“False values that surround and blind” — Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent

March 29, 2014

Readings

In those Catholic parishes that have an active RCIA program, these readings to which we just listened – including the long Gospel story from John about the Man Born Blind – are read not just every third year in the Church’s 3-year Sunday cycle, but they are read every year on the Fourth Sunday of Lent. It’s during the Lenten Season when the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults – reclaiming the Church’s ancient practice of welcoming new members through a very thoughtful and prayerful process of initiation – welcomes adults who have been preparing for many months, sometimes years, to become Christian through the Easter Waters of Baptism.

ManBornBlindOn this Fourth Sunday of Lent, those adults – now called The Elect – will come forward for what’s called the Second Scrutiny, a ritual in which they, accompanied by their Godparents, are called to a deeper conversion of heart and mind to continue with their resolution, their decision, “to love God above all.” It’s a ritual in which the Community prays that they will be given “a sense of repentance, a sense of sin, and strength of will to live in true freedom as children of God.” Then, during the ritual itself when the Godparents place their right hands on the shoulders of the person with whom they have been walking this journey of faith, the celebrant prays these words: “God of mercy, you led the man born blind to the kingdom of light through the gift of faith in your Son. Free these elect from the false values that surround and blind them. Set them firmly in your truth, children of the light for ever.”

“The false values that surround and blind them.”

Most of us, probably, have a sense of what values are, let alone what values might be true or false, or perhaps what values appear true, but, when brought into the light of faith, are seen for what they truly are. I had an experience recently that made me wonder how common such an understanding is. Recently I had the occasion to speak with someone and I asked this person what values he was handing on to his children by certain actions he was engaging in. I almost was caught off guard when the response came, “what do you mean by values?” I tried to find a way to say what I meant, to get him to think of what is important in his life, what he finds to be of worth and lasting significance. He was able to say “family” was important to him – but knowing a bit about his family – I pressed further. “What about ‘family’ is valuable and important?” After all, I thought – even Vito Corleone or his real life counterparts in the contemporary Mafia – a crime organization whose members Pope Francis forcefully addressed this past week – would also have expressed belief in “family,” wouldn’t they? And, in our own country and culture wars, how often do we see bumper stickers promoting “family values” by those whose life choices make one ask whether Jesus would have chosen similarly.

When we listen to today’s readings, it doesn’t take a degree in theology to understand what their real meaning is all about. As we listen to this story of the man who, blind from birth, is given physical sight by Jesus’ actions, we also know that those religious leaders of the day, gifted with physical sight like most of humanity, have become blind to what is truly important, what is truly real, what is truly good, what is truly of value. Through the false values they have subscribed to, they seem chained to a rigid understanding of human rules and laws and regulations, for the Gospel writer tells us they cannot see what is plainly in front of them. Not only do they fail to stand back in awe and in wonder at the miracle of healing that Jesus has brought about, more importantly they fail to see who Jesus is. Blinded as they are by pride, power and position, they fail to see the identity of this miracle worker from Nazareth, the one who not only demonstrates power now over human ailments, but who soon will be shown as the One Who has power of death itself.

How often do we, too – or religious leaders in our own day – succumb to the same temptation? How often do we fail to recognize the Hand of God at work in the world simply because what we see does not fit with our preconceived notions of what is good and right? How often are we blind to the face of God in other people – either in our own backyard or across the globe – simply because they do not look like us or have lives which have traveled a different path? Do we have eyes to see that we are created in the Image of God, or do we prefer to limit our vision to a god created in the image of ourselves?

Today’s first reading from Samuel says it very clearly. In a line that seems uncannily similar to that famous line in the children’s book, “The Little Prince” about what is essential being invisible to the eye, the author of Samuel says this of Jesse’s eldest son, the one whom everyone expected would be anointed king: “Do not judge from his appearance or from his lofty stature, because I have rejected him. Not as the human person sees does God see, because the human person sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart.”

As we move toward the end of our Lenten journey, what still blinds us to seeing, like God, into not only the hearts of others, but into our own hearts? Let us pray that, as our gathering song prays, our eyes might be opened to see the face of God in everyone, our ears might be opened to hear the voice of God in the cries of God’s people, and that our hearts might be opened to love one another as God loves us.

Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent (Cycle B)

Dignity NoVA/Washington – March 24/25, 2012

Readings

Archbishop Oscar Romero, killed March 24, 1980 by armed gunmen as Romero celebrated Mass in a small hospital chapel.

Yesterday (March 24) marked the thirty-second anniversary of the killing of Oscar Romero.  If that name is not familiar to you, Oscar Romero was the archbishop of San Salvador who was murdered – martyred would probably be more accurate – at the beginning of his country’s civil war back in 1980. I mention Archbishop Romero because, as you know, this year we as presiders and preachers have been asked to invite reflection on faith, particularly on how our connection with this Christian community of Dignity has helped to form and fashion our faith as baptized believers.  One of the gifts that has been a blessing for my own participation in Dignity is that it has prompted me to reflect on what it means to be a follower of Jesus, knowing as fully as I can who I am as God created me to be.

Life is never lived “in general.” It’s always experienced and lived in the concrete, in the specific context of time and place.  Just as Archbishop Romero responded to the call to live his faith in the times and the world in which he lived, each of us is called to live our faith in the time and world and worlds in which we live.  And so my own reflection on what it means to be a follower of Jesus – as well as what it means to be a gay man who chooses to remain Catholic even when so many of our LGBT brothers and sisters make other choices – is intimately connected to the worlds of society, family, friends, work, politics, culture and church in which I live.

All of that – along with the fact that we have been observing this season of Lent – is to say that lately I’ve been thinking a lot about catechesis.  Strictly speaking, catechesis is the formal instruction of Catechumens – namely those who wish to become Christian, who wish to enter the Church, and who therefore go through an extended period of formation of mind and heart before freely saying “yes” to Jesus and choosing to enter the Christian Community through the Easter Sacraments. Before they die to self and rise to new life in the saving waters of Baptism, and before they are anointed by the Spirit in Confirmation, and before they share in the Mystery of the Cross which is Eucharist, Catechumens take time – typically many months and sometimes years – to get to know our story, the story of Jesus, the story of Christianity, the story of the Church, the story the Gospel, the story of discipleship.  They learn, they read, they observe, the serve, they participate as they are able, they pray.  It’s not unlike the extended time of dating and courtship, when two people who may one day make a life-long commitment to each other lay the foundation for that eventual “yes” they will speak to one another in marriage.

But beyond the formal preparation for the Easter Sacraments that Catechumens and the Elect go through, we who are already baptized also have a responsibility to continue traveling our individual and communal journeys of faith every day. We have a responsibility to continue our own catechetical formation through prayer, reflection, study, worship, and especially through the choices we make every day about how we live our lives.  We do this not only for ourselves, but also for others.  Today’s Gospel reading from John tells us that some “Greeks” came to Philip and asked to see Jesus.  Although they might not be as explicit, isn’t it true that we sometimes encounter people asking “to see Jesus”?  Oh, they may not do so in those exact words, but perhaps you’ve had the experience – as have I – of encountering people who are very intrigued by my assertions that “yes, I am a believing Christian, a practicing Catholic” and “yes, I am also gay.”  Now, this intrigue can come from multiple directions.  It can come from non-Catholics or non-Christians whose understanding of Catholic Christianity is either non-existent or very poor.  It can also come from our fellow Catholics whose own growth in faith may have stopped at some point many years ago.

View of the Valley from the top of White Face Mountain, New YOrk

Today, parishes that are preparing to welcome new Christians at Easter are celebrating what is called the Third Scrutiny, one of the rituals of the RCIA, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. The RCIA is a reminder to the Church – to all of us – that being a Christian is neither solitary nor easy.  It is neither solitary nor easy because following in the footsteps of Jesus is neither solitary nor easy. As disciples, we are asked to allow our hearts of stone to be turned into hearts of flesh.  As disciples we are called to allow the law of God to be written in those hearts of flesh so that we may know and follow God more closely.  As disciples, we are challenged to allow our lives to be purged of sin and to let go of whatever gets in our way of knowing God more fully.  As we hear today in the Gospel of John, even Jesus recognizes that following God’s will is not easy; for he himself readily admits that he is “troubled.” He is troubled because he knows that “his hour” has come and that the path before him will lead to death.

In his book, Why I Am Still a Christian, theologian Hans Küng reminds us that as Christians, as followers of the Crucified One, we always share in the struggles of all human kind. This sharing is indeed the fundamental call and mission of the Church, the People of God.  It is through the sharing in the struggles of others, that we join the hour of our lives to Jesus’ hour.  This understanding of Christianity – our understanding of Christianity – is very different from the one you might hear if you listen to fundamentalist preachers hosting political candidates, or to sports and other public figures who use their narrow view of Scripture to oppose laws that seek to reduce such things as bullying, hatred, and violence.

But as Küng says, the Church’s struggle is

“a struggle to ensure respect for human dignity against all animosity, even to the point of love for one’s enemies; a struggle for freedom against all oppression, even to the point of selfless service; a struggle for justice against all injustice, even to the point of voluntarily surrendering one’s rights; a struggle against all selfishness, even to the point of giving up the things we own; a struggle for peace against all strife, even to the point of infinite reconciliation.”

Having aligned so well his own life with the Gospel message, Oscar Romero’s hour came in a way not unlike that of Jesus. As he stood celebrating Mass in a small hospital chapel, Romero became the Sacrifice he offered, gunned down by powerful forces in his country which were threatened by his calls for justice, his advocacy on behalf of the poor, and his work challenging the status quo of power, wealth, and the ways in which the goods of this earth are shared by all God’s children.  Poverty, injustice, discrimination, hatred, violence, war – sadly they are still with us and with us in abundance.  As we enter these final days of Lent, let us pray – as Jeremiah says – that God indeed will remember no more the evil we have done, and that we will have the faith always and everywhere to follow Jesus – even to the point of death. In allowing ourselves to be drawn ever closer to Him, may the grains of wheat that are our lives bear fruit in abundance now and forever.

Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent

Third Sunday of Lent (Year A)
Dignity Nova/DC – March 26/27, 2011

Although we in this Dignity community hear these particular readings only every third year – following, as we do, the 3 year cycle of our Lectionary – there are many, many parishes that hear these readings and this Gospel story about Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well every year. The reason for that is those parishes have an active RCIA program – they regularly have adults who have either never been baptized or who are seeking to complete their initiation through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the RCIA. In those parishes, this Third Sunday of Lent marks the first of 3 very important “steps” in that ritualized process. Two Sundays ago, they would have gathered at their Cathedral with their godparents and the local Bishop, and the unbaptized would have declared in a public way their intention to be initiated into the death and resurrection of Christ through the Easter sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. While previously they would have been called Catechumens – students, really – interested in studying and learning about Christianity – now they are called the Elect, having been publicly accepted by those of us who already bear the name of Christian into these Lenten weeks of preparation of prayer, fasting, and the doing of good works.

This particular Sunday, the Third Sunday of Lent, those Elect are gathering at their parish’s principal liturgy, along with their godparents, and they are celebrating the first of what are called The Scrutinies. In two weeks they will hear perhaps the ultimate gospel story outside of the Passion Narratives that tell how Jesus’ has power even over death as they listen to the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Next week they will hear how Jesus brings vision and light to the Man Born Blind; and today they hear the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan Woman at the Well as he declares himself to be “Living Water.”

It sounds like such a cliché for me even to say this, but it really is true that we could spend hours talking about this Gospel story we just heard, so filled it is with depth and meaning.

  • We could, for example, take note of how the Gospel writer has Jesus speak 7 times in his conversation with the woman, using that biblical number of fullness, like the 7 days of a week, to symbolically suggest that an encounter with Jesus brings wholeness; OR
  • We could discuss how Jesus pays little heed to established gender roles by engaging an un-chaperoned woman in conversation in a public place and at a time of day where a woman would never be by herself; OR
  • We could see how these gender roles continue to be ignored as the Gospel author puts the woman in the role of evangelizer, being the one who bears witness to Jesus to the men in the town square.

However, the point I want to draw our attention to is neither of these, but rather to what the conversation these two have is all about. The instruction for the RCIA instructs the Elect to come forward after the homily. At that time special prayers – prayers which are rightfully called Exorcisms – will be prayed over them as the community encourages them to continue on their journey of faith, asking God to free them from sin and from all that hinders what the RCIA itself calls “progress in genuine self knowledge through serious examination of their lives and true repentance.”

When we think about it, isn’t that what not only Lent but the entire Christian life is all about – progressing in “genuine self knowledge through serious examination” of our lives, as we seek meaning, purpose, satisfaction and fulfillment? Our thirst that seems never to be satisfied is what makes us work so hard to succeed in this life – whether that be in school, or the workplace, in a sport we enjoy, or some other activity that gives us pleasure. That thirst is also what brings us here, week in and week out; it’s what underlies the longings of our hearts as we strive to do what is good and right; as we strive to seek justice in this world, and to be agents of change in the face of established, sinful social structures that all too often keep people from realizing their full humanity as beloved children of God, from their rightful place at the table of God’s People.

Certainly it is good and typical that we have such thirst. After all, is there anyone here who can honestly say that when you look at the entirety of your life, you are fully satisfied? Is there anyone here who has no unmet goal, no unfulfilled hope, no dream yet to be realized? Is there anyone here whose relationships are perfectly satisfying, whose health is without flaw, and who has achieved everything you ever set out to achieve? If there is, I suspect you’d be the envy of us all! Simply articulating those questions demonstrates that there isn’t one person on this planet who is not unfulfilled in one way or another. As this Gospel story unfolds, it’s clear that one of the main messages Jesus brings to this woman, and one which she in turn bears to others, is that it is Jesus himself who is Living Water and is the One who can and does satisfy every longing of our hearts, every thirst we have, if only we could be as open and honest and vulnerable as she is.

But before we jump too quickly to the end of this dialogue that Jesus has with this woman – a woman whose life and past and shortcomings he already knows – let’s pause for just a moment. What is the very first thing Jesus says to her, the first words out of his mouth? “Give me drink.” Give me a drink. The encounter’s focus starts out not with the thirst that the woman – and by extension we – have; but rather on the thirst that Jesus has. In reaching out to her – and to us – Jesus reminds us of God’s never-ending thirst for us; and not just for “us” in general, for “humanity” writ large. Jesus’s encounter with the woman at the well proclaims that God thirsts for and longs for and desires each and every one of us … including you and me and all those countless others whom society or church says “you’re not good enough.” Like his words, “I thirst” spoken on the Cross, Jesus – whom we believe is the en-fleshed presence of God in the world – became one like us precisely because of that eternal thirst of God to be loved by each and every one of us, the ones God created in Love.

Lent is a time when we are all called to be like that unnamed woman at the well in Samaria – a woman not perfect, a woman “with a past,” but more importantly a woman whose openness and faith satisfied the thirst of Jesus such that in turn she came to know his loving touch and was able to drink freely from the life-giving water he offers.