READINGS: 1st: Ezekiel 37:12-14 Psalm: 130 2nd: Romans 8:8-11
Gospel: John 11:1-45
Way back on Ash Wednesday, February 26th – before any of us had heard of Coronavirus and social distancing and sheltering in place --- we set as a goal for our 40 day Lenten journey – personal transformation: we were all going to be like the mythical Phoenix – which bursts into flames – dies to its old self – and rises a new from the ashes. . .
I suggested we were all in a dark tunnel – of pain, or hurt, or confusion -- sometimes because of circumstances beyond our control – and need to move out of the tunnel into the wonderful light of Christ – which is waiting for us on the other side of the tunnel.
That transformation, that dying and rising process – had us looking at some difficult, but necessary things during Lent. . .
On the first Sunday of Lent, we considered that we come into the light of Christ when we choose to be victors rather than victims. We cannot control the things that happen to us – but we can control how we react to them –and how we can chose to move beyond them. And as Christians, we claim our victory through the power of the Cross of Jesus Christ!
On the second Sunday of Lent, we remembered the words of Andy Dufresne in the movie, The Shawshank Redemption:
“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
And how we come out of the dark tunnel and into the wonderful light of Jesus Christ – when we place our hope in Christ: No one, or NO thing else: “this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased: listen to him!”
The third Sunday of Lent, we considered that sometimes we do hold on to things so tightly from our past, refusing to turn loose of them so much – that our hearts and our lives –cannot move forward.
We come out of the tunnel of darkness into the light of Christ when we come to understand that in harboring the anger, bitterness, and resentment of past hurts – we are giving the reigns of control over to someone else ---- besides ourselves.
It was on that 3rd Sunday of Lent that the seeds for the need of forgiveness were planted: for forgiving is not about ACCEPTING the words and deeds that hurt us – forgiving is about letting go and moving on – with our lives. And in doing so – we choose to set ourselves free. . .
Which brings us to the tomb today – where our hands and feet, our hearts and lives – are often bound –
wrapped in a cloak of resentment and grudges we may find so comfortable – we don’t want to turn loose of them. . . but turn loose of them we must--- if we want to be truly free in the light of Jesus Christ. And we unwrap ourselves and throw off that cloak when we FORGIVE.
But before we go there – let’s acknowledge the blame game which we talked about last week – that gets carried into this week’s Gospel -- When Martha says:
“Lord, IF ONLY you had been here – my brother would not have died.”
There is probably a little bit of blame in every death of a loved one ----
IF ONLY we went to the doctor earlier. . .
IF ONLY we would have tired a different treatment or a different medication.. .
IF ONLY we would have recognized the symptoms earlier. . .
Finding someONE or someTHING to blame – only gives power to the pain – and avoids finding a solution for moving forward ---
In an article in the New World Catholic, David Richhio writes:
“As adults, our work is to recognized our pain and to work with it for change. To hold onto it – is a choice against change and growth, and for such a choice – we are the ones responsible.
“The work of recovery can never truly proceed as long as anyone else is to blame, because we then become passive victims, unable to help ourselves. Only able (though wounded) adults can do this work for themselves on themselves.”
Which brings us back to forgiveness, which, as Christian author C.S. Lewis says: “everyone thinks it’s a lovely idea until they have someone to forgive.”
Because it takes courage to forgive. And the major reason why people do not forgive – is that they do not have any models of forgiveness in their lives.
Forgiveness can be slow process. Forgiveness is a gift from God --- and a gift to oneself.
Forgiveness is an act of the will – a decision to let go of the desire to get even with someone who has hurt us.
We forgive because WE need to be healed. And the person who refuses to forgive is devoid of the power to love.
Research indicates that forgiveness is the trait most strongly linked to happiness.
Forgiveness is NOT reconciliation – when we try to repair a broken relationship – although reconciliation can be sought after forgiveness occurs.
Forgiveness is simply our choice not to carry the pain – not to let the hurt control us – which means it doesn’t even have to be communicated to the one who hurt us.
Naturally, people don’t like to (and frankly , don’t want to) forgive – we want to hold on to bitterness because we think – if I forgive the people who have hurt me – then I’m condoning their actions. Somehow I am saying what they did is okay.
That is not true at all: God is the judge, and God will judge appropriately.
Bitterness, lack of forgiveness, and grudges harm the one who is holding on to them the most.
But when we forgive – we are essentially saying: “you cannot destroy, end me, or hinder me any longer – because God is healing my wound. And God is better than bitterness. . .
Although forgiving someone is perhaps the hardest work we can do – we must absolutely do it – because not forgiving makes us toxic . An then we really have little to offer our family, our faith community, and our neighbors – because in a way, bitterness has to spread – because no one it all for themselves. . .
Milly yearned to absolve all those who had troubled her in her life.
She forgave her father for naming her Milly instead of Jo Ann.
She forgave her mother for passing on to her genes that made her oversensitive to small hurts and slights.
She forgave her brother for reading her diary, and her sister for her pretty legs, and her cat from running away.
Milly forgave everyone who had ever forgotten her birthday and everyone who looked over her shoulder at parties for someone more attractive to talk to.
She forgave her boss for being hard on her, and her husband for making uncalled for remarks about stale breakfast cereal and burned toast.
All this dispensing of absolution emptied Milly out and made her light as air. She had a sensation of floating, of weightlessness, and it seemed to her that bells were chiming inside of her head. . .
And so we are at the tomb – today – where are hands and our feet, our hearts and our lives – are bound – wrapped in a cloak of resentment and grudges we may find so comfortable – we don’t want to turn loose of them.
And Jesus stands outside of our tombs – and calls each of us by name – to come forth.
Are we ready to be as light as air – to have the sensation of floating, bells ringing inside our heads – because we are ready to forgive??
Or, are we going to stay in the darkness of our self-made tombs.
Jesus makes the choice clear: COME FORTH!
1st Reading: 1 Samuel 16: 1, 6-7, 10-13
Responsorial Psalm: 23
2nd Reading: Ephesians 5:8-14
Gospel: John 9:1-41
The Gospel is proof that the game has been going on for thousands of years. . . it’s the blame game. And the object of the game is quite simple: find someone to blame for bad or unfortunate events that have happened -- rather than attempt to seek a solution.
A variation of the blame game is the pass the buck game with a similar objective: evade responsibility by passing it on to someone else.
We see the blame game in the Gospel when the disciples ask Jesus: “Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, that he was born blind.”
And we see the pass the buck game: when the parents of the blind man – not wanting to get the scribes and Pharisees ticked off at them, say: “We don’t know how our son now sees – nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him – he is of age to speak for himself.”
Now it was though in Jesus day – that sickness or physical disabilities or other “bad things” that happen in life were the result of sin. . .
And while today we may not necessarily say that bad things are the result of sin – they are certainly the result of someone or something besides us. . .
A fisherman was heading home at dusk. The river he was on was narrow – and suddenly another boat was headed straight for him, coming faster and faster.
He gets upset and starts to yell: “Hey, watch out. Turn darn you!”
But the other boat crashed into him anyway. The fisherman was furious and started yelling, and cursing, louder and louder. Until ---- he realizes –
no one --- is piloting the other boat.
He was run into by an empty boat – that somehow got unmoored from the dock ---and now he feels even more upset than ever – because he has no one to blame!
Our lives are full of boats that are adrift – and many of them are empty. But our minds won’t let us accept this reality --- because they urge us to find the pilot of the boat: we want to find someone to BLAME! When things don’t go right, we want to find out who’s guilty!!
Underlying the blame game and the pass the buck game – is the expectation that we want life to be fair.
And the truth is, life is neither fair, nor unfair – life just is: as author Harold Kushner reminded us many years ago: bad things do simply happen to good people. . .
So how does one break the cycle of blaming and passing the buck???
I think the solution is found in the first reading when Samuel went off to find the future king of Israel among the sons of Jesse. . .
After seeing what Samuel thought was prime kingly material rejected by the Lord, Samuel is told:
“Not as humans see does God see, because humans see the outward appearance – but the Lord looks into the heart.”
A solution for getting not just through life – but enjoying a life that is prosperous and abundant with good things from the lord – is to start seeing things with the eyes of faith – with the eyes of God:
we have to learn, with the grace of God – to be empathetic, not judgmental: grateful rather than entitled; responsible rather than evasive.
We need to focus on understanding others: learn how to walk in their shoes – we need to get rid of the black and white approach that is someone if right – it means someone else is wrong.
I am not perfect – and neither are you: so why do we expect perfection from ourselves and others??
If someone caused us harm –was it on purpose, or just an accident?
Are we sending out signals for other people to “attack” us, even if we don’t notice? Self-pity is a character we can play:
we believe our suffering makes us special and deserving of more attention. Playing the victim role is easy: it makes us feel innocent --- because others are to blame for our pain: certainly we had no role whatsoever in bringing it about. . .
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Empathy starts at home – let’s all just start being more kind to ourselves! AND KIND TO OTHERS!
What we need to realize is that there is a magnificent future waiting for each one of us, but only if we are willing to leave prior events behind.
We can’t take responsibility for circumstances until we relieve those who have hurt us of their power over us.
We cannot fulfill our potential until we forgive our past.
We can’t be a victor tomorrow if we are still acting like a victim from events that happened yesterday – or last month – or five years ago.
We can’t move forward while we remain fixed on what’s behind us.
“Who sinned – this man or his parents?”
And Jesus answered: “neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through this blind man.”
Something terrible has happened to us – who is to blame??
I believe God still works in the way God has always worked --- most likely no one is to blame – this happened, whatever it may be --- so that God’s works might be made visible. . .
It’s time to stop blaming – and start aiming – at the future God has ready for us.
As St. Paul told the Ephesians, so he tells us:
“You were once in darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of the light, for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth.”
We come into the light of Christ when we refuse to blame – which only gives power to the pain --- and avoids finding a solution for moving forward.
1st Reading: Exodus: 17:3-7
2nd Reading: Romans 5:1-2, 5-8
Gospel: John 4:5-42
Many years ago, in a simpler time before many bridges had been built: two Buddhist monks who were on their way back to their monastery found an exceedingly beautiful woman at the river bank.
Like them, she wished to cross the river, but the water was too high. So one of the monks lifted her on his back and carried her across the river.
His fellow monk was scandalized. For two full hours as the continued their trip home, he berated him on is negligence in keeping the holy rule – had he forgotten that he was a monk? How dare he touch a woman – and even worse – carry her on his back all the way across the river! What would people say? Had he not brought his holiness into question? And on and on he went.
The offending monk patiently listened to the never-ending lecture. Finally he broke in with, “brother, since the only thing on my mind was charity, I left that woman hours ago at the river. But apparently YOU are still carrying her with you!”
Have we ever held on to something someone else has said or done --- refusing to turn loose of the incident – carrying a grudge --- replaying it over and over again in our minds? Something that should have been left at the river – hours, months, or years – ago?
Someone once wisely said, “holding grudges does no harm to the person against whom you hold these feelings – but every day ---and every night of your life, they are eating away --- at you.”
One day, a child got his hand stuck in his mother’s favorite vase.
The boy’s father tried his best to get the little boy’s hand out – all in vain.
At the point of breaking the vase in order to free the boy’s hand –the father tried one more time. “Now open your hand up, place your fingers together as tightly as you can – and we will see if we can get you unstuck” said the boy’s father.
“I can’t do that, the boy said.” “Why not,” asked his father? “Because I will drop the penny I have clenched in my fist” said the boy. . .
Have we ever held on to something so tightly from our past, refusing to turn loose of it so much – that our hearts, and our lives – cannot move forward?
Again, someone much wiser than I said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. . . Anger, resentment and jealousy don’t change the hearts of others – they only change yours.”
I think our Scripture readings today take us down the path of either clinging to our past hurts and resentments,---- or turning loose of them and accepting the gift of peace that God is offering to each one of us.
First the Israelites – if we follow the story line set out for us in the Book of Exodus – a mere four chapters before the reading were heard today,--
we hear: “the lord brought the Israelites out of Egypt company by company” (12:50) and Moses told them, “Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, that place of slavery.” (13:3) and six hundred thousand men –
not counting women and children, left Egypt with a glad song of liberation in their hearts. . .
And now--- when faced with a little thirst -- they moan and groan, “why did YOU (Moses) ever MAKE US leave Egypt?”. As if things were so much better there?
And sadly we can find that this is already the second time they have longed for the past – the first time when they were up against a rock and a hard place at the Red Sea – when God miraculously created a way out of their troubles when they saw no way out – they also panicked – and wanted to turn back. . .
What’s wrong with these people??? What’s wrong with us??
Do we really want to be rid of our resentments, our anger, our fear? Because many of us want to cling to our fears, doubts, self-loathing, or hatred-- because there is a certain distorted security in familiar pain. . . It seems safer to embrace what we know than to let go of it --- for fear of the unknown. .
Contrast this – with the Samaritan woman in the Gospel --- who I think was just tired of who she was, and the past she thought would haunt her forever . . . oh, in their back and forth conversation – Jesus showed he knew her quite well – yes she was a Samaritan, yes she was a woman –
a lonely one at that for she had looked for love in all the wrong places -- As Jesus said: “you are right in saying ‘I do not have a husband’ – for you have had five husbands – and the one you have now is not your husband.”
But she was ready for a change – that’s why she says, “Sir, give me this life-giving water you are offering – so that I may not be thirsty again.”
And Jesus accepted her. Jesus blessed her. Jesus changed her. And Jesus gave her the courage she needed to go off and call others to him, “and many Samaritans of that town began to believe in him because of the word of the woman who testified.”
--All this --- because she was willing to let go of her fears, doubts, self-loathing, hatred and pain – and embrace the unknown of a new life FREE of all of those things. . .
We come out of the tunnel of darkness – where all the pain, hurts, disappointments, loses, and despairs --- would like to keep us lurking --- into the wonderful light of Jesus Christ when we refuse to give into resentment – which only keeps repeating the aching of our wounds.
We come out of the tunnel of darkness into the wonderful light of Jesus Christ when we come to understand that in harboring the anger, the bitterness and resentment towards those who have hurt us – we are giving the reigns of control over to them.
Forgiving is not about accepting their words and deeds. Forgiving is about letting go and moving on--with our lives. And in doing so, we choose to set ourselves free.
When we make that choice, when we ask the Lord, “give us this water”
We will “have peace with God through Jesus Christ through whom we have access by faith to the grace in which we stand, and we will boast in hope of the glory of God.” [2nd reading from Romans]
The first line of St. Matthew’s Gospel today tells us that Jesus was LED by the spirit into the desert: which means this is something Jesus may not have chosen to do on his own –
--a place he may not have wanted to go –
--which led to a confrontation he may not have desired to have.
Jesus was LED by the spirit into the desert. . .
And in Jesus’ solitary confinement in the desert – used in prisons to break the spirit, weaken the heart, and confuse the mind in order to make a person more cooperative and docile --- Jesus confronted the basic temptations of humanity:
--the physical temptation to do what feels right = command these stones to become loaves of bread: take care of your own needs, relieve your own hunger, satisfy your longings giving no thought to anyone else.
Jesus confronted --the emotional temptation to question God’s love = if you are the son of God, throw yourself off the temple – God will catch you, if God really loves you. . . don’t worry about taking care of yourself, rely on others to take care of you – they will – if they really love you.
And Jesus confronted --the temptation to control --- to have power over others = all these kingdoms I will give you if you bow down and worship me. . .
be powerful, take control, be the one in charge – don’t worry if you have to step over a few people on your way to the top. . .
In the face of such temptations and circumstances – Jesus chose to be a victor – rather than a victim – by turning to God and allowing God to be the determining force at work in his life:
-one does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from God.
-no one should put the Lord, our God, to the test.
-get away satan – the lord our God shall one worship-- and God, alone, should one serve.
And then a miracle – an unexpected happening occurred right there in the desert: angels came and ministered to Jesus.
And after this solitary confinement in the desert – rather than emerging with a broken spirit, a weakened heart, and a confused mind --- Jesus emerged with the strength of what was said of him at his Baptism: “this is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased” – and Jesus “began to preach and say: repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Jesus emerged from the desert as a victor – rather than a victim.
Many of us –dare I say all of us – in the course of our lives have ended up in places and circumstances we may not have chosen on our own – places and circumstances and situations and occurrences where we may not have wanted to go – which led to confrontations we may not have desired.
In other words, we have all been where Jesus has been – we have all be led into the deserts of loneliness, despair, anger, resentment, fear, depression, desolation, withdraw, abandonment, hatred and perhaps even violence – led there by our own choices – or more tragically or unfortunately – by the choices and actions of others.
And in the darkness and pain of our deserts – our spirits can be broken – our hearts can be weakened – and our minds can be confused.
But then we do have a choice – to stay in the darkness of being a victim --- or to choose to come out of the tunnel into the light of Christ, choosing to be a victor. . .
And the turning point of that choice is whether we let the values of the world be the ultimate determining factor of our lives --- or whether or not we chose GOD to be that ultimate driving force. . .
Whether we buy into an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth -- or offer no resistance to one who is evil.
Whether we choose to love our neighbor and hate our enemy – or love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
Whether we choose to strive for perfection, or just settle for being pretty good – in the big things, and not worry about the little things.
It’s true -- we cannot control what other people say and do – and where their poor choices may led us --- but we can chose to control what we say and do – and how we react to what they say and do.
As Dr. Martin Luther King once said: “darkness cannot drive our darkness; only light can do that. And hatred cannot drive our hatred; only love can do that.”
We come out of the darkness of the tunnel, and into the light of Christ -- when we choose to be victors, rather than victims.
And then from time to time miracles – unexpected happenings do occur in our lives: God does send angels of compassion and mercy to minister to us.
Where are my Harry Potter fans?? I know there has to be a few of you out here. . .
What’s the name of Professor Dumbledor’s pet bird? [Fawkes]
And does anybody know what kind of bird Fawkes is?? [Phoenix]
And does anyone know anything about a Phoenix??
The Egyptians, Greeks, and not surprisingly – the Phoenicians – all had a legend about the Phoenix. It was a bird who – once every 100 years or so, would set itself on fire by the light of the rising sun. And out of the ashes of the old bird – a new one would be born.
So the legend or the myth of the Phoenix – is about death and rebirth --- about putting to death the old – so that the new can spring forth. . .
Does that sound familiar??
Because this is the process or the methodology or the spirituality the Church gives us every year in this season of Lent.
Lent is a time to put to death the old – the old sins, the old ways of doing things, the old ways of selfishness, self-centeredness, avoidance and old ways of being --- so that the new can spring forth.
A new life centered on Christ, a new life centered on the values of the kingdom and not the ways of the world. A new way of acting, being and doing.
Lent is the time when we examine our lives and our motives to see how we are walking in darkness and need to step out into the bright light of Jesus Christ.
Now I am sure the death and rebirth of the Phoenix was not without its pain and suffering –and neither will our process of rebirth during Lent be without those things – because CHANGE is hard – and that’s why we avoid it and put it off. . .
But as disciples of Jesus Christ – we are called during Lent to change – through our prayer, our fasting and our almsgiving – to change more and more into the image and likeness of Christ.
So today – as the ashes are placed on our foreheads – let’s think about all the ways we need to change – to think about all those bad habits, all those old ways of thinking and doing, the darkness of sin – that all need to end --- so that new, life-giving ways of thinking, acting, and doing can take place. So that we can come out of the dark tunnels of our lives – into the radiant light of Jesus Christ.
Are we willing to do this?? Are we willing to die with Christ in order to rise anew with him??
And that will be the question asked as the ashes in the form of a cross are placed on your forehead:
Are you willing to die with Christ in order to rise anew with him?
And hopefully, your answer will be yes. . .
Yes -- we are willing – to rise again from ashes, from the good we’ve failed to do?
We rise again from ashes, to create ourselves a new.
If all our world is ashes, then must our lives be true.
An offering of ashes – an offering to you.