Friday of the Twenty-sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Pride and presumption are insidious sins. They make any kind of grace impossible, for they even deny that grace is needed or wanted. If we have no need of a Savior, then no relationship with God is even possible. And not having a relationship with God is something we call “hell.” So the disciple doesn’t get to harbor pride and doesn’t get to presume that God will take care of her or him. Instead the disciple must be very mindful of God, and must constantly nurture the relationship in such a way that they are caught up in the very life of God.

The Hebrew exiles in Babylon realized how far they were from this relationship, and with the prophet Baruch, pray a prayer of repentance. And that was an experience the people of Chorazin and Bethsaida needed to have. They were totally unmindful of God, and they refused to repent. Which is inconceivable given the mighty deeds Jesus had been doing among them. Even a ton of bricks falling on them wouldn’t seem to get them to repent. Jesus calls them to task on it. Who knows if that had an effect on them. What’s important is that we too are called to repentance every time we are so presumptuous of God’s mercy and favor that we refuse to repent of the things that separate us from Him.

The disciple is called to humbly place himself or herself in God’s mercy, acknowledging dependence on a Savior who has loved us into existence and sustains those who follow him. The disciple shuns pride and presumption, and humbly prays with the Psalmist, “For the glory of your name, O Lord, deliver us.”

Friday of the Third Week of Lent

Today’s readings

“You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  That would be, the most reassuring thing we could hear from our Lord!  To know that you’re on the right track — that your thoughts and heart’s desires are in line with God’s will — that would be a wonderful thing to know.  And today’s Scriptures give us the roadmap for finding that reassurance.

Step one is repentance. The prophet Hosea wrote of Israel’s repentance.  Israel, as a nation, as we well know, had turned away from the God of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  They had turned to the false gods of their neighbors and had worshipped idols.  Hosea’s prophecy had been all about calling them back, urging them to return to the Lord who loved his people and yearned for them like a spurned lover.  In today’s first reading, Hosea prophecies the promise that God will accept back his wayward lover and will restore the people of Israel to his own loved possession.

Step two is to hear the voice of God.  “If only my people would hear me,” the Psalmist says, “and Israel walk in my ways, I would feed them with the best of wheat, and with honey from the rock I would fill them.”  God longs to fill his faithful people with everything that they need to sustain life and live their faith.  All we have to do is hear his voice, to follow his commands, and walk in his ways.  This hearing the voice of God requires a steadfast faithfulness that will not be enticed by strange gods or flashy idols.  There is a single-mindedness that is called for here: the faithful are called not to hear God as one voice among many, but to hear God alone.

And step three is love.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus famously boils the commandments down to two: love of God and love of neighbor.  Again, there is an underlying single-mindedness: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  Love of God and neighbor isn’t a third or fourth priority, if we ever get around to it.  Love is prime: love must the first inclination of the heart, thought of the mind, and action of life.

What does it take for us disciples to be not far from the Kingdom of God?  It takes a Lent of repentance, a desire to hear and meditate on God’s Word and his presence in our lives, and then to love like there was nothing else to do in the whole world.  Maybe we’re not there yet, all of us, as we approach our Easter joy.  But at this mid-point of Lent, maybe we can come a little closer by asking God for the desire to change our hearts.

Tuesday of the Second Week of Lent

Today’s readings

Many people who have been away from the Sacrament of Penance for a long time have said that they were afraid to come back to the Church because they felt like their sins defined them.  That they walked around with some kind of scarlet letter on their persons.  I think this is the experience that Isaiah is getting at when he says, “Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool.”

Our sins do not define us, but our repentance does.  And that repentance has to include a commitment to justice for those we have marginalized: “redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.”  Our penance and our righteousness has to be approached in humility, remembering that those who humble themselves will be exalted.  Our repentance has its reward, as the Psalmist tells us: “To the upright I will show the saving power of God.”

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. The first reading reads like an exposition of deadly sins, and these sins have continued to plague humanity ever since.

We start with envy, as Cain laments that his offering was not accepted with the same favor as was his brother, 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 Fourth Week of Lent

Today’s readings

There’s a lot of talk about water in these readings today, and when that happens, we know that it means the talk is really about baptism. We ourselves are the sick and lame man who needed Jesus’ help to get into the waters of Bethesda. The name “Bethesda” means “house of mercy” in Hebrew, and that, of course, would be the Church. We see the Church too in the temple in the first reading, from which waters flow which refresh and nourish the surrounding countryside. These, of course, again are the waters of baptism. Lent calls us to renew ourselves in baptism. We are called to enter, once again, those waters that heal our bodies and our souls. We are called to drink deep of the grace of God so that we can go forth and refresh the world.

But what really stands out in this Gospel is the mercy of Jesus. I think it’s summed up in one statement that maybe we might not catch as merciful at first: “Look, you are well; do not sin any more, so that nothing worse may happen to you.” It’s hard to imagine being ill for thirty-eight years, but I’m pretty sure missing out on the kingdom of God would be that one, much worse, thing. There is mercy in being called to repentance, which renews us in our baptismal commitments and makes us fit for the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Third Sunday of Lent: Trust in God’s Mercy

Today’s readings

God is extremely patient when it comes to extending mercy. That’s what Jesus is talking about in this rather odd parable. I have to admit that I’m no gardener: I’m just not patient enough for that! So I needed to do a little digging to get a real sense of where this parable is going. I discovered that there are a couple of things we should all know before we roll up our sleeves and dig in to this little story. First of all, fig trees actually did take three years to bear fruit. During those three years, of course, they would need to be nourished and watered and pruned and tended. It was a lot of work, so when those three years of hard work were up, you better believe the farmer certainly wanted fig newtons on his table! And the second piece of background is that, since the days of the prophet Micah, the fig tree has been a symbol for the nation of Israel, and Jesus’ hearers would have known that. So when they hear of a fruitless fig tree, it was a little bit of an accusation.

Conventional wisdom is that if the tree doesn’t bear fruit after three years of labor and throwing resources at it, you cut it down and plant a new one; why exhaust the nutrients of the soil? And if you’re an impatient gardener like me, why exhaust the gardener?! But this gardener is a patient one; he plans to give it another year and some extra TLC in hopes that it will bear fruit.

So here’s the important take-away: God is not like Father Pat; he’s the patient gardener! And we, the heirs to the promise to Israel, if we are found unfruitful, our Lord gives us extra time and TLC in order that we might have time to repent, take up the Gospel, and bear fruit for the kingdom of God. That’s kind of what Lent is all about.

But we have to remember: we don’t get forever; if we still don’t bear fruit when the end comes, then we will have lost the opportunity to be friends of God, and once cut down in death, we don’t have time to get serious about it. The time for repentance is now. The time for us to receive and share God’s grace is now. The time for us to live justly and work for the kingdom is now. Because we don’t know that there will be tomorrow; we can never be presumptuous of God’s mercy and grace.

The consolation, though is this: we don’t have to do it alone. The Psalmist today sings that our God is kind and merciful: We get the TLC that our Gardener offers; the grace of God and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We can trust in the Lord God, our great “I AM,” to come to us and lead us out of captivity to sin just as he was preparing to do for the Israelites in the first reading today. We can put our trust in God’s mercy. We are always offered the grace of exodus, all we have to do is get started on the journey and begin once again to bear the fruit of our relationship with Christ.

Ash Wednesday

Today’s readings

The Scriptures today call us to repentance, which is an important spiritual theme for Lent. In fact, if it were not for our need for repentance, we wouldn’t need Jesus, he wouldn’t have to have taken on flesh, he wouldn’t have to suffer and die. But we do need a Savior, and so Jesus came and he did all of that – for us. He didn’t come and do all that just because religion in those days was out of whack, or that people in that time were more in need of repentance than people in other times, including our own. He did that because we all have need of repentance, now just as much as always. We all have things we need to let go of and move away from, so that we can return to the Lord, and be happy with him forever. So we all need to repent, in little or big ways.

Repentance is so much a part of Lent that one of the two instructions we can give when someone comes to us for ashes is “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” The other, of course, is “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.” I tend to use both of these, alternating between the two, and letting the Holy Spirit decide who hears each.   I do that because I think they are both fitting reminders for us as we enter into holy Lent. We have to keep repentance, and our own return to dust one day, in our minds and hearts so that we can long for the salvation God wants to bring us.

We have come here today for all sorts of reasons. But the most importnat reason we come to Church on this, the first day of Lent, is for what we celebrate on the day after Lent: the resurrection of the Lord on Easter Sunday. Through the Cross and Resurrection, Jesus has won for us salvation, and we have been blessed to be beneficiaries of that great gift. All of our Lenten observance, then, is a preparation for the joy of Easter.

Lent calls us to repent, to break our ties with the sinfulness and the entanglements that are keeping us tethered to the world instead of free to live with our God and receive his gift of salvation. Our Church offers us three ways to do that: fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Giving things up, spending more time in prayer and devotion, dedicating ourselves to works of charity, all of these help us to deeply experience the love of Christ as we enter into deeper relationship with him. That is Lent, and the time to begin it, as we are told, is now: Now is the acceptable time! Now is the day of salvation!

And none of this, as the Gospel reminds us today, is to be done begrudgingly or half-heartedly. None of it is to be done with the express purpose of letting the world see how great we are. It is always to be done with great humility, but also with great joy. Our acts of fasting, prayer, and charity should be a celebration of who God is in our lives, and a beautiful effort to strengthen our relationship with him.

It is my prayer that this Lent can be a forty-day retreat that will bring us all closer to God. May we all hear the voice of the prophet Joel from today’s first reading: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart!”