves aware once again of the great blessing and grace that is our relationship with God. Because it wasn’t Noah – or any other person – who initiated the covenant, it was God. God was the more powerful party and he didn’t have to forge a covenant at all. He could have wiped everyone out and been done with it, but that’s not who God is. God is all about our salvation, all about bringing us to eternal life, and it is God alone who can make that agreement, and he does it without even being asked.

This too is a sign of our own baptism. In baptism, we enter that covenant with God in which he extends the great offer of everlasting life. It’s a pledge of a really eternal springtime, with us as his chosen people, called and given grace to become completely his own, with all the many blessings that brings with it.

So as we enter this Lenten springtime, we have the opportunity to renew among us the dignity of our baptism. We do that in two ways. First, we see during this time of Lent increased activity among those who would join us at the Table of the Lord. This weekend, we have in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults the Rite of Sending of the catechumens to the cathedral for election. [Today] Tomorrow, Bishop Sartain will choose them on behalf of the Church for baptism, and they will no longer be known as catechumens, but instead as the Elect. Today [Yesterday] we have [had] the opportunity to approve these men for presentation to the bishop.

In the weeks ahead, they will participate in the scrutinies, during which their former life outside the church will be cast off, we will pray for the forgiveness of their sins, and we will perform a minor exorcism which allows them to receive the sacraments of initiation. Then, on the Easter Vigil of Holy Saturday night, among the retelling of our stories of salvation, we will welcome them in to our Church, baptizing them, Confirming them in the Holy Spirit, and sharing the Eucharist with them for the very first time.

But none of that, as you might suspect, is for the Elect alone. And so the second way we renew our baptism is by reflecting on our own experience once again. We too are Elect of God, having been called to the Sacraments, whenever we received them, not by our own power, but by the awesome grace of our God who always seeks us out, who runs to us wherever we are, who welcomes us back no matter how many times we have walked away, who catches us no matter how far we have fallen. We are not sinners in the hands of an angry God, we are the saved in the hands of a God of mercy and grace.

These forty days, then, are an opportunity for a new springtime in us. A new growth of grace in our lives, washed clean in the waters of baptism, renewed in the power of the Holy Spirit, and fed by the Bread of Life. Praise God for the gift of Lent.

Monday of the Sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

We’re still in the opening chapters of human history in our first reading, and in these opening chapters we see some of the less beautiful parts of human nature.  These are deadly sins, and they have continued to plague humankind ever since.

We start with envy, as Cain laments that his offering was not accepted with the same favor as was Abel’s.  We move from envy to murder, with Cain committing the very first fratricide, killing his very own brother.  From there, we go to apathy, as Cain rejects the opportunity to be his brother’s keeper.  And then we meet false witness, as he lies about the murder that he committed.  And if all of that isn’t enough, Cain then complains about his punishment as if it was something he didn’t deserve.  If he’d only tried repentance, or expressed sorrow for his sins, or even accepted responsibility for what he’d done, maybe things would have turned out differently.

But, in this opening act of human history, we see God’s mercy.  God does not remit the entirety of Cain’s punishment, but promises that even his death would be unacceptable.  Maybe we should think about that in regard to the death penalty: if even God doesn’t condone the murder of a murderer, then who are we to do that?  So God marks Cain, as we all are marked with God’s presence at our baptism.  So even in this very early story of our history, we can see that baptism was always intended for our salvation.

The Psalmist this morning says that we absolutely cannot profess God’s commandments and sing his praises, without also accepting God’s discipline and following God’s word.  A sacrifice of praise is a life lived with integrity, and that is the sacrifice that God wants of us in every moment.

Tuesday of the Twenty-eighth Week of Ordinary Time: Let your mercy come to me, O Lord

Today’s readings

“Let your mercy come to me, O Lord.”

I love that there were short verses for the psalm today, and we got to repeat this refrain from the Psalmist over and over.  If you think about it, and if you really enter into it, it becomes a kind of mantra, or Taize chant, or the Jesus Prayer, a way to center ourselves and open ourselves up to the Lord in this Eucharistic celebration.

“Let your mercy come to me, O Lord.”

Because we are all in need of the Lord’s mercy, aren’t we?  Whether it is sinfulness, addiction, illness or infirmity, anxiety, worry about a family member, uncertainty about a job or the economy as a whole, we all have to realize that so much of the time we are in desperate need of the Lord’s love and mercy.

“Let your mercy come to me, O Lord.”

And we come to the point that we know that the only thing that can help us is the Lord’s mercy.  We may have tried so many times on our own to cure ourselves or make the pain go away or focus on the positive or not cause waves, we know that of ourselves, ultimately, we are unable to fix the things that really vex us.  Sin takes hold, circumstances beyond our control confound us, powerlessness causes frustration.  And then, all of a sudden, we remember the One we were trying to hide from, or with whom we didn’t want to bother with our troubles.  But in the face of our own powerlessness, we must turn to the one whose power can overcome all.

“Let your mercy come to me, O Lord.”

And so that powerlessness eventually, inevitably intersects with the loving power of our merciful God, who desires so much more for us than we would settle for.  And then we really do let God’s mercy come to us.  Because it was always there in the first place; never withheld.  We had just to let it come to us, had to be open to it, had to be in the place where we could receive it and come to the point where we could acknowledge our need for it and our gratitude for receiving it.  And when we at last arrive there, and that mercy comes to us, how overwhelmed we can be, how transformed, how loved we can feel, how cared for.  God’s mercy is always there, we have just to let it come to us.

“Let your mercy come to me, O Lord.”

Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

Sometimes, as St. Paul reminds the Romans today, we do not know how to pray as we ought.  In fact, learning how to pray as we ought is a discipline that takes a lifetime to perfect.  The saints have done it, and maybe you even know some living saints whose prayer is pretty close to the way we ought to do it.  But for the rest of us, prayer is a discipline that takes hard work and constant attention.  It’s a good thing then, that the work and attention it requires is so joy-filled and rewarding.

But no, we don’t know how to pray as we ought, do we?  I remember back when I was in college, all the way through probably my early thirties.  I thought I had the prayer thing all figured out.  When we’re young, sometimes we’re misled that way.  Of course, I was off the mark by a lot, but that’s to be expected.  So I have a confession to make, and it cannot leave this room, okay?  My confession is that I always thought I never had to go to confession because:

  • I never did anything all that bad … or
  • The stuff I did was so bad that the priest would be shocked … or
  • God already knows my sins, so why do I have to tell him and a priest about them? … or
  • God has long forgotten my sins, so why bring them up again?

Maybe you’ve heard these arguments, or others like them before.  Maybe those arguments have even come from your own lips.  But sticking to my own confession here, I made all of these arguments myself at one time or another.  And like a lot of people who grew up in my day, I didn’t go to confession hardly ever at all.  But then, fast forward to about my mid-thirties, during a time when I was having a crisis of faith.  I was trying to figure out at the time if I would stay in the Catholic Church, or whether I’d go join Willow Creek along with some of my friends.  I had gone to a few of their services and found them inspiring, and was seriously giving thought to joining that church.

I prayed about it and really felt that God told me that he didn’t care which Church I was in, as long as I was committed to it.  But there were some obstacles to my joining Willow Creek.  One of them is that I would have to be rebaptized, which I think the Scriptures tell us is totally off-base.  The other is that they only had communion once a month, and it wasn’t actually Jesus but only a symbol, and that didn’t work for me.  But we’ll bracket those two obstacles for now – they are the stuff of other homilies.  The issue that finally settled it for me was my long-neglected friend Confession.

During a sermon on one of the nights, one of the elders of the Church, who apparently was an ex-Catholic, talked about his experience of Confession as a child.  He talked about the terrifying dark box he had to go into, and how he had to tell all his sins to someone who didn’t really have any authority (apparently he missed Jesus’ the passing on of the keys to the kingdom to St. Peter in Scripture, but we’ll leave that alone).  And finally he said something like “after that, I got a penance and the priest said something that I guess was supposed to wipe my sins away.”  It was very condescending and really flew in the face of what I believed about the Sacrament of Penance, even though I had not gone to confession in years.

To make a long story short, that really tugged on me, and I finally decided to stay in the Catholic Church (well, obviously, right?).  But God’s call to make sure I committed to the Church I chose stayed with me, and I knew that meant I had to go to Confession.  So I went to a Penance Service at my church and went to a priest that I knew there.  I confessed I hadn’t been to Confession in years, and I’ll never forget what he said: “Welcome back.”  That confirmed for me that the Sacrament of Penance was incredibly important to my prayer life – to any prayer life, and it’s been part of me ever since.

Why is it so important?  Well yes, it’s because we all mess up here and there in little and big ways every day.  By doing that, we separate ourselves from God and the Church and we need to be brought back.  But more than that, the Sacrament of Penance puts us close to God in the most intimate way possible: by experiencing his mercy.  The Wisdom writer in our first reading today makes this clear: “you gave your children good ground for hope that you would permit repentance for their sins.”  And it is that hope that we so much need, isn’t it?  Because we are in a world that sometimes causes us to let go of hope, to lose sight of hope, and finally to give up on hope.  The joy-filled Sacrament of Penance gives us that sacramental encounter with God’s hope which is a hope that nothing can destroy.

So what about you?  How long has it been since your last Confession?  If it’s been a long time, what is it that is keeping you away?  I encourage you to go back soon, and in order to make that easier, here is Fr. Pat’s consumer’s guide to the Sacrament of Penance:

  1. If you have been away a long time, say that to the priest when you go in.  Tell him, “Father it’s been years since my last confession, and I might need some help to do this right.”  If he doesn’t welcome you back and fall all over himself trying to help you make a good confession, you have my permission to get up and leave and go find a priest who is more welcoming.  Because it is my job to help you make a good confession, it is my job to make sure the experience is meaningful for you, it is my job to make you want to come back, and I take that very seriously.
  2. Tell the priest whatever sins you can remember.  Don’t worry if you forget one or two, you can always confess them later if they still bother you.  If there’s something that you think there’s no way you can say, say it anyway.  We have heard just about everything, and we are not there to judge you.  Our presence in the Sacrament is to help you find the way to God’s mercy, nothing more than that.
  3. Sometimes people feel like they can’t go to a priest they know because maybe the priest will think less of them after it’s over.  Well, that would be true if I had never sinned, but let me tell you, I have plenty of my own sins, and I am humbled whenever I hear another person’s confession.  Because I am a sinner too, I am more motivated than you could possibly imagine to help you find God’s mercy.  I am always so humbled that people come to me and unburden themselves to find God’s mercy.  I couldn’t possibly think poorly of you for confessing whatever was on your heart.  If anything, I would think more of you.
  4. People sometimes worry that a priest will remember their sins.  As you know, we are not permitted, under penalty of excommunication, to reveal anything you say in Confession, or even to confirm or deny that you have spoken with us in Confession.   But we also pray for the grace of forgetfulness.  This is a grace that God grants us: because God has forgotten your sins, we do too.  The last time I told a group of people this, someone came to me afterward and said, “Father, I’m so relieved to hear that forgetfulness is a grace – I thought I was losing my mind!”  But seriously, God forgets your sins, and we do too.

The Psalmist has the right words for us today: “You, O LORD, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger,
abounding in kindness and fidelity.”  If you haven’t had a sacramental experience of that in a while, I urge you to do it soon.  We’re here every Saturday from 4-4:45pm.  If you need to see us at another time, you can always make an appointment with me or Fr. Ted.  We are here to put you in touch with God’s mercy, and, as Jesus says in the long form of today’s Gospel, to help you become one of t hose who “will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”
 

Tuesday of the Thirteenth Week of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

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You probably remember, maybe not fondly, the readings we had from the Books of Kings the last couple of weeks.  The names were hard to pronounce, and their deeds were hard to hear.  Each and every one of the kings was worse than the one who preceded him.  How often did we hear the ancient historian write “and he did evil in the sight of the LORD?”  What makes it doubly hard to hear, I think, is that Israel’s sordid history is in some ways our own.  How often do we too turn away from the Lord and his mercy and his plan for our lives?  Our deeds, hopefully, are not as murderous as those of the ancient kings, but they are still lacking, of course, in the sight of God.

And so the Lord has sent Amos to call those Israelites – and us, too – to conversion.  Amos is very hard to hear sometimes, because he calls a situation the way it is.  He doesn’t beat around the bush or soft-pedal his prophecy.  You know exactly what’s on his mind.  And poor Amos can’t do anything less.  He tells us in today’s first reading:

The lion roars—
who will not be afraid!
The Lord GOD speaks—
who will not prophesy!

For Amos, not to say what God is calling him to say is as fearful as facing the roaring lion.  And so, we are called to hear, and to reform our lives, and to follow the Lord once again.

As Amos expresses the Lord’s displeasure, it is the Psalmist who expresses the Lord’s mercy:

But I, because of your abundant mercy,
will enter your house…

We cannot make up for our sinfulness all on our own.  We need our Savior, the one who calms the storms, despite our lack of faith.  When we have messed up our lives so that we cannot see past the storm, we know that we can depend on our God who loves us back into relationship with him.  Even the violent winds and stormy seas of our own lives obey the one who gave his life for us.

Eleventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today's readings

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I don’t know about you, but I think that lots of us when we were growing up, learned that we had to win or earn the Lord’s kindness.  If we wanted God to love us, then we had to behave in the right ways and follow all the rules.  And some of that comes from our human experience.  Many people often consume their lives with trying to win the approval of others.  But we have it all backwards: God is not like that, and that’s what today’s Liturgy of the Word is trying to tell us.  The Scriptures show us a God who loves us first, and then calls on us to respond to God’s love by living the right way.  Our entire lives should be all about responding in love to the love God has for all of us.

The first reading today recalls how God led the people Israel through the desert for forty years, bringing them safely to the land he promised on oath to their ancestors.  Traditionally this has been viewed literally, but there is also a tradition that sees the whole rescue of the Hebrew people from the tyranny of Egypt allegorically.  Many of the Church fathers see the rescue as our own rescue from the tyranny and slavery of sin, through the wilderness of the world, into the safe haven of God’s promise.  So whether we want to read this first reading literally today, or whether we want to see it as our delivery from sin, in either case, we see the Lord’s providence and kindness poured out on his people, delivering them from danger and bringing them safely into a land that had always been promised to them.

For our second reading these weeks, we have been and will be reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, arguably one of the masterpieces of his theological writing.  Today’s reading is somewhat the crux of his presentation in Romans: God in his mercy chose to save us even before we were worthy of it.  We had been enemies of God through the power sin and death had over us, but God in his goodness chose to redeem us anyway.  Having been reconciled, he now chooses in his kindness to save us from the power of death and bring us in to the grace and peace of his kingdom for all eternity.  This is all done through the grace and kindness of our God, who chooses to save us even though we are not remotely worthy of it on our own.

The Gospel reading, though, presents us with the greatest personification of God’s kindness.  Throughout chapter nine of Matthew’s Gospel, we see the crowds hanging on Jesus’ words and deeds.  In this chapter, Jesus heals a paralytic, he calls Matthew – a tax collector and a sinner – to follow him, he raises the daughter of a local government official from the dead, he heals two blind men, and expels a demon.  The crowds were understandably entranced by his words and deeds, and Jesus can see that they are entranced because they had so long gone without pastoral care.  The religious officials who should have been bringing them the good news of God’s kindness had instead been about the business of extracting the minutiae of the Law and filling their own coffers.  They had left the people abandoned of God, like sheep without a shepherd, and Jesus’ heart ached for them.  So in his kindness, he sends out the Twelve to continue his work and to call more and more people to come to know that the kingdom was at hand, and repentance would give them a place in that kingdom.

So these readings have been a great rehearsal of the kindness of God as the Scriptures present it.  God created us in love, redeemed us from the grasp of sin and death, and gives us a place in his heavenly kingdom.  And that’s nice, but the Scriptures would be remiss if they stopped there.  Instead, they go on to prescribe the proper response to God’s love and kindness, and each of today’s readings give us one way to do that.  These readings call us to keep the covenant, to boast of God and to freely give.

In the first reading, God makes the first move in favor of establishing a covenant.  He didn’t have to – clearly.  He had made us in love, but we had turned away from him, and not just once.  Yet, he was the one who sent Moses to lead the people out of the slavery of Egypt so that they could inherit the land he promised on oath to their ancestors.  If God has reached out that far to us, we can do no less than keep the covenant.  We have to live the life of grace: keep the commandments, love God and neighbor, celebrate the Gospel in everything we do.  We have to reach out to the marginalized and needy, just as God reached out to us in our own need.  “If you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant,” God says to us, “you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people.”

In the second reading, St. Paul echoes what the first reading says.  God has made the first move.  He reconciled us while we were still sinners.  He gave us the way to the kingdom.  We didn’t deserve it, but our sinfulness is no match for God’s mercy.  So if God has been so merciful, we need to boast about it.  And we’re not to boast about it as if it was something we earned or accomplished on our own; we are to “boast of God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” 

And finally, in the Gospel, Jesus gives us the key to our response to God’s love, mercy and kindness: “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.”  The gifts of grace are never given to us just for ourselves.  They are given to us to share.  Now that we have been redeemed and blessed, we must turn and bless others, leading them to the redemption God longs to pour out on them.  We are to freely give of the rich store of grace that has been freely given to us.

God does not manipulate us for his pleasure.  He does not demand that we behave perfectly in order to receive his kindness.  Instead, he is the one who washes our feet, who stretches out his arms on the Cross, who dies that we may live.  In the face of such great and perfect love, we can do no less than love in return.