Sunday, February 28, 2016

What Are You Thirsty For?

Lent 3 Sun (SCRUTINIES) 2016
Holy Spirit Parish/UK Newman Center

What are you thirsty for?
The children of Israel, wandering long in the desert, had grown thirsty.  So thirsty they thought they were going to die.  So thirsty they thought it might be better to return to the bondage and slavery they endured in Egypt rather than have their thirst go unquenched. We’re like them.  Whoever we are, each and every one of us comes to the Mass today thirsty.  What are you thirsty for?
We thirst for love, for understanding, for justice and for peace.  We thirst for security, for acceptance and a sense of belonging.  We thirst for comfort and rest – for holiness, freedom from temptation, and distance from sin.  We thirst for a life of faith that means something – that makes a difference in our lives and the lives of others.  We thirst for a living relationship with God that gives us a lived experience of Jesus as our brother and friend that goes beyond the merely theoretical.  We thirst for a life of meaning, so that our rising in the morning and going to bed at night over and over again, day in and day out, means something – we’re thirsty for a life of adventure that means something. 
All of us are thirsty for something …many of us are so thirsty we think we might die…and most of us fall into the age-old pattern of the Israelites: our thirst is so powerful, we’re so thirsty, we’re willing to go back to old ways of living, our old and worn out patterns that never quench our thirst – our thirst is so powerful, we’re so thirsty, we’d rather go back to the prisons and chains that bind us in our old ways of thinking and living because in their familiarity it sometimes seems like we’re not really thirsty there.  ‘Send us back to Egypt – sure we were prisoners there – but at least we weren’t thirsty.’  No wonder we find ourselves year after year, week after week, in the same old places struggling with the same old doubts and hurting in the same old ways.  We get thirsty – so thirsty we’d rather go back to the same old patterns than press ahead long enough for God to quench our thirst.
Time and again, human experience has proven that we’re never really thirsty for what we think we’re thirsty for.  Talk to the recovering alcoholic or drug addict, listen to the testimony of one who found real freedom from pride, dishonesty, or envy.  Hear the story of someone who truly overcame their lack of faith or hope.  They all have the same thing to say in one way or another:  they discovered they had been going to the same old wells over and over trying to quench their thirst, only to discover that what they could draw there never really satisfied.  We try to quench our thirst for love in the bottle; we try to quench our thirst for faith in the intellectual study of scripture or the rote and empty repetition of prayer.  We try to quench our thirst for meaning and adventure in life with worldly success.  We try to quench our thirst for intimacy on the computer screen.  We try…but it never works.
We thirst…that’s the first part of the pattern.  We thirst – and we return time and time again to old places, old habits, old ways of living only to discover that our old wells don’t satisfy.  But the good news today, friends, is that God is always there trying to quench our thirst for good.  We thirst – God provides.  If we journey far enough through the desert, trusting in God and moving farther and farther away from our entrapments one step – one day at a time – if we follow God far enough away from the same old pitiful wells, the same old ways of living, if we travel far enough with God into glorious unknown with Him we eventually encounter the deep well that quenches our thirst more perfectly than we ever imagined.
‘Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst…’  It’s never quite where we expect it.  The thirsty Israelites found life-giving water in the dead dryness of a rock, and the woman at the well found lasting satisfaction for her thirst in the admonishing love, acceptance, and welcome of a rule-breaking, line crossing, strange-talking, haggard and weary man named Jesus Christ.  Day after day, she came back to the same old place, seeking to quench her thirst from the water at Jacob’s well, only to find that the satisfaction it provided was temporary – just like day after day we return to our old patterns of living – until one day, she finally encountered what she’d been thirsty for all her life:  the love and acceptance and freedom from sin only Jesus Christ can provide.
Friends – here we are, you and I.  Here we are, journeying toward Easter, carrying our thirst around with us.  What are you thirsty for?  Life?  Love? Acceptance? Faith?  Freedom from sin?  Whatever it is – I can promise you this:  your thirst can never really be quenched apart from a real and ongoing encounter with Jesus Christ, and in the context of looking at Him face to face, holding nothing back, not even your sin.  (Did you notice that Jesus quenched the Samaritan woman’s thirst in part by lovingly naming her sin and inviting her to stand free from it?  There’s a hint for us in that reality, friends.  If you’re thirsty, meet Jesus in the confessional, give Him your sin and let Him love you past it.  Make your confession this Lent!)
Whoever you are, each and every one of us comes to the Mass today thirsty. Like the woman at the well, we come seeking that which satisfies and fulfills our deepest longings.  Jesus is that living water – poured out from heaven – poured out in the honest confession of sin in the Sacrament of Reconciliation – poured out in the appearance of bread and wine on this altar.
The question is a simple one:  will you run back to Egypt seeking the familiarity that seems more comfortable because its known but that can never truly quench your thirst?  Or will you risk the encounter with Jesus in Confession and approach this altar to encounter Him – will you run back to Egypt or look into the “face of the Father’s mercy,” Jesus Christ, who comes here today to give you living water?
What are you thirsty for?

Monday, February 15, 2016

Springtime in the Desert

Lent 1 Sun Yr C (2016)
Holy Spirit Parish/UK Newman Center

          Did you know that the Latin word for Lent literally means “the forty days”?  It’s no surprise, then, that today’s Gospel is about another Lent – the forty days Jesus spent in the desert fasting.  In some ways, all of the “forties” in the Bible are images of Lent – the Lent you and I are just beginning now.  The forty days and forty nights through which Noah brought God’s creation to new life through the flood.  The forty years Moses shepherded God’s people through the desert to the Promised Land.  The forty days Jesus spent in the desert to be tempted.
          Those Old Testament stories have a common theme, you know.  The “forty days” is a passing through some sort of death or dying away in order to get to new life.  I wonder if that can help us answer a burning question I’ve always had about this Gospel reading:  Why didn’t Jesus take any food into the desert?
Was Jesus just not hungry?  Did Jesus just not plan ahead well enough to bring provisions?  That seems pretty unlikely.  You and I, imperfect as we are, would pack quite a bag of supplies if we were heading into the desert for forty days.  And if we knew that we were going to be tempted, we’d really be loaded down.  I’d have a gallon or two of Holy Water and my relic of the True Cross for certain.  I don’t know about you, but I’d also have a cart full of beef jerky, some peanut butter, and plenty of water.  It just doesn’t seem very likely that Jesus forgot to take food with him into the desert – which leaves me with the conclusion that – just like He went into the desert specifically to be tempted – Jesus seems to have gone into the desert intending to fast.  He entered His Lent – His “forty days” with the intention of fasting and knowing He was going to be tempted…
This leaves a huge question screaming to be answered:  “WHY?”  Why go to be tempted?  Why not bring any food – especially when I assume Jesus knew his first temptation would be about food.  Turning stones into bread wouldn’t really be a temptation for me if I’d carted around my beef jerky and peanut butter all that time.  Who needs some stony bread when their belly is full?  Not eating for 40 days is a funny way to prepare to be tempted with food.  What was Jesus thinking?  Why was he fasting?  Why did he go to be tempted?  How does this make any sense?  Could it be that Jesus knew He needed to be freed from the human experience of needing food so that He could answer his first temptation well?  Could Jesus have planned to fast so that He’d transform His humanity to be able to reject that first temptation? 
The beginning of Luke’s Gospel charts an interesting course.  After His birth, Jesus is presented in the temple and then in a flash he’s a teenager teaching in the Temple.  In the blink of an eye John the Baptist baptizes an adult Jesus and the Holy Spirit descends on Him…and then immediately drives Him into the desert to be tempted.  After the temptation, Luke says Jesus is “filled with the power of the Holy Spirit [and] began to teach.”
The Spirit descended on Jesus at His baptism, but it isn’t until after the desert fasting and temptation that Jesus is filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.  The 40 days seem to be about being filled with the power of the Holy Spirit so He is ready to begin his ministry.  And however we shape it up, one thing is clear:  Jesus’ ministry is ultimately about Easter.  His preaching, teaching, and miracles – His passion and death and resurrection – His whole journey on this Earth are ultimately the new life of Easter.  So it seems that the forty days are specifically about being filled with the power of the Holy Spirit to more perfectly encounter the Easter message, proclaim the Easter truth, and enter into the Easter reality. 
Now it seems like Jesus had a perfect plan!  There’s a transformation that comes from fasting – one that makes it possible to face temptation and walk the rest of the way to Easter.  That’s what the desert was about then…maybe that’s what our forty days is about now.  It seems like it’s not really about the fasting, but what the fasting does in ushow it transforms us – how the forty days enables us to face temptation and walk all the way to into Easter glory.
Here we’ve been running around hiding all the chocolate and sweets and meat, we’ve been testing the rules of the Lenten fast to make sure we don’t break them, trying to discover if we can eat alligator on Fridays or if we can put cream in our coffee on Ash Wednesday – discussing whether or not we can drink the beer we’ve given up for Lent on Sundays or not (because after all, the forty days doesn’t count the Sundays)… here we are focusing so much on the fast itself that maybe we’ve forgotten the purpose of the fast. 
Maybe the forty days is less about the ‘giving up’ and more about how the ‘giving up’ will transform us.
          The question worth asking, you see, is not ‘What am I giving up for Lent?’ – or ‘What more am I doing this Lent?’  No – the question worth asking is Why? … For what purpose?  Why am I giving up chocolate?  Why am I giving away my things?  How do I hope my extra prayer will change me?  How do I hope to be transformed – to be more free – to be more filled with power of the Holy Spirit – how I hope to be different when we make it together to the glory of Easter? 
The Latin name for this season literally means ’the 40 days’ – but do you know what our English word for the season – Lent – means?  Lent itself comes from the word for ‘Spring’ – our great Lent is our springtime during which we’re doing our part to bloom with new life in the coming light of Easter.  Every day, every step of the way, is a movement toward Easter.  You see – its not about the fast itself; its about where the fast is taking how, how the fast is transforming us into freer, more Christ-like people to be resurrected again with Christ in the promised land of Easter on the other side of this forty days. 
If we stay focused on the destination, if we keep the purpose of our Lenten observances clearly in mind, if our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is intentionally and explicitly about being transformed ever more into an Easter people, then we will overcome our temptations – even in our momentary failures, the devil will not win – because with our hearts and minds and eyes set clearly on the new life of Easter we will be transformed

How are you hoping to be transformed this Lent?  

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The First Story Pope Francis Told

Lent - Ash Wednesday - 2016 (Yr C)
Holy Spirit Parish/UK Newman Center

          In his first Angelus address just days after his election, Pope Francis told a beautiful story.  It was the story of an elderly woman he encountered right after becoming bishop in 1992.  There had been a huge gathering to pray for the sick, and he was hearing confessions.  Just as he was getting up to leave, Pope Francis (then Bishop Jorge) encountered her.  In his own words:

          [A]n elderly woman approached me, humble, very humble, and over eighty years old. I looked at her, and I said, “Grandmother” — because in our country that is how we address the elderly — “do you want to make your confession?” “Yes,” she said to me. “But if you have not sinned…” [I said.]  “We all have sins...[and t]he Lord forgives all things,” she said to me with conviction…I felt an urge to ask [if she had earned an advanced degree in theology], because that is the wisdom which the Holy Spirit gives: inner wisdom focused on God's mercy.
Let us not forget this… God never ever tires of forgiving us…the problem is that we ourselves tire, we do not want to ask, we grow weary of asking for forgiveness. He never tires of forgiving, but at times we get tired of asking for forgiveness.

          The first story Pope Francis told the world was a story of mercy – God’s mercy.  The first story Pope Francis told the world was a story of God’s mercy, and the confessional – God’s mercy waiting for us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation …and our hesitation in receiving that mercy.
          Isn’t it funny how eager we are to connect with our need for God’s mercy – this gesture and symbol of our sinfulness in the ashes we receive today?  Students skip class and people take half days from work to receive their ashes.  Last year, in the middle of the worst snow storms in years, folks drove on treacherous roads to get their ashes and mark their need for God’s mercy.
Isn’t it funny how motivated we are to claim our need for God’s mercy…but how deftly we avoid encountering the mercy we so desperately need in the confessional?  Nation-wide, almost half of us never go to confession - half; not once a year, not once a decade, never…half  – but 90% of us make it to Ash Wednesday.  We go out of our way to acknowledge our sinfulness and our need for mercy on Ash Wednesday…why do we have such a hard time reaching out to receive God’s mercy by making a good confession?
I have a confession to make…I was part of that 90% for my first 15 years as a Catholic.  I went to confession just before coming into the Church, and then didn’t go again until just before I left for seminary.  Even my first 4 years in seminary, I struggled to make it to confession.  I was embarrassed and ashamed that I continued to fail at loving God and others the way I should.  What Pope Francis said in that first Angelus address was so very true in my own life – God hadn’t grown tired of loving me, forgiving me, showing me mercy.  I had grown tired of reaching out to receive His patient, loving mercy.  I had grown tired of so desperately needing God’s mercy.
Every year on Ash Wednesday I was ready to admit – I needed to admit to myself and others that I was a sinner and needed God’s love and forgiveness – every year I reached for the ashes from the depths of my soul because I knew how desperately I needed God’s mercy…and every year I made a promise: this year, Lord – this year I’ll make my confession.  I prayed for the courage to confess.  I hungered for the relief of knowing that experience of God’s mercy in the confessional.  I wanted to confess my sins – I wanted absolution – I wanted to experience God’s mercy…and every year, I waited. 
Sometimes my embarrassment at how long it had been won out.  Sometimes that embarrassment led to me getting defensive when someone invited me to confession (or when someone preached a homily like what I’m preaching now)…and in that mindset, I got very good at looking for reasons that I didn’t need to go to confession.  But every year – every year – some part of me was desperate inside to feel God’s loving embrace in the sacrament.
We tell ourselves that we don’t need to confess…that we haven’t sinned badly enough to need confession…that the Church is mistaken in showing us our need to encounter Christ in the confessional as the most perfect expression of God’s mercy.  We sometimes decide we might go, and then we wait.  We sometimes acknowledge deep in our hearts that we desperately want to hear those words of Christ spoken by the priest, “I absolve you from your sins…” – sometimes we feel that desire deep in our souls, but we just can’t seem to get there…  I know, friends…I’ve been there…I was there…until one day God broke down the walls of my heart and whispered my name and brought this poor sinner face to face with His mercy in the good and honest confession of my sins. 
And friends…I have never been the same…never been the same… because what I found in that confession – what I find every time I go to confession – is God’s love – I come face to face – literally – face to face with the reality that God’s love and forgiveness are so much more powerful and beautiful than my reluctance.  Face to face with Jesus Christ who loves me and forgives me.  I come face to face with mercy…
Why is it that we come out in droves to receive our ashes, but shun the confessional?  Pope Francis is on to something when he say, “The problem is that we ourselves tire, we do not want to ask, we grow weary of asking for forgiveness.  [God] never tires of forgiving, but at times we tire of asking for forgiveness.”
Friends…God bless you for being here today to acknowledge our need for God’s great mercy.  His mercy is huge.  It is boundless.  It is patient.  It is filled with love.  But let’s go deeper…go deeper than acknowledging our need for mercy, and stretch out your hand to receive it, to feel it, to experience it.  As we travel this Lent together – this Lent, this year, in this time, together let’s do whatever it takes to help one another to encounter the mercy of God. 
I’m not pleading with you alone – I’m pleading with Pope Francis, who is himself a beautiful and beaming face of God’s mercy – Pope Francis who says about this Lent in the Year of Mercy, “Let us place the Sacrament of Reconciliation at the centre once more in such a way that it will enable people to touch the grandeur of God’s mercy with their own hands. For every penitent, it will be a source of true interior peace.”  I’m pleading to you with Pope Francis – and there is not anything – anything I won’t do to help.  You name it – and I’ll do it.   
Friends…God’s mercy is so real – and you are so loved – and Jesus desperately wants to show you that mercy in the forgiveness of your sins.  Will you go deeper than acknowledging your need for God’s mercy with ashes this year? Will you make your confession this Lent?  Will you?

Behold – now is a very acceptable time…Behold, now is the day of salvation.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Sometimes, It's All About the Comma

5 Sun OT Yr C (2016)
Holy Spirit Parish/UK Newman Center

What a difference punctuation makes…
What we say and how we say it can quite literally change everything.  There Jesus was, preaching by the water when He saw them.  They’d been fishing all night, but caught nothing.  These weren’t hobby fishermen, mind you.  This wasn’t Bud and Phil out on the lake with a cooler and some night crawlers.  These were professional, experienced, been-doing-it-since-they-were-babies fishermen.  They knew what they were doing; they’re experienced – and if they’ve been fishing all night and haven’t caught anything, that clearly means there are no fish to be caught.  Period.
So imagine their surprise when this man who’s been talking to a large crowd over on the shore comes over, steps onto their boat (apparently uninvited) and says, “Let’s go catch some fish – I how where they are – go out the deep part of the lake and drop your nets.” 
“Um – excuse me – but aren’t you a carpenter?  I’ve been fishing this lake my whole life OK buddy, and if I didn’t catch any fish last night that means there are no fish to be caught.  Period.”  Or, in other words, “Buzz off now. I got this.  I know what I’m doing. I don’t need you to give me any advice or assistance, thank you very much.”  Or, in today’s Gospel, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing.  Period.”  Thanks but no thanks.  I don’t need you to tell me anything.  Peace out bro.
But – that’s not what Peter said, is it?  Peter didn’t say “period” he said “comma” – Peter didn’t limit himself to what he already knew (or thought he knew) – he didn’t get so wrapped up in his own self-certainty, self-righteousness, and self-importance that he closed off learning or experiencing something new when Jesus stepped into his boat.  Peter didn’t say “period” – he said “comma” – opening himself to what Jesus might want to say or do.
Think about the difference.  On the one hand: “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing.  Period. End of sentence – end of story.”  On the other hand: “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing – comma – but at your command I will lower the nets.” 
What’s the difference?  Humility.  Receptivity.  Openness to something new.  Possibility.  The potential for conversion.  What a difference punctuation makes!
In your relationship with Christ – in your own discipleship and friendship with Christ – in your participation in the community of the Church and your experience in this parish family – in your hearing and responding to the Gospel and even to the homilies preached at Mass – are you using a period or a comma?  When someone says something with which you disagree, do you lock yourself off from any potential for growth, conversion, new healing and transformation by restating your experience and stopping the experience there with a period?  “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing.  Period.  I know the truth.  Period.  This is how we do things – this is how we’ve always done things – and this is the right way for us to do things.  Period” 
Or – are we a people, like Saint Peter, who are open to something new in our encounter with Jesus Christ this week, this Lent, this year, with this priest, at this Mass?  “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothings, comma, but at your command I will lower the nets.  I’m pretty certain that what I believe is true and good and beautiful, comma, but let me listen to what you’re saying again and really consider it, ponder it, open myself to the possibility that maybe I can learn something from it.  This is how we do things – this is how we’ve always done things – and this has been the right way for us to do things so far, comma, but we’re always open to something new, and we’re always eager to experience growth, encounter mystery and miracle, and see new beauty and abundance that we’ve not seen before.”
What a difference punctuation makes!
What we’re really talking about here is whether or not we’re open to conversion.  When we’re so self-certain that we end the conversation by recapping the experience we’ve already had, what we’re really saying is that there’s no room for conversion.  Among the amazing things Pope Francis has said to engage us in this Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, he’s reminded us of the importance of conversion – of being a people “in process” and “on a journey” in such a way that we’re always open to a new, deeper, more healing, more fruitful truth.
Are you open to conversion or do you have it all figured out?  Are you willing to rethink and encounter something new that might be even more beautiful than what you’ve encountered so far?  A period or a comma – which one do you use?  Think about the difference punctuation made in Peter’s life:

Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothings, comma, but at your command I will lower the nets.  And they caught so much more than they ever dreamed was possible…