Sunday, February 14, 2016

First Sunday of Lent - C: What can we not give up?

My Dear brothers and sister in Christ

Peace be with you. The question most associated with Lent is, of course, what did you give up? We tend to associate this time most closely with fasting. In my Ash Wednesday homily, I emphasized that the reason we fast during lent is not to lose weight but, rather, to make room for God in prayer and make room to be more loving to others. In the last few years, on Ash Wednesday I’ve noticed a few comments from my friends who no longer practice Catholicism but still remember what we do during lent saying that they are going to give up going to church or give up being a christian for lent. Now, of course, these statements aren’t meant to be taken seriously. Still, I think there’s something in them that our readings from today’s Mass are inviting us to reflect on.

The first reading and gospel both talk about an experience in the desert. The first reading described a creedal statement that the Israelites would have made when offering a portion of the first picking of their crops to God. Basically they say that God guided them into Egypt when they were near death and made them so abundant that the Egyptians were afraid of them and persecuted them. So he guided them through the dangers of the desert to the abundant land they were about to occupy. Basically, Moses is reminding them that, even though they may be afraid to give over the first picking because of the uncertainty of knowing that there will be other pickings and, thus, more food, when they trusted him before he didn’t let them down. Moses is inviting the people into an anamnesis, a way of remembering similar to the way Jesus invites us in each Eucharist to be part of the last supper. History comes alive and we share in the experience of those who came before us. We are invited to “Do this in anamnesis or memory of Jesus.”

The gospel, likewise, tells the familiar story of the Jesus in the desert. If you look at the organization of the temptations, you may notice that St. Luke organizes them differently than St. Mark and St. Matthew. For them, it goes bread, temple, world. For St. Luke, he starts with bread but then puts all the kingdoms of the world before they end in Jerusalem at the Temple. It’s clearly not a memory slip on the part of this evangelist. He is using the temptations in the desert to model the taunts of the soldiers while Jesus is hanging on the cross. Like the devil, they will invite Jesus to care for his own welfare, to make use his power over the government and to subvert the power of God. It’s particularly significant that St. Luke ends at the Temple in Jerusalem, so that Jerusalem becomes the place of culmination. One commentary I read had this beautiful explanation as to why St. Luke puts it last. “On that high place of the Temple, the devil takes the texts of the Torah to offer the dizzying suggestion that Jesus test his sonship against the promise of God to protect him. How clever? For what is the radical obedience of the servant except something very close to just such a blind leap? But Jesus does not succumb to this spiritual vertigo. He returns to the.. text of Deuteronomy ‘You will not test the Lord your God’: not only to rebuke the tempter but also to state the conviction of authentic faith.”

On Ash Wednesday, I said that the point of fasting is to make room in our busy lives for God, which is somewhat true. But, today we hear an even deeper, even more challenging part. Fasting reminds us of that which we cannot fast. We, Americans, aren’t accustomed to thinking in this way. We tend to be better collectors who, may, occasionally go through and throw things out or give them away to the poor but, for the most part, we collect more and more stuff. The desert experience of fasting in Lent, rather, challenges us to think in terms of who we cannot give up. Jesus is offered the love of pleasure in the offer of bread, the love of possessions in the offer of the world, and the love of glory on the parapet or peak of the temple. He turns them down with the same love that he showed from the cross when, he said, “Father into your hands, I commend my spirit.”

We show our devotion to God through daily personal prayer, through reaching out in love to the suffering and sorrowing, through gathering for the eucharist, and through celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation. In each of these, we approach God with humility, setting aside our own selfish desires, and humbly reminding ourselves that we worship God alone and we do not put him to the test.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time - C

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary - C
Feeling overwhelmed by God

My Dear friends in Christ
Peace be with you. What kind of summer job have you had? When I was in college, I had a variety. One summer, I had two. I worked in the afternoon and early evening delivering medications to various nursing homes throughout Central Iowa. Very few things are more awkward than bumping into an attractive classmate who’s been visiting her elderly grandmother while you’re delivering four packages of adult diapers. My other job took place from 6:30 in the morning until 2:00 or 2:30 in the afternoon as a cook at a local greasy spoon restaurant. I had worked there in high school as a dishwasher and had learned how to cook in the cafeteria in college so I felt like I was prepared for this job. Well, I wasn’t. In a college cafeteria, you make a lot of one thing for people and they have little choice but to eat that. At a restaurant, even a little greasy spoon diner like this one, people ordered all kinds of things to be prepared in all kinds of ways and they wanted them as fast as possible. The first day, the owner told me that he’d come back and help if I ever fell behind...more like when I fell behind because he helped every day for the first severa weeks that I was there. In fact, I remember one day when I was behind but trying not to ask for help that I fell so far behind that the waitresses had to ask the owner to help. He came back and sternly asked why I hadn’t asked for help to which I apologized and said I wanted to work it out. He bailed me out and then, again, sternly asked me to just ask for help when I’m falling behind. Finally, at the end of July, there was one Monday when it all clicked for me. The orders came at a pace that I could handle them and I was getting the food out reasonably well. I only made three or four easily correctable mistakes. Mistakes are killer when you’re trying not to fall behind. I made it past the lunch rush and walked out to see the owner smiling at me. I had finally made it.
I couldn’t help but notice that in all three of today’s readings, the author is describing an encounter with God. In the first reading, Isaiah’s encounter is very much shrouded in the expectations of the people of the Old Testament. For them, an encounter with God was like playing with fire. We often associate fire with the devil but the word “Seraphim”, which the first reading used to describe the angel, comes from two Hebrew words meaning “the fiery ones” or “the burning ones”. God, who is never described, sits on a throne flanked by these burning, multi-winged entities who are chanting the same words we use in the midst of the eucharistic prayer “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts.” Our Jewish brothers and sisters pray this prayer, called the qedosh, as part of several of their services. It emphasizes God’s otherness and transendence. One commentary I read noted a “chasm between God’s holiness and human sinfulness” which is emphasized in this reading. “It is the Lord who bridges this gap (by having the seraphim burn away the uncleanness of Isaiah’s lips) and God outfits the prophet with the moral integrity needed for his ministry.”
Likewise in the gospel, St. Luke tells a story that seems to merge stories from several other places in the gospels. Unlike Mark and Matthew who simply have Jesus call Peter, James, and John as they are fishing to come and follow him, St. Luke includes a story about a miraculous catch of fish that foreshadows the life he is calling them to be as fishers of people through the word of God. And, like Isaiah in the first reading, Peter realizes at one point that he is in the presence of God and has a moment of utter humility. “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
Yet, I think Paul has the harshest version of humility in the second reading from his letter to the Corinthians. Most Biblical scholars hear in this part of Paul’s letter an early creed that may have been part of the Christian gathering. But, Paul adds some things at the end about his calling. In our translation, Paul describes himself as “born abnormally.” Most of the commentaries that I read said that a better translation would be born “as if to an abortion” or “as if stillborn.” The commentators think that Paul’s opponents were using these types of phrases to make fun of the fact that Paul wasn’t very good looking, sort of the biblical equivalent of bullying. If it’s true, Paul finds a way to spin this phrase in a positive way by using it to describe how he was reborn when he moved from persecuting christians to being incredibly effective at preaching so they may believe.

There are times in our lives when we aren’t listening to the will of God and things aren’t going well for us. God has a way, like he did with St. Paul, of knocking us off our donkeys and inviting us to change the course of our lives. But, there are also times when we know we are doing the will of God and life is just hard. Areas of disagreement with a boyfriend or girlfriend or parts of our job or our education that suck are a couple of examples. We may be tempted, in those situations, to give up too easily when we feel overwhelmed. If so, hear the word of the Lord in these three readings: ask God to heal you and direct you like Isaiah did, do the best you can with the gifts God has given you like St. Peter did, and remind yourself that you’re using the gifts God has given you to the best of your ability like St. Paul did.