The Second Sunday of Advent

Today’s readings

I don’t know if it’s ever easy to listen to the news any more.  Unrest in the middle east, abuse scandals in the entertainment industry and political arena, crime in our cities, and so much more.  And all of those are the man-made problems: they are byproducts of the reign of sin in the world.

And so as we enter into Advent this year, I think we Advent more than ever. We need Jesus to come and put an end to all our foolishness, to fix all our brokenness, and heal all our sin and shame.  I am guessing the followers of Saint John the Baptist felt the same way.  They dealt with all the same stuff that we do: corruption in government, poverty, racism, and crime – none of this is new to our day and age, unfortunately – it never seems to go away.  And so they did what I think has to be a model for all of us today: they came to John, acknowledged their sins, and accepted the baptism of repentance.

They came to John, because at that point, Jesus wasn’t in full swing with his ministry, and they were seeking something new and something good.  We then, might come to Jesus in the same way, come to the Church, seeking something good and something new.  And then, like them, we have to acknowledge our sins – personal sins and those in which we participate as a society.  And then we have to accept the process of repentance.  We can’t keep sinning; we have to repent, literally be sorry for our sins and turn away from them, as we turn back to God.  That’s an important Advent message for every time and place.

It genuinely strikes me that, if we’re ever going to get past the bad stuff going on in our nation and our world, if we’re ever going to finally put an end to whatever sadness this world brings us, we have to begin that by putting an end to the wrong that we have done.  That’s why reconciliation is so important.  What each of us does – right or wrong – affects the rest of us.  The grace we put forward when we follow God’s will blesses others.  But the sin we set in motion when we turn away from God saddens the whole Body of Christ.  We are one in the Body of Christ, and if we are going to keep the body healthy, then each of us has to attend to ourselves.

So today, I am going to ask you to go to confession before Christmas.  I don’t do that because I think you’re all horrible people or anything like that.  I do that because I know that we all – including me – have failed to be a blessing of faith, hope and love to ourselves and others at some point, and I know that so many people struggle with persistent sins, nasty thorns in the flesh, day in and day out.  And God never meant it to be that way.  He wants you to experience his love and mercy and forgiveness and healing, and you get that most perfectly in the Sacrament of Penance.

So speaking of confession, here’s one of mine: There was a time in my life that I didn’t go to confession for a long time.  I had been raised at a time in the Church when that sacrament was downplayed.  It came about from what I came to realize was a really flawed idea of the sacrament and the human person.  But the Church has always taught that in the struggle to live for God and be a good person, we will encounter pitfalls along the way.  We’ll fail in many ways, and we will need forgiveness and the grace to get back up and move forward.  That’s what the Sacrament of Penance is for!

One day, I finally realized that I needed that grace and I returned to the sacrament.  The priest welcomed me back, did not pass judgment, and helped me to make a good confession.  It was an extremely healing experience for me, and now I make it my business to go to the sacrament as frequently as I can, because I need that healing and mercy and grace.  And you do too.  So please don’t leave those wonderful gifts unwrapped under the tree.  Go to Confession and find out just how much God loves you.

When you do find that out, you’ll be better able to help the rest of the Body of Christ to be the best it can be.  When your relationship is right with God, you will help the people around you know God’s love for them too.  That kind of grace bursts forth to others all the time.

This year, we have plenty of opportunities to receive the Sacrament of Penance.  We have a Reconciliation Service scheduled for Thursday, December 21 at 7:00pm.  We are also hearing confessions twice a day every Saturday until Christmas: after the 7:30am Mass, and again at 3:00pm.

If you have been away from the sacrament for a very long time, I want you to come this Advent.  Tell the priest you have been away for a while, and expect that he will help you to make a good confession.  That’s our job.  All you have to do is to acknowledge your sins and then leave them behind, so that Christmas can be that much more beautiful for you and everyone around you.  Don’t miss that gift this year: be reconciled.

The Fifth Sunday of Lent

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.   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.

During Lent, we have been journeying with our catechumens, who are now called the Elect, as they prepare to be baptized, confirmed, and receive first Holy Communion at the Easter Vigil.  Much like them, 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 catechetical dialogue 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.

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.

So if you take away anything from today’s Liturgy, let it be this: this reading is really 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 in our second reading today, 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.

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 all day on Tuesday, and you can come to any of the penance services we have.  We have school confessions at 10:45, and will be hearing confessions until around noon.  Then we have religious education family confessions at 4:45, and a parish penance serve at 7pm.  Come to any of them that fit your schedule.  If you miss that, we will have confessions after the 11:30 Mass next Sunday until all are heard.  And finally, we will have confessions a week from Tuesday, during Holy Week, at 3:00 until all are heard.  We invite you to come and have the stone rolled away and to be untied from your burial cloths.  Wherever you find yourself at this point of Lent, I urge you, don’t let Easter pass with you all bound up and sealed in the grave.  Lent ends just before 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.

The Fifth Sunday of Lent

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.  On Monday evening at 6:30, we will hear confessions until all are heard.  Saturday, as usual, we will hear confessions from 4:00 to 4:45pm before Mass.  And next Sunday, Palm Sunday, we will hear confessions after the 7:30, 9:30 and 11:30 Masses until all are heard.  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.  Let us all be open to it.

The Second Sunday of Lent [C]

Today’s readings

One of the best Lenten reminders that I can think of comes in today’s second reading.  Here, Saint Paul tells the Philippians that “our citizenship is in heaven.”  We know how true this is.  We may have made homes here, and experienced our lives thus far here on earth, but the truth is we are just passing through this place.  Our true citizenship is in heaven, and it is the goal of all our lives to get there.  That’s why Lent is so important: this season reminds us of where we are going and gives us the opportunity to get there, if we have been off the path, which we all have in some way.  That’s the Lenten message of repentance and it’s the reason for our fasting, almsgiving and prayer.

We see that message throughout today’s Liturgy of the Word.  In the first reading, God promises Abram – later to be named Abraham – that he would make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.  Abraham placed his faith in that promise, and God sanctified it by making covenant with him.  In the Gospel, Peter, John and James get to see a little bit of the heavenly inheritance when they experience the transfigured Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah, the personification of the Law and the Prophets.  On this Transfiguration Sunday, we can catch a glimpse of where we’re going, and hopefully be energized anew to pursue that inheritance.

The way that we pursue it is the essential Lenten discipline of repentance.  Here we recognize the fact that we have wandered from the path to our reward, ask God’s pardon, receive the mercy and are restored to the inheritance promised to Abraham and made perfect in the covenant carved out of the sacrifice of Christ.  That’s why we have Lent each year: we get the opportunity to repent, refocus and get back on the way. [We celebrate that this morning with Brian, our candidate who is preparing for Full Communion with our Church and will soon take part in the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the first time.  As he prepares for that sacrament, we can see our own need for God’s healing mercy.]  The alternative to repentance is truly life in hell: and it’s not so much that God sends us there, but more that we choose to go there by shutting God out and not receiving the gift of mercy that he longs to pour out on us.

I’d like to illustrate this by plucking out one of the story lines in the musical, Les Miserables.  I had seen the stage version, but went on New Year’s Day to see the movie version with a priest friend, and it reminded me once again of the incredible truth that the story proclaims.  Of the musicals that I have seen, this is truly my favorite.  If you haven’t yet seen it, you should, and please know I’m not spoiling the whole thing for you.

The story begins with the release of the central character, Jean Valjean, from prison.  But even as he’s released, he finds out from his jailer, Javert, that he really will never be free.  He must carry papers that show that he was a convict for his entire life.  Now, one might argue that this would be appropriate if he had, say, murdered someone.  But we learn that his crime was a very excusable one: he stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister and her child.  For that, he served nineteen years in prison, and would be on parole for the rest of his life.   The jailer, Javert, is the other central character here.  He felt Valjean’s sentence was a just one, and he could say that because his idea of the law was very black or white: either you did what was right, or you could go to hell – literally.

As the story unfolds, Valjean quickly learns the gravity of his plight.  He can hardly find work or a place to stay, because the papers that he has to carry have him branded as a criminal, and even if someone would take him in or give him work, they were going to cheat him, knowing that he could not complain.  He is eventually taken in by the local bishop, who gives him a meal and a place to stay.  He treats Valjean kindly, but Valjean doesn’t know how to receive it.  So he gets up during the night, takes some of the bishop’s silver, and heads out.  He is quickly brought in by the police who take him to the bishop and tell him that Valjean claimed the items were a gift.  The bishop, surprisingly, not only backs up his story, but says that Valjean had “left the best behind” and gives him two silver candlesticks.  As the police leave, the bishop tells Valjean that he has been given grace in order that he might “become an honest man” and serve a higher purpose.  That’s how grace works; we must receive it and then share it.

So that’s what Valjean does.  He uses the money to start a business, which employs many people who would otherwise be poor, and he becomes the mayor of the town.  But he learns that Valjean has continued to pursue him, and although he originally thought the mayor was Valjean, it turns out another man had just confessed to his crimes and is that very day being sentenced.  He comes to Valjean to ask his pardon and offer his resignation for allegedly mistaking Valjean for, well, Valjean.  At this point, Valjean could have ended Javert’s long career and pretty much ended his life.  But he doesn’t do that; he goes to court and confesses so that the innocent man won’t have to pay for his crimes.

Valjean escapes the grasp of Javert and goes on to take in Cosette, the young daughter of a dying woman.  He pledges to her mother that Cosette would want for nothing, and he raises her as his own daughter.  This has him pretty much constantly on the run, always looking over his shoulder for Javert.  Fast forward a bit to the revolution, during which Javert works as a spy and is caught by the student revolutionaries.  Valjean helps them, and is promised a reward.  He says that he wants nothing except to dispatch their prisoner.  And it’s here that Valjean offers grace to Javert for the second time in the story.  He lets him go and pretends to fire a gun at him, making the revolutionaries think he is dead.

Javert continues to pursue Valjean, swearing that he will “never rest” until he sees him “safe behind bars.”  Later, after watching Valjean slip away yet again while extending mercy to a dying revolutionary, Javert confronts the issue of the grace that Valjean shows juxtaposed with what he thinks of him personally.  He wrestles with why Valjean would choose to show him mercy, when he could have taken his life and had his vengeance.  Unable to make sense of that, he realizes that he is already in hell.  And he’s right – when we cannot accept grace, we have shut God out and are, in fact, in hell.  That’s what hell is.  At this point, all Javert could do was die, and so he commits suicide.  In the movie version, that’s done in a rather jarring fashion, too.  For me, this is the saddest part of the story, bar none – and that says a lot, because I usually shed quite a few tears when I see the show.

So there are two paths here.  We can take Javert’s path, in which we refuse mercy to others and to ourselves, and trust instead in our own beliefs.  When these don’t turn out to hold water, the realization is that this is hell, and all we have left to do is die.  Or we can take Valjean’s path, accepting grace, using it to change our hearts and our lives, and live the life we were meant to live: a life that seeks out others and extends them mercy.  The lesson here is that mercy transfigures us and puts us back on the path to our heavenly inheritance.  Valjean eventually gets to see that, but I won’t spoil the end for you.

This Lent, I propose that we take Valjean’s path, and use our fasting, almsgiving and prayer to get back on the path to heaven.  I propose that we celebrate God’s mercy by taking part in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  We have lots of opportunities for that.  Mondays at 6:30, we hear confessions until all are heard.  On Saturdays, we hear them from 4pm to 4:45.  This coming Saturday, we have our morning of healing and will be hearing confessions from 10am to 11, when we’ll celebrate our Anointing of the Sick Mass.  And we have the Parish Lenten Penance Service coming up next month.  Please be sure to go to confession sometime during Lent.  You’ll be amazed at how much you, and the world around you, can be transfigured by God’s mercy, and you’ll find all the world to be clothed in dazzling white.   It’s an experience not to be missed, and while Javert thought his was the “way of the Lord,” the Sacrament of Reconciliation truly is.

The Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time [B]

Today’s readings

In ancient days, a diagnosis of leprosy was a death sentence.  And that’s not just because they didn’t know how to treat the disease.  They didn’t, but what was really horrible is the way the lepers were treated.  First of all, they were called lepers – not people – so being labeled as such stripped them of the personhood, and put them on the same level as a virus that needed to be eradicated.  They were cut off from the community, so they would have no community or even family support.  They were forbidden to worship with the community, so they must also have felt cut off from God.  And so it went for those who contracted leprosy: sick and alone, they were left to survive as best they could, or just to die.

The worst part of it is that most of the time people didn’t actually have leprosy: the ancients’ lack of scientific knowledge led them to label as leprosy any kind of skin ailment.  The rules for dealing with people with these diseases were based on fear: they didn’t want to contract the disease themselves, so the “clean” ones ostracized those with disease, treating them as if they didn’t exist.

Jesus, obviously, didn’t agree with that kind of way of “treating” the illness of leprosy.  He didn’t really have any more scientific resources at that time to treat the disease, but it wasn’t the disease he was concerned about.  No, he was concerned about the person, not the illness.  And so he does not take offense when the leper breaks the Levitical law that we heard in our first reading and actually approaches Jesus.  Jesus, too breaks the law by reaching out to touch him and saying, with an authority that comes from God himself, “I do will it.  Be made clean.”

The thing is, we don’t treat lepers very well today, either.  I don’t mean people who have the actual disease of leprosy – that is actually very treatable, even curable, in this day and age.  What I mean is that there are a lot of leprosies out there.  Some people tend to ostracize a loved one when they contract a difficult disease, like cancer.  They can’t bear the thought of death, or they don’t like hospitals, or they feel powerless to help in these situations, so they stay away.  Hospitals and nursing homes are full of people who never receive a visit from family or friends.  Our pastoral care ministers could probably tell you many heart-breaking stories with that theme.

And leprosy doesn’t apply just to sick people.  People who are different in any way are subject to ostracization: people who have different color skin than us, people who are not Catholic or not Christian, people who are homosexual, people who are poor or homeless.  All of these we treat from a distance, keeping them outside the community, outside of means of support, outside of the love of God in just the same way the ancients dealt with lepers.  We have a tendency to label people and then write them off.

I don’t know about you, but I’m glad God doesn’t treat broken people that way.  Because then I might be cut off because of my many sins.  We all have something in us that is unclean, and it would be woe for us if God just wrote us off.  He doesn’t.  He reaches out to touch us to, exactly where we are at, without fear of contracting the illness of our sin himself, and heals us from the inside out.  “I do will it.  Be made clean.”

Our religion, thankfully, has rituals for the things that infest us.  When we are sick, there is the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.  When we are sinful, there is the sacrament of Penance.  We call these the sacraments of healing, because they do just that: give us God’s grace when we are sick or dying, and his forgiveness and mercy when we have sinned.

Many people misunderstand the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick.  No longer do we think of that as something to be done at the last possible moment.  It should be done as soon as it is known that a person is gravely ill.  We rely on doctors to tell us that.  It should be done before someone has serious surgery.  It should be done when a person is suffering from mental illness of any kind.  It might be done more than once: when a person is first diagnosed, for example, and then again when they are near death, or when the illness is worse in any way.  It should be done at a hospital or nursing home, or in a person’s home, or even here at church.  Wherever the person is or is most comfortable.  We are also having a Mass with Anointing of the Sick during Lent here in church.  The sacrament provides grace to live through an illness, or mercy on the journey to eternity, sometimes even healing if that is what God knows to be good for the person.  Please don’t wait until a person has just moments left to send for a priest, don’t be afraid to ask us to anoint you before surgery, and don’t assume that if you’re in the hospital, we will know – they can’t really tell us that any more.

As for the Sacrament of Penance, there are many opportunities to celebrate that sacrament: Saturdays at 4pm, during Lent we will have a Penance Service, and we’ll also have Confessions before the Mass of the Anointing of the Sick I just mentioned.  You can also always call a priest for an appointment if you need to.  The problem can sometimes be that a person feels embarrassed to go to Confession if they’ve been away from the sacrament for a long time.  Don’t be.  It’s our job to help you make a good Confession, and we are absolutely committed to doing that.  Your sins don’t make us think less of you; in fact I always have deep respect for the person who lowers his or her defenses and lets God have mercy on them.

These are wonderful sacraments of healing.  God gives them to us because he will not be like those living in Levitical times.  Just as he reached out to the leper in today’s Gospel, so Christ longs to reach out and touch all of us in our brokenness, in our uncleanness, and make us whole again.  As the Psalmist sings today, so we can pray: “I turn to you, Lord, in time of trouble, and you fill me with the joy of salvation.”   Praise God for Jesus’ words today: “I do will it.  Be made clean!”

Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

One of the graces that I have here at the parish is that whenever I go to parish meetings, we always pray through the Gospel for the coming Sunday and discuss it. The Spirit works through the community, and more often than not, I’ll start thinking about the readings in a different light than I might have all by myself. This week I met on Monday with the finance committee, and so as we prayed through this Gospel, I had my finance committee thinking cap on. So my first thought was, well, the place where Jesus is meeting is too small by far, so we’re going to have to initiate a building campaign, and that’s going to be a lot of work. The second thought was, great, they’ve cut a hole in the roof and now we have to pay to have that fixed! I did not share those thoughts out loud and, thankfully, the Spirit was working in the folks on the committee, who expressed much more pious thoughts!

There’s a lot of paralysis going on in these readings. In the first reading, it’s the whole nation of Israel that is paralyzed. They are in captivity in Babylon, and their oppression is pretty cruel. They longed for God to come and rid them of their exile, as he had when they were slaves in Egypt. Where are God’s mercies of the past? When will their exile come to an end? Isaiah speaks to them words of consolation today. God will not just lead them back to their land, making a way through the desert and a river through the wasteland. But he is also doing something new: he will deal with the root cause of their paralysis: sin. It was sin that led them into slavery in Egypt, it was sin that led them to captivity in Babylon. So if they are to be truly freed, truly healed of their paralysis, they need to be forgiven of their sins. And it is only God who can do that, so he takes the initiative to do that new thing among them. Praise God!

The paralysis in the Gospel is more literal, but also works on the figurative level here too. The center of attention might seem to be the paralytic, but really it’s Jesus. Jesus has the crowds captivated, preaching words that have them spellbound. So much so, that he can hardly move, for all the crowds around him! Seeing this, the paralytic’s friends take bold action: they haul him up onto the roof, make a hole in it, and lower him down, right in the midst of Jesus and his hearers. You have to imagine that the crowds are on the edge of their seats – except there probably wasn’t room for any chairs – and they were just waiting with eager anticipation to see what Jesus would do now. Who could heal a paralytic? Jesus speaks curious words: “Child, your sins are forgiven.” – What on earth can that mean? Who has the audacity to say he can forgive sins? Why doesn’t he just heal the man as the man had hoped for?

But Jesus is doing something new too. These last several weeks, we have been hearing about Jesus healing all sorts of people, including a leper just last week. And through it all, he’s been telling them to keep it quiet – not that they did! – because he wasn’t healing people just be known as a wonder worker. He’s trying to get at the root cause of the people’s paralysis, the real disease and not just the symptom. And that disease is, of course, sin. “Child, your sins are forgiven.” Those are the words he speaks to the paralytic, because he insists on healing the man from the inside out. The physical paralysis was nothing, the really paralyzing thing was sin. Sin paralyzes us all from time to time. It affects our prayer life, our vocation, our relationships. It holds us back, it keeps us from moving on to what God intends for us. When we are paralyzed by sin, nothing good can come to us, nothing good can even be seen in us or by us. Sin is quite literally deadly. And so, yeah, Jesus can heal a man’s paralysis, but whoa, he can even heal the sinfulness of the whole human family. Now that’s a wonder worker! Healing the world of sin was the whole reason for Jesus being here in the first place. Praise God!

We are here today on the precipice of a new season of the Church year. This Wednesday is the beginning of our Lent, the beginning of that time of year when we all have the opportunity to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel. It’s a forty-ish day retreat for us; we can take stock of those sins that have held us back, and bring them to our Jesus who came that they might be blotted out. And we know that, as good as our lives tend to be, as faithful as we try to be, we have, on occasion, blown it, both individually and as a human family. We have missed opportunities to be of service. We have held on to grudges and past hurts. We have broken relationships through the distractions of lust in its many forms. We have taken what belongs to others, maybe not giving an honest day’s work for our pay, or taking credit for work that was not ours. We have stolen from the poor, either by not making an effort to reach out to them, or by wasting resources. We have deprived God of the worship due to him, either by missing Mass for yet another soccer game, or by being inattentive at Mass or forgetting our prayers. We have taken the lives of others by allowing abortion to continue its pandemic spread through the world, or by not caring for the sick, or by allowing racial bigotry to go unchallenged. We have dishonored our parents and ancestors by allowing the elderly to die alone, or by allowing the cost of health care to be beyond what people can pay. You get the idea – our personal and communal sins have been myriad, and they have paralyzed us for far too long.

But our Lent is a gift to us. Our ashes remind us that we will not live forever, so the time to open ourselves up to change is now. We will have these days to concentrate on fasting, almsgiving and prayer. This is a gift, but also a responsibility; it is likewise sinful to ignore the opportunity completely. Our fasting might be food, or it might be something else that consumes us, like television or the internet. Our almsgiving can consist of any or all of the traditional ways of time, talent, and treasure. Our prayer can be communal or personal, devotional or reflective, whatever it is that is going to lead us face-to-face with Christ. This is also a time to rid ourselves of the sin that binds us, to hear those wonderful words spoken to us as well: “Child, your sins are forgiven.” We have so many opportunities planned for the Sacrament of Penance, that if you cannot find a time to go to Confession, you’re just not looking hard enough!

But if it’s the length of time since you last received that sacrament that is paralyzing you, then you need to hear what I always tell people about the Sacrament of Penance: Don’t let anything stop you. When you go into the confessional, tell the priest: “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. I know that Fr. Ted does too.

The important thing to remember in all of this is that you cannot let anything stop you from being healed of what paralyzes you. If need be, make a hole in the roof so that you can end up right at the feet of Jesus. Lent is our gift from God, that opportunity that he initiates to do something new among us. Let’s not ever turn away from that gift. Our staff had a retreat day this week, and in it we heard these words from the Rule of St. Benedict which I think tell us everything we should learn from today’s Liturgy of the Word: “Let no one follow what he thinks profitable to himself, but rather that which is profitable to another; let them show unto each other all … charity with a chaste love. Let them fear God, … and prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may He bring us all together to life everlasting. Amen.”

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.”

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