Thursday, Fourth Week of Lent

Scripture Readings for March 30, 2017

Exodus 32: 7-14, Psalm 106: 19-23, John 5: 31-47

We are in the midst of Lent. Lent with all its rules about fasting, abstinence, works of mercy and prayer. All those rules and practices however are meant to do one thing, bring us into a closer, deeper relationship with God, with Jesus. I think that is what our readings are about this morning. They are about what it means to have a close relationship with our God, an honest to goodness, every day, husband and wife, brother and sister, known each other for years, drinking buddy relationship with God.

That is exactly what happens in the reading from Exodus when God is angry with Israel and wants to destroy them. God’s friend Moses tells him it’s not a good idea. This is like one good friend talking to another. Visualize this, the two of them are standing next to each other, Moses has his hand on God’s shoulder and he says, “I know you’re really angry and just want to put an end to them all but you went to all that work to get them out of Egypt and now you want to throw it away? And think about it, the Egyptians will say you never wanted to save them in the first place you just brought them out here to kill them. So you are not going to do your reputation any good. Take a deep breath and settle down a little. And remember those promises you made to Abraham and Isaac that you were going to reward them for the work they did. Those two mean a lot to you, don’t they?”

This doesn’t sound like a conversation between a lowly human being and the almighty God. It’s one person confronting another about what she is intending to do. It’s pretty blunt and very bold. Only really close friends can talk to each other that way. That’s what these readings are all about, being close friends with God.

That is also one of the points the Jesus is making in John’s Gospel. He is saying that the people who don’t believe in him don’t have a friendship with God to start with. He’s making it clear that if you are only interested in your own success, if all you care about is what others think of you, then you’re never going to listen carefully enough to hear God speaking in the midst of your own life. You are focused on the superficial stuff.

We need to recognize that even though the Jesus in John’s Gospel is addressing his Jewish contemporaries. The message can also apply to us. We have this huge advantage over the people who lived in Jesus’ time. We know this man lived, that he died and rose from the dead. That’s a pretty big demonstration of why we should believe in him. But we can have the same problem the Jews did if we don’t pay attention to our own relationship with God and to everything that is going on around us. For even though we have stories of Jesus life, death and resurrection let’s not forget that the Jews had stories of Moses, the Exodus, King David and all the prophets. If Jesus can accuse the Jews of not believing in his signs we have to pay attention to the signs of love and blessing that are part of our lives.

It can be too easily overwhelmed by news reports, negative attitudes from friends, the struggle to live each day with so much to do or maybe not enough to do. Life can seem overwhelming, in any case. We can overlook the beauty, the blessings, the wonderful people, the great little surprises that happen, the moments of peace and the excitement of a new challenge. These are the signs of our times. Will we choose to see them as God’s gifts? Will we be open to a relationship with Jesus that is based on who we are and what is important to us? That’s how friendships are formed. Two people are honest with each other about who they are and what is important to them. It is what Jesus offers us, a deep personal friendship, today in this life. Do we believe in God enough to accept the invitation? Or will we make the same mistake many Jews of Jesus’ own time did and just think he can’t really mean what he’s saying.

Tuesday, Fourth Week of Lent

Scripture Readings for March 28, 2017:

Ezekiel 47:1-9, 12; Psalm 46:2-3,5-6,8-9, John 5:1-16

Every time I read this passage from Ezekiel I love the image. The water that flows from the temple gets deeper and deeper, wider and wider and transforms the desert into a place of abundance even changing the salt water in the sea into fresh. It suggests to me the abundance that comes from God. It says abundance is what God wants for us. A place where there is new fresh fruit every month.

I believe the challenge for us to recognize the gift and appreciate the source. Clearly according to the Gospel not everyone is willing to rejoice over good things. A man who has been lame for 38 years is cured but Pharisees are angered because he picks up his mat on the Sabbath. It makes me wonder if there are good things that we miss because we’re too focused on something else. Are there things we decide are wrong, over react to, while good stuff escapes our notice? I know my personal issue is poor driving behavior. I can become obsessed with other drivers for not following the rules of the road. This includes when people stop the flow of traffic to let others in or let other cars turn into traffic before making their left turn off the road. They are probably trying to be nice. Sometimes I can let it go but other times I find myself upset that they are making up their own rules. So this is a very odd little example but I want to suggest that we all have things that we think of as right. We would say this is the way it’s supposed to be and that righteous attitude blocks our ability to actually experience the fullness of what is happening at the time. I suspect we all have some attitudes like that. The question is, if we can box ourselves in with petty little concerns like that, could we also be missing the big picture? When do our pre-conceptions interfere with what else might be happening. More simply, are we too quick to judge. Do we need to be more open?

I know of only one way to go after this kind of thing. Prayer. Praying to God about all of our life and its experiences. Talking to God and then listening to God’s response. We’re in Lent so this is a great time to put aside some additional time to spend in prayer. Maybe a kind of prayer we haven’t tried before. If you are a rosary person try praying with scripture. If you are great with scripture start examining your everyday experiences and talking to God about them. If you do lots of conversational prayer try the rosary as a meditation. In the end, it is about spending time with God so we can see the world in which we live as a person who has a deep trust in God’s involvement in our life and the lives of everyone around us.

If we’re going to get better at recognizing this world in all its aspects as something God gives us every day we have to spend more time deepening our relationship with God. Because on our own we’ll just reinforce our own prejudices. We’re like the lame man by the pool for 38 years, until Jesus comes along he can’t make it to the healing water in time. Jesus is the one who can heal us. Time spent in prayer is the flowing water that will wash us, heal us and quench our thirst.

Tuesday, Second Week of Lent

Scripture Readings for March 14, 2017:

Isaiah 1:10, 16-20, Psalm 50:8-9, 16-17, 21, 23, Matthew 23:1-12

When I first read today’s readings my reaction was, boy this is really heavy Lenten stuff. The readings present a clear challenge of turning our lives around. Turning from bad behavior to good behavior. But then I got defensive about it, I don’t know that my behavior is all “that bad”. I don’t think I have lots of really crimson sins or scarlet letters that need wiping away. Getting defensive kind of stopped me. Then after a little bit of time I read it again.

This time I noticed the very first words of Isaiah, “Hear the word of the Lord” and I noticed that what the Lord was saying was, “Come now, let’s set things right.” I realized that the readings weren’t so much about us and what we may or may not have done in the past. These readings are about moving forward and how God views our lives. When Isaiah talks about crimson red becoming white as snow or scarlet becoming white as wool it seems to me he is talking about the change itself. The subject is who we are now and not what we have done in the past. It suggests that what is important is our responding to God in this moment regardless of past behavior. That’s why even the worst of sins, those crimson and scarlet things, can become white as snow, because God wants us to be part of God’s plan, part of God’s life right now and going forward.

I think the message here is God doesn’t carry a grudge but makes all things new in this moment. We simply have to listen to God’s instruction today and respond. To do otherwise is to give past behavior power over our present. Worry and guilt about what we’ve done or should have done creates a burden God doesn’t see. It’s why Jesus in the Gospel is so hard on Pharisees and Scribes because they had gotten all caught up in what is required, rules that meant listening more to other people instead of God. As leaders they worried about what other leaders would say, they looked for approval from others and therefore became more concerned about how things looked than for the real needs of other people. They were being hypocrites, betraying their tradition by letting the past tradition supplant what God was doing in the current moment, what people needed right now.

So Jesus’ advice is that we simply work together as servants of each other to help where needed, since none of us has the final answer or the ultimate truth. Our challenge is to “hear the word of the Lord”. That word can come to us in lots of ways: a reading from Scripture, a surprising family situation, a person in need, a friend offering to help. Life itself presents God’s word to us and we have to be ready to grasp it and respond. We have to do what the Psalm says, “Go the right way” and I would add, do it right now. Go the right way, right now. In the present moment respond to what God is asking of us and don’t worry about what came before. When we do that it will be like we wash ourselves clean and as our Psalm says, encounter “the salvation of God.”

Thursday, First Week of Lent

Scripture Readings for March 9, 2017:

Esther C 12, 14-16, 23-25, Psalm 138: 1-3, 7-8, Matthew 7: 7-12

Today’s readings appear to be quite clear about what they are trying to tell us. Rely on God, when you are in need, call to God for help and God will answer and turn your mourning into gladness. It is important for us to recognize our need for God. In more ways than we may care to admit we are dependent on God and should seek God’s help especially when we are desperate, feeling alone or overwhelmed. That is an important fact of the spiritual life.

However, the difficulty I think is we’ve all had times in which we needed help or wanted God to help someone who was clearly in need and the problem we faced or the good we prayed for didn’t happen. So I think the question is, why does Jesus tell us in very plain language that “everyone who asks, receives and the one who seeks finds and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened?” No doubt you have prayed for someone who was dying and they did not recover. You have prayed for people who needed food and assistance yet their needs went unmet. How are we to understand what Jesus and the Psalms say when we read, “I called for help and you answered me.”

I have often heard people try to deal with this situation by saying that God did answer their prayer but God said no. I think there may be other ways to think about this that are closer to what our faith is trying to tell us.

Jesus says in the Gospel, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

Consider Deuteronomy 4:29-30, talking to the Jewish people, God’s chosen people, God says,

“When you have grown old, when you have grown corrupt, doing what Yahweh regards as wrong and so provoking his anger you will vanish from the country which you are crossing the Jordan to possess. You will be utterly destroyed. Yahweh will scatter you among the peoples, only a small number will remain.

If however, from there, you start searching once more for Yahweh your God, if you search for him honestly and sincerely, you will find him. You will suffer everything I have said but in the final days you will return to Yahweh your God and listen to his voice.”

 What this passage suggests is that God isn’t promising the Jewish people a rescue from their devastation, but rather an open door to welcome them home when they seek to be close to him.

I think that we have too readily thought of this asking, seeking and knocking in terms of our physical needs and current situation. I think what Jesus is talking about is deeper. His is a view to our outlook and attitude towards life, our trust in God. Will we be overwhelmed and give up or no matter what happens will we make the best of it? Even if “the best” means working through really difficult situations. I don’t think God promises us that life will be easy, or that he will rescue us from physical peril. I do think God offers us the chance for life to be rich, full of wonder, beauty and meaning. God says if we come looking we will find life offers us that outlook, a faith that allows us to see the big picture and be happy with our place in it. Isn’t that what we really want, a life of meaning, to see where good comes from. To know that we counted for something, that we made a difference in this world. I think we can all put up with difficult and even devastating times if we knew the result was worth it.

Let me give you one simple and concrete example. We’ve all seen stories on TV about the family whose house is destroyed but no one is hurt. All they can say is how glad they are that all the kids are OK and they’ll figure out what to do next because they’re so glad everyone is still together. That’s the kind of deeper meaning and values that are addressed by the seeking that Jesus is talking about. When everything has gone wrong with the way we think things should be and we can we still see that life itself is good and worth living then God has opened the door and we have been given what we were looking for.

Ash Wednesday

Scripture Readings for March 1, 2017:

Joel 2:12-18, Psalm 51: 3-6, 12-14, 17, 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2,

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

Is anyone confused by today’s gospel? Jesus says in three different ways, don’t parade your religious practices around for others to see: don’t trumpet your alms giving, don’t make a show of your praying, and when you fast don’t make it appear like you are fasting. Yet here we are at Ash Wednesday and many of us will receive a great big cross of ashes on our foreheads. That isn’t exactly praying behind closed doors where no one will see. You can be sure everyone is going to see ashes all over your forehead.

So why does this reading question public displays of almsgiving, prayer and fasting when that is exactly what Lent asks us to do? Perhaps this story of Jesus teaching about traditional acts of piety isn’t about being modest or unassuming in our religious practices?

The first thing I noticed when I spent time praying with this reading was the repetition of the word, hypocrites. We have three different religious practices, almsgiving, prayer and fasting. But we have one type of behavior that keeps getting criticized, being a hypocrite. Whatever Jesus may be saying about almsgiving, prayer and fasting we know he finds fault with hypocritical behavior.

Every time the almsgiving, prayer or fasting is secret or hidden, it is rewarded by God.  When it is done for others to see, it is considered hypocritical behavior. I think, Jesus is saying the key to the value of our actions is the attitude we have in doing it. Unlike the hypocrite, our thoughts, our feelings, the hidden inner, secret part of us should match what we do in the open.

Jesus isn’t promoting hiding our almsgiving but rather a giving to others that expresses our real concerns. Jesus isn’t against public prayer he wants our prayer to be about who we are. Jesus isn’t worried people will know we are fasting, he wants us to fast as a way to focus on what we may too often ignore, those inner feelings or attitudes we hide even from ourselves. Jesus wants us to ask ourselves, are we hypocrites? Do we live based on what we believe? Or do we cover our true feelings with phony behavior? Perhaps, it is what we hide deep inside that should concern us most?

So how does Lent and receiving ashes today help? Why the emphasis on almsgiving, prayer and fasting during Lent? The practices of Lent are meant to break into our patterns of behavior. Just as Joel called for trumpets to blow, just as Paul said this was the day of salvation, we need something to get our attention. Coming to get ashes, not eating meat today and on Fridays in Lent, giving money or our time to others, adding a time to pray or changing how we pray during Lent gets our attention so we can practice doing what God’s asks of us. We are being asked to make it intentional so it can become part of who we are.

To use a baseball analogy, think of Lent as our annual spring training. Lent is about getting ready for the regular season. In every sport we understand that to play the game involves learning the skills, doing the drill to get it right. We need to practice what we are going to do during the game so it is part of us. Lent is practice for the game of everyday Catholic life.

We all know everyday life is responsible and rigorous. It is taking care of our children, making decisions at work, building loving relationships, figuring out what is the most important use of our time. The question Jesus poses is: will what we do each day match our Catholic faith? Will what we do, match our innermost feelings and attitudes? What we do with Lent could make a difference. Make the decision to do something different in Lent, put in the practice it takes to make a difference every day.