Thursday, April 17, 2014

Into the Night

Mass of the Lord’s Supper
It was Easter Sunday, and as usual the church was full. And just as usual, the only open seats were in the front. Five minutes before the Mass was to begin, the door opened and a homeless man shuffled in. It took him a while to walk down the aisle. He walked in wearing on his back all his earthly possessions. Even though the morning was warm he was wearing a heavy jacket, and it was obvious to all he passed that he had been sweating in it all winter long.
As he passed by each row, the people sitting on the aisle refused to make eye contact with the man, just in case he was thinking of sitting next to them. As he passed there arose the murmur of low voices as people began commenting on his presence there. Slowly he shuffled up to the front row and sat down. The people sitting on his right and his left slowly shifted in their seats, giving him plenty of space.
Suddenly, one of the ushers, and elderly man who had served in that role at that parish for over twenty years, walked slowly down the aisle, his eyes on the homeless man. You could hear the whispered comments. “Jerry will take care of this guy. He’ll get him out of here.” Jerry genuflected to the altar and then sat down right next to the homeless man. He turned to smile at him and then sat there quietly, not speaking to him throughout the entire Mass. He just sat there as if it were any other Sunday and he was sitting with his friend.
Small gestures mean something. Small actions or inactions can make all the difference.
“Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed, for he is clean all over.” Jesus knew the power of small gestures. Jesus chose to prepare himself for his baptism of suffering and death by sharing a last Passover meal with his friends. He knew that not only he but they would suffer terribly the next few hours. He knew that they would suffer the pain of thinking their dreams and their hopes had died with Jesus. They would suffer the anguish of uncertainty and guilt as they abandoned him. And Jesus knew that eventually they would all suffer for their discipleship and most of them would die for it.
He knew that he had to prepare them for their suffering just as he was preparing for his. And so he used the simple gesture of washing their feet to symbolize the role they were to play. Jesus wanted his disciples to begin their journey of discipleship with clean feet. “Whoever has bathed has no need except to have his feet washed, for he is clean all over.”
Our feet carry us on our journey through life, and sometimes they get dirtied by our sins and mistakes. Not all of us is dirty, and we do not have to remain soiled forever. We need to clean up some parts of our lives from time to time. Whoever has bathed in the waters of baptism only need to keep their feet clean, for otherwise they are clean all over.
But Jesus didn’t want the apostles to wash their own feet. He wanted them to wash each other’s feet. He took the first step to prepare them for their journeys. But he also knew that their feet would eventually get dirty again and would need to be cleaned. He gave them the job to keep each other clean.
He has given us the same job. We are to also help each other stay clean throughout our journeys to the Father. It is a humbling job, both for those who wash and for those who are being washed. Sometimes those feet need a good scrubbing and other times we just need someone to sit with us quietly and validate our dignity. Either way, we are all journeying on this road together, aware that our road can be filled with danger, fear, and anxiety. Like Jesus, after we leave this supper we will go out into the night, into the darkness. Tonight there will be no words of dismissal. We will not be called to go forth in the peace of Christ to love and serve one another. We will just leave. Into the quiet of the night. To prepare.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Following the Crowd

Palm Sunday
Cycle A

Someone once said that people alone are smart; crowds are stupid. It’s one of those paradoxes of life that we all want to be thought of as unique, but we also want to fit into the crowd. Popular music, the fashion industry, politics, and sometimes even our Christian faith, all hinge on what the crowd thinks is right and cool and acceptable. And when someone breaks out of the crowd and dresses, or acts, or believes differently they are held up as mavericks or denigrated as freaks. We look at them with a secret envy and a bit of fear. We’d like to be different, too, but are afraid of what the crowd would say if we were. Crowds are a safe way for us to break out of our comfort zones anonymously.

I often wonder about those two crowds in today’s gospels. How many of them were true disciples of Jesus, or true haters of Jesus, and how many were just going along with the crowd? I can imagine that many of them were just passing by and saw a commotion, and they joined in without knowing what they were doing. It’s easy to start a crowd. Just stand on a street corner and look up into the sky for a minute. You’ll form a crowd all looking up into the sky, for no reason except that other people are doing it.

In our celebrity-celebrating society today we all love to build the beautiful people up with unrealistic expectations only to relish tearing them down later on. The higher they are the harder they fall. We like to stand on the sidelines as judge and jury, without ever getting too close to the subject and without thinking of how it hurts people.  

I think the people of Jerusalem were the same way. They had heard rumors of Jesus the prophet, saw a crowd forming, and joined in the celebration. Then, when another crowd formed at the Roman praetorium calling for his death, they just jumped right in again, without a thought to who they were condemning or what it would mean. After he was condemned, they simply went back to their lives, until the next flash mob formed.

Group think doesn’t have to happen in a crowd. Oftentimes we act as a crowd when we’re by ourselves. One example is the ever popular saying “I’m spiritual but not religious”. People pop off with these ideas without really thinking about what they are saying or considering the consequences. And ideas can go viral. Someone speaks it, then another and another, until suddenly it becomes conventional wisdom, even if it’s wrong.

Do we follow the crowd when it comes to Jesus? When we come to Mass are we just following the crowd, praising Jesus as our king without truly knowing who he is? Do we join the crowd because everyone else is? Is it easy to join in when Jesus is popular with our friends? And what happens when he isn’t popular anymore? When it’s not cool to be his disciple anymore? Do we jump on the bandwagon that his Church is just not relevant in today’s world anymore? Do we stick with the easy teachings and ignore the hard ones that go against the conventional wisdom? Do we go so far as to call for his death, or the death of his ideas, or of his Church?

Or even worse, are we the silent ones on the edge of the crowd who find it amusing when the crowd is for him but say nothing when the crowd turns on him? Do we even want to get involved?

Keep this in mind as we enter now into the church in triumphant procession. Remember that just as we’re part of the adoring crowd now we’ll soon be part of the one who condemns him.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

And Jesus Wept

5th Sunday of Lent
Cycle A

And Jesus wept.

Why was Jesus crying? Was it because his beloved friend Lazarus was dead? Why would he cry for that? He knew beforehand that Lazarus was dying. He could have prevented it. They asked him to prevent it. You could actually say Jesus was responsible for Lazarus’ death, because he could have prevented it. He was using Lazarus’ death to make a point. Doesn’t seem fair to poor Lazarus, does it? He had to suffer death twice. Jesus used his friend to make a point. All to try to get people to believe in him. Was it fair that an innocent man should suffer for the glory of God?

Was he crying because of the moment? It’s sad when anyone dies. Everyone else around him was crying. The emotion of the moment could have caused him to cry. But he didn’t cry when he raised that little girl back to life. He didn’t cry when he raised the widow’s son back to life. Why did he weep now?

Maybe he was crying because of the way Martha and Mary treated him. Did they greet him warmly when he arrived or did they get on his case? “If you had been here he wouldn’t have died.” In other words, “You didn’t do enough. Why don’t you do for us what you have done for others? How come you could make the blind man see but you weren’t here for us? How could you have abandoned us in our time of need?”

You didn’t do enough, Jesus. It seemed he never did enough. Show us a sign, do for us what we’ve heard you’ve done for others. What have you done for me lately?

Even his own death wouldn’t be enough.

Maybe he was weeping because he saw his own death foreshadowed in Lazarus. At this stage in his ministry, Jesus had tried everything. He had given the Jews a new vision of God, he had taught in their synagogues, healed in their streets. And still they did not believe. So he performed ever greater miracles in the face of their unbelief, in the hope that maybe this would be the sign to convince them. In John Jesus’ miracles start out small - changing water into wine - and gradually become more amazing – restoring sight to the blind and raising someone from the dead – until it becomes clear that even that would not be enough. Drastic measures would have to be taken. Perhaps if he were to die for them…

Was he crying because it might take something as drastic as his dying and rising to have some people begin to believe in him? Was it fair that an innocent man should suffer for the glory of God?

It’s amazing the lengths our God will go to try to convince us.

There’s a powerful scene in the movie, “The Passion of the Christ”. Right after Jesus dies on the cross, the camera moves high above Golgotha for a birds-eye view. A single drop of water forms and falls to earth, symbolizing God weeping over the death of his son. Why was God crying? After all, He allowed Jesus to die on the cross. He could have prevented it. Jesus asked him to and he refused. He knew what was going to happen. He knew how painful Jesus’ passion was going to be. But he allowed it to happen. He allowed sin to win. He allowed Satan to prevail...for a little while.

Maybe God cries because no matter what He does, we just don’t get it. Maybe God cries because it takes such extreme measures for us to even begin to believe in Him.

What is it going to take for us to believe? Why can’t we jettison all the baggage and simply believe? What’s so tough about believing? When we’re children we take things at face value. We believe the great God figures in our lives – our parents – when they tell us things, no matter how small or profound. But as we begin to think for ourselves we start to question things. We question everything until we don’t believe in anything.

What happens to us that we simply can’t accept that God loves us? Why do we force God to constantly prove himself to us? Who do we think we are, testing God? If only God had done…what? Fill in the blank. Then everything would be ok. If only. Then I’d believe.

If I were God I’d cry, too.

We do it all the time. How can God allow bad things to happen in the world? How can God cause earthquakes and floods and hurricanes to occur? How can God allow people to be evil and do evil things? We see natural disasters and blame them on God, but we don’t attribute the good in the world to God, no, that’s our doing. The wonders of science are responsible for the good things in the world that make our lives easier. Look at the progress we’ve made. Heck, we can even create life in a test tube. We no longer need God. So, let’s remove him from our everyday lives. Let’s remove him from the public square. As long as we visit him every Sunday or so at church that’s ok, as long as he stays here and we don’t have to put our faith on the line outside these doors. It’s so easy to compartmentalize, isn’t it?

After 2000 years, it hasn’t gotten much better, has it? We still need proof. Jesus still weeps. He is still hurt by our unbelief.

I think we need a bit of shaking up. I think we need to get down to basics and examine our relationship to God a bit closer. God is creator. We are creature. We don’t have control over our lives. We can’t make a hair on our heads turn color. We can’t control whether we live or die this moment or the next. Why does God have to prove anything to us? Who do we think we are? How dare we make our God weep for us.

As we get closer to the Paschal Mystery – the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – Let’s take some time to really think about what Jesus has done for us. What we have forced him to do for us. We forced him to die by our unbelief. Yes, us, not just those folks 2000 years ago. It still takes his dying to cause us to begin to believe. And we need constant reminding. That’s why we celebrate that mystery each year, each Sunday, each time we gather as a people.

What have you been doing the past thirty days? What has your Lent been about? Where have you been focused in your prayer, fasting, and almsgiving? Who has this Lent been about?

It’s not about us. It’s about Jesus. It’s about what we’ve forced our God to do for us.

It’s enough to make you cry.