Saturday, February 24, 2007

In the Desert

And so we’ve arrived at another Lent, these forty days that the constant tradition of the Church gives us to prepare our hearts to celebrate the Passion and Resurrection of the Lord. It’s a time to quiet down, forget about trifles and distractions, and to re-dedicate ourselves to following the Lord.

And the Lord we are given to follow on this first Sunday of Lent is Jesus contending with the devil in the desert. In St. Luke’s version, which we proclaim today, Jesus’ forty days of temptation in the desert comes right after his baptism in the Jordan. Recall the scene of the Baptism: when Jesus had been baptized a voice spoke from heaven, saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

Now the devil is an envious one. It bothers him that God is pleased with Jesus Christ his Son. So when Jesus is in the desert the devil tempts him to abuse his power as Son of God: to command the stone to become bread, to appropriate to himself the worldly power of an earthly king, to test God his Father by throwing himself from the height of the Jerusalem Temple.

For us, we don’t have the divine power of the Son of God, so we can’t be tempted to command a stone to become bread or to be king of the world. So we might not be able to relate to the Lord’s temptation, but we can certainly relate to being in the desert, because we all have deserts in our lives.

The desert is a place of discomfort. It’s too hot during the day and too cold at night, and there’s no shelter from either. The necessities of life just can’t be had. In the desert we’re vulnerable and in danger. It’s a place of anxiety, of feeling unsupported and uncared for.

And we all have these deserts in our lives. Maybe it’s a difficult relationship with someone close. We’re anxious with him or her, and the love we need, like water in the desert, is hard to come by. Maybe it’s a job in which we feel little support and are always anxious about how we are doing or whether we’ll be able to keep the job. Perhaps it’s a whole period of our lives in which we felt alone and uncared for. These are all deserts, the dry places of danger that we can find ourselves in. Sometimes they get so bad that we feel like not even God is there to guide us and support us.

And just like it was for the Lord Jesus himself, the desert is always a place of temptation! Because it’s when we feel alone, anxious, vulnerable, and unsupported that we are tempted to sin. For each kind of personality, the temptations will be different. Some of us will try to comfort ourselves in the desert with sensual pleasures, with the empty delights of gluttony or unchastity. Others will lash out at the universe for the injustice of their vulnerability, indulging themselves in the useless anger and nastiness that hurts them and everyone around them too. Still others will try to pretend like the desert doesn’t exist at all, acting like they aren’t anxious or lonely or vulnerable by indulging themselves in the lies of vanity and pride.

Yes, we’re all sinners, and because it can be hard to see God when we’re in the dryness and danger of the desert, we get tempted and sometimes fall into sin. The hardest thing about our difficult relationships and situations, the desert experiences of our lives, is just this, that it’s hard to see God. God is much easier to see in hindsight. We look back at a trying spell or a hard situation from the past and we see what we couldn’t see at the time, that God was with us all the while, leading, guiding, helping us to avoid the worst in ourselves and the world.

This kind of hindsight is a great gift! It can give us a very useful faith. Noticing how God has been with us in the past can help us believe that God is with us now. It enables us to pray: “Lord, I can see now that you were with me in what I went through back then, so even if I’m not sure what you are doing right now, I believe that you are with me.”

And this is what the author of the book of Deuteronomy recommends to the Israelites in the first reading. When he brings his gift to the altar, the Israelite is supposed to recall and recite the whole story of salvation that God has wrought in the history of his chosen people. Thus part of the sacrifice is a re-membering, a calling back to mind of how God has been with his people all the while.

And it is even more so for us! We bring our whole lives to this altar. Our proclamation of Jesus’ temptations in the desert shows how, in the humanity he took on for our sake, God has united himself to the dark places and troubled relationships in our lives. And the humanity of Christ connects all our happiness and joy to God’s life too. All of this is the sacrifice we offer to God in this Eucharist.

And giving thanks for the indestructible presence of God in our lives, established forever in the humanity of Christ, is what the Eucharist means literally, the Great Thanksgiving. And it’s Holy Communion with God that we receive back from this altar, re-membering and re-establishing our adoption into the divine life in Christ.

So as we start this Lent, let’s turn back to Christ, who is with us always. He is with us in our joy, making our happiness into the very delight of God. He is with us in our temptation, in the deserts in our lives, resisting the devil on our behalf. He is even with us in our sins, suffering with us in the pain and trouble we bring about through them. So let’s begin again to do good, turning away from sin and believing this good news. Amen.

(1st Sunday of Lent, C)

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Path to Peace

We continue this morning in Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain,” which we began last week with Luke’s blessings and woes. Today we have the heart of the sermon.

And we have a hard, radical teaching of Jesus to come to terms with today: his teaching on loving our enemies. It’s a hard enough teaching to put into practice, but sometimes it’s difficult even for us to grasp in our minds, because it’s so different than our usual way of behaving with one another. I’ll give you an example:

In the parish I lived in before I joined the Order, I used to volunteer as a Confirmation class teacher. One night, I used the time-worn pedagogical technique of the “trick question.” So I went to the blackboard and I wrote, “Do unto others as they do unto you.” And I asked the kids, what do you call this statement I’ve just put on the board?

Well one of them took the bait and answered, “‘do unto others as they do unto you,’ that’s the ‘golden rule.’” And I said, “Aha! It’s not at all! But it is the rule that the wisdom of this world teaches us to live by. The real rule, at least in the formulation Luke offers us today is, “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” which is quite a different thing entirely.

Our world runs on the first version, “do unto others as they do unto you,” the one I used to trick my students. It’s the rule of ordinary reciprocity. You help me, I help you. I give you good service, you come back again. Those who are good to me, I try to be good to them so as to keep their friendship and good graces. When I need help I know I should go to those who have been helpful to me in the past.

I love those who love me; I try to be good to those who are good to me. All this is natural, and it’s the way this world goes ‘round. It’s the way things get done, through relationships of mutuality and trust and proven reliability. But though behaving in this way might make me a decent person, it doesn’t make me a disciple of Jesus Christ.

As Jesus says, “if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Sinners love those who love them.” And if you give to those whom you know are going to return the favor, what credit is that to you?

The Lord invites us to take the next step: To love those who hate us, to be generous with those who can’t return our kindness, and even to those who just won’t. And let me tell you, this is the only way to real peace in this world.

Everyone wants peace. We want peace for the conflicts and estrangements in our families. We want peace for the violence in our cities. We want a path to peace in Iraq, that’s for sure. So if we all want peace, what’s the problem? Why is peace so elusive?

The trouble is, for many people, and certainly for our politicians, they don’t know what peace is. They think of peace as just the absence of conflict; it’s just the lack of any difficulties and problems that keep us from our own selfish goals and projects.

But real peace isn’t just the absence of war! Real peace is an active, powerful force! In fact it is the love and presence of God itself. When Jesus says, “To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other as well” he is not painting a picture of a sheepish victim, of someone who is just inviting more injury, as if being hit were a good thing.

On the contrary! To turn the other cheek is to present active and forceful peace to those who are violent toward us. It is to say, ‘yes, you have hurt me, and yes, you are violent, but I will not let your violence make me violent. I will not be tricked into continuing this cycle of violence that scars our families and our cities and our world.’ The power of violence lies in its ability to reproduce, like a virus. Somebody hurts us, we retaliate. The abused becomes the abuser. But if we stop the cycle of violence in our own selves, we rob it of its power.

And what else is this but Christ crucified? There he is, victim of all the hate, and violence and condemnation this world has to offer, and how does he respond? By rising from the dead and returning, for all of the anger heaped upon him, newness of life and joy for all in the Resurrection.

David, the greatest of the kings of Israel, offers us another model in the first reading. He is at war with Saul, whom even God judged not a very good king. In a tactical coup David comes upon Saul and his men sleeping. And yet he doesn’t kill him. He says, this is the king whom God anointed king of Israel, and who am I to kill the Lord’s anointed?

The anointed are those whom God has chosen. In Greek, the word for “anointed” is Christos. Jesus Christ is the anointed one, and like David he is king of Israel, and indeed king of the whole world. And we are anointed too, because we are baptized into the body of Christ. That’s why we’re called Christians, because we are baptized into the Christos, the Anointed, Chosen One of God.

In a sense, because in Jesus Christ God has joined the divine life to all human nature, every person, Christian or not, has some of the anointing of the Lord, some of the Christ in them. Every human life is sacred because every human life is mysteriously connected to the love of God in the humanity of Christ. Every human life is anointed of God.

So with David, we look at each other and say, even if this person hurts me, mistreats me, or hates me, who am I to be angry or to hurt the Lord’s anointed?

If we want peace in this world, we have to do more than just put up with and tolerate and co-exist with our enemies. We must actively and forcefully love them. To know how to get along is great. It makes us decent people. But if we want to be Christians we must do more, and overcome violence with love and the active power of gentleness.

(7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)

Friday, February 2, 2007

The Gospel of Prosperity

Once in a while I see a preacher on TV or hear one on the radio. And I think, well, maybe I’ll listen for a minute; who knows? Maybe I’ll learn something about how to preach. Often what I hear, though, it bothers me. I’m bothered because often what I hear is what they call “the Gospel of prosperity.”

This teaching says that if you honor God and confess that Jesus is Lord, God will bless you. Now I hardly dispute this in itself, but the blessings they talk about are always materialistic. By honoring God and praying in a certain way, God will bless you with money and houses and cars and economic security for you and your family.

Now I just don’t think this kind of doctrine stands up to Sacred Scripture. In Luke’s Gospel, which we are proclaiming this year, Jesus says quite plainly, “blessed are you poor” and “woe to you who are rich.” In fact the whole of Sacred Scripture is a testament to God’s special love for the poor and the oppressed, for the stranger and the widow and the orphan. In the Church’s evening prayer every single day none other than our Blessed Mother herself proclaims and blesses God, who has

Cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly [and who] has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.

Perhaps one of the greatest correctives to this so-called “Gospel of prosperity” comes in our Gospel reading for today. Peter, James, and John are business partners, and they aren’t having a good day. As they say, they “have worked hard all night and have caught nothing.”

But after they try again on the advice of Jesus, they catch an astonishing amount of fish; so many in fact that they’re nets begin to tear. So far so good for the “Gospel of prosperity;” they honor and obey the Lord and material success follows. But then the story changes.

Rather than sit back and enjoy their new, God-given prosperity, this huge catch of fish that makes their business a success, Peter, James and John decide instead to leave it all to follow Jesus. They leave the fish, their boats, their sudden prosperity, and follow Jesus into a life of uncertainty, danger, and homelessness. Why? If God blesses us with so much success in our business, be it fishing or whatever, aren’t we supposed to stay home and appreciate it?

Peter, James and John see beyond the huge catch of fish. They see through the material success to a Savior who is much more than a material benefactor. This Presence of the saving God is Blessing Itself--and much more valuable than the material blessings we may or may not receive from him. And so, seeing through the catch of fish to the blessing of God beyond, Peter, James and John found themselves brave enough to leave the catch behind to follow the divine Presence itself that they perceive in the man Jesus.

And this is what we are called to do. Whatever God has blessed us with, whether it be “time, talent, or treasure” as we say here in the offertory, or whether it be a gentle heart or a generous disposition or even just an infectious smile, God has not given us these things so that we might enjoy them for ourselves, but so that we might in turn bless each other with them.

In Jesus Christ, God has given away everything it means to be God, and has lavishly bestowed upon us every blessing of the divine life. And we are called to imitate God by wasting the best of ourselves on each other, to give of ourselves for the life and happiness of the other. That’s what it means to give up your life for the life of the world, just like Jesus does on the Cross.

Now this is a tall order, and it takes a lot of trust on our part. In fact, we almost always resist the idea and balk at the little inspirations of the Holy Spirit. But we shouldn’t be surprised or ashamed of this. Peter, the first among the apostles, his first response to the Lord was to ask Jesus to leave, for, as Peter said, “I am a sinful man.” And Isaiah, greatest of the prophets, he cried out in response to the call of God, “Woe is me, I am doomed!”

But they changed their minds, and pretty quickly. In fact, the term the New Testament often uses for conversion, the Greek word metanoia, simply means, literally, to change your mind. And God is there to strengthen us and to help us change our hesitant minds too.

Isaiah is strengthened after an angel touches his mouth with an ember taken from God’s heavenly altar. And it can be the same with us. Except the burning coal that will touch our lips is the Holy Communion we receive here at Mass. The Body of Christ we receive is the burning love of God for the world, the passion of God for our well-being and salvation. The burning love of God we receive into our very bodies in Holy Communion, it purges our wickedness, strengthens us in our hesitations, and forgives our sins.

So let us receive the Body of Christ with great faith and gratitude. For it is the burning ember of love that will enable us to respond to the call of God to give of ourselves, our communion in the Body of Christ is the strength we need to respond to God in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Here I am. [Lord] Send me!”

(5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, C)