Saturday, December 15, 2018

Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent - December 16, 2018

Homily for Advent 3
December 16, 2018
The Joy of Mercy

            The classic French novel Les Miserables starts out with one of the most famous acts of kindness in all of human history. The main character, Jean Valjean, had just been freed from nineteen years of prison, but because of his criminal background he is rejected by society, poor and homeless. The kindly local Bishop gives him shelter for the night, but Valjean responds by stealing all of his silverware. When the police catch Valjean, the Bishop, out of mercy, fabricates a story about how the Bishop had given Valjean the silver. To make the story believable, the Bishop goes on to give him two silver candlesticks that he “forgot”. The police believe the Bishop’s story and release Valjean. The Bishop – obviously a saint – tells the former criminal that it was God who spared his life, and that he should take the silver candlesticks and sell them, using the money so that he could live an honest life. Jean Valjean takes to heart the Bishop’s admonition and turns his life around, becoming the hero in the novel.
            A little mercy goes a long way. And this is precisely the kind of mercy we rejoice in today. I find it interesting that the end of today’s Gospel features John the Baptist “preaching the good news” to the people. Why is the message of salvation “good news”? And why is there so much focus on rejoicing in today’s readings?
            Jesus came to offer us mercy. Justice requires us to receive what we deserve – the punishment for our sins. But mercy gives us what we do not deserve – forgiveness, freedom, love. Mercy turns a slave into a son; it turns a sinner into a saint.
            And this is the “good news” that John proclaims – that the Savior of the world is on His way! Looking back from the other side of the Cross, we know that because of Jesus’ death, we now have access to complete mercy and forgiveness!
            Our world lacks mercy. Just this week I was reading about two people – an actor and a Heisman trophy winner – who have been attacked in the media for tweets that they had posted on Twitter years ago. Yes, their tweets were inappropriate and wrong – no doubt. But even after they apologized for them and took them down, the blogs and the news continued to rip into them, to criticize them and slander them. Where is the mercy? The football player’s tweets were posted when he was fourteen – for heaven’s sake, haven’t we all said things we regret when we were teens? The media is always on the lookout for shame, for scandal, for juicy details of someone’s past…never for mercy.
            And some of us feel that way, too. Maybe it’s a big sin you have never confessed; maybe it’s small things but you just feel unloved or unlovable. Have you ever seen one of those ball-and-chain devices that was used in England for centuries? A prisoner would have a chain secured around his ankle, and he would have to walk dragging a 20-pount iron ball behind him. For many of us, we feel like we’ve got something in our life that is dragging us down and preventing us from running freely after Jesus.
            But the Lord Jesus offers us mercy. There was a wonderful story of a nun who was having visions of Jesus. She told her mother superior about them, but the mother superior did not believe her. She said, “We will put these supposed ‘visions’ to the test. The next time you see Jesus, ask Him to tell you what I said in my last Confession.” Later that day, the nun did have a vision of Jesus and she asked the Lord what the Mother Superior had confessed. Jesus responded, “I don’t remember.”
            I don’t remember! It says in Scripture that our sins are taken from us as far as the east is from the west. East and west go on infinitely – unlike north and south, there is no “east pole” or “west pole”. If you go north far enough, eventually you hit the north pole and you start heading south. But you can never go so far east that you start going west – no, east and west are infinitely distant from one another. And that is how far our sin, our shame is taken from us because of the love of Jesus!
            So what is our response? Two things. First, get to Confession so we can lay down that sin! My friends, we are offering Confessions here three times every week during Advent – Mondays from noon to 1pm, Wednesday from 7-8pm, and Saturdays at the usual time, 4:15-5:15pm. Break the ball and chain, lay down the burden and sin – come to Confession.
            The second response is to extend that mercy to others. When the people asked John the Baptist what they must do, he replied that if they had two cloaks, they should share one with someone who had none, and likewise with their food. We extend mercy by generously giving freely, to people who may not deserve it but who need it anyway. So that person who cuts you off in traffic, you extend mercy and respond with a smile. We do our chores even when it’s the other person’s turn. We let people go ahead of us in the shopping line, we make the extra effort to be kind to the barista and the mailman. As we have freely been given mercy, we extend mercy to others.
            With all the craziness that is always happening in the world – and in our busy, frantic lives – it’s easy to feel dragged down. The Church gives us this Sunday to rejoice – not in holiday office parties and gifts, but in the ultimate gift of God’s mercy freely given. With everything else that might be happening this season, we must not forget that Christ came to offer us His mercy – and that should bring us joy.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Advent 2 - December 9, 2018

Homily for Advent 2
December 9, 2018
Behold, He Knocks

            In the 1850s, British artist William Hunt painted a very famous portrait of Jesus called “The Light of the World”, based off a scene from the Bible. It features Jesus portrayed as a king, carrying a lantern up a garden path and knocking on a large wooden door. When art critics saw the painting, however, they pointed out that Hunt had made an error – the door had no door handle! He explained, however, that he painted it that way purposely, because the door of our souls can only be opened from the inside – Jesus will never force His way in!
            John the Baptist proclaims today that we ought to “prepare the way of the Lord”. But Jesus is a gentleman – He only comes where He is welcome. He knocks, He calls, He waits – but it is up to us if we wish to have a living relationship with the Lord.
            So how do we do this? John the Baptist goes on to say that “Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth.
” Let’s break this down to see what it means for us to invite the Lord into our lives.
            First, every valley and every mountain shall be level. There is a trail in the Catskills mountain called “The Devil’s Path”. It is often listed as the most difficult trail on the East Coast. A couple years ago, a friend and I found out why! Over 24 miles, there is over 18,000 feet of elevation change – up and down. Traveling over five solid mountains, it took us three days to cover 24 miles – because, as I once heard, every foot of elevation gain is equal to 10 feet of flat walking in terms of energy output…so those 24 miles felt more like several hundred! For anyone to get somewhere quickly, it’s always easiest to take a flat route. And for Christ to invade your life, it helps for the valleys to be filled in and the mountains to be made level.
            What are the mountains and valleys? We often talk about “towering pride” – the mountains are our ego, our selfishness, all of our unhealthy focus on ourselves and our own pride. The first thing we need to do is to humble ourselves and recognize our need for God and His Saving power. It’s so significant that the Savior came as a little baby, humble and meek – because He can only be accepted by someone who is meek.
            If mountains are our pride and ego, then valleys are our weaknesses and sins. The Gospel says that John the Baptist’s mission is to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins, because our sins are valleys, chasms, which separate us from God. So once we humble ourselves and recognize our need for the Savior, we get to confession so that our sins are no longer an obstacle to our friendship with the Lord.
            “Winding roads shall be made straight”. If you’ve ever been to Nebraska or some other Midwest state, you know something about straight roads. I think that Google should test its self-driving cars out there because literally all you need to do to get somewhere is to point your car in the right direction and drive. You can take your hands off the steering wheel for fifty or sixty miles because the roads are literally that straight. But…you have to be pointed in the right direction. So to have a straight road is to point your life in the right direction – to make your decision to follow Christ and to seek holiness. If we have as our life’s goal to glorify God and live in intimate friendship with Him, then we will arrive at our destination. So to make straight a winding road is to point your life in the direction of seeking the Lord.
            Finally, John urges us to make rough ways smooth. To polish a stone, you have to grind it with something harder – they make those rock tumblers where stones can hit against each other to rub the rough edges off. In the same way, we need to spend time with God in prayer, who will scour off our edges and polish us with His Spirit, making us a beautiful gem for His Kingdom. Spending time with Him makes us more like Him!
            My friends, if Advent and Christmas teach us anything, it is that God is not just some myth or some distant, unapproachable being. He took on flesh at Christmas precisely so that He could establish a deep, daily friendship with us. He wants to be more than just a fairy godmother we turn to when we need something – no, He is inviting us into so much more: a deep intimacy with Him, a life lived with His grace and His Spirit within us. But He will not force – He knocks and waits patiently for us to invite Him in. Tear down the mountains of your pride and admit that you need Him; fill up the valley of your weakness through Confession and repentance; make your life’s path straight by keeping Him ever in your sight; allow prayer to make your rough ways smooth. Then will Advent be a time of ever-increasing friendship with the God who has already come in Bethlehem, and who will come to take His friends home to Heaven at the end of our lives.