Saturday, April 27, 2019

2019/04/28 Divine Mercy Sunday: What could be better?

Before Mass:  It’s Divine Mercy Sunday – big deal, right?  What is this Divine Mercy anyway?  What makes it different than normal Mercy?

Many of us know the basics about this Feast – but if I asked you to explain it, chances are you couldn’t – I mean – it seems so obvious, and yet… what IS Divine Mercy?
Let me get the basics out of the way now, then we’ll try to answer that question in the homily:  in the year 2000, John Paul II set the Sunday after Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday.  The teaching centers around Sr. Faustina, a visionary from Poland during WWII.  You may have seen this picture- which shows rays coming from the Heart of Jesus – and the picture includes the phrase, Jesus, I trust in You.  There is a Divine Mercy chaplet which is prayed by millions across the planet, and a special Novena which runs from Good Friday to today.   Even IF you are familiar with most of that, you’d probably still have trouble answering:  what Is DIVINE MERCY – and what’s that have to do with ‘Jesus, I trust in You’?

To understand Divine Mercy – we first need to understand several words: Justice, Mercy, Grace, and Divine Mercy.  These are all words we throw around at church and few of us could probably articulate exactly what they mean, how they’re different from each other- and how they are a part of each other.

Imagine you drive an old junker of a car.  One day, while driving to work, it breaks down…you start freaking out!!!  You’re gonna be late for work…and you’ve already been late twice this month because of this STUPID CAR…. You’re afraid you’re going to lose your job.  So you walk and even jog a couple blocks to a gas station to see if they can help, you are freaking out!  You notice a car sitting at the pump with the keys in it and nobody around.  You know it’s not right to steal the car…but did I mention you’re freaking out!?  You don’t want to lose your job, so you jump in the car and take off.  As you pull away, you notice a bald guy in a suit running up behind you waving his hands and yelling.

As you pull in the parking lot at work, you see the red lights pull up behind you and you’re arrested and taken off to jail.  The next day, on the way to the courthouse, you’re practicing your speech….gee your honor, I’m really sorry…no…I’m SOOO sorry…over and over you practice – but as soon as you enter the courtroom, your heart sinks.  You recognize the judge…it’s the same bald guy you saw in your rearview mirror yesterday….YOU STOLE THE JUDGE’S CAR!

You know your goose is cooked.  You hang your head.  You want to disappear into the carpet.  You know you did wrong and you know you deserve the maximum sentence – and the Judge surely won’t go leniently on you since he has been PERSONally offended.  You decide to just confess and get it over with…  You say, “Judge, I am sorry, I have no excuse – and I ask you to simply give me what I deserve”. 

The judge looks at you across the desk, takes off his glasses and says – Lady, you broke the law of this country which I am personally sworn to uphold.  The law clearly states that Grand Theft Auto carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.  Since I am a just judge, I’m gonna give you exactly what you deserve.  …and he hammers his gavel and announces the sentence…20 years in prison.

What do you think – is that fair?  Did you get what you deserve?  That is justice – giving what is owed to you.  The judge didn’t care why you stole it or who you are or who you know – if the law says X then you get X – that is justice.  What could be better than Justice?  How about Mercy...

What is Mercy?  Put yourself back in the courtroom.  Just like before, you recognize the judge and once again your heart sinks.  You simply confess and say, “Judge, I am truly sorry, I have no excuse – but I ask you to please be merciful”. 

The judge looks at you across the desk, takes off his glasses and says – Lady, you broke the law of this country which I personally am sworn to uphold.  The law clearly states that Grand Theft Auto carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.  That’s what you deserve, but I can tell that you’re truly remorseful for what you’ve done, so I’m suspending the sentence and you’ll be on 2 years probation with only a $1000 fine to pay for court costs.  And he hammers his gavel.

You’re jaw drops – you’re amazed – this judge is great!  Instead of giving you what you deserved  (justice), he gave you the minimum sentence allowed by law (mercy)!  Notice the judge COULD have sent you to prison for 20 years – but because you were sorry for what you had done, he gave you less punishment than you deserved.  That is Mercy.  Pretty good stuff, right?   What could be better than Mercy?...

How about Grace:  Put yourself back in the courtroom, Just like before, you recognize the judge and once again your heart sinks.  You say, “Judge, I am truly sorry, I have no excuse – but I ask you to please be gracious”. 

The judge looks at you across the desk, takes off his glasses and says,  Lady, you broke the law of this country which I personally am sworn to uphold.  You’ve also personally offended me by taking MY car.  However, seeing that you’re sorry for your crime and have begged not just for Mercy, but for Graciousness, I will show you how Gracious I can be.   The law clearly states that Grand Theft Auto carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.  Since I am Gracious, I am dropping the charges.  Not only that, but I realize you’ve been driving an old junker of a car, and that’s why it broke down, so, I’m writing here a personal check for $25,000.  Buy a new car and don’t be late for work again.

You have just experienced Grace.  Grace is receiving what you didn’t deserve.  A favor.  An un-deserved and un-earned gift.    Notice because the Judge was the one who was offended, he has the right to drop the charges!  Whereas Mercy is not receiving the punishment we deserve, Grace is to receive a blessing we didn’t deserve.  The Grace of God is what saves us - notice that there is nothing we could ever do to earn or deserve what Jesus did for us on that cross.  It's pure grace - a free gift.  What could be better than Grace?  Could it be Divine Mercy?

So – what is DIVINE MERCY?  Is it Justice?  Mercy?  Grace?  I think it is ALL of the above.  Divine Mercy is a combination of – because God gives us what we need most.  Sometimes we NEED to spend a night in jail so that we learn from our mistakes.  Sometimes we need to be cut some slack and shown mercy.  And of course, God’s grace is given to us every moment of every day.

God will go to any length to give us what we need... in the Gospel, Thomas needed to stick his finger in the nail holes in order to be able to believe... and Jesus was willing to let him!  In the first reading, there were signs and wonders - and many people needed to see those signs in order to believe.  Some of those signs weren't what we might think - I know at least two people who had fallen dead at the feet of Peter - that was a sign too.  Not all signs and wonders look like blessings.

Divine Mercy gives us what we need.  That’s sometimes a hard pill to swallow – because it might not look like a blessing at the time.  The best example I can think of was when Adam and Eve ate the fruit, death and suffering entered the world and they were thrown out of the garden of Eden…. Now – was that a punishment or a blessing?  I’ve always thought it was a punishment, but look at it this way:  once suffering entered the world, God did not want us to suffer forever – so he took Adam and Eve away from the Tree of Life.  Death was actually a mercy of God, as it limits the years of suffering we must endure.

Divine Mercy is mercy – but it may not seem like it at the time.  It comes down to Trust.  Spiritual writers for centuries have tried to say it in many ways, but it boils down to this:  everything that happens to us is either sent by God or allowed by God.  If we trust that God always has our best interest at heart – and He does – then we can trust at any moment that whatever is happening at this moment is Divine Mercy at work.  That can be SUCH a hard pill to swallow.  That’s why the bottom of the picture says, ‘Jesus, I trust in You’.... so we can practice saying that every day.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

2019/04/21 Resurrecting Hope

The whole world seems to be falling apart and becoming more violent, more hateful.  It would be easy to despair if we focused on all the negativity.  But Easter is THE ultimate day of hope…  and I want to share a story about Lenny  – A TRUE story – although I changed some details to protect his real identity.

Lenny was what we would call a “hardened criminal” – and he looked the part:  muscular, tatoos everywhere, a thick beard and a scowl told you to give him plenty of room.   His mom had died when he was 6 – his Dad had done some bad things… unforgivable things.  By the time he was 12, Lenny was fending for himself on the street, joined a gang, got messed up in doing and selling drugs, and at 18 was sentenced to life in prison for a brutal murder.

From all accounts, Lenny was a hopeless case… a sorry excuse for a human being.  The system wrote him off.  His family wrote him off.  Counselors wrote him off.  He was as good as dead.

Lenny survived all these years in prison by doing two things:  He was purposely mean, thinking it would  ‘earn’ the respect of everyone on the yard – and second: every day he fed his anger.

See – Lenny blamed his dad for how his life had turned out.  If his dad hadn’t been such a loser, Lenny might have stayed on the path of a normal life.  Not only that, for reasons I can’t explain, Lenny blamed his Dad for his Mom’s death.

To put it mildly, Lenny hated his Dad.  That hate and anger fueled Lenny to pull further and further away from people – to scowl harder – cuss more violently – becoming ever meaner.  Every day, Lenny would wake up with this anger, and lay there feeding it like you’d feed a pet dog -  Lenny’s anger was his backbone.
But then a group of men showed up to put on a Kairos retreat.  In case you’re not familiar with Kairos, it is a three-day retreat based on the Cursillo method, but it was developed specifically for prisons.  Upon hearing that Kairos was coming, Lenny rolled his eyes… whatever – ain’t no blankety-blank, blankin’ Christians blankety blank gonna save me! 

But when the retreat started, Lenny was sitting at the table.  That’s not totally surprising – I mean – at least for those three days he’d get fed REAL FOOD – and he got to be out of his cell three times as long.  He wasn’t there to find Jesus – not a chance - he was just there for a break in the monotony and the cookies.
On the third day of the retreat – at 10 am – Lenny spoke up for the first time all week without cussing.   “I want to give my life to Christ”.  And this big bear of a man put his head down and sobbed.  Amazingly, all these other men who had been avoiding Lenny circled around him and prayed with him – yeah – it’s hard to even imagine the scene.  37 hardened criminals gathered around one bawling gangster talking to Jesus.

Somewhere through the three days, the witnesses that were shared by the team and the other offenders at the retreat led Lenny for the first time to realize that his anger wasn’t his strength – it was his weakness.  His unforgiveness of his Dad wasn’t his backbone, it was a poison killing him from the inside.  His unforgiveness was his own personal prison in which he had locked his heart.  Jesus was able to reach down into that prison – into the hardened heart of a man who had spent his life avoiding letting anybody get close.  For the first time since his Mom died, people showed Lenny what love looks like! 

I share this true story because – it’s a great sign of hope.  Regardless of how hopeless things can seem, the Grace of God can ignite hope from the smallest kindling.
Every one of us here has something in our life that seems hopeless… our marriage, our relationship with a brother or sister or parent, a dead-end job, a teenager on drugs, a spouse addicted to alcohol, an injury or illness that has us sidelined.  Every one of us experiences these seemingly impossible situations and it would be so easy to fall into despair…. Yet we dare to keep hoping.

If God can reach into the stone tomb to raise his Son from the dead, God can change ANY hopeless situation.  If God can reach into the stone tomb of the prison to touch the heart of a hardened criminal, He can reach the heart of OUR hopeless relationships.  Really…

What do we have to do?  Obviously pray – but then just BE the instrument for God to show love to that person.  Just like the team that went into the prison to put on Kairos, you and I can be the arms outstretched to show love to even the un-lovable.  By showing Lenny what love looks like, his heart melted.  We may still have to give tough-love to avoid enabling our drug-addict teenager – but we can’t lose hope that somewhere – perhaps when they’re in the tomb of a prison for 3 days or for twenty years – God will resurrect their hearts…

And if you and I would drop whatever anger or pride or unforgiveness we’re holding onto, he can even reach into the prison we’ve made for ourselves and resurrect hope.

2019/04/19 Good Friday - The EROS of Christ

We hear the story of the Passion twice a year – on Palm Sunday and Good Friday.  Do you ever feel like – Jesus – why don’t you say something?  Why don’t you defend yourself?  I mean – we KNOW you have the power to convince Pilate and the other leaders – but you say almost nothing.  Why don’t you try to save yourself? 

I think the answer is ‘Passion’.  We normally use that word Passion to refer to the suffering and death of Jesus – but let’s look at it from another perspective.  Where else do we use the word Passion?  In the love between a man and a woman, for example, they can experience a passionate kiss.  They are said to ‘have a passion’ for each other.  This may seem weird to be talking about this kind of Passion on Good Friday, but stick with me.

In the Theology of the Body, the word Eros is used a lot – and as you all know, Eros is one of the four Greek words for Love (whereas English just has one) - Eros normally what we think of as erotic love – maybe better translated as ‘passionate love’ - like the passion between and man and woman.  Christopher West, in reflecting on the teachings of St JPII, goes a little deeper – Eros is our DESIRE – it is what MAKES us Passionate – it is the fuel that drives us to do anything in life.  Eros calls us out of our SELF to seek to be with another person.  That’s the key – Eros is what makes us come out of our selfishness for the save of someone else.  Eros IS our Passion - think about it.  If you and I have a Passion for something, it means we love something – for example, 

- a firefighter has a passion for firefighting… and doesn’t mind getting out of bed – sometimes more than once in a night – for the chance to help someone. 
- Maybe you’re a student learning to be a nurse or engineer or plumber – what drives you to spend all those hours studying? 
- Everyone with a job – what gets you out of bed to drag yourself to spend yet another day in drudgery? 
- Parents – what drives you to stay up all night with a sick child – and to provide for these little rug-rats who don’t even seem to appreciate what you do for them?

I suggest – if you can answer that question for yourself – you’ll identify your passion – the one thing in your life which drives you to act – to study – to get off the couch or out of bed – to willingly put yourself through the pain. 

Jesus didn’t try to save himself because the cross WAS his passion.  His greatest desire, his Eros, was to establish the Kingdom of God – and the path to do that led right through the cross – so to try to save himself would have been going against his passion.

So – on this Good Friday – yes, we glorify Jesus and we’re thankful for all he went through for us – but don’t stop there.  Think about what DROVE him to do it… think about how madly he loved us – how madly he loves YOU.  Think how passionately He must have wanted to bring us ALL into the kingdom…

Can we love Him as much as He loves us?  Can we seek the kingdom with the same unwavering intensity that led him to the cross?  The message of the cross is that we only find true joy in life when we identify our deepest desire – our Eros – our Passion.

Our life is complete when we find something – or more likely – some ONE to give our life to.