The Peace Pulpit: Homilies by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton
|Fourth Sunday of Lent||March 26, 2006|
As I mentioned before we began our liturgy, we have passed the halfway point of Lent. And as was suggested a few days ago in the Little Black Book* that we use for our daily praying during this season of Lent, its a time when we should review some of the things that we resolved to do at the beginning of the season of Lent. Its a time to check to see if were living up to the different commitments we made to be more generous in almsgiving, to be more careful and self-disciplined, to be more generous and loving, to be more committed to our daily prayer. Those things are so important during the season of Lent.
Surely that is a good idea -- to kind of take stock and see where we are and how were doing. But theres also a danger in that. Because those are all external things, things we can measure. As we take stock, its very easy fall into the idea that Well, Im doing pretty good, and we become self-satisfied. We might become even a little bit like some of those scribes and Pharisees that we heard about in the Gospel, especially at the beginning of Lent, who did those works to be seen by others and not really out of a deep, genuine spirit of simply trying to follow the way of Jesus.
Todays scripture lessons are very important for us, because if we listen to them carefully we will see that whatever we have done and whatever we are doing we could not do unless God first loved us. Thats what the lessons are about today. All three of the lessons are teaching us in a very clear way that God is the one who always takes the initiative in our lives. God is the one who reaches out to draw us in. Only when we really understand that and begin to appreciate how much we are loved by God will our response then be almost a spontaneous response of returning that love to God by praying better, by giving more generously, by reaching out in works of healing and love towards others.
The first lesson today is so very clear in showing how God has always been the God who loves and loves first. Dramatically, the chronicler, the historian who writes the story of the chosen people, describes how horrendously evil they have been. All the heads of the priesthood and the people too, were exceedingly unfaithful, following the disgusting example of nations around them. And so they defiled the house which God had made holy. Yahweh, the God of their ancestors, continued to send prophets to warn the people since God had compassion on them, but they mocked the messengers of God, ignored their words, laughed at the prophets until at last the anger of Yahweh rose so high against the people that there was no further remedy. Then they began to experience the terrible things that happened when the Chaldeans or the Babylonians invaded their land, destroyed their temple and so on. They even burned down the house of God, broke down the walls near Jerusalem, set fire to all the palaces, and carried the people off.
Yet, heres the marvelous thing. They discovered, it happened, in the first year of Cyrus, King of Persia, to fulfill what God had said through the prophet Jeremiah, God stirred up the spirit of Cyrus, King of Persia, to issue the following command and send it out to be read aloud everywhere, Thus speaks Cyrus, King of Persia: Yahweh, the God of Heaven who has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, has ordered me to build God a house in Jerusalem and Judah. Now all of you who belong to Gods people go there and may God be with you. So that even in the midst of their failure, their unfaithfulness, God has been looking upon them with love and they discover how God will deliver them, heal them, make them whole, and restore them to their special place in Gods love.
St. Paul, in writing to the church at Ephesus, says right at the beginning of this passage, God is rich in mercy, and God reveals immense love and gives us life with Christ after we are dead to our sins. It is God who reaches out to us first. St. Paul is trying to make that clear to the people. He goes on towards the end of that passage and tells them, In Christ Jesus, God loves us and turns us, helps us to come to know God, because, Paul says, God rescues us through the gift of grace, not from work, for, Paul says, we are Gods handiwork. In other words, we are the work of art that God has made.
Its so thorough what God does for us that its not simply in our nature as conscious beings that we are made Gods work of art, but in our actions. As Paul continues to show us, We are Gods handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them. Not only has God loved us, not only has God healed us and given us life in Jesus, but God has prepared the very works that we are to do. Its always Gods initiative. And certainly in the Gospel lesson we see the same thing -- God so loved the world. God so loved the world that God took the initiative to send Jesus into our midst -- the very son of God. God who is love comes to live among us, so that we might have eternal life. That doesnt mean life sometime later in the new creation of heaven and earth, it means eternal life right now -- the very life of Jesus. God so loved the world that God sent Jesus into our midst that we might share the life of the son of God.
How do we do that? By looking upon Jesus. That might be kind of a puzzling analogy that the Gospel writer makes when he talks about how the Jewish people were healed when they looked upon the serpent raised up in the desert and now they can look upon Jesus and be healed. Well that comes from an incident that happened as the people we traveling from Egypt to the Promised Land. At one point, they had fallen into sin and then were attacked by serpents or scorpions, and Moses tells them, Heres how you can be healed: Place the serpent, the scorpion, on a stick as the sign of your sinfulness, then as you look upon that and acknowledge your sinfulness you will be healed. So Jesus is saying that when he is on the cross, it is in a way that shows he has become, as St. Paul says in the passage in one of his letters, has become sin for us.
All the evil that people could think of to do to Jesus, all that evil is kind of summarized, or brought together in that horrible crucifixion -- the most evil way of putting a person to death that you could imagine. So that Jesus is like sin -- a symbol of sin. But his arms are stretched out between heaven and earth in that everlasting sign of the covenant of his love and we look upon Jesus, look upon Jesus imaging our sinfulness. The love of Jesus is poured forth upon us, and we are healed. Again it is God who reaches out first to heal us; we have to open ourselves to that healing. When we have taken the time to reflect deeply on this mystery of Gods infinite, unlimited love for us and a love that reaches out to us first, then perhaps well appreciate with greater joy and gratitude the fact that we are Gods work of art. God has prepared ways for us to live according to love, to carry out the work of art that God has done within us, to make it happen in our world.
There are so many different ways in which we can -- if we reflect on it -- act according to Gods work of art. In other words, act according to the way of love. One of those, of course, is our effort to focus during this season of Lent in our adult education program on the death penalty. Do you think that a God who first loved us would ever want us to be vindictive, to kill someone who has done some horrendous crime? Just as God reaches out to us in love and loves us first, somehow we have to bring ourselves to that same point where we can forgive and love even our enemies.
Jesus loved his executioners; he forgave them. Thats the spirit we have to bring into our society. A society that is so quick to be vindictive and hateful and get even. The way of Jesus is different. If weve absorbed this truth about how God loves us, we cant help but carry out works of love in the same way.
The second thing that comes to my mind is this statement by a large number of Iraqi people:
They go on to plead that the United States take a different path. And isnt it true if we really understood the way of Jesus, the way of God, its only the way of love. We would never have fallen for the deceit that somehow you can bring peace out of war, you can bring love out of hate, you can bring goodness out of evil. You have to bring goodness out of goodness, love out of love, peace out of peace. We have to try to transform what is going on in our world and follow the way of God, which is the way of love and especially the way of loving first. Loving your enemies even before they forgive us and love us.
The way of Jesus is a very demanding way. The way of God, shown to us in Jesus, is a very demanding way, but it is the only way. So as we begin now this second part of our season of Lent, its so urgent that every one of us review what we are doing. But understand that whatever we are doing has to be done from the awareness that we only can do it because God has first loved us, and that God sent Jesus into this world to bring us the fullness of his life and that when Jesus is lifted up and we look upon him and see that everlasting sign of the covenant of love, we commit ourselves to live according to that way of love.
God bless you.
*Editors Note: The Little Black Books that Bishop Gumbleton mentions are produced in the Diocese of Saginaw, Michigan. During his tenure as bishop of the Saginaw, Bishop Ken Untener wrote inspirational passages based on Scripture for each day of special seasons of the Liturgical Church year, Advent, Lent, Easter. The name of each small book comes from the color of its simple cover: black, blue or white. They became so popular that parishes, religious orders, and other folks from beyond the diocese began ordering them. Bishop Untener died March 27, 2004, after a short struggle with cancer. In his honor and memory, his friends in the diocese continue to publish these meditation booklets. To order these books, visit the Web site for the Diocese of Saginaw.
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