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resurrectionDuring my four years at Borgia High School, I taught several different classes, including, for 2 years, a class in world religions to seniors. When we got to the unit on Catholicism, I thought we were on more familiar ground, so I could perhaps deepen the level of the conversations and the test questions. So one of my questions on the chapter test was something to this effect: “Explain what the resurrection is and its significance for the life of the early church.” One answer still stays with me, all these years later. “The Resurrection was when Jesus, who had been dead and buried, rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples. (Good so far. And he continued in what might be the most understated line in all my years of teaching.) This surprised a lot of people and they repented”

This surprised a lot of people. Boy, did he get that point right. 2000 years later, doesn’t the resurrection still surprise us?
• The discovery of life where we thought all was death?
• The uncovering of a strength within us to be radically involved in all the Ferguson’s of our world, when our initial response would be to simply cower in fear? And though we have seen more than our share of the sorrow and suffering of Good Friday in that community, this Tuesday finds 8 candidates running for positions on the city council.
• Yesterday morning I was wonderfully surprised when a penitent returned to the confession after 45 years of being away. What a gift it was to celebrate what has been an emerging of new life within this person.

This surprised a lot of people. The women on their way to the tomb were contemplating a very real problem – who is going to roll away the stone? Those stones would have been 1 ½ to 2 tons – a formidable obstacle to anyone. But not for the risen one! And sometimes, what seems so huge for us, what seems unable to be overcome – an addiction to smoking, to adult sites on the internet, to power wielded over people – when we invite the Lord of life to be a part of our healing, then, like the women, we can be surprised by the fact the stone had been rolled away…

This surprised a lot of people and they repented, my high school student wrote. And though most of us think of repenting as a kind of moral response, the danger there is reducing the resurrection to a kind of morality play. The truth is much bigger. James Martin, SJ – in his book “Jesus” says this about the meaning of the resurrection. “When Jesus speaks about ‘those who lose their life, he is not talking only about physical death. There are other deaths that come before that final one. We are called to let some parts of our lives die, so that other parts may live. Is a desire for money preventing you from being more compassionate on the job? Perhaps your need for wealth needs to die. Are you so yoked to your own comfort that you don’t allow other people’s needs to impinge on yours? Maybe your selfishness needs to die. so that you can experience a rebirth of generosity. Is pride keeping you from listening to other people’s constructive criticism and therefore stunting your spiritual growth? Maybe all these things need to die too.” Tonight/today, we are invited to let the power that rolled away the stone remove from us all that is NOT life, all that is not the fullness of what God has in store for us in Jesus.

Finally, there is one more surprise in the message of the two men in the tomb in Mark’s account. They are told to “Go to GALILEE. Not to stay in Jerusalem, but to there to Galilee – which is the equivalent of saying: Go back HOME. That is where you primarily live this out. “Tell the disciples that is where I will meet them. Back home. Back in their ordinary jobs of fishing and their ordinary lives with spouses, and nagging kids and crazy relatives. There, in your “Galilees”, there in our Bel Nor’s and Northwoods, and Greendales and Pasadina Parks; there in our Newman Centers and UMSL Campuses – there you are to make the resurrection real. And though we sometimes want the resurrection to be a Cecil B. DeMille moment – this huge, heroic undertaking – most of the time the work of the resurrection is no farther away from us than our kitchen table.

My high school student had it right, though perhaps not for the reasons he thought when he answered my test question. The resurrection should surprise us all, and call all of us to repent of anything less than the fullness of LIFE God has in store for us, not just at the end of our days – but this day. This wondrous, glorious, impossible resurrection day!

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griefFor it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured

“He is carrying on his back the entire weight of the drama.”

His name is Gunter Lubitz and his agony is a particular and specific suffering I will never know. If his first name is not familiar, maybe over the past two weeks you have heard his last name: Lubitz. Gunter is the father of the Germanwings pilot who apparently deliberately crashed his plane into the French Alps on March 24th. The horrific act not only killed 149 innocent people, but also shattered so many families, including Lubitz’ own.

It is hard for me even to imagine what Gunter, age 60, is going through. He and his wife Ursula went to the little village near where the plane went down to pray with the families of the other victims. It wasn’t until they got to the memorial service that they discovered the truth of the tragedy, that it was their son, their beloved son, who purposely flew the plane into the ground. Even considering that Lubitz had serious mental problems, even with the notion that the parents may have been unaware that he was still piloting airplanes, Gunter’s torment and heartbreak must be crushing. It is hard for me to even conceive of that cruel anguish Gunter Lubitz must be enduring.

He spoke with the mayor of a small community after he discovered the brutal truth. The mayor said: “His life has broken down. He is a man whose life is in ruins. I felt incredibly sorry for him as he expressed all his emotion, he expressed his emotion because he has lost a loved one, but also because his son is perhaps the cause of all this tragedy. I have great respect for this man who despite himself is at the centre of a tragedy that he did not seek. He is carrying on his back the entire weight of the drama.”

How do you handle this torture? How do you deal with this torment? How do you begin to even face this profound and overwhelming sadness?

That is what this day, this amazing day is all about.

Good Friday reminds us, in shocking and even scandalous terms, that our God, the source of all being, the foundation of all life, understands our deepest sorrow. The author of the letters to the Hebrews boldly declares: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin.” The scandal of the Cross is that Jesus knows our hurt, he knows our sadness, he knows our agony, he knows our sinfulness and even our rejection of him and all that is good. And that connection, that bond is the exact point where the healing of our souls can occur. As we gaze upon the Cross of Christ, we discover a God who does not stand aloof from our sorry human condition. Instead, we have a Savior who knows what we know, who feels what we feel, who understands precisely our particular grief. Fr. Bill may not know Gunter’s loss, but God knows.

In the main Catholic church in Montebaur, the town where the Lubitz’s live, there is a book of remembrances. In it, various people have written notes of support for that poor family. One note said: “The family of the disaster-pilot lost their son, too, and has the right to grief. No one can judge here.” Another couple wrote: “We wish the victims’ families and especially the parents of the co-pilot a lot of strength and God bless. May such a terrible tragedy never happen again.”

This Good Friday I will be praying for Gunter and Ursula. I pray that they may know the truth of this day: He does not have to carry on his back the entire weight of the drama. That has already been done, for him, for his wife, for all of us…

* Kudos and thanks to Fr. Kevin Schmittgens, the author of this wonderful homily, which I so shamelessly stole this Good Friday…

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lovedLast night at the Newman Center, we said goodbye to Zack Liley, our part time campus minister. Zack had some prepared remarks – things that he had learned from his time with us. Things that he hoped we had learned from our time with him. He took the opportunity to tell us how much we mattered to him. And how much he loved us. People had the chance to say how he mattered to them, how much they loved him. People laughed. And cried. And were irreverent. And were serious. And were very reverent. At the end of that time, the community “prayed him on” from his service to the Newman Community to his service with the military.

After last night, it is easier to put myself into that upper room where Jesus gathered with his disciples, because in truth, I had just been there as Zack said his farewells. And even though it looked a lot like the fireplace room of the Newman Center – what was present in that room was exactly what was present in that upper room with Jesus. You see, Zack talked about the pivotal moment of his young life when he was in fourth grade. It was September 11. He told us how the call came over the intercom for every teacher/staff/custodians – basically every adult in the building – to report to the office. When her teacher came back to their room about 10 minutes later, she was white and just put her head down on the desk and sobbed. He was petrified! What had happened? Finally, with the whole class begging to find out, she said: “I guess you should know.” And she turned on the TV, just in time to watch the second plane crash into the second world trade center tower.

At that moment, Zack ‘knew’ what his life was going to be about. Protecting this great country. Being a soldier so that no more innocent people should die. Spending his life so that we could celebrate ours. It was the moment in his young life that summarized all he would be in his adult life. And it set the steps for all the stages of the journey from that point onward – to live in concrete ways a sacrificial love. That is what we heard last night – the story of one man’s commitment to be intense love to everyone he met.

In that context, it was not hard to understand what that upper room was like for Jesus. Jesus knows that ‘everything’ is coming to an end. His life. His ministry. His time among his disciples. His preaching. One way or the other, whatever was going to unfold was going to unfold soon. So he took advantage of the opportunity that was before him on that last evening – as they gathered in that upper room. He wanted to make sure his disciples knew EVERYTHING that was important for them to know about him and his mission. That they (and we) would know how much he loved them. And that we would know the steps for all the stages of our lives. That was what mattered to Jesus that night.

And so he gave us two gifts: himself in the Eucharist and his mission for us in the Mandatum – the washing of feet. Understanding both of those are essential for us to know who we are. So that we would know he loved us to the end, and would be with us until the end of time – he invited both his disciples and us into that upper room. There, by the gift of self and the gift of his service, he would love all who would be his disciples into life. That is, at least in large part, what that last supper night must have meant for Jesus.

Because of last night at the Newman Center, it was also easier to understand how difficult that night must have been for Simon Peter/the disciples/ and why I sometimes resist this meal and this foot washing. As always, Peter voices what the others were thinking. “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus replies with those ever so difficult words: “If you do not let me wash you, you will have no part of me…” Or another translation says: “You will not belong to me.” How hard it is for me/us to do that. We want to SERVE. We want to DO STUFF. Our School’s Lenten ‘theme’ –was “DO SOMETHING this lent. I loved that theme. I know how to do stuff. What I am less good about is receiving things. Tonight Jesus says: Do nothing UNLESS you have first learned to receive. Unless you have first come to know that foundational, rooting, source of everything that I am – which is my Father’s love for me – then your service will eventually become about you and not the one served. That is the second thing Zack modeled so powerfully last night – letting people in to love me.

So if you struggle with either of those truths of the upper room tonight – the call to give love away in service or the call to receive love in humility – this ‘upper room’ has the antidote for you. If you need to just be loved – then let me kneel as the presence of the risen one and wash your feet at this center station. And if you need to learn how to give yourself away in service, then come to side aisle – first to have your feet washed, and then, to wash the feet of the person following you.

And then, bring all of that experience – the struggle to be loved and the struggle to be of service – here to this altar – there to receive the one who still and always and forever loves each of us till the end…

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new beginningAs mom celebrated 90 years of life in January, it was time for the Kempf family to be grateful. It is a great milestone to have achieved. However, all her kids notice that some things in mom’s life are not like they used to be. She is slower in walking, yet still gets around, using one of those ‘walkers on wheels’. Her knees hurt. She doesn’t eat as much. But, perhaps most frustrating for her AND for us, is the loss of memory. The long term structures are still there –she recognizes her own kids and can tell stories from ‘back in the day.’ That is the good news. The not so good news is that her short term memory is declining. She’ll often stop, mid sentence and ask: “Now what was I going to say?” I usually reply: “I can’t help you with that one mom.” More recently, I tell her: “You were about to tell me that you were bequeathing me a million dollars.” Or “That I was always your favorite son.” Which usually makes her laugh, and we move on.

It is, for her and for us, her children, the worst part of aging.

In some ways, we take for granted the gift of memory. But here is why Alzheimer’s is such a scary disease. It robs you of your memory, and in so doing, robs you of the coherent story line of your life. When you can’t remember “who” you are and “whose” you are, the family you belong to, the people who have befriended you, those who have walked with you on the journey of life, it can be incredibly difficult. Without connection to the past, we literally have to ‘reconstruct ourselves anew EACH day and each moment. Who am I? What do I believe in? What do I value? Without memory, it is hard to know…

So isn’t it fascinating how God uses that most difficult part of the aging process as a way to covenant himself to us ever more. “For I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more…” I will remember their sins no more. Do you hear the opportunity in that? God, again and again, offers us the chance to “reconstruct ourselves anew.” By not remembering, by not HOLDING us accountable, by not pinning us down to a moment of failure or even a lifetime of failure, God sets up the situation whereby we might recreate ourselves anew EACH AND EVERY DAY. When I don’t have to relate to God as ‘the kid who had anger issues’ or the ‘one who was addicted to pornography’ or the ‘one who was unfaithful to their spouse – when GOD chooses not to remember me that way, then I can create myself anew each moment. And if God chooses to “Remember our sins no more” –than why do we spend so much time attached to them ourselves? God is not served by our holding ourselves bound when he has forgiven us. “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all things to myself,” he promises. And since he already has been lifted up, then why do we not let ourselves be drawn to his love.

I had a brief conversation with someone at fish fry. Trying to encourage them to return to the practice of the faith. Resistant. Wondered if they are one of those folks who are holding themselves bound by something in the past, because it is ‘easier’ to hang on to the attachment to sin than it is to recreate themselves anew in God’s love?

What a freedom that affords me with others as well. If they don’t have to grovel for forgiveness, if thy no longer have to try to eke out a pardon from our cold, cold hearts, then isn’t there the possibility of something amazing to emerge? Think of the freedom that we can give them. I do not hold you bound. I, like God, remember your sins no more.

So, the challenge is simple for us this week. What if we truly forgot one of these sins by which we hold others bound. What if God was inviting us to do what he did in that wonderful last line from Jeremiah – to remember the other’s sins no more. (And to remember our own sins no more as well – to not let our failures hold us bound.) To let those event and wound and hurts be like the grain of wheat that must fall to the ground and die – so that there can be an explosion of love and life and forgiveness in our world. What a gift that would be.

“For I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.”

Though it might be the hardest part of the aging process, I proclaim to you that it is the greatest attribute of God – his choice to forget our sins. For it means that we truly have the OPPORTUNITY to create ourselves anew each day…

This season, this day, seize that chance!

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verdictWhen we think of the word verdict, I suspect most of us jump to the famous cases:
• Not guilty of attempting to assassinate President Reagan by reason of insanity.
• If the glove does not fit, you must acquit in the OJ Simpson trial.
• We find there is no probable cause to indict Darren Wilson for the death of Michael Brown.

We know those famous cases (or have read about them) that set the landscape for people’s experience of the judicial system. Most of us have opinions about how ‘good’ or how ‘bad’ a particular verdict was. But, for most of us, it is tempting to think of verdicts as things that happen ‘over there’, to that crowd, whoever and however you view that crowd. Jesus would have us paint that word with a broader brush.

Instead of limiting ‘verdict’ to “the formal finding of fact made by a jury on matters or questions submitted to the jury by a judge” Jesus expands that understanding. “This is the verdict: The light came into the world, but people preferred the darkness to the light, because their works were evil.” The light came into the world, but people preferred darkness.

We know that truth in so many arena’s, don’t we?
• there is the darkness that accepts abortion and now euthanasia as permissible choices
• there is the darkness that portrays pornography, prostitution and every ‘shade’ of sexual activity merely as forms of recreation.
• there is the darkness that sees men, women and children as chattel or pagan infidels, to be burned alive or beheaded as collateral damage in an unsanctioned war of terror.
• there is the darkness of the shooting of two police officers at the end of a night of protests against structures of injustice.

This is the verdict, folks – we have, as individuals, as members of our communities and our nation – chosen the darkness over the light. It does not take a rocket scientist to know that truth. Jesus was certainly confronted by people’s preference for darkness. Into that ‘verdict’ – that understanding of human nature – comes this appeal from Jesus: “Come to this light and live.” Come to the brightness and find that which brings meaning and love. Come and know a redeeming love that will set you free to walk in the daylight, even when it is dark around you. Come:
• know the light that discloses the value of all human life from the moment of conception to natural death.
• know the light that reveals that sexuality is meant to communicate love, commitment, warmth, tenderness and care for another person.
• know the light that discloses all people as God’s children whose hearts ache, whose eyes cry, and whose hands caress their loved ones.
• know the light that shows that those truly worth imitating are those who work non-violently to ease the suffering of the outcast, the poor, and the marginalized.

“This is THE verdict: The light came into the world, but people preferred the darkness to the light, because their works were evil.” Will you prefer the light or the darkness?

Here is the interesting twist to Jesus’ ‘verdict’. There is no jury involved. There is no solemn proclamation by the chief juror. Rather, the actions themselves contain the verdict. They either are bringing, however imperfectly, the world of the kingdom into this world, or they are not. The deeds that I do, the things that I choose, either help make this a world of light and goodness or they foster the darkness that we seem to have such a proclivity for.

For in the end, God SO loved the world that he gave us his only Son so we might know and live in the light. And the choices we make and the deeds we do – create within us the ‘verdict’. Our loving God, both now and at the end of our days, simply honors the choices we make.

So, what is your verdict looking like these days?

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angry JesusAfter the sudden death of my cousin Pat Boul, I have been thinking about the Boul side of the family. In particular, I have been thinking about my uncle Wally. Fr. Wally Boul was the founding pastor of St. William’s church near the airport. And as nice a man he was to me and my brothers and sister, as compassionate as he could be with his parishioners in his latter years, there was this unyielding side to him that would come out every so often. He’d set his jaw in a certain way, and you knew that if you were opposing him at that moment you were in for a fight. Yet, as I reflect on my memory of him, the only time that I consistently saw that side of him was in two situations. 1) When someone was messing with the poor. At his first assignment, he caught someone stealing from the poor box. Wally chased him down the street, tackled, and had him pinned to the ground as he awaited someone getting the cop on the beat. By the time the police got there, his temper had spilled over. “Officer, would you look the other way.” WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! “You don’t steal from the poor, ever. Do you get that?” It is said that the thief was grateful to be handed over to the police. 2) When he was dealing with people who were in denial about their alcoholism.

You see, Uncle Wally was a recovering alcoholic. Because he knew the disease from the inside out, he was stern when he confronted people about their drinking. He would warn them, finger wagging and eyes ablaze – “this will destroy you if you don’t surrender to God in this. If you don’t get help – this will ruin your life and your marriage and your children.” And then he’d tell them: “I’ll go through the hell you’ll have to go through with you, but I can’t do it for you…” Because he knew the suffering involved, because he knew the effects on his own spiritual life, because he knew what it did to people and families, Wally Boul was zealous about people needing to be in recovery. You didn’t mess with Uncle Wally about alcoholism. It was a non-negotiable.

You didn’t mess with Jesus about his Father and the temple, either. When Jesus arrived in the temple that day, something flared up within him that was raw and primeval. “Don’t you be messing with my temple! Don’t you be messing with people’s experience of God!” Though the temple trade was ‘necessary’ for the average pilgrim (you didn’t want to have to worry about feeding your sacrificial animal and keeping him watered during the long walks to Jerusalem for the sacrifice, nor would you have to worry about being able to have the proper Jewish coins for the offerings – you could get all that stuff right outside the temple.) by the time that Jesus appeared on the scene, it had somehow gotten out of control. The court of the gentiles – where ANYONE could worship, and not just the Jewish people – had been completely taken over by the this legitimate temple trade, so much so, that anyone wishing to pray or connect in that outer temple, would have found it all but impossible. Because of the ‘rules’ that said you could only use Jewish coins, because of the ‘rules’ about sacrificing ritually pure animals – people were being shut out from approaching God. People were being kept away from the intent of the temple. “My house shall be a house of PRAYER for all peoples.” A place where people can connect to God, without interference, without meddling, without intermediaries. It was a non-negotiable for Jesus. People need to come to the Father. They need to have a relationship that is real and deep and nurtured by private and public prayer. You don’t get in the way of that process. Ever.

And it got me to thinking. If Jesus came to me, and took a deep, long look into my life and what I am doing, the choices I am making, the values that I have bought into, would I be the recipient of his anger? Would he discover within me, that which would block me from his father? Would he find that which would keep me from where I need to be? And if he came to the United States, and looked at our values as a country, as a nation, as a community, would he have some difficult things to say to us? About our commitment to life in all its forms? About the materialism that can so clutter our lives and our homes, while so many people continue to starve to death in Sudan and sub-Saharan Africa. About the racial bias that gets codified into our municipalities’ civil court system?

Though it is not an easy prayer meditation, I invite you to image Jesus crashing into your world this week, like he came into the temple, like my uncle would come to a person in denial about the effects of their drinking. And let the zeal for his house that consumed him, let the passion that breathed in my uncle’s love for people to be free of what controls them, be the zeal in your heart to let go of whatever keeps you from God. Amen. Amen.

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peekabooYou can be 90 years old, but as soon as you see a tiny infant or very young child, conditioning takes over, doesn’t it. And we begin the familiar game of peek-a-boo. As adults, we play it because it works – we see a smile on the face of that little child. And we do. Somehow, peek-a-boo works as a pretty effective strategy for engendering a smile. But why does hiding than suddenly appearing WORK for a little kid? What is it about that appearing/hiding/appearing/hiding that engenders a smile?
An early theory of why babies enjoy peek-a-boo is that they are truly surprised when things come back after being out of sight. It is that shock of recognition that makes the kids smile. The Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget called this principle ‘object permanence’ and suggested that babies spent the first two years of their lives working it out. And of course those two years are prime peekaboo time. Looked at this way, the game helps babies test and re-test a fundamental principle of existence: that things stick around even when you can’t see them.

Though it might be a bit ludicrous to compare the transfiguration to the game of peek-a-boo, I wonder if taking into account both elements of the theory of why it works might open up for us something of the mystery of today’s gospel story.

1) It is the shock of recognition that makes the baby smile… We know that part of the experience foremost in airports and on vacations and while traveling outside of our normal routines. We stumble across someone we would not expect to see in that place. And in that moment of recognition – “Oh, it’s you!” – we come to a kind of surprising joy and sense of connection. “Oh – you belong in my world. You are a part of my story! You are a part of the journey I am on.”

For the disciples, this mystical experience had to be akin to that shock of recognition of something they had hoped for, but had not yet really seen in Jesus. They had seen the miracles and the healings. They had heard the teachings. But in this shocked moment of recognition, suddenly they KNOW not just the humanity of Jesus, but the truth of his claim of divinity. “Oh, it IS YOU.” And in the voice which bids them to listen to HIM, they recognize the truth of what their eyes tell them – that Jesus is that savior they had hoped for; – the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. And they know that their journey is linked to his. Though they don’t understand “what to rise from the dead meant’, they know they will follow Jesus come what may.

Aren’t there similar ‘transfigurations’ in our lives? Moments when the meaning of who we are and what we are called to be about become clear. In a diagnosis of a disease, in the sudden dawning of a love that fills our hearts, in the chaos of the protests in Ferguson, in the vigil for another inmate on death row, in the reporting of another slaughter by ISIS, – there is this shock of recognition – of knowing the divine presence right there in our midst. And in that same moment, we realize that there is a journey for us to make. Oh – it is you Lord. Oh, we have to walk together to create a world of justice. This week – expect a moment of transfiguration, a moment of shocked recognition

Secondly, like the truth of ‘object permanence’, this experience on the mountain was meant to strengthen the disciples’ faith that things stick around even when you can’t see them. Just as it takes a baby the first two years of their life to figure out the truth that things stay around even when you can’t see it, so too, for the disciples and for us, sometimes it takes a while for us to TRUST that God does not abandon us in the tough times. His presence, in the sacrifice of His son Jesus on the cross remains.

But here is the slight kicker. God no longer plays peek-a-boo with us to let us know his love for us. Rather, he empowers US to play it with one another. It is for us to finish the work he set in motion in the sacrifice of his Son. It is for us to make sure that this ‘object permanence’ –the reality of his love remains. And if you don’t experience a shock when that truth sets in, then maybe you need to play the game again.

Peek-a-boo!

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demonsAs soon as you heard the question, you knew the answer. No, God does not really care if we give up chocolate for Lent. The devil might, but for a different reason. His reason is so that this SMALL matter becomes the distraction that keeps you from the GREAT work of Lent. So, what is THE work of Lent? Let me tell you a story…

Once upon a time, a long time ago, and very far from here, a great Tibetan poet named Milarepa studied and meditated for decades. He traveled the countryside, teaching the practice of compassion and mercy to the villagers he met. He faced many hardships, difficulties and sorrows, and transformed them into the path of his awakening.Finally, it was time to return to the small hut he called home. He had carried its memory in his heart through all the years of his journey. Much to his surprise, upon entering, he found it filled with enemies of every kind. Terrifying, horrifying, monstrous demons that would make most people run. But Milarepa was not most people.
Inhaling and exhaling slowly three times, he turned toward the demons, fully present and aware. He looked deeply into the eyes of each, bowing in respect and said: “You are here in my home now. I honor you, and open myself to what you have to teach me.”
As soon as he uttered these words, all of the enemies save five disappeared. The ones that remained were grisly, raw, huge monsters. Milarepa bowed once more and began to sing a song to them, a sweet melody resonant with caring for the ways these beasts had suffered, and curiosity about what they needed and how he could help them. As the last notes left his lips, four the demons disappeared into thin air.
Now only one nasty creature was left, fangs dripping evil, nostrils flaming, opened jaws revealing a dark foul black throat. Milarepa stepped closer to this huge demon, breathed deeply into his own belly, and said with quiet compassion: “I must understand your pain and what it is you need in order to be healed.” Then he put his head in the mouth of his enemy.
In that instant, the demon disappeared, and Milarepa was home at last.

In so many ways, that story echoes the story of Jesus we hear each first Sunday of Lent. It’s the story of Jesus being LED by the Spirit into the desert – where there were no distractions – just the raw, naked elements and the silence. In that deserted place, Jesus meets HIS demons head on. What he learned there is the enemy he HAD to face there in that desolation was none other than the enemy within. The enemy was not outside of him, but rather, within. And He learned that the only way out was in. THAT is the GREAT WORK OF LENT. Not giving up chocolate. Not fasting between meals. Not even praying more or sacrificing more. Nope. The great work of Lent is to face the demons within!

The demons are all that is wrong with us that we continue to run from—that we refuse to attend to and refuse to treat with compassion in ourselves. They will surface again and again until we face them. For whatever we bury, we bury alive. They take on a life of their own. Robert Bly wrote: “Every part of our personality that we do not love will become hostile to us.” Those parts of us become that demon we fear—they become the enemy! But once we face them, we can be transformed by them. Once Jesus learned THAT, he came to know that if there is no enemy within, the enemy outside can do us no harm.

And what is the face of this inner enemy, those demons who would not go away? As Matthew and Luke were later to describe it – somewhere inside Jesus, he wanted to be powerful, he wanted to be noticed, he wanted to be celebrated and acclaimed. He was tempted to turn his considerable charisma and talent to his own ends. The temptation was to let it be about him. He had to wrestle with that in him. This was a frightening foe; the enemy within him would not go away. It would haunt him throughout his ministry. And it was that desire that he had to face down if he was ever to be free to love and to serve. Only by taking it on, only by facing it, only by putting his head in its mouth, could he have ever gotten free.

And so it is for us. This is where it all begins – what Lent is really about. Unless we start here we will not be able to love. And if we cannot love we do not live! Unless we face those “enemies of love” that are real and live in us, as surely as they lived in Jesus, we will not be able to know true love, healthy connection, a love that lasts – that for which we most hunger and thirst. Facing those “enemies”, we will begin to see that our enemy is actually our ally in disguise.

Once we dare face the ENEMIES that live in us—welcome them, bow to them; once we dare put our heads into their very mouths, then they can disappear. Oh they will hang around to come and tempt us again. But next time we will not be so afraid. And we will be that much less afraid of other people hurting us, or those demons having power over us.

The heroes and leaders of our times will be those women and men who have the courage to plunge into the darkness at the bottom of their personal lives and face the enemy within. Please God, give us the courage NOW, this Lent, to do just that!

And if we do so, then perhaps what we will learn is the most profound thing of all: That what was wrong with us, when faced and loved and understood, is exactly what is right with us.

Milarepa was a great sage who met his enemies with an enlightened mind and an open heart. “In that instant, the demon disappeared and Milarepa was home at last.” So will you be, home at last! Home, in your own home!

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ashesDoes anyone here have a Fitbit? If you don’t know what they are, they look like a watch, sync to your computer, and are meant to be your companion on a journey to live a fit and healthy lifestyle. Among the metrics they record:
• The number of steps taken each day, floors climbed, active minutes working out, and calories burned per day. (and per hour if you want…)
• It will tell you what time of day you were most active THAT DAY, and track when you did NOTHING for your fitness goal.
• It will track your weight, BMI, lean mass and body fat percentages and automatically syncs it all to your computer
• Paired with your phone, it will track the distance you have run and even the record the path you took while running through various neighborhoods or terrains.
• It will record your Workouts in seconds or minutes and post those times instantly on a monthly exercise calendar.
• The more advanced ones can use your phone to take a picture of the food you are about to eat and it will tell you the approximate number of calories you are about to eat.
And then, it will take all of that data, and give you a score for how well you exercised and kept to your fitness regimen, even sending you encouraging emails to keep you motivated. It will tell you if you are over or under your daily goal. From the company’s website: Fitbit tracks every part of your day—including activity, exercise, food, weight and sleep—to help you find your fit, stay motivated, and see how small steps make a big impact. It is a pretty amazing piece of equipment.

Now, what kind of person buys a Fitbit? Obviously, only someone who is SERIOUS about their health and fitness. Someone who really wants to lose those extra pounds and get themselves into a way of living that is healthy in mind and body. What kind of person wears a Fitbit or its equivalent? Someone who is ready to do the work of fitness!

Which made me wonder if they have invented a SPIRITUAL FITBIT yet? And if they have, what would IT measure and what kind of person would wear that?

In some ways, we know already what the three big areas it would measure don’t we? Fasting. Prayer. Almsgiving. Those three practices that today’s gospel invites us to look into – they are the hallmarks of a spiritually healthy person. Fasting, not so we can say what good “do bees” we are, but fasting so that we train our desires to long only for the things of God. Prayer, not so others will see the halo around our heads (like the thinner waste line after fit bit) but that we might learn to hear the voice of God inviting us to wholeness. Almsgiving, not that others will notice how generous we are, but that other simply will have what they need to live.

Like the regular Fitbit, our spiritual Fitbit can keep track of our best times to pray, and how far we have journeyed to help those in need and how often we sacrificed our own desires to desire the things of God. And those are all good things. But like the other Fitbit, the first goal of the Spiritual Fitbit is to help us ask the question: What is missing from my life? What do I need to receive from this lent so as to become the saint God invites me to be. If we don’t answer that primary question first, then we’ve kind of missed the point.

And finally, what kind of person wears a Spiritual Fitbit? The same kind who chooses to wear ashes on their forehead as a sign of repentance. So this lent, I will give you permission perhaps for the only time in my priesthood to take a Selfie. Let it be of your ashes. And then post them on your Facebook wall, or computer background. Put it on your bathroom mirror. Or on top of your daily planner. Let it be the reminder of the Spiritual Fitbit journey you have decided to hold yourself accountable for this season. And may it inspire you, DAILY, to keep making those small steps to the greater holiness God invites each of us to know.

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reach out“He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.” Those final words in our passage from Leviticus today might be the saddest words recorded in the Old Testament. Can you imagine what that would be like, especially in the Bedouin-like existence of the Jewish people during their sojourn in the desert?
• Practically, it is a nuisance. You are farthest away from the source of water. And you’ll go through ½ of the camp, ringing a bell and saying: “Unclean, Unclean.”
• You’d hear the sounds of laughter, the late night murmur of conversations, the playing of children – but you would not be able to take part in them.
• Your family would struggle as well – and though the skin conditions that would be declared unclean were not the debilitating symptoms of what WE know as Hansen’s disease, (climate is too dry for what we know a leprosy (rather it is what we would know as eczema, psoriasis, severe acne) yet, you would STILL not be able to help your family with anything – even though physically, you are ‘fine’ and mostly able bodied.
• And in the absence of the creams and lotions and over the counter medicines that we are accustomed to, you could be forced to dwell apart for a long, long time – angry, frustrated and isolated, because of something that you had little or no control over.

The biblical prohibitions against leprosy were designed to protect the community (similar to the involuntary quarantines of health workers returning from ebola infected patients, or un-immunized kids exposed to the measles)– but did so at the expense of the individual. He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp. For the good of the group, the individual was isolated from everyone.

I suspect that Jesus ‘knew’ how difficult it was to dwell apart, to be an outsider, wanting to be in. Because He does not flinch, does he, when the leper approaches. For to touch the leper risked the same fate as the leper – to be on the outside, looking in, should you contract any of those skin diseases.

And you sort of ‘hear’ that in the conversation: The leper says: “If you wish, you can make me clean. You can restore me to family, to friends, to the life that I was so vibrantly a part of and want to be a part of again.” Jesus’ response is just as immediate: “I do wish it. Be made clean.” And then, because it is not enough for someone to be cured to be allowed to be returned to family, he commands the man to show himself to the priests – the final steps in his restoration to the community.

So we see in this story, not just the physical healing of the man, but his restoration to the life of the community, his inclusion back into the family that nourished him. In fact, he is so thrilled to be back, that can’t stop telling people about his good fortune. He disobeys Jesus’ command – to not tell anyone – because in the joy of restoration, of no longer having to dwell apart, outside the camp he cannot keep silent. The good news is just too good not to be shared.

There are, I think, two concrete consequences, to ‘easy ways’ for us to be a part of that same healing that is recounted in the gospel today.

The first is easy. Contact someone who has been ‘dwelling apart, outside the camp’ as it were, for whatever reason. Perhaps they lost a spouse, a son, a daughter recently, and it is just so dang hard to come back to this church, because the last time there were here was at the funeral and it is still feels too sad, ‘too much’ just yet. Offer to sit with them, and tell them ‘you’ll bring the Kleenex’. Or call the neighbor who can’t see so well to drive at night – an offer to pick them up. I know a gentleman at Normandy Nursing home who would love to come to mass here, but has no transportation – so, though I bring him communion, it is not quite the same. Who haven’t you seen in the pews around you these days? Give them a call and check in on them. It will mean the world to them.

Secondly, like the man who was healed who couldn’t shut up about the good news he knew in Jesus – pick ONE blessing to share this week – with your spouse, your kids, your parents, your neighbor – about how good God has been to you. It does not need to be earth shattering. But it does need to be shared.

You see, here at this altar, we bring all that keeps us dwelling apart, with our abode outside the camp to the one who says to us, as he said to the one in the gospel – “I do wish you to be whole, to be connected, to be made clean. Come to the table of life!”

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