Lazurus_come_outI received one of ‘those emails’ from a friend saying that he was in trouble. He said he had forgotten to tell me of his trip to Kiev where, according to the email, he had been held up at gunpoint, taking his money and credit cards and plane tickets, but not his passport. Now he was trapped over there, and the police were telling him that they would sort things out in about three week’s time, but if I had the kindness to send him $2,850, he could would be sure to refund me my money as soon as he was back home. Obviously, I did not rush to the bank to wire him the money. But I like to think that if my friend was really in trouble, I would do whatever I could do to help out. Most of us would, wouldn’t we? A friend calls with a diagnosis of cancer – we’re at their house “*snap” like that. Our daughter calls with the news of a miscarriage, “*” – we’re over before they can hang up the phone. A confidant gets a pink slip in the mail –“*” – we’re there. Linguists say it is the most powerful word in the human vocabulary, and people love to respond to it. “HELP!” “Help! I need you!” and “*” – we are there.

So I have long puzzled over this line in today’s gospel: “So when he (Jesus) heard that he (Lazarus) was ill, he stayed two days in the place where he was…” On the level of human kindness, that makes no sense. This was a plea for HELP from two of his closest friends, and ones who John tells us Jesus loves. Why not drop everything? On the level of the character of Jesus – who was always so present to everyone who was in need – it makes no sense. It is completely out of character. But, as the last of the seven signs in John’s gospel, and perhaps only there, it makes perfect sense.

Think of the two stories the past two weeks – the woman at the well and the man born blind. In both cases, there was a gradual change, a gradual coming to see, to believe, to understand who Jesus truly was. A man. Greater than Jacob. A prophet. One from God. The one who told me everything I ever did. The messiah. The Lord. Each of those titles marked the movement of faith in the woman and the man. Each showed an increasing awareness of who Jesus was and what he wanted to do in their lives. And so, this final sign, this final story in John’s gospel is meant to reveal to us the fullness of who Jesus is.

Martha sets up the teaching when she catches Jesus far from the crowd of mourners. “If you had been here…. but even now, I am sure that God will give you whatever you ask.” “DO YOU BELIEVE that I am the resurrection and the life?”comes the question from Jesus. Because that is what I need you to know, to trust, and to embrace. Again, the question gets posed, this time from Mary – “Why this death, why this sadness. If you had been here…”

And here is the key. We are told that Jesus becomes ‘perturbed’ twice in the presence of death – first when he faces it in the tears of Mary. And secondly when he faces the tomb itself. The Greek word literally means a ‘snorting kind of indignation’. In the presence of death, the son of God becomes indignant. Think about that. The reaction of Jesus in the face of death is anger. It is to be disturbed. It is to snort in indignation. This is not right. This grief, this sorrow, this lack of life, this tomb – it is not how it should be. And the Lord of LIFE reacts with the passion of God himself toward death – anger, struggle, indignation. Death is not meant to have the last word. Sorrow, though as real as the tears that he himself sheds over Lazarus’ death, is not the goal of creation. And from the depth of his spirit comes a series of commands – “Take away the stone.” “Lazarus, come out.” “Untie him and let him go.”

And now we know why Jesus delayed his coming. Jesus delayed his coming to the aid of Lazarus so that he might do something more than just raise him from his sickbed. He did not respond to the initial cry for help so that he could respond to that universal cry for help in each of us in the face of death. Death will not be the final end for those who put their faith in him. “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die”. THAT is what Jesus wanted us to know in this encounter – that every experience of death is swallowed up in victory.

This week, let the Lord of life stand before whatever is ‘death-like’ in you, whatever is still, lifeless, entombed, awaiting a word of command. Feel him snorting, indignantly at all that is dead in you. Hear him call you by name, and bid YOU – come out. Then leave the dark of sin and death behind. This is what Jesus still waits to do, why he still delays his coming. This is what He does best. “I am the resurrection and the Life.” Do YOU believe this? Then, with Lazarus – come out of the tomb.

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three monkeysThe iconic images of the three monkeys – See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil – certainly contain some decent advice for our living. In the best interpretation of those axioms, they are a choice not to consciously be involved in things that are less than our truest and best selves. Make the choice not to look at things which will tempt you, listen to things that will degrade one another, say things that will be harmful or hateful to others. We get that.

But it can also be a way of traveling through life as spectators, as accomplices in a wide variety of evil because we choose NOT to be involved in the ‘stuff’ of life. It is easy to see this in the political sphere, while doing Social Justices courses in the seminary. How many dictators or corrupt regimes did we as the United States support in the 60’s and 70’s because it was ‘in our best interest’, while turning a blind eye to the pictures of the atrocities, a deaf ear to cries of the victims, muting our voices of protest because it will cost us access to oil, to minerals, to airbases vital to our strategic interests.

Closer to home, I confess, I am challenged by the readings of Lent 4.5, because they make me AWARE of the concrete effects of my use of food, water, energy and the like. I lived quite comfortably not seeing that it took 1,500 gallons of water to make one pound of beef. I loved not hearing that my energy uses consumes the equivalent of 20 lbs of coal a day. In a different, but connected vein, it was hard for me this week to accept that my not speaking out to my legislators made me complicit in the execution of another man who needed to be kept behind bars because of his deeds, but not killed to prove murder is wrong.

See no evil. Speak no evil. Hear no evil. – These are not always the best way to go through life. Ask the blind man who was cured by Jesus in today’s gospel. Because those dynamics swirl around him.

The blind man’s parents make the choice to ‘speak no evil’ – “He is of age, ask him.” They knew they were likely to be expelled from the temple if they spoke up. So they throw their son under the bus in their conversation with the Pharisees. “He can speak for himself.” Don’t get us involved. It will cost us everything if we are thrown out of the temple.

The Pharisees choose the opposite – to “hear and see no good. Unwilling to take the blind man’s testimony that he indeed had been born blind and now was cured by Jesus – their ‘seeking of the truth’ was the exact opposite – an increasing hardening of their hearts. The more the blind man stood his ground on the miracle and who had done it, the more deaf they were to accept the logical consequence – that Jesus is more than a prophet. The evidence was right before their eyes – they knew this beggar, they had seen how blind he was, yet, because this too would cost them, would force a choice of belief upon them, they chose NOT to see and to hear his testimony.

The blind man is the only one whose behavior is exemplary. He chooses to listen to Jesus when he calls him aside and smears the mud so he can see. He chooses to see, to explore the implications of his healing – “I just know this – I was blind but now I see.” But he doesn’t stop there – he keeps asking: “What does that mean about Jesus? And what does that mean about my life? Bit by bit, he chooses to speak up in ever deepening testimony about Jesus. He is: The man called Jesus; a prophet; a man from God; and finally Lord.

See no evil. Speak no evil. Hear no evil. How seductive those cute little axioms are. How easy a path they open for us that is NOT involved in the good of this world. Maybe the simple way to pray into this gospel is to pay attention to your resistances. What DON’T you want to see? When do you flip the channels on the news station? What articles in the paper do you skip over on a consistent basis because you know they will challenge your comfort zone? Likewise, what don’t you want to hear about? What truth in the Lent 4.5 readings, in the words from the Pope’s meeting with President Obama splashed across the pages, or even from our spouse/roommate as they gently challenge our behaviors are you being invited to let change your heart and your behaviors. Finally, will you speak out in the political arena, even though it is ‘just’ a municipal election on April 8th?

Because the same Lord who cured the blind man awaits us at this table and bids us to see, to hear and to speak, that all our brothers and sisters might know the love and life we know in Jesus.

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empty wellDr. Tom Wagner, a friend of mine, and also a counselor, gave a presentation on resilience and how you keep on going when times are difficult. In the course of that talk, he used an image that aptly describes anyone who has ever wrestled with their own desire to be loved by a parent/sibling, friend/boy/girl friend who did not love them back, or least, who did not love them back in the same way they wanted to be loved. He describes that process as “Going to an empty well.” You’ve tried for years to have your mom or dad ‘get you’ and understand you; you long to come to some kind of forgiveness for wrongs addressed or redressed; and experience some kind of healing from them. But they don’t seem either aware or capable of filling that wound within you. And no matter what you try, how hard you strive to make the other ‘love you like you think you need to be loved’, it doesn’t happen. The well is empty. But here’s the kicker, he says. We keep trying, don’t we? We keep going back to an empty well, expecting there to be water there. We do a hundred DIFFERENT things to get their affection, to earn their love, to become the favored one, never fully ‘getting’ that no matter how many times you let that bucket down the well, there is just no water there.

The Samaritan woman knew all about trying to get water from an empty well. She was now on her sixth attempt to find water from the well of a relationship. Five times she had ventured into that relationship called marriage, hoping that somehow, this time would be different, that somehow, in giving herself away, perhaps too easily, she would find water. And now, she has seemingly even given up on that. She comes to the well during the hottest part of the day – because she knows there will be no one there. No one to ask, even if they ask with a kindly heart (which most of the time they wouldn’t), how THIS marriage is going? No one to rub salt into a wound that never seemed to disappear. No one to shame her and make her face the emptiness of years of going to the well expecting love and finding nothing.

John, in perhaps the most amazing and tender gospel story ever told, wants us to see ourselves in this widow. And he wants US to be offered the living water that this woman was offered. So he gently takes us where Jesus took the woman.

You can so picture the scene. Jesus starts the conversation with her. She is shocked: she’s a woman, she’s a Samaritan and she is gathering water at a time when no one gathers water. Strikes one, two and three. And he begins by inviting HER to be generous. “Give me a drink.” She pushes back, because it is the only thing she knows – how to protect herself, how to keep the wall up. “How can you ask me for a drink?” Jesus presses on – “If you ask me, I will give you living water.” Not the stuff of empty wells, not the stuff of the broken dreams and the broken promises of your marriages – but a WATER that SPRINGS UP within you for life eternal. That is what I want for you. That is my thirst for you. But you have to stop going to the empty wells of your life.

Obviously, there is a lot more to John’s story of the woman. But what if we stopped there this week, and spent some time looking at how WE are still going to empty wells.

• We want our marriage to be a great thing, but he left the washrag on the middle of the shower floor again. And he’ll never learn unless I beat him over the head about that. (We know how effective THAT is!)
• We long for connection, but we seek it via texted conversations while sitting at a table with three other live human beings that you could talk to. (I see this all the time at the Newman Center.)
• We spend hours of time surfing Facebook, typing in witty comments to people’s postings, adding our own brilliant thoughts about life, but at the end of the day, we’ve never opened our hearts to anyone about the things we fear, the hurts in our hearts, the dreams we hope for. Facebook is an interesting well, a great way to share pictures and get information ‘out there’. But unless it connects me to a real life person, it becomes an empty well.
• In our Lent 4.5 this week – I was shocked to find out the amount of water it takes to grow one pound of beef – 1,500 gallons. To continue down that path of inequality in water consumption is an empty well for our planet
• Finally, even when we want a relationship with Jesus, it takes work. Prayer, like conversation, demands consistency of energy, of effort, of vulnerability and sharing. If I think my one hour of mass on Sunday is enough praying for the week, then even that, though a good start, is an empty well. There will be no water there that wells up within us without that relationship that is deep and sustained.

Tom Wagner taught me a lot about empty wells. So did Jesus. Mostly, they taught me not to GO THERE. Don’t go to an empty well, expecting water, because an empty well cannot give you what your heart and soul desires. You can visit the parent, the family member, the acquaintance who has always been an empty well for you, but don’t visit them expecting ‘water’. Visit them because it is what you choose to do and how you choose to love them.

This week – get in touch with both your thirsts and your empty wells – all the places you are tempted to go expecting water. Recognize them for what they are – empty. And, like the woman at the well, realize that your Lord is thirsting for YOU, wanting to give you LIVING Water. Enter, as did the woman, in that relationship with Jesus that becomes LIVING WATER within you.

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comfort zoneAbram went as the Lord directed him. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it. Leave the land of your kinfolk and your Father’s house – leave all that you call ‘home.’ Many of us have done that – because of marriage, because we left home for college, because of a new job opportunity, because our health requires a different climate, because of a new assignment in the priesthood. It strikes me that the physical moving is the easy part. We get used to the new neighborhood, the new school, the new rectory, the new routines to our lives. In all my leavings, the most in depth changes are not due to the physical landscapes I have left. There are lands even more difficult to walk away from than “home”.

The most difficult land of all to leave goes by a kindly sounding phrase: your comfort zone. We know what is expected of us in our comfort zones. We know who we are, surrounded by neighbors and family members. Even the daily decisions about faith are made easier when everyone around us is more or less on the same page. No one will challenge us, too much here. And if they do, we’ll shrug them off as ‘one of those crazy people’ or one of those prophets, or even as a ‘living saint’ – because that takes US off the hook. That is extraordinary discipleship they are living. No way God could be calling little old ordinary ME to that stuff.

Even the disciplines of Lent become ‘familiar comfort zones.’ I’ll give up my alcohol, my chocolates, my eating between meals. I choose my extra time of prayer, my extra generosity to the poor, my extra efforts to be patient and helpful to the crabby neighbor. Yet somehow, those practices, even with the best of intent, never really transform us, they never transfigure our living the way Jesus was transfigured on the mountain.

• We fear to leave the land of self-will to embrace the land of surrender.
• It is so hard to leave the comfort zone of hoarding and embrace the land of simplicity, as we are being urged to do with Lent 4.5.
• We hope to leave the land of fear to walk in the land of trust.

But until we see Christ for whom He is – the one who calls us to absolute discipleship – I don’t know if we’ll ever have the courage to leave our comfort zones. The disciples did not want to leave the mountain. “It is good, Lord, for us to be here.” We know who you are and who we are. You, whom we have followed – you are more than what we hoped you would be. Let us stay here!

And yet, when they hear the voice: “They fell to the ground and were very much afraid,” They understood there was more to this seeing, an invitation to leave the comfort of the vision and the mountain top. Matthew is anxious to tell us two important truths about what gets the disciples back on their feet. One, they hear Jesus calling them, telling them “Do not be afraid.” And two, “When the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone. If we really trust it is Jesus calling us, and if we really keep our eyes focused on him, then it becomes easier to leave our comfort zones.

I confess, I was a bit resistant to Lent 4.5 when Barry Buchek proposed it two years ago, when it was too late to incorporate it into our Lenten plans. And a bit resistant when Kathy Dolson said: Let’s start recycling and composting at fish fries? Both of those seemed like crazy talk. It would have been much cheaper in a time when we are counting every penny, to say no. But they kept praying and keeping their eyes on Jesus. And I did the same. And now we’re doing both of them. 44 people are in small groups, studying and reflecting and praying about how to live a sustainable lifestyle as a response to the God of love. Two fish fries under our belts and only two grocery-bag sized containers going to the landfill. And though it is not exactly the same depth of commitment that Jesus makes when he leaves the mountain to go to the hill of Calvary, it is a step out of our comfort zone as a parish and as individuals. (I cannot think about ever using a plastic bag at a grocery store again. And since I always would forget to bring them, the last act of my putting food away is to put the reusable bags into my car. I am not done till that is done.)

This 2nd week of Lent, our Lord invites us, as he invited Abram and Peter, James and John, to leave our comfort zones, to leave the peace of the mountain top, and to journey the long road to Calvary. Perhaps the first step may be one suggested in this weekend’s Lent 4.5 bulletin. Maybe it will be the decision to keep your eyes focused on seeing Jesus alone in your prayer. But make no mistake: Jesus calls us, too, in our time and our space, to follow him down the mountain, away from our comfort zones – all the way to our own hills of Calvary, of trusting him with all we are.

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Psalm23 crossA married couple from Christian Family Camp shared a story of a time when their daughter was struggling with Anorexia Nervosa. I knew about the disease, but I did not know how tough it is. Statistics say that between 5-20% of individuals struggling with anorexia nervosa will die. And that it has one of the highest death rates of any mental health condition. They did all the right things as parents. They:
• Sought out medical help.
• They read all they could about the disease.
• Went to shared counseling with their daughter.
• Went to individual counseling.
• Got people to pray with and for them.
• Got people to pray with and for their daughter.
They did everything in the book that parents need to do for their daughter. But they also did something else that they say made all the difference, at least for them.

They composed a list of “Go To” scripture passages, lines from the bible that they would take up as a kind of mantra on a given day, to help ‘feed’ and sustain their spirits. If it was a good day, usually they found something from the book of Psalms: “Lord our God, how great is your name in all the earth.” If it was a tough day, they’d go to the words of St. Paul: “I am convinced that nothing can separate us from the Love of God.” When they were tempted to despair of any progress or healing, they’d pull out the words of Jesus: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Anytime the road seemed dark, and the prognosis was not good, and they were having a tough time of it, they’d pull out that list, and they’d find the passage that seemed to fit the need and the day, and they would just kind of ‘wear’ that passage like a garment. They’d repeat it over and over, letting it bring rest to their souls, and calmness to their fears, and light to the struggle. And though their daughter has made a complete recovery (rare in this disease) the list STILL remains on their refrigerator door, as a foundation of their spiritual journey.

What are your ‘go to’ scripture passages? I ask because my friends were not the only ones to have such a list. In today’s gospel, you hear three of Jesus’ “GO TO” passages – words of scripture that he has memorized, ready to pull out when times were tough, when he was tempted to lose sight of the bigger picture of God’s love, tempted to do things his way, tempted to rely on his own power and not God’s.

And all three of them say the same thing, don’t they?
• One does not live on bread alone, but on every word from the mouth of God.
• You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.
• The Lord your God, you shall worship, and him alone you shall serve.

They say: “God, my life is not my own. Nor is it mine to decide what truly feeds my spirit. Or to decide what is good. Or to let ME be the arbiter of power, the center of everything.” And like a mantle of protection, like clothes that are worn to keep one warm from the winter’s cold, like an umbrella to keep the rain away, his Go-To passages allow him to be faithful to who he knows himself to be, and who he knows his God to be.

If you have such a list, pull it out. Post in on the refrigerator door. If not, I invite you to find four “go-to” passages to carry YOU through this Lenten Season. (Internet – a easy shortcut)

One for PERSPECTIVE – who are you and who is God;
One for OBEDIENCE – to keep you, like Jesus, not putting God to the test;
One for PRAISE AND THANKSGIVING – to acknowledge the blessings of the days and years;
And one for TRUST – that you might not fear the dark times.
(at the 11 am mass only)
CONFIRMATION STUDENTS: Chose one “GO TO passage in preparation for the day of confirmation: perhaps from Timothy – “Stir into the flame the gifts of the spirit you received with the imposition of hands.” Perhaps something else..
CONFIRMATION SPONSORS: pick one phrase for your candidate, symbolic of your desire for them in their spiritual life.

Matthew reports that, after Jesus uses his ‘Go-To’ passages, “The devil left him, and behold, angels ministered to him.” That is what my friends knew in that two year journey with their daughter’s illness. It is what I have known in my life as a priest and a believer. The devil flees, and angels come and minister. And that is what you and I are invited to discover during these forty days…

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enoughThere were usually two situations in my life where I heard the words: “That’s enough.” The first was when I was fighting with my older or younger brother. “That’s enough” was the command by mom or dad to cease and desist. The immediate retort when I was the victim avenging the wrong or perceived wrong: “NO, it is not ENOUGH. They haven’t suffered as much as I suffered.” Somehow, in the world of getting even, ENOUGH is not a vocabulary word that works. The other time for enough was when I was dishing out the ice cream for the late night snack. Mom would look disapprovingly at the bowl that I was eagerly filling with ice cream – and say: “ENOUGH!” Funny thing, to my sweet tooth and hungry stomach, it never looked like enough.

As we begin this holy season of Lent, I invite you to reflect on the question, “What is enough?”
• What is enough entertainment?
• What is enough money?
• What is enough success?
• What is enough stuff?
• What is enough love?

For most of us, the unconscious synonym for “enough” is “more”. That certainly was my experience growing up, and if I am honest, is still a part of what I am tempted toward.

“I don’t know exactly how friends I need, but I know it is more than what I have now. I don’t know how much money I need, but I know it is more than I have now.” I don’t know how much (fill in your own blank here) success… \popularity… \stuff… \love I need, but I am pretty dang sure that it is MORE than I have right now.

But here is the great truth about MORE. You never get there. More begets a desire for even more. And even more. And in that frantic search for more, we miss what is most real, because we are always looking beyond what we already have and possess.

One of the blessings of the threefold Lenten discipline is that it helps teach us what enough is.
• As I take more time for silence in prayer… I sit in the presence of the One who is enough
• As I leave unfulfilled some of my appetites and desires in my fasting… I realize how much I did not need the chocolate or the snack or the facebook app on my cell phone…
• As I give away more of the money that fills my wallet and the stuff in the closet… I realize that what St. Basil said centuries ago still rings true. “The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”

Jesus knew this truth. As long as we define “enough” as “more” – we’ll never know the freedom of the sons and daughters of God. We’ll never know the joy of not being owned by our possessions.

What would it be like to go through this Lent with a different phrase in our hearts? Instead of the questions: Is it enough? Do I have enough? When will I have enough? What would happen if we lived each day saying: “I have just enough…”

• I have just enough time to spend with my son’s and his homework before dinner…
• I have just enough money in my wallet to give to the beggar who asks in the Walgreens parking lot, or to SS. Peter and Paul Homeless shelter during Homelessness Awareness week at UMSL.
• I have just enough shoes in my possession to contribute to the Shoe Man challenge project.
• I have just enough patience to listen to a roommate’s struggle with her family; with his relationship; with their difficulty in a particular class.
• I have just enough time before my next class to rest in the presence of the One who is always ENOUGH for me.

And if we do so, I suspect that life will be much different at the end of these 40 days – because we will KNOW that God is always enough…

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Are you a worrier?

Published on 02. Mar, 2014 by in Sunday Homilies


bird in snowThe students from Western Michigan University who are staying here for their service trip told me an interesting fact.  They have had over 100 inches of snow on Campus this year.  That kind of puts our impending snow storm into perspective.  But that factoid also got me to wondering: “What do birds eat when there are several feet of snow on the ground?”  When Jesus tells us to ‘look at the birds of the air that neither sow nor reap” was he thinking of 100 inches of snow?  I don’t know. But if I was a bird living in Kalamazoo, MI, I would be nervous this winter, despite what Jesus tells me about God watching over me. 

 “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.”  “Really?  That’s easy for you to say.  You’re the son of God.  But for us, it is not so easy.”  Maybe it is a middle child thing, but I worry about a lot of things: 

·   We only have a little Ice Melt left – and there is a big storm coming and Schulte Hardware has been out of it for weeks. 

·   Our enrollment has been slowly declining in the school, and we could use about 8 more students to help turn things around.  Where will we find them?

·   Will the bills in the Missouri legislature address the future of our Normandy school district and neighborhood?  How will it affect our Saint Ann School?

And so it goes.  It is so easy to worry about so many things. 

But into that human experience of worry, which we all know on some level, Jesus tells us: “Make sure you are worrying about the RIGHT things.”  We can get so bent out of shape about things that DON’T matter in the long run.  Clothing, possessions, what to eat or drink – we can end up serving them, to the exclusion of what is of ultimate importance.  There is only one thing to worry about, one thing to wrap our energy and thoughts around:  Seek first, the kingdom of God and his righteousness – and then everything else will flow. 

In our time, in that same vein, Pope Francis has invited us to look at our entanglements with and dependence on material possessions.  Do not rely upon them for your security, he tells us.  Possessions can belost, destroyed and stolen.  They do not last forever.  One wag once said:  “I can tell you one thing that you will never see in your life – a funeral possession where the hearse is followed by a u-haul.”  We laugh, but there is a truth there.  All that we can ‘take with us’ are the intangibles of the heart – our love, our service, the way we cared for and responded to the needs of our neighbors.  The way we lived responsibly as members of a global community.

To that end, this Wednesday begins our parish experience of Lent 4.5.  In that, we are invited to look at the pattern of our consumption – both external and internal, there to find a simplicity of heart that is a gospel response to our loving God.  One of the ways we will do that corporately as a parish you will begin to see at our fish fries.  Thanks to the efforts of a parishioner, Kathy Dolson, we are phasing out all of our #5 style plastics – all the ‘paper products’ that are non-recyclable.  In addition, though it might not happen the first week, we will be working toward composting the food wastes, so that we do not send items to our landfills that can instead become fertilizer.  All in all, some 2,000 plates, knives and forks and cups will all be earth friendly, sustainable products, going into composting/recycling facilities and not the trash.  It will cut a bit into our bottom line, but, it is the gospel thing to do.

And you, how will you learn to seek first the kingdom of God this week?  How will you train your heart to let go of all the things that we worry about that do not last and do not build a more just planet?  How will you serve God and not mammon?  This week’s Lent 4.5 insert gives some very practical, doable strategies for doing just that. 

Do not worry about your life, what you are to wear, what you are to eat or drink.  Whether you are a bird in Kalamazoo, MI with its 100 inches of snow, or a parishioner sitting in a [different] pew [because of Snowmaggedon II] – know that God has your back this week.  And next week.  And all the ones after that.  Which frees all of us to be busy about seeking first the kingdom of God…

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SinatraHoffmanThe famous actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman was recently found dead in his apartment, from all looks of things due to an overdose of heroin. Though I know nothing of his personal story, whether he is catholic or not, the question that some might ask of a life with so much promise that ended so tragically is: “Would you give him a Catholic funeral mass?” It seems like an odd question to ask. But here is what started me thinking about that. On May 14, 1998, Francis Albert Sinatra died. No one could wrap themselves around a song like him. When “old blue eyes” sang, it was amazing. AND, when Frank Sinatra was accorded a Catholic funeral, there was quite a scandal.

“Money talks,” the cynics said. He minimally met the requirements for a Catholic burial, in that, he was baptized a Catholic. But he seldom, if ever, darkened the doors of a church. He had a very public adultery while married to his first wife, who he then divorced to marry the object of his affair. In fact, he had 4 marriages and three divorces total, (though all were eventually annulled and his final marriage was recognized in the church.) He was a womanizer, he had connections to the mob, he had people ‘beat up’, he abused women – all those things disqualified him in many people’s minds from a Catholic funeral.

But there are two reasons why I think the church was absolutely correct and ‘on’ gospel message to give him a Catholic burial and funeral mass. When Jesus tells us to ‘love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us”, they – the enemy – are not the point. WE are. Under the imperative Jesus gave to US, We are to pray for the enemy, those who persecute us. We are to give a Christian burial and mass to the unworthy and the scandalous. We are to reach out to those whose lives were less than exemplary. Why? We do so, not to endorse their way of life, but to endorse OURS.

That is what it means to ‘be a son and daughter of God.” We will love them as we are loved – by a God who lets his sun shine on the good and bad alike, who rains on the just and the unjust. Sinatra got a catholic burial, because as much as we might like to, as much as we’d be tempted to, WE will not hate our enemies. WE will pray for those of our own who have persecuted us by their behavior. We refuse to let them dictate to us who WE are. That is the first part of today’s gospel message.

And secondly, it was fitting to give him a catholic funeral because who are we to short circuit the process of grace. If God can move in the heart of a hardened criminal dying to the left of his son on the cross; if the prodigal son can find his way home; if the Samaritan Woman at the well and Zacchaeus can meet the Lord in a way that completely changes them; if Augustine who was a wild child, if Ignatius, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day all have found their way home, then God ALWAYS has the last word in the lives of his people. And we can never know what goes on in the human heart in the last seconds of their existence.

SO the question is never about the Francis Albert Sinatra’s or the Philip Seymour Hoffman’s of our world – and the many before him and the many after him – and whether they deserve a Christian Burial in the church. Rather, the question is always this: What are we about? Will WE let the sun shine on the good and the bad, will we rain God’s love upon the just and the unjust alike? THAT is where the question always lies.

I was not asked to do a funeral for Philip Seymour Hoffmann. I’d like to think that I would have said “Yes” *snap – just like that. I am asked, though, every day, to love my enemies and to do good to those who hate me, not because it is easy or convenient or even because it feels good. I am called to do it because that is exactly how God loves all of his creatures. So, as Jesus tells us, “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

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olympiansPerhaps you are a fan of the winter Olympics. I find myself tuning in, late at night before heading up to sleep. If you caught any of the figure skating competition, you’ll notice two sets of scores. Technical Merit. Did they do the required triple lutz and triple axel movements? Did they perform the correct number of spins moves and footwork requirements? Did they land the toe loops on the correct inside or outside edge of their skates? The first set of scores make sure they did what was required of them.

The second set of scores –Artistic Merit [officially called Component Scores] – go so much further beyond the technical requirements, don’t they? Was the program captivating? Was there a flow to the loops and spins and jumps that made the routine delightful to watch? Was it obvious that they put their entire heart and soul into their routine? Did they go beyond the required elements to craft a thing of beauty and love? That is the second set of scores: Artistic merit – that will make or break an Olympic champion.

It’s hard for me not to hear today’s gospel in light of those two categories for judging figure skaters – Technical and Artistic Merit. In life, most of us do well in the technical merit stage: You shall not kill. Got it. No blood on these hands. You shall not commit adultery. No one has shared my bed but my spouse. You shall not take a false oath. Heck, I have never even been in a courtroom, except for jury duty. Our scores on technical merit usually do just fine.

But, Jesus reminds us, that is not the ONLY level on which we are to be held accountable for our actions. Unless your righteousness SURPASSES the scribes and Pharisees, he says, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. There is another level of walking through this life beyond the mere obeying of duty. And whether you call that artistic merit or the call to holiness, today’s scriptures remind us that salvation is not known by technical merit alone.

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets,” Jesus tells us. Murder, Adultery, divorce, false witness – all those activities wreak havoc on the life of communities and the individuals effected by them. But Jesus calls us to more: “I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill.” It is not just murder that is prohibited, but the anger that leads to it; not just adultery, but the lust that leads to it. Couples can strictly keep the fidelity of their marriage vows yet not keep the promise to deeply, passionately love the other person in a bond that grows and deepens each day.

So, what if all the Olympic cameras were on you or me these days? What if my every decision, every conversation, every choice, was being judged on the more difficult “Artistic merit.” Would people see in us something that is beautiful, compelling, grace-filled and inspiring? Is there a beauty to our life, a flow through it that is gracious and merciful?

• I doubt that the cameras would catch us killing anyone. But would they catch us in a conversation, saying something about someone that kills their reputation? Would the cameras find our words building up and encouraging; or would they capture hurtful words that crush someone’s spirit.
• In my marriage, would the camera angles show the work that it takes to keep a pool of affection for my spouse… the negotiating how we argue; the forgiveness; the time to laugh?
• And when we fail or fall, would they see us get up. Would they see that we remembered our dignity even when we trip up – or get tripped up – and our willingness to begin again?
• Would they know in you a love that is Olympian – faster to love, higher to serve, stronger to give all you are? Would they see a heart that has trained and prepared for a life of holiness and love?

Whether or not you like Olympic figure skating, it does provide a reminder to us. To God, there is so much more than WHAT we do, the letter of the law, the technical merit. It also matters greatly to God HOW we do it. May our lives be lives of beauty and love and integrity.

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saltIn a world where there are a thousand combinations of spices and herbs to flavor food, salt is pretty passé. And for those who have high blood pressure, salt is pretty prohibited – too much is bad for you. So, though I get the image of ‘salt of the earth’, I wondered if I could improve on Jesus’ statement in light of a cold, Midwestern winter, like the one we are having. What if we changed just one word in that phrase of his – could it open up for us another level of richness to his invitation to us?

Here is what I came up with: “You are the salt of the Streets.” <<Big, corny smile, hands up for approval, as if I am really pleased with myself!>> You ARE the salt of the streets!

We understand that image this winter, don’t we? Salt, which does flavor foods – the predominate image of Jesus – also melts the frozen path, turns snow-packed highways into drivable interstates; and exposes the dangers of potholes and bumps and obstacles hidden beneath the blankets of white snow. (I get that it also makes messes of carpets and church floors, rusts out cars, etc) So what happens when we take those images of what salt does to snow and apply them as invitations/metaphors for our human condition?

As “The salt of the street” we are called: 1) to melt the frozen heart, 2) to make people’s hearts ‘driveable’ (unstuck) and 3) to expose the unseen dangers underneath a lot of what our world thinks is safe.

So, how do we do that?
1) Hearts seem to most often be frozen with un-forgiveness or trapped in grief. Somebody did something that was hurtful or hateful or spiteful, and rather than risk that pain again, we stop trusting. Or spouse is gone and the hole in our heart seems huge. And that muscle that was so open to all of life just get frozen, and stops loving. Jesus invites us to ‘melt’ the frozen heart. Maybe it is a yellow rose of friendship we have delivered to their door. Or a note asking for or offering forgiveness. Maybe we make it a point to just to stop by a widower’s house with a cup of coffee once a week – or a phone call at the same time every week – something that says to them: We haven’t stopped loving you or supporting you. Melt a frozen heart this week!
2) Make a heart ‘drivable’ this week. One of my favorite stories of healing at the Newman Center was one a student shared years after the actual event. “I struggled all my life with both faith and with being loved. I know I was never the prettiest creature God ever created. But all my life, I wanted someone, anyone, to think I was beautiful. On retreat, during that one prayer exercise, one of the whispered voices we were to hear as if it was the voice of God said exactly those words to me: “You are so beautiful. You are so beautiful.” And I who never cry, had tears rolling down my cheeks, because I heard that voice as if it was directly from God. And I realized that God had been trying to tell me that all my life, but I just never heard it. But now I do. And I could move forward again!”
Maybe there is a son, a daughter, a parent, an aunt or uncle whose heart has been waiting for a voice, any voice, to say what God has been trying to tell them all along. Use this Valentine’s day as a excuse to write them a little note to say how beautiful they are to you – how much you love them with God’s love. Make one heart drivable by your words of affirmation this week.

3) Finally, that white blanket of snow hides the dangers of pot holes and debris and crumbling roadways underneath. We need to melt some of that blanket away to see underneath. This upcoming Lent, I invite you embark on a spiritual journey, called Lent 4.5. You can read a bit more about it in my pastor’s pen today. The bulk of it is a series of inserts in the bulletin, inviting us to look at gospel simplicity; to examine our use of food, water, energy, transportation as moral acts, and finally, to hear a gospel call to gratitude and generosity. Create time to read them as a way to expose some of the dangers in our culture. And/or, next week, you’ll have a chance to join one of several small groups to delve even deeper to these issues as a response of faith. Use your salt to expose the dangers underneath.

You are the salt of the street. And the salt of the earth – called to melt the frozen heart, make the roads to the human spirit drivable and expose the dangers on the journey. It’s been a tough winter already. And more snow is coming, this we know. There is a lot of salting to do, both on our streets and in our world. You, who are the salt of the streets, get busy.

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