I preached this a week and a half ago, before Lent even began. But, I think it was good to help people prepare for lent?
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ
Grace and Peace from God our Father and Lord Jesus Christ be with you in the power of the Spirit that draws us all close to him who made us. Have you ever had one of those experiences in life in which God seemed so close to you that it almost felt like you were being embraced by pure love? For some of you it may have been receiving one of the sacraments, maybe in the midst of confirmation, receiving the sacrament of reconciliation or perhaps during your wedding ceremony. For others of you, it may have happened in the midst of an especially difficult time in your life such as a health crisis or a difficult relationship or work situation that forced you to turn to God who gave you peace in the midst of a storm. Still others may have experienced God on a retreat of some kind like the Antioch retreat that some of our students are on this weekend. In my own life, there have been many such times when God seemed so close that I could only feel privileged at being invited into the relationship. From the high of my ordination to the lows of times feeling like a failure with some grades in seminary, to the great retreat experiences I’ve had at Conception Abbey and St. Meinrads, I do feel blessed because of how close God was to me.
And, yet, if I were to look over my life, and I imagine most of you would say the same thing, there have been more times when God seemed an aloof, remote concept than times when God seemed so close that I could get a hug. It seems to me that our scripture passages want us to focus us in this mystery of transcendence and immanence. In some way, each of the readings warn us against attitudes that can get in the way of our relationship with God. Starting with the first reading, we hear the prophet Isaiah say something remarkable. The job of the prophet is to call people back to holiness. I’ll say this till I’m blue in the face. A prophet usually doesn’t predict the future inasmuch as tell people that if they don’t change, the future will be bad. The prophet usually wants to remind people of how good things were in the past so that they’ll stop doing what they’re doing in the present. But, in the passage we just heard, Isaiah tells his people not to think purely in terms of the past. In fact, something new is happening here! He says that in the past, people still grew weary of God, people still sinned. Isaiah even ties it into the Exodus event by reminding the people that, as their ancestors were being freed, they still complained that God wasn’t giving them enough food or good enough food. But, don’t we all have the tendency to do that; to make the past seem so much better than the present. It was so much easier to be holy in the past. We didn’t have the complexities that we do now. But, if we are honest with ourselves, it’s not the complexities that make it difficult to have a close relationship to God. It’s our use of those things. We cannot use an idealized view of history as an obstacle to God.
Next we hear from Paul in the second reading, a reading that took me a couple of times to understand what he was saying. I kept asking myself what he was talking about with all the “yes’s” and “no’s” and Jesus was all “Yes”. Well, Paul had promised to visit the Corinthians in the first letter and this letter is, in part, answering critics there that are basically calling him a liar. Paul is acknowledging that things didn’t go the way he was expecting but also acknowledging that, if he was supposed to get there, nothing would have stopped him from getting there. In some ways, Paul is having to get past past faults in order to evangelize to the people. Our past has a way of handicapping us from living in the present. We let past failures and regrets stop us from living life fully in the present. And, at times, we can feel most frustrated that, when we were failing, when it felt like we most needed God in our life, God was not there. It was like we were on that beach in the footprints poem dragging ourselves along instead of being carried by God. But, if that’s what happened, it’s only because we couldn’t let go of past hurts in order to have a good relationship with God.
Lastly, we reach the gospel. Last week, Fr. Schatz pointed out to us that we were going to hear another healing and so we did. I couldn’t help but ask this week: which is easier to forgive someone or heal someone. And, of course, it’s easier to forgive someone. But, this question that Jesus asks is really tricky for the scribes who knew the bible in and out. On the one hand, only God can forgive sins. But, on the other, in several places throughout the Old Testament, healing the lame is a sign of God’s presence among us. So, which is easier, something that only God can do or something else that only God can do? Then, Jesus goes on to do both of them. The scribes would have been infuriated! But, the amazing thing is that we know that the scribes view is the real problem. Forgiveness is the desire of God, God wants us to forgive one another. And, God doesn’t desire for us to be sick. He wants people to be healthy so that we can glorify him. The scribes were all too willing to put restrictions on God and what God wants. I think we do the same thing in our relationship to God. We wonder why God would want to love us, and demand a sign from him. Or, we think that prayer and holiness are the job of a few, not the vocation of all the baptized. We cannot let our own limited understanding of God stop us from loving God either.
As we draw closer to the great Lenten retreat that we begin this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, let us not let an idealized view of history, all our regrets, or our limited understanding of God stop us from feeling God’s love but, instead, let us once again turn away from sin so that we can turn towards God.