Deacon Jim Koger and Deacon Mike Lewis preached this weekend: No homily available.
So it is the first Sunday of Lent – time to get moving on our Lenten journey.
So imagine we are a train sitting at a station. It’s going to take a lot of energy to get that train moving. And even then, progress is slow, the wheels seem to meander around. But then something shifts:
The wheels turn faster, momentum builds and before too long, the train is an unstoppable force.
No one but the driver, the engineer, can stop it from getting to its destination and if anyone was to try – they had better get out of the way or they will get run over.
What if we expended all that energy and power to get ourselves moving --- only to discover we’re moving in the wrong direction because we’re on the wrong track??
I think that is why every year the season of Lent begins in the desert. “The Spirit DROVE Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days.”
Like Jesus, like the Israelites, like John the Baptist, like the early Church fathers and mothers – to begin our Lenten journey – the spirit drives us into the desert.
Why? I think to make sure our heads are on straight – our hearts are in the right place – and to make sure we are on the right track before we come barreling out of the station. . .
We are driven into the desert – that is times and places of quiet and isolation and reflection however we can carve them out of our busy schedules --- our inner room, as St. Matthew’s Gospel told us on Ash Wednesday – where we go and close the door in order to spend time with God -- so that we can be apart from the influences of culture and society.
The uncertainties of the desert create a need for God and a dependence upon God.
God lets us do without – so we can come to know God as our provider.
God lets us be lonely – so we can come to know God as our ally and friend.
God lets us be frightened and worried – so that we can come to know God as our peace.
God lets us be weak – so we can know God as our strength.
In the desert – God reveals Himself. In the darkness of the desert – God become our light.
In the confusion of the desert –we learn to let God be our guide.
In the desert – God separates us from the influences of the world, as well as the things and people we have learned to depend on – so that we will learn to depend on God.
In the desert, with the help of God’s grace, we put ourselves on the right track – having learned to reject Satan and all his empty works and empty promises.
The spirit drives us into the desert – so that God, alone, can lead us out.
So after carving out those places of quiet and isolation and reflection from our busy schedules – and having placed ourselves on the right track – it’s time to get that train rolling.
If we have not started anything by way of prayer, fasting and almsgiving -- thenstart today. Even the smallest actions toward turning away from evil and doing good – seeking after peace and pursuing it – will make a difference.
It may take a lot of effort to get the wheels turning – as it always seems to be hard to get Lent going – as we usually don’t jump into Lent with much enthusiasm --- but once we have started, momentum can build quickly.
And then once we off and running with our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – no once can stop is.
We can be that unstoppable train. We can become those people God wants us to be.
We can live the Baptismal promises that call us to reject sin and Satan and to embrace Jesus’ way of compassion, forgiveness, and mercy.
We just need to leave the station –AND be sure we’re on the right track. . .
It was a strategy that worked well for us at Advent – so I thought -- why not use it for Lent? And so ---- Let’s begin with the end in mind. . .
So at the end of Lent comes Easter and the 50 day Easter season. Throughout the Easter season we always do something different. Instead of professing our faith using either the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed --- we do it by renewing our Baptismal promises ---- which, as you should recall – has us answer a series of question by saying “I do” to define ourselves as followers of Christ by what we reject – do we reject Satan and all his works and empty promises ----- and by what we embrace: do we believe in God the Father almighty, in Jesus Christ his only Son, and the Holy Spirit?
Yes, Christians define themselves by not only what they turn FROM --- but by what they turn TOWARD.
Lent, then, is the preparation period of 40 days that comes before Easter. It is a time to “whip ourselves into shape” so that we are ready to profess anew who we are as Christians and to make the commitment to do what Jesus did: live with compassion, mercy, kindness, and forgiveness.
For some of us – there is plenty to do to get ourselves back on the path WITH Jesus because of how far we have strayed from his ways.
For others, there may not be any major changes --- maybe just be a little fine-tuning that needs to take place --- for no matter how hard we try to imitate the life and teachings of Jesus – everyone of us stray – if but a bit.
Lent, itself, always begins with a question that helps us do the major overhaul, or the fine tuning we need to be about in order re-align ourselves with Jesus.
The question for us this year as the Ashes are sprinkled upon us: WILL YOU TURN AWAY FROM EVIL AND DO GOOD --- SEEK AFTER PEACE AND PURSUE IT?
That can be a tall task – and it will take some effort to achieve. But through our prayer, our fasting, and our almsgiving during these 40 days of Lent– we hope to achieve it.
And if we successfully practice turning away from evil and doing good – seeking after peace and pursuing it --------------------- then we should have no problem renewing those Baptismal promises every Sunday throughout the Easter season that commits us to follow after Jesus and doing what Jesus did: living with compassion, mercy, kindness, and forgiveness.
Ordinarily as you know – we would receive Ashes on our foreheads. Since that involves touching each and every one of you – which is not safe during these covid times – you will come forward – slightly bow your heads – and the Ashes will be sprinkled on the top of your head ------ which I understand is the practice elsewhere in the world --- it just hasn’t been our way in the United States.
Ashes are a sign of repentance – and the desire to “whip ourselves into shape” so that we can follow Christ more closely.
My name is JOAB. King David of Israel once cursed my family by saying:
“May Joab’s family never be without one suffering from a skin disease” – and so here I am – generations later: a leper for more than 30 years all because my great-great-great grandfather killed Abner: a commander of King David’s army.
At first my leprosy wasn’t very bad. My family did their best to cover up the first few signs on my skin. Gradually, as the white, flaky areas started to spread, it was impossible to hide – so my loved ones bowed to the law and sent me away.
I understood the need for my exile out of towns and separation from any contact with others.
Because, of course, leprosy was contagious. But beyond that, these signs of inflammation and disease of my skin indicated that I was a sinner – or so it was thought at the time. Something inside of me was decayed or unclean – and that was showing itself on the outside of my body in the form of the disease.
That’s the real reason a leper like me is expelled from society and from contact with anyone. Any person who even got close to me would be rendered unclean themselves – you caught both the disease and the underlying sin at the same time.
So I, and everyone else like me – lived in isolation in the wilderness. The disease was bad enough – but the isolation was worse.
The feeling of being unclean, contagious, untouchable – all leading to the feeling of being UNLOVABLE—was the real horror.
I examined myself over and over again and asked: “what had I done? What inner disorder is showing itself on my skin?”
It did not matter that I could not figure that out. After a while, you just feel horrible about yourself. You start seeing yourself as one disgusting mess.
I happily did what the law required of us untouchables – I shouted: “Unclean – unclean” whenever anyone got close – to warn them – that I was no good, that I was toxic, that I was to be shunned at all costs.
Most people just alerted their paths to avoid me and the other lepers with me. Sometimes people would shout obscenities at us – just to make sure we would stay in our place of exile and not come any closer.
Most just had fear in their eyes. One time I heard a person damn me to hell – saying that’s exactly where I belonged for having done what I did – even though they, nor I, knew what that something was.
One fateful day, I heard someone say: “Maybe the prophet from Nazareth could help these wretched souls. After all, he has been curing so many.”
Another said: “Who knows. I hear the Nazarene eats and drinks with sinners. Why should he not start to hang out with lepers and other despicable people?
It could not have been but a few days later that I came out of the cave I used for shelter to the sound of a group of travelers coming by. I did my customary shouting: “Unclean – unclean!”
Then I saw him. I knew who he was immediately – such a stunning man – walking with such confidence, yet his bearing communicated such peace.
Then his eyes met mine – and there was no fear at all in those eyes. Just compassion and love. It was so clear, in just this connection of our eyes – that he felt sad about my state – and he understood my isolation.
For the first time in a very long time – I felt courage and hope. Going against everything I had been taught by the Jewish Law – I ran up to him and fell on my knees in front of him and boldly said:
“Lord if you wish – you can make me clean!”
My actions and words got everyone to stop in their tracks – and they listened to what he would say.
I think I actually stopped breathing when he reached out and touched me. TOUCHED ME! He touched the unclean, contagious, untouchable, unlovable ME.
You cannot possibly know what it is like to feel so vile and then to suddenly be touched in the way that he touched me – the feeling started with the touch of his hand to my skin – but that touch went way deep – possibly even touching my very soul.
And then he spoke those words that I will never forget: “I do will it – be made clean!”
My shame left me immediately. And then my skin was transformed. The tears of joy must have told him how grateful I was.
HE – just smiled and embraced me. And every one of his fellow travelers embraced me as well. We were all laughing and crying at the same time. He, this man they call Jesus – was laughing and enjoying it the most --- for I was lost, but now I was found. Once unclean – but now clean. Alone – and now would know loneliness no more.
What a joy. What a gift. What a day!
Jesus had restored me to communion again because he had compassion on me.
And you know what – he has the same compassion for anyone who suffers in anyway what-so-ever: physically, mentally, spiritually. . . .
And so my advice to you – is to be bold. Just say: “Lord if you wish – you can heal me!”
Give him that chance to also restore you.
And then be imitators of Christ – looking for ways to include people rather than exclude them – looking for ways to lift them up rather than put them down – looking for ways to love them rather than to shun them: do everything for the glory of God!
So my name is Joab – and that is my miraculous story – and I am sticking with it. Peace to you and yours: And blessed be the name of the Lord!
In the three year cycle of readings that we get for Sunday Mass – there is only one other time besides today – that we read from the Book of Job.
This summer, on the 12th Sunday of Ordinary Time – we will read 4 short verses of Job – today it is a whopping 5 – and yet the book of Job in the Old Testament is 42 Chapters long!
Our reading today is taken from chapter 7 – about the time things begin to turn sour for Job:
“I have been assigned months of misery. I am filled with restlessness until the dawn. I shall not see happiness again.” Job says.
Rabbi Harold Kushner based his book: Why do bad things happen to good People, on the book of Job and says 30 years after its publication, he still hears from people who wonder where God was when they needed him the most . . .
This is Matthew’s condensed story of Job--- to help us understand the answer to that question when we are wondering the same thing.
There was a rich man named Job – who lived in the land of Uz in Israel. Job was a good man. He always put God first in his life.
One day when God was talking with his angels, Satan dropped by. God asked Satan: “Have you ever seen such a good man as my servant, Job?”
Satan liked to argue with God and said: “Anyone can be good when they have everything a person could want. . . Job has a home, family, cattle, and great wealth.
Besides all that, you don’t let anything harm him. Job doesn’t have a clue what it is like to be miserable. If he did, he would be no friend of yours!”
So satan asked God, “Hey, let me prove to you that Job will be a big cry baby and start saying bad things about you the minute something goes wrong.”
Since God was convinced that NOTHING would stop Job from loving and honoring him – God replied: “Okay, but I know Job will always be faithful to me – do what you want – just don’t hurt him.”
So satan rubbed his hands together and said – “Yes, I am out to get Job. . .” And so it began.
Meanwhile, Job was sitting quietly, when one of his servants came running up to him and said:
“My master, some men from out of the desert came and killed all of your servants – and they drove away all your cattle – I alone survived the tragedy.”
While this servant was speaking, another man came rushing up to Job and said: “Master, you will never believe it! All of your shepherds and sheep were struck by lightning and killed – I alone survived the tragedy.”
Yet another man came running and yelling, “Sir, three bands of enemies have stolen all your camels and killed the camel drivers – I alone survived the tragedy.”
Finally the last messenger arrived crying, “Oh no, Job, all your children have been killed. A giant wind blew the house down on them – I alone survived the tragedy.”
So in the course of one day, Job lost everything but his wife and his own life. Job went from being rich to being poor in just a few hours. . .
Did Job get angry with God? NO – he fell down on his knees and said to God: “With nothing I came into the world and with nothing I shall leave it. The Lord gave and now the Lord has taken away: Blessed be the name of the Lord!”
With all that went wrong, Job did not blame God or stop loving or trusting God. . .
And so God called to Satan: “See, you could not make Job turn from me! There is no man on earth more perfect than Job.”
But Satan said, “Trust me – if you let me hurt him, so that he is in great physical pain – he will start calling you names and lose his faith in you.”
God really did not want Satan to hurt Job – so he said: “Okay, you can make him uncomfortable – but that’s as far as you can go.”
So Satan immediately zapped Job with huge sores from his head to his feet. Job became very miserable – but he still did not blame God or say anything mean about God.
Job’s wife tried to convince him that he should curse God and just die – but Job could not do that. He loved God too much.
Job was beginning to wonder why God had allowed all of this to happen to him. But then he thought, God doesn’t just punish those who love him – there must be something God wanted him to learn from all of this. And so Job prayed that God would open his eyes to see the meaning of his sufferings. . .
It was then that God spoke directly to Job: “Can you begin to know my greatness?
Were you there when I created the world: the light, the sea, the stars, the earth and everything on the earth? Can you attempt to instruct me?”
Job got the message. He did not need to know WHY things happened, he just needed to keep trusting God and God’s love for him.
God then gave Job back his health, double his previous wealth, and blessed him with a long happy life.
And that’s the lesson of the book of Job – that no matter what happens to us – or happens around us --- we need only know that God is in charge – and then continue to trust in God – no matter what – which of course is more easily said than done. . .
Because even though we are not the God of the universe – had nothing to do with the creation of the earth and all that is on it –
we almost always think our way is better than God’s. . . And that’s the type of thinking that can get us to start questioning our faith and the power of God. . .
Every week, after the Our Father, we pray:
“Deliver us lord, we pray, from every evil. Graciously grant
peace in our days. That by the help of your mercy – we
may be always free from sin and safe from all distress – as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior: Jesus Christ.”
It is only when we place our trust in God alone – that Jesus will approach us – grasp our hand – and lift us up out of whatever misery has befallen us.
It is only when we place our trust in God alone – that we truly become good stewards – recognizing that everything we have is a gift – and are able to echo Job’s words: “With nothing I came into the world and with nothing I shall leave it. The Lord gave and the Lord can take away: Blessed by the name of the Lord!”