The Fifth Sunday of Lent – Scrutiny III (Cycle A Readings)

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 this: “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 gives us baptism and grace, those helps that are 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 that sinfulness 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 of these scriptural catechumens 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 get past the stench of their grief.  For the Apostles, they had to get over the stench of trying to figure things out and realize that Jesus was in charge.  For the Jews, they had to get past the stench of 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, okay, yes, 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 tomorrow at 2:00pm until all have been heard, then Friday at 6pm, and Saturday at 3pm.  Come to any of them that fit your schedule.  If you miss that, please check the bulletin today for a schedule of confessions at parishes around us.  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.

Fifth Sunday of Lent [Scrutiny III]

Today’s readings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so, maybe in these closing days of Lent, we still have to respond to our

Lord’s call to live. Maybe you haven’t yet been to confession before Easter. We have confessions before and after next Saturday’s 5:00pm Mass, and then again on Tuesday the 30th at 7:30pm, and we invite you to come and have the stone rolled away and to be untied from your burial cloths. Perhaps in these last days of Lent, you have relationships you have to renew with the new life that Christ gives you. Wherever you find yourself, I urge you, don’t let Easter pass with you all bound up and sealed in the grave. Lent ends just before Vespers or Evening Prayer on Holy Thursday.  That gives us around ten and a half days to take up our Lenten resolutions anew, or even make new ones, so that we can receive new life in Christ.  Don’t spend these days in the grave.  Come out, be untied, and be let go.

Third Sunday of Lent [Scrutiny I]

Today’s readings

NB: This homily is based on the readings from cycle A, which was read just for the Mass of the Scrutiny.

Last year about this time, I got the flu – bad.  It was one of those rare occasions when I was so sick, I couldn’t even get out of bed.  I had a fever, chills, aches and pains, the whole deal. When it was at its worst, I was trying to drink a lot of fluids, which is pretty much the only thing you really can do when you have the flu. So I drank a lot of water, but as time went on, I got sick of drinking a lot of water. So I supplemented it with tea, of course, but I even gave myself permission to do something I don’t do very often, and that was to drink some soda – 7up mostly. And that tasted good, the 7up, but because it’s sugary, sooner rather than later I’d be thirsty again, and the only thing that really helped was – water.

I thought about that experience as I was preparing today’s homily, because this set of readings, which are being used just for this Mass because of the Scrutiny we will pray in a few minutes with our RCIA Elect, these readings are all about water. Whenever we see this much water in the Sunday readings, we should always think of a certain sacrament. Guess which one? Right, baptism. And so we’ll talk about that in just a minute, but before we go there, let’s take a minute to get at the subject of thirst. That, after all, is what gets us to water in the first place.

The Israelites were sure thirsty in today’s first reading. After all, they had been wandering around the desert for a while now, and would continue to do so for forty years. At that point, they were thinking about how nice it would have been if they had just remained slaves in Egypt, so that they wouldn’t have to come all the way out here to the desert just to die of thirst. Better slaves than dead, they thought. The issue was that they didn’t have what they thirsted for, and had not yet learned to trust God to quench that thirst. So Moses takes all the complaining of the people and complains to God, who provides water for them in the desert. Think about that – they had water in the desert! And they had that water for as long as they continued to make that desert journey. They never ran out, they didn’t die of thirst, God proves himself trustworthy in a miraculous way. The end of the reading says they named the place Massah and Meribah because they wondered, “Is the LORD in our midst or not?” Can you imagine that?  God had led them out of slavery in Egypt with great miracles and signs, and is guiding them through the desert with a column of cloud by day and a column of fire by night.  Is the LORD in their midst or not?  Obviously, the answer was “yes.”

Which brings us to the rather curious story we have in the Gospel reading. If we think the story was all about a woman coming to get a bucket of water, then we’ve really missed the boat. This story asks us what we’re thirsting for, but at a much deeper level. Did Jesus really need a drink of water? Well, maybe, but he clearly thirsted much more for the Samaritan woman’s faith. Did she leave her bucket behind because she would never need to drink water again? No, she probably just forgot it in the excitement, but clearly she had found the source of living water and wanted to share it with everyone.

In the midst of their interaction, Jesus uncovers that the woman has been thirsting for something her whole life long. She was married so many times, and the one she was with now was not her husband. She apparently couldn’t find what she was thirsting for in her relationships.  She was worshipping, as the Samaritans did, on the mountain and not in Jerusalem as the Jews did. And every single day, she came to this well to draw water, because her life didn’t mean much more than that. She was constantly looking for water that would quench her, and yet she was thirsty all the time. Kind of reminds me of having the flu.

And all of this would be very sad if she hadn’t just found the answer to her prayers, the source of living water. There is a hymn written by Horatio Bonar in 1846 called “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” that speaks to this wonderful Gospel story.  We’re going to hear it in a few minutes as part of our scrutiny, but I want to focus on the words of that hymn because they relate to today’s Gospel story:

I heard the voice of Jesus say,

“Behold, I freely give

the living water; thirsty one,

stoop down and drink, and live.”

I came to Jesus, and I drank

of that life-giving stream;

my thirst was quenched, my soul revived,

and now I live in him.

And that’s exactly what happened to the Samaritan woman. She drank of the stream of Jesus’ life-giving water, and she now lived in him. She couldn’t even contain herself and ran right off to town, leaving the bucket of her past life behind, and told everyone about Jesus. They were moved to check this Jesus out, initially because of her testimony. But once they came to know him as the source of life-giving water, they didn’t even need her testimony to convince them; they too lived in him now.

Today’s Scriptures plead with us on the subject of conversion.  The Israelites were wandering through the desert learning to trust God, being converted from the Egypt of their past sinful lives to the Promised Land of God’s inheritance.  The Samaritan woman was being converted from the stagnant water of her own past life to the living, life-giving water of new life in Christ.

Remember that I said earlier that, whenever you see this much about water in the readings, the point is always baptism.  Conversion is necessary before baptism can happen.  And that’s what brings us here today. Lent, if we give ourselves to it, is totally about our baptism and our need for life-long conversion. For those among the Elect, that’s quite literally true. Our elect have been walking the desert journey to come to God’s promise just as the Israelites did. And they, like the Samaritan woman, have come to know the source of life-giving water. Just four weeks from yesterday, they will stand before us, have water poured over their heads, and receive what they have been thirsting for all this time.

But the rest of us, too, find conversion and baptism in our Lenten journey. Lent, as is often pointed out, means “springtime” and during Lent we await a new springtime in our faith. We await new growth, we look for renewed faith, we recommit ourselves to the baptism that is our source of life-giving water. We have what we are thirsting for, and Lent is a time to drink of it more deeply, so that we will be refreshed and renewed to live with vigor the life of faith and the call of the Gospel. These Lenten days take us to Easter and beyond with water that we can pour out in every time and place where God takes us. The life we receive in baptism can revive a world grown listless and jaded and make it alive with springs of refreshment that can only come from the one who gives us water beyond our thirsting, that follows us in our desert journeys, that springs up within those who believe.

The Israelites wondered, “Is the LORD in our midst or not?” As we see the waters of baptism refreshing our Elect, and as we ourselves are renewed in our own baptism, we can only answer that question with a resounding “YES!”  So – is the LORD in our midst or not?

Third Sunday of Lent

Today’s readings
[N.B. This homily was given for just the Mass where the Scrutiny was done with the RCIA Elect; readings for other Masses were different.]

The flu has been making its rounds in our area, as you probably know. We’ve had dozens of school kids out, and plenty of staff members too. This week was my turn, and I hope it doesn’t return any time soon – I’m still feeling the effects of it. But when it was at its worst, I was trying to drink a lot of fluids, which is pretty much the only thing you really can do when you have the flu. So I drank a lot of water, but as time went on, I got sick of drinking a lot of water. I know it doesn’t taste like anything, but I got sick of the taste of water! So I supplemented it with tea, of course, but I even gave myself permission to do something I don’t do very often, and that was to drink some soda – 7up mostly. And that tasted good, the 7up, but because it’s sugary, sooner rather than later I’d be thirsty again, and the only thing that really helped was – water. I drank a lot of water this week!

I thought about that experience as I was preparing today’s homily, because this set of readings, which are being used just for this Mass because of the Scrutiny we will pray in a few minutes with our RCIA Elect, these readings are all about water. Whenever we see this much discussed about water in the Sunday readings, we should always think of a certain sacrament. Guess which one? Right, baptism. And so we’ll talk about that in just a minute, but before we go there, let’s take a minute to get at the subject of thirst. That, after all, is what gets us to water in the first place.

6a00fad68ab80d00040109d0f54710000f-500piThe Israelites were sure thirsty in today’s first reading. After all, they had been wandering around the desert for a while now, and would continue to do so for forty years. At that point, they were thinking about how nice it would be if they had just remained slaves in Egypt so that they wouldn’t have to come all the way out here to the desert just to die of thirst. Better slaves than dead, they thought. The issue was that they didn’t have what they thirsted for, and had not yet learned to trust God to quench that thirst. So Moses takes all the complaining of the people and complains to God, who provides water for them in the desert. Think about that – they had water in the desert! And they had that water for as long as they continued to make that desert journey. They never ran out, they didn’t die of thirst, God proves himself trustworthy in a miraculous way. The end of the reading says they named the place Massah and Meribah because they wondered, “Is the LORD in our midst or not?” Obviously, the answer was “yes.”

Which brings us to the rather curious story we have in the Gospel reading. If we think the story was all about a woman coming to get a bucket of water, then we’ve really missed the boat. This story asks us what we’re thirsting for, but at a much deeper level. Did Jesus really need a drink of water? Well, maybe, but he clearly thirsted much more for the Samaritan woman’s faith. Did she leave her bucket behind because she would never need to drink water again? No, she probably just forgot it in the excitement, but clearly she had found the source of living water and wanted to share it with everyone.

In the midst of their interaction, Jesus uncovers that the woman has been thirsting for something her whole life long. She was married so many times, and the one she was with now was not her husband. She was worshipping, as the Samaritans did, on the mountain and not in Jerusalem as the Jews did. And every single day, she came to this well to draw water, because her life didn’t mean much more than that. She was constantly looking for water that would quench her, and yet she was thirsty all the time. Kind of reminds me of having the flu.

And all of this would be very sad if she hadn’t just found the answer to her prayers, the source of living water. There is a hymn written by Horatio Bonar in 1846 called “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” that speaks to this wonderful Gospel story:

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Behold, I freely give
the living water; thirsty one,
stoop down and drink, and live.”
I came to Jesus, and I drank
of that life-giving stream;
my thirst was quenched, my soul revived,
and now I live in him.

Which is exactly what happened to the Samaritan woman. She drank of the stream of Jesus’ life-giving water, and she now lived in him. She couldn’t even contain herself and ran right off to town, leaving the bucket of her past life behind, and told everyone about Jesus. They were moved to check this Jesus out, initially because of her testimony. But once they came to know him as the source of life-giving water, they didn’t even need her testimony to convince them; they too lived in him now.

But remember that I said earlier that, whenever you see this much about water in the readings, the point is always baptism. And that’s what brings us here today. Lent, if we give ourselves to it, is totally about our baptism. For those among the Elect, that’s quite literally true. Our elect have been walking the desert journey to come to God’s promise just as the Israelites did. And they, like the Samaritan woman, have come to know the source of life-giving water. Just four weeks from yesterday, they will stand in that font outside in the narthex, and receive what they have been thirsting for all this time.

But the rest of us, too, find baptism in our Lenten journey. Lent, as is often pointed out, means “springtime” and during Lent we await a new springtime in our faith. We await new growth, we look for renewed faith, we recommit ourselves to the baptism that is our source of life-giving water. We have what we are thirsting for, and Lent is a time to drink of it more deeply, so that we will be refreshed and renewed to live with vigor the life of faith and the call of the Gospel. These Lenten days take us to Easter and beyond with water that we can pour out in every time and place where God takes us. The life we receive in baptism can revive a world grown listless and droopy and make it alive with springs of refreshment that can only come from the one who gives us water beyond our thirsting, that follows us in our desert journeys, that springs up within those who believe.

The Israelites wondered, “Is the LORD in our midst or not?” As we see the waters of baptism refreshing our Elect, and as we ourselves are renewed in our own baptism, we can only answer that question with a resounding “YES!”

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