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We often read the story of the raising of Lazarus at funerals. The reason for this is that Jesus’ words in this Gospel: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” contain the promise and hope of eternal life. These words remind us that this present life is not the end. Because of Jesus Christ, because of his life, death and resurrection, those who believe in and seek to follow him will come to share in the life he has won for us.
Where there are several things in this Gospel that are worth commenting on, from my perspective two things in particular deserve comment. The first, is Martha’s reaction to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would never have died.” I believe, these words are --- at least initially --- a very human reaction when something bad happens. We wonder where God was and why the bad thing happened. When we move beyond this initial reaction, though, we are able to reaffirm our belief that God is with us even, and perhaps especially, in the difficulties and trials we encounter in this life. The second thing in this Gospel that deserves comment is a clarification that the raising of Lazarus from the dead is a resuscitation, not a resurrection. In the resurrection of Jesus Christ we are given the promise of a new and eternal life, not just a return to this life.
In our first reading this Sunday is from the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel. In the section we read this Sunday God assured the people that, despite the destruction of the Temple, God had not abandoned God’s covenant with them and ultimately would restore them: “Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and have you rise from them, O my people!”
Our second reading this Sunday is from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans. In the passage we read this Sunday, Paul reminds us that “If the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the One who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.”
Questions for Reflection/Discussion:
1. Why does belief in eternal life come so easily for some people and not at all for others?
2. How would you explain eternal life to someone who didn’t believe in it?
3. How do you know when the “Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead” dwells in you?
There is an old axiom in our church that you shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. While these words are often used when activities and plans were not as successful as one had hoped, I think they can also be applied to our lives as Christians. All too often I think we use perfection as our model for the Christian life, and when we fail to live up to that standard we feel bad about ourselves and may give up trying to do better and be better.
I don’t believe that is a good way to operate. What I would suggest instead is that we use “growth,” not “perfection,” as the model for our lives as Christians. By this I mean that we need to ask ourselves on a regular basis: “Am I growing in my spiritual life? Am I a better person today than I was a year ago, or five years ago or ten years ago?” I think these are the key questions for anyone who takes their spiritual life seriously. If we can see growth occurring in our spiritual lives, we know we are on the right track.
Now this does not mean that our spiritual lives are always on the ascendancy. Rather I would guess that for most of us our spiritual lives look a little bit like the stock market. There are ups and downs, but there is also a “trend line” that marks continual improvement. It is easy to become somewhat discouraged when we are experiencing a down period in our spiritual lives. This feeling is worsened, I believe, when we use “perfection” as the model for the Christian life. When we use “growth” as the model, though, while occasionally we can still become discouraged, we also know that as there have been, so there will continue to be peaks in our spiritual life—times when our prayer is good and we feel close to God.
It would be great if there were never any lulls or lows in our spiritual life. Over the years, though, in talking with a variety of people, I have come to realize that the lulls and lows are part of everyone’s spiritual life. (There may be some exceptions to this, but I suspect there aren’t many. Even the great saints had some low spots on their spiritual journey.) If we can accept the lulls and lows as simply part of the spiritual journey, I believe we will be less apt to give up trying to do better and be better, and more apt to hang in there and keep trying.
Continuing to grow in our spiritual lives isn’t always easy and at times can be frustrating. The challenge is to take the long view and see where growth has taken place and continues to take place in our spiritual lives. Certainly there may be ups and downs, but I’m willing to bet that for all of us there is a “trend line” that reminds us that the effort is well worth it.
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Why do bad things happen to good people? The Christian answer to this question is: we don’t know. For the people of Jesus’ time, however, there was a direct correlation between sin and bad things happening. If something bad happened to you, it was a result of your sin, or the sin of your parents or ancestors. We see this clearly in the actions of the Pharisees in our Gospel today. We are told that after Jesus had cured a blind man he was brought to the Pharisees, who asked him: “What do you have to say about him, (Jesus) since he opened your eyes? He said, ‘He is a prophet.’ They answered and said to him, ‘You were born totally in sin, and you are trying to teach us?’ Then they threw him out.”
Clearly the Pharisees reaction to the cure of the blind man was not what we would have expected. They were not amazed or even curious about his cure. Instead they criticized Jesus for not keeping the Sabbath and simply dismissed what the man, who had been cured of his blindness, had to say. The actions and attitude of the Pharisees should cause us to wonder who was really blind in this Gospel.
In our first reading this Sunday, from the first Book of Samuel, the Lord sent Samuel to anoint the new King of Israel from among the sons of Jesse. The Lord rejects seven of Jesse’s sons, telling Samuel: “Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance, but the Lord looks into the heart.” Finally Dave was brought to Samuel, and the Lord said to Samuel: “There --- anoint him, for this is the one.”
Our second reading this weekend is taken from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Ephesians. In the section we read this Sunday, Paul exhorts us to “Live as children of the light, for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth.”
Questions for Reflection/Discussion:
1. When I was learning to drive, my instructor drilled into us the idea that before changing lanes, you always needed to check your blind spot. It is easy to check your blind spot when driving. You just look over your shoulder. How do you check for spiritual blind spots?
2. In our first reading Jesse was judging by “appearances.” The Lord, however, was able to see into the heart. When have you misjudged someone by their appearance?
3. What does it mean to you to live as a child of the light?
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Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well is very familiar. Jesus is passing through Samaria and stops at Jacob’s well. A woman came to draw water and Jesus asked her: “Give me a drink.” She is surprised by his request both because she was a woman and a Samaritan. As they continue their conversation Jesus told her that she should be asking him to give her “living water.” She responded by asking Jesus “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Jesus then asked her to call her husband and come back. She told him she had no husband. And Jesus amazed her by telling her she had had five husbands and was currently living with a man who wasn’t her husband. She responded by telling Jesus: “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet.” Eventually Jesus told the woman that he was the Messiah. She in turn went back to town and told everyone about Jesus. As a result we are told that “Many of the Samaritans of that town began to believe in him……….and they invited him to stay with them.” After this, many came to believe in him and they said to the woman: “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.”
In this story, while the Samaritan woman initially brought others to Jesus, they came to believe in him by spending time with him and listening to him. In a similar way, while others initially told us about Jesus, at some point we had to make our own decision to follow him.
Our first reading this weekend, from the Book of Exodus, is the story of Israelites grumbling in the desert because they are thirsty. In response to their grumbling, the Lord had Moses strike a rock with is staff and water flowed from it. We are told that “The place was called Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled there and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord in our midst or not?’”
Our second reading this weekend is from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans. In the section we read this weekend we are reminded that “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”
Questions for Reflection/Discussion:
1. Who first told you about Jesus Christ?
2. When did you make the decision to believe in and follow Jesus?
3. When have you wondered if God was in our midst or not?
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Each year on the Second Sunday of Lent we read one of the accounts of the Transfiguration of Christ. Since we are in year A of our three year cycle of readings, this year we read Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration.
While some of the particulars may vary in the different accounts of the Transfiguration, the major details are the same. 1. The Transfiguration took place 6 or 8 days after Jesus’ first prediction of his passion; 2. Jesus took Peter, James and John up a “high mountain;” 3. He was transfigured before their eyes; 4. Moses and Elijah (representing the law and the prophets) appeared with Jesus; 5. Peter wanted to stay; and finally 6. A voice from the cloud identified Jesus as “my beloved Son. Listen to him.”
We don’t know exactly what happened at the Transfiguration or how it happened. What we do know, though, is important. The Transfiguration was a glimpse of the glory of God revealed in and through Jesus Christ. It was a moment of grace that enabled the disciples to continue to persevere and to trust when they encountered difficulties and trials.
Our first reading this weekend is from the book of Genesis. It is God’s promise to Abraham our father in faith. “I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”
Our second reading this weekend is from the second Letter of Saint Paul to Timothy. The opening sentence reminds us that we are to: “Bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.”
Questions for reflection/discussion:
1. I believe we all have “transfiguring” moments in our lives --- times of great grace, comfort and peace. These moments are fleeting, and while not as intense as the experience of the disciples at Jesus’ Transfiguration, they are no less real. When have you had a “transfiguring” moment in your life?
2. These “transfiguring" moments can help us “bear our share of hardship.” Has this been true for you?
3. God told Abraham He would bless him. When have you felt God’s blessings in your life?
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This weekend we begin the season of Lent. When I was growing up all that Lent meant to me was that I couldn’t eat candy for six weeks. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve come to realize how important and how good the season of Lent is for our Church, as well as for me personally. It is a time to step back from the usual activities of life and focus on our relationship with God. We do this through the primary activities of Lent: Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving. In our prayer we attend to God. Through our fasting we deny ourselves what we want to discover what we really need. And in our almsgiving, we give to those who have little or nothing.
Each year on the first Sunday of Lent we read one of the accounts of the Temptation of Christ in the desert. This year we read from the Gospel of Matthew. The basic details of the temptation are the same in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. In these Gospels Jesus faces three temptations: The temptation to take care of his own needs (“command these stones to become loaves of bread.”); the temptation to test God’s love and care (“throw yourself down” from the parapet of the temple"); and finally the temptation to worldly power and might ("all the kingdoms of the world I shall give you, if you prostrate yourself and worship me”). We all face similar temptations in our lives --- certainly not to the extent that Jesus did --- but temptations that are similar in kind, if not strength and intensity. Jesus has shown us, though, that God’s grace is sufficient to resist these temptations.
In our first reading this weekend we read the scriptural account of the temptation of Adam and Eve. It serves as a counterpoint to the Gospel. Unlike Adam and Eve, however, Jesus does not succumb to temptation.
Our second reading this weekend is taken from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans. It follows the theme of the Gospel and first reading and reminds us that “For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so, through the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous.”
Questions for Reflection/Discussion:
1. We all face temptations in our lives. Now certainly the temptations we face aren’t nearly as intense or as powerful as those faced by Jesus, but they are real nonetheless. What form does temptation take in your life?
2. Christians did not invent temptation. We do believe, though, that we have found the remedy for temptation in Jesus Christ. When has God’s grace helped you to resist temptation?
3. Why do some people seem better able to resist temptation than others?
A few weeks ago a former parishioner of mine told me she was taking a break from the Catholic Church. With the recent and seemingly endless revelations about our church’s mishandling of the sexually inappropriate behavior on the part of various priests, she didn’t feel that, at the present time, the Catholic Church was a place where she could pray and experience God’s grace. She was clear that her decision was not irrevocable, but — at least for now — she was going to look elsewhere for spiritual strength and guidance.
As we talked, it was clear that while she was angry, perhaps the overriding emotion for her was disappointment. And while she was able to make a distinction between the Church and its all too fallible ministers and leaders, she couldn’t understand why no one seemed to be held accountable or was willing to accept responsibility for the current crisis. She felt that the Church, as an institution, had failed her and others who called the Catholic Church their spiritual home. This was tough for me to hear. As our conversation ended, though, we agreed to stay in touch and to continue the conversation another day.
Now while I could understand my former parishioner’s reasoning, and in part could agree with it, I also know that for me there is no other spiritual home I could imagine for myself than the Catholic Church. With all its warts, with its imperfect and flawed ministers, the Catholic Church is where I am meant to be. I echo Peter’s words when Jesus asked him if he also wanted to leave: “Master to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68).
Now while I am joined at the hip with the Catholic Church, I don’t think it is acceptable simply to write off anyone, who, for whatever reason, has left or taken a break from the Catholic Church. Especially at this time, I think that I, as your pastor, as well as our entire community, need to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions: Who are those people who no longer worship with us? Who feels alienated or estranged from our Church? Are we comfortable that people no longer choose to join us for worship?
Sadly, I think it is all too easy for us to simply let people leave our Church without making an effort to talk with them or ask them to stay. This needs to stop. It is not enough simply to tell people they are always welcome to come back. Instead, we need to help them find a reason to stay, or at least a reason to keep the conversation going. In the Gospels, Jesus had ongoing and serious disagreements with the Scribes and Pharisees, yet he never stopped talking with them. He never stopped trying to engage them. I think this is a good model for us. We need to invite people to continue the conversation and not just leave.
Our Church has been around for over 2,000 years. During this time, it has faced innumerable divisions and controversies; it has had poor and ineffective leaders; it has engaged in activities that were questionable at best and cruel at worse, and yet it remains. At its best, our Church is a place of God’s presence and grace, and a beacon of hope and a spiritual home to many. Certainly our local Church has not been that lately. For this reason I can understand why some people might choose to leave. I would hope, though, that, as individuals, and as a parish community we would not be comfortable if or when people choose to leave, but rather that we would engage them and offer to keep the conversation going. This was the way of Jesus. It needs to be our way as well.
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In the play “A Man for All Seasons” Thomas More addressed the witnesses for his execution in the following words; “I am commanded by the King to be brief, and since I am the King's obedient subject, brief I will be. I die his Majesty's good servant but God's first.” I was reminded of these words when I read Jesus’ opening statement in this weekend’s Gospel. “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and Mammon.” Clearly Jesus was telling his disciples they could not have divided loyalties. As his followers, their first loyalty needed to be to God.
Jesus then went on to remind his disciples (and us) that we are not to give ourselves over to worry or anxiety. “Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?” Rather we are to trust in God. “So do no worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or “What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. You heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.”
Our first reading this weekend from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah shares the theme of the Gospel. In it Isaiah reminds the people that God will never forget them. ‘Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you.”
Our second reading this weekend is taken from the first Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians. In the section we read this weekend Paul reminds the Corinthians (and us) that .people need to see us “as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” We should not be concerned about passing judgment on others or their passing judgment on us.
Questions for Reflection/Discussion:
1. Why is it difficult at times to trust God?
2. Have you ever felt forgotten by God?
3. How can you be a servant of Christ?
Several months ago I had an encounter with an individual who identified themselves as a fundamentalist Christian. In our brief conversation, we had a disagreement about how best to enter into conversation with those who don’t necessarily identify themselves as Christians. My point was that we need to enter into dialogue with these people so that hopefully we can find common ground. The individual with whom I was talking took a more aggressive stance. This person believed that Christians need to be clear, forthright and unapologetic about their beliefs. If that should cause problems or divisions, so be it. The person then quoted Luke 6:22 as justification for their position:
“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold your reward will be great in heaven.”
Now, in response to this, I tried to point out that as disciples of Jesus we aren’t supposed to try to make the world hate us. Certainly at times our beliefs may set us apart from others. And there may be times when people don’t like us because of our beliefs. But this is different from deliberately antagonizing people or looking for a fight with someone.
In the Gospels Jesus didn’t try to deliberately provoke, alienate, or invite people to hate him. Now, of course, this is not to say it didn’t happen. Jesus wasn’t crucified because people didn’t like the way he parted his hair. At times his words and actions did cause people to take offense. But I don’t believe this was deliberate. Time and again in the Gospels we see Jesus reaching out to, spending time with, and engaging in conversation those with whom he disagreed. I think this is a good model for us.
As Christians our beliefs may, at times, set us apart from others. And in the worst case, our beliefs may cause people to hate us. But having people hate us should not be the goal for which we strive. Rather, I think we need to follow the model Jesus set for us. We need to be clear and unapologetic about our beliefs, but we also need to be open to dialogue and conversation.
It is in dialogue and conversation that we might be able to find some common ground. It is in dialogue and conversation that we show those with whom we disagree that we recognize in them a fellow child of God. It is in dialogue and conversation that we model the respect we hope others will reciprocate. And it is in dialogue and conversation that we invite others hopefully to see the worthiness and rightness of our beliefs.
It seems to me that too often in our world today we talk at or over each other. Some people even seem to take delight in being “hated” by others. I don’t think this was the way of Jesus and I don’t think it should be our way either. As disciples of Jesus, we aren’t supposed to deliberately try to make the world hate us. Rather, we are called to love one another as we have first been loved by God. Certainly this is challenging, but I believe that we are more apt to change people’s minds and hearts if we first give witness to our belief, as Jesus told us, that: “God is Love.”
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In our Gospel this weekend, Jesus tells his disciples: “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you…………………..” Later Jesus says again: “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you…………................”
Now there are some people who have suggested and continue to suggest that in these words Jesus was seeking to abolish the law the scribes and Pharisees held so dear. I don’t believe this was the case. Rather I think Jesus was calling his disciples to a deeper commitment to the law and an entirely new way of living. Jesus is clear about this at the end of this weekend’s Gospel when he said: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” These words remind us very forcibly that as followers of Jesus our lives are to be substantially different from those of non-believers. Certainly we don’t always do this well, but that does not mean that we can ever stop trying.
Our first reading this weekend is taken from the Book of Leviticus. It shares the theme of the Gospel. Specifically God told Moses to tell the whole Israelite community: “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge again any of your people. You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Our second reading this weekend is taken from the first Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians. In the section we read this weekend Paul reminds the Corinthians (and us): “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?”
Questions for Reflection/Discussion:
1. Why is it so hard at times to love our neighbor?
2. What helps you let go of hurt and resentment, and forgive?
3. What do you think Paul meant when he said we are Temples of God?