Sunday, April 12, 2015

Judgment and Mercy

April 12, 2015: 2nd Sunday of Easter––Sunday of Divine Mercy
Acts 4:32–35 / 1 John 5:1–6 / John 20:19–31
Judgment and Mercy

On this Sunday of Divine Mercy we are drawn into the heart of God that is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. The beloved apostle John writes in his first letter: God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins (1Jn 4:9,10). 

We look at the cross and see the justice of God. The cross is a picture of what happens when disobedience (sin) comes against the righteousness of God. But even more, look at the cross and see the mercy of God––the water and the blood flowing from the heart of Jesus. God chose to let the repercussion of evil fall upon himself instead of letting righteous judgment fall on us.

With this, two things become very significant. First, the righteous judgment of God is a reality. God is a righteous judge simply because he is God. This is inherent in God’s very character and being. Second, there is a mercy that rises above judgment. Just as the law of aerodynamics supersedes the law of gravity so that a huge jet plane can fly thousands of feet in the air and come down without crashing, God provides a mercy that supersedes judgment falling on us. But, if we choose to reject God’s mercy (because the nature of love involves a true choice), then just as the law of gravity is still in force alongside the law of aerodynamics, God’s righteous judgment remains. Understanding this part of Truth is the reason that the reality of Mercy is so incredible.

In itself, the righteous judgment of God is a good thing. It is the basis for true goodness and order. Humans have been created to hunger for goodness and order. There is a problem, though, that is our fault. Disobedience undermines goodness and order, and in our brokenness we have distorted views of what is truly good. (This perspective is mostly missing from the issues popularly discussed by mainstream media.)

Still, we look at some things and say “How awful!” Our world gives us such prompts almost every day; our news is filled with shootings, terrorism, child abuse…. When we say How awful! we are confessing our desire for true goodness and order. We are also passing judgment that something is horribly wrong. When G. K. Chesterton was asked what was wrong with the world, he replied “I am.” Each of us is broken, and when all our brokenness gets stirred into the pot we find ourselves living in a truly broken world.

The only way out is through mercy. We need mercy. Because we are broken––and because all that is right and good and true is rooted in God––there are only two ultimate options for us. Each one of us is on a path either to judgment or to healing. Our healing (and our holiness––our sainthood) is possible because Jesus took upon himself the righteous judgment of God. This is Divine Mercy.

When we are truly honest with ourselves––in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and what I have failed to do––we know that we need mercy. Apart from mercy we cannot escape the righteous judgment of God. When we truly believe that God has given us mercy in Jesus Christ, we see ourselves and our world differently.

I often look at a crucifix and think, “He took my place.” We are invited to hear Jesus still say, at least figuratively, Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.

I look at a world filled with hate and evil, pain and death, and think, “This is what happens when God’s ways are ignored and rejected.”

Then I hear that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. I recognize that what is proclaimed about Jesus came from eyewitnesses whose lives were transformed, and they were willing to die for what they had seen and experienced. So we have John ending his Gospel by saying, Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

We are not told everything we would like to know. Yet we have been given enough to understand the difference between mercy and judgment. This is what mercy desires: that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. 

On this Sunday of Divine Mercy, turn away from the evil lies that bring judgment to our world. Keep your heart open to the mercy of our Lord and hear his welcoming words: Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed. They shall obtain mercy. May each of us be numbered among them.

Sunday, April 5, 2015


"....when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward" C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

O grave, where is your victory? St Paul to the Corinthians

Friday, April 3, 2015

One more Good Friday thought...

Every year on Good Friday I watch The Passion of the Christ. The crucifixion of Jesus lets us see how the effects of rebellion against God tear the fabric of the whole creation. Sacrificial love is the one thing that can heal our world, but true love means vulnerability, and in this world vulnerability means suffering. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Yes, It is finished, but God forces his love on no one. Follow Jesus in suffering love and find the healing that turns the world upside down.

Good Friday – The Passion of the Cross

When we willingly choose any disobedience to the truth of God, we join the voices of those who cried "Crucify him!"

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Living in the Love of God

The following is in two parts. The first is the homily I actually preached for today's texts. What follows is what I first wrote, but decided it was too "thick" for everyone to follow (trying to cram too much into too limited space). I include it, though, because––for those interested–– it fills in "reading between the lines" for what was actually preached.

March 15, 2015–– 4th Sunday in Lent
2 Chronicles 36:14–16, 19–23 / Ephesians 2:4–10 / John 3:14–21
Living in the Love of God

What if…. every morning…. before we did anything else…. we took time to orient ourselves…. for the whole day…. to one encompassing reality: God loves us!?

Today’s Gospel has one of the most well-known verses in the entire Bible: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.

I’m a parent and a grandparent. I would give anything possible for the good of my kids. On the other hand, I cannot imagine choosing to give a single one of them up to death. Try to grasp the incomprehensible: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son….

We can hear it without truly giving ourselves to it, and it’s like we become inoculated to the transforming power of this most basic truth: God loves us!

When people do not know the love of God (and that’s different than having some idea about God’s love), something horrible happens: We go looking for love in all the wrong places. We even develop warped ideas of what love really is. “Love” becomes selfishness.

We can become so twisted in our own ideas of love that we do not want to know the real love of God. God’s love can even make us angry when we’ve developed a pattern of turning away from it. The Gospel tells us everyone who does wicked things hates the light. When this happens, the people who do know the true love of God appear to be out of touch and even “unloving”! That happened to Israel and it’s described in the first reading: They mocked the messengers of God, despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets, until the anger of the Lord against his people was so inflamed that there was no remedy.

Has it ever occurred to you that every hard and horrible thing in this world is ultimately rooted in people trying to live outside the love of God? Turning away from God’s love is death. Even in today’s Gospel, this text that proclaims the incredible the love of God, there is a warning––a grim reality: whoever does not believe has already been condemned because he has not believed…. 

There is a choice to be made. Every day we make a decision, either intentionally or by default. God loves us. He wants us to love him back. So I ask again: What if…. every morning…. before we did anything else…. we took time to orient ourselves…. for the whole day…. to one encompassing reality: God loves us!?

If we truly love the God who loves us, everything else falls into place. This is the Gospel.

God’s Love In A Hard World

God so loved the world…. This is one of the most well-know verses of Scripture in the entire Bible. In his first letter St John even says God is love (1Jn 4:8). Out of this declaration comes perhaps the hardest question in all of Christianity: If God’s love is so great, why do so many horrible things happen in this world?

How does one answer such a question in a short homily? To be sure, a full answer is not possible (even in a long book). To understand the intricacies of God we would have to be equal to God, so please know that we all need to begin (and to remain) at a place of humility. Ultimately, all we can do is bow before God (which is the essence of worship) and “trust and obey” (which is our only sure response––and there is a wonderful gospel song by that title).

Still the question haunts us: If God’s love is so great, then why do so many horrible things happen in this world? Perhaps simple is sometimes best, so I offer some simple observations from today’s readings. I hope we can see why the reading from Chronicles is paired with John 3.

The Scriptures explicitly proclaim God’s love. This truth is at the heart of the Bible and the Church. The love of God is literally the reason we are here; we were created in love. The love of God is the only thing that offers any hope for us in the world as we know it.

This is because, even as God’s love is the ultimate truth of existence, it is also true that this world is full of hard and awful things. Why?

This world is full of hard and awful things because we (human beings) have chosen that! We do not like to hear this, and it is quite unpopular to have opinions that lead to passing judgment, but we really need to understand the whole context of Christian Faith. Christianity is the only belief system that makes sense of all the data and offers an answer that is both internally consistent and offers genuine hope (which is not to deny that some issues are left unresolved; God is God, and that’s the nature of faith).

God created human beings to be rational, responsible, and relatively free (I say “relatively” because our freedom is contained within God’s sovereignty––only God is God). God made us as we are because he is Love, and we were created to love. It goes against the nature of love to be coerced; love is a choice that must be freely given. So when God wants us to love him back (because he created us in love), he gives us the choice not to love back. What most people do not understand is that when we do not love God, awful things happen. God made the world to “run” according to his Love, and when we act against that we make life in this world very hard.

This is what the Old Testament reading is about. God’s people, Israel, who were given God’s special directives of how to live, disobeyed and repeatedly rejected God’s messengers of warning. The repercussions of their willfulness grew larger and larger until everything around them collapsed. That is always the ultimate result of dismissing God.

God’s love does not mean we are free to do whatever we wish and then get by with wrong things. The true nature of love included responsibilities. It is not love to marry a person and then practice adultery (spiritual adultery against God was a recurring message of the prophets). It is not love when a parent does nothing to correct and even punish a child for behavior that is harmful or destructive (and again, Scripture likens God to a loving parent that disciplines his children for their good). God is so loving that he uses even hard things to help us embrace his kind of love.

The idea of love has become so twisted in our society that we need a context for understanding the true implications of love. God is love, and God’s love is just that––God’s love. We are not the ones who define love. When we try to make love something other than what God has designed, horrible things happen. Distorted “love” causes distorted results in our lives.

But even then, God shows his love. God gives us a way back. God shows us what our disobedience leads to, and he shows us what true love does. When we look at Jesus on the cross we are looking at what disobedience to God really means. When we begin to comprehend that God took that death upon himself to show us a way out, we then begin to get a taste of real love.

Jesus is the ultimate prophet of God bringing his love to our world. There is no one that God does not love. There is no one that God does not desire to love him back. But the nature of love remains: We have to choose to respond. We have to choose God’s love above and beyond the many imposters of love that our world offers. Too many people too often choose to go their own way. The Gospel tells of people who preferred darkness to light, and that everyone who does wicked things hates the light. This is like Israel so long ago who mocked the messengers of God, despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets, until the anger of the Lord against his people was so inflamed that there was no remedy.

No remedy? After telling of judgment, the Old Testament reading gives a promise of what God will do in the future: he will lovingly restore his people. Then the promise was ultimately fulfilled in the words we know so well: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. Notice God’s motivation: God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. But did you notice that it is conditional? God has not changed. He was not unloving and judging in the Old Testament only to have a change of mind and let everyone off the hook in the New Testament. The Gospel continues: whoever does not believe has already been condemned because he has not believed….

This is the nature of love. God lovingly calls us to know him through his Son. Whoever believes in him will not be condemned. Love is reciprocal. God loves us. He wants us to love him back. If we truly love God, everything else falls into place. This is the Gospel. 

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Walking With Jesus In the Desert

February 22, 2015 –– First Sunday of Lent
Genesis 9:8–15 / 1 Peter 3:18–22 / Mark 1:12–15
Walking With Jesus In the Desert 

Mark tells us that right after Jesus’ baptism, The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. On this first Sunday of Lent we are called into a 40-Day period of spiritual examination and focused disciplines that enlarge our souls and help us to be better followers of Jesus Christ.

As we seek to follow Jesus think about this: The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert…. Can you imagine God “driving” God? If you understand the Trinity, that is what Mark is saying. The Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, drove Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, into quite an unpleasant situation (from our human perspective). Even more, the verb “drove” is the same word used to describe Jesus “driving” demons out of people!

So Jesus responded to the Holy Spirit’s leading, and the Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark gives no mention of the specific temptations. Some have suggested that Mark’s emphasis here is not on “temptation” so much as it is the desert. The nature of life in this world is a spiritual desert––a place where demons lurk like wild beasts. We live in a world where demons try to destroy all that God loves. By ourselves we are vulnerable and even helpless. We need a Savior.

Jesus came into our world, not only to die for our sins and rise again in victory over death, but also to model for us what a perfect life lived in the Spirit is like. Life in the Spirit is "present tense”.  In our human weakness (and our desire for some control) we want God to give us a road-map to the future. We want to know the details of what to do next week or even next year. God’s Spirit is always saying “Trust and obey me right now.” Jesus shows us a human life that was a day by day response to the Spirit. And sometimes God sends things into our lives which are not pleasant, but the hard things are meant both to drive us into the arms of our loving Lord and to make us strong. Just as we don’t build physical muscle by being a couch potato, we do not grow strong spiritually without being subjected to difficulty and struggle.

But like the many people who get try to use some magic pill to get a near-perfect body, we want an easy way to healthy spirituality. Haven’t there been times that you’ve been impatient for God to do something that meets your expectations? So often God’s answer seems to be Wait. Part of Jesus' temptation was enduring the "waiting." The basic temptation from Satan was for Jesus to "do something" sensational and right away to prove he was God. Surely one of the besieging thoughts was simply “You know who you are and what you’ve come to do––get with it”. In other words, the temptation is “don’t wait on the Spirit’s leading.” It’s easy to think that if we’re doing a good thing (even what we think is a godly thing) we don’t have to wait on God. We want to charge full speed ahead. Jesus waited.

At the right time Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God. When Jesus announced This is the time of fulfillment he was not talking about a moment of chronological time. He uses another word for time that goes beyond our watches and calendars. It is God’s time, and God’s time is always a dynamic now––the present moment when the Spirit wants to lead us. When we live in that moment of God’s “time” we enter the Kingdom of God. and the Kingdom of God is the rule of God breaking into the world’s spiritual desert. So the Good News comes: If we follow Jesus from baptism to the cross––and yes, through the “desert” of our various temptations––he will lead us to full salvation.

But we should always remember that hard times will often follow our high times. Jesus went from the glory of his baptism to…. seemingly nothing––into the desert. So for us, a new commitment…. a fresh obedience…. an especially good time of worship when we personally sense God’s closeness…. any spiritual “high” can be a challenge for the powers of hell to test our response to God's presence in our lives. We are called to follow Jesus in every way, but we cannot faithfully follow Jesus in obedience to God…. we cannot faithfully follow Jesus in service to others…. and, even more, we cannot faithfully follow Jesus in death to self…. if we do not first face the reality of who we are in our weaknesses and temptations in the “desert”.

Baptism and temptation were not just for Jesus. They are for all who follow him, and in this Lenten season we follow Jesus through the wilderness of temptation to the surrender of the cross. We are to keep following even when sometimes it means waiting in not so pleasant situations. If we will do that, Jesus will lead us to a life that is beyond our comprehension.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Leprosy of the Human Heart

February 15, 2015 –– 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Leviticus 13:1–2, 44–46 / 1 Corinthians 10:31–11:1 / Mark 1:40–45
The Leprosy of the Human Heart

Leprosy was a big deal in Bible days. It was a seriously gross illness that could slowly rot a body even as the person lived in it. It is an awfully perfect analogy of sin, and there is a figurative application in the many Old Testament texts that deal with it.

Leprosy would separate a person from society. There could be no contact with others, even family. Someone could go months or years and never be touched. Imagine having to go through life yelling out to others to avoid you while identifying yourself as Unclean!

If only we could truly see that this is what sin does to us, but our modern and tech-driven society has found innumerable ways to insulate us from the immediate repercussions of sin. We live in a world that celebrates immorality of every type: financial and physical violence as well as sexual. We do see the world around us hurting and unravelling, but most people cannot––or will not––make the connection with disobeying God. Sin is making our whole existence dangerously unclean.

The leper that came to Jesus to be healed knew what the stakes were. He knew his situation was hopeless. There would be no natural healing. He would live the remainder of his life with a hideous deterioration of his body and then die an awful death.

But there was Jesus…. This man had heard of him somewhere… With nothing to lose he proclaimed the words of faith: If you wish, you can make me clean. The love of God is always wanting to save. Do we want to be saved? Sin blinds us so that we do not really believe we need to be saved. We can easily assume, “I’m not that bad.” The only people God cannot save are those who do not desire it. We have to want what God wants.

This leper wanted the gift of God. The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean. Jesus said to tell no one. (Jesus was not seeking the notoriety that later sent him to his death.) Still, the man went away and began to publicize the whole matter.

What would you do? Suddenly your whole life had been restored. You were not going to rot away. You could go back to your family. You could embrace your spouse and hold your children or grandchildren close. Your whole existence…. given new life.

The most vibrant Christians are those who really know something of what it means to be saved from the horror of helplessness and hopelessness. In another Gospel story, Jesus told his host: whoever has been forgiven little loves little (Lu 7:47). If our love for the Lord seems too little, we can ask the Lord to let us see the “leprosy” that afflicts human hearts.

This is how to understand the Apostle Paul. When we read his letters it is obvious that Paul is totally taken with Jesus Christ. Paul knew that Jesus was his Savior. This is why he tells the Corinthians: whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.

We are not given the rest of the former leper’s story in the Gospel. We might imagine him going into the horizon leaping into the air and saying Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! I have no problem believing that he lived the rest of his days do[ing] everything for the glory of God.

Can we ask the Lord for the grace to do the same? It might first mean taking an honest look at the leprosy of our own hearts so that we see how badly we need to be healed.

If we do that, we can say the same thing to Jesus: If you wish, you can make me clean.

If you truly want that, Jesus will do it. He is the Savior of the world.

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