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Month: March 2019

Repent

Repent

IHow well do you know the LORD who spoke to Moses at the burning bush?  (Ex. 3:1-14)  Have you met the LORD who revealed himself at the burning bush?  Do you know what matters most to him? 

The passage of the burning bush is foundational for our understanding of God.  It is the beginning of a whole new experience of God in history.  If you understand what the LORD said to Moses at the burning bush, then you will better understand Jesus’ words and actions.

One of the first things that God tells Moses is, “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” (Ex. 3:6)  In other words, the LORD of the burning bush is the God who journeyed with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  God made a covenant with them.  Moses is being reminded of God’s fidelity and promise to be with them.  He is reminded of the promise that they would have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and would inherit the promised land.   Those promises were made 400 years before God spoke to Moses at the burning bush.

That kind of God is different than the gods of other ancient cultures.  For other nations, God was totally transcendent, far off in the heavens.  Their gods did not journey with them; they were not close to them and guiding them each day.  They did not see God as being involved in their personal history or helping them in their struggles. 

However, the LORD of the burning bush is deeply concerned about his people.  He says, “I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers, so I know well what they are suffering.  Therefore, I have come down to rescue them.” (Ex. 3:7-8)  This revelation was life-changing for the Israelites.  It was a revolution in their understanding of God.  The LORD is a God who hears their cries, knows their suffering and comes down to rescue them. 

When you pray, do believe that this is how God cares for you in affliction?  Or do you wonder if he hears you?  Do you just pray because you are supposed to pray, but without a sense that God is deeply concerned about you, your family, and those who suffer in our world? 

Many Christians do not pray to the LORD who said to Moses, “I have witnessed the affliction of my people and have heard their cries for help, so I know well what they are suffering.  Therefore, I have come down to rescue them.”  Instead, they pray to a God who is totally transcendent, who is far off in the heavens and has little or no concern for them.  Who is the God to whom you pray?

We are a lot like the Israelites who didn’t believe Moses.  He knew that this experience of God would be hard for them to believe.  So he said to God, Look, the Israelites are probably not going to believe me.  They will think that I had heat stroke or something, and imagined this whole thing.  “If they ask me, ‘What is this God’s name?’ what am I to tell them?  God replied, ‘I am who am.’ . . . This is what you are to tell the Israelites:  I AM sent me to you.”  (Ex. 3:13-14)

What does it mean when God says that he is ‘I AM’?  Biblical scholars have struggled to understand this name of God.  Many said that ‘I AM’ means that God is the essence of existence.  He is the source of existence, or the beginning of all things.  ‘I AM’ means that he is the Creator.

But in the Jewish culture, they understood something more.  God is not only the Creator, but also the Redeemer who rescues the oppressed.  When God said that his name is ‘I AM,’ it was not a philosophical way of describing his presence. Rather, the LORD’s presence was concrete in history and active in their midst.  God is saying,“I AM present for my people and with my people.  I AM with you in your distress.  I hear your cries and answer your pleas.  I will accompany you on your way.”

Do you pray to God as both Creator and Redeemer? When you pray, do you imagine God as far off in heaven or as One who is closer to you than your closest friend?  We should pray with both images.  Many relate easily to God as Creator, but you cannot stop there or else God is kept at a distance.  As the Redeemer, God comes down to rescue the afflicted.

The Israelites experienced the LORD as their Redeemer at the Red Sea.  As Christians, we experience the LORD as Redeemer in Jesus’ deep compassion for lepers, the blind, the crippled, the sick, the widow of Nain, and in so many other events.  By his life, Jesus helped us understand that this is what the name ‘I AM’ means.  He said, “I AM the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” (Jn. 10:11)  I will protect you from wolves.  I will guide you and watch over you.  I will die for you.

As we celebrate the Eucharist, we experience how God pours himself out to be totally present in a mystical way.  Jesus opened our hearts to this mystery when he said, “I AM the Bread of Life.”  I exist to fill you with my Life.  I AM living in you.  I will always be with you.

During Lent, we are called to renew our relationship with God through repentance.  The first level of repentance is to be open to who God is and what God does.  Every one of us needs to a change of heart regarding God as both Creator and Redeemer.  If we don’t get that right, then we will fail to get the second level of repentance right, which is to let our relationships be transformed by this fresh experience of God’s love.   

At the first level, to repent means to believe that God hears my cry for help, knows my affliction and will rescue me; it means to listen to a God whose first concern is for those being oppressed.  At the second level, to repent is to bring that experience to the people around me.  For Moses that meant that he had to go back to Egypt and help free the Israelites caught in slavery.  He was called to be an agent of God’s redemption. 

For us, it means that we need to listen to the cry of the oppressed in our world and do something about it.  That includes the child in the womb who is helpless, as well as to the pregnant mother who often feels totally alone.  There are so many other kinds of people whom we are called to be agents of God’s protection.  One group is especially appropriate. 

We should recall God’s commandment regarding resident aliens (i.e., foreign immigrants without rights) to the people of Israel.  “You shall not oppress or afflict a resident alien, for you were once aliens residing in the land of Egypt.” (Exod. 22:20)   This commandment is tied directly to the revelation of God at the burning bush and how he rescued them at the Red Sea.  Throughout the Old Testament, it is repeated again and again to remind them and us that our treatment of others who are afflicted should reflect how God has rescued us. 

Suffering as gift for others

Suffering as gift for others

“Why is this happening?”  Whenever you speak with someone who has suffered a tragedy or a mysterious illness, they want to know “Why did God let this happen to me?” That is an excellent question because it expresses trust in God.  You don’t ask “Why did God let this happen?” unless you believe in God as good and caring.   Yet, often in suffering we are left in the dark.  God is silent.  The darkness and silence are disturbing.  We feel all alone.

Then, it’s important to remember the stories of faith.  Today’s Scriptures from Genesis 15:5-18 and Luke 9:28-36 offer two valuable stories that help us in dark times.  Abraham’s mysterious vision and Jesus’ glorious transfiguration give us hope in suffering.  Both stories inspire us to trust God in the darkness of suffering. 

Abe has no children, yet he trusts God who promises him descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky.  God tells him, “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can.  Just so shall your descendants be.”  Then, God ups the ante.  He promises his descendants an enormous tract of land – even though Abraham is a foreigner.

The promises seem impossible! So Abraham asks, “How do I know this will happen?”  Then he is given a vision of God’s fidelity.  God tells him to take a heifer, a goat and a ram, and cut them in two.  That was the way that people made business deals.  They cut animals in two, then walked between them, shook hands and said, “If I break my promise, then let me die like these animals.” 

The Hebrew words here could be translated literally, “cut a covenant.” We say “Let’s cut a deal.”  God’s mysterious presence is seen as a smoking fire pot and flaming torch passed between the pieces.  In a sense, God said to Abraham, “Let me be cut in two if I’m not faithful.”

This is not just Abraham’s story to assure him in his struggle.  It is a story of faith handed on to us.  God promises to be with you and me in the darkness of our journey.  He promises that this difficult and dark path will lead to glory. 

The Transfiguration is a similar story of glory in suffering.  Immediately before this, Jesus told his disciples about his suffering and death.  Now he is inviting them to trust that it will not merely be about suffering, but it will be an exodus – a path to glory and new life.  Moses and Elijah spoke of “his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31).  As Jesus shines in glory, we get a glimpse of the resurrection.  The Father teaches us to see Jesus’ suffering as a way to glory.  And God encourages us to see our life as an exodus.  We are on a journey that promises a share in his glory beyond our suffering.

The Father is with Jesus and will carry him through his passion and death.  God cut a covenant with Abraham, but the cross is the biggest deal God ever cut.  He promises to carry us through suffering, if only we listen to his Son. 

Immediately before the Transfiguration Jesus told his disciples that he would “suffer grievously, be rejected . . . and be put to death . . . and be raised up on the third day” (Luke 9:22).  Then he challenged the disciples to imitate this way to glory.  He said, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me.  Anyone who want to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, will save it” (Luke 9:23-25).  The next passage is the Transfiguration, so these two texts should be read in tandem.

When God tells us “This is my chosen Son, listen to him,” we are being called to listen especially to those words — to take up the cross every day and to lose our life for his sake.  If we do what he tells us, then we will share his transfiguration.  Stay strong in trial every day.  Trust God in suffering hour by hour.  Lose your life for his sake.  Instead of doing what feels good, do what is helpful to others.  Serve selflessly.  Pray for those who hurt you.  Wash feet.  Forgive as he forgave.

Several years ago, I was serving a small parish where a lady named Alice was suffering from cancer.  She often did not feel well; yet, she came to Mass faithfully, even daily Mass.  You could tell she was not well.  She did not have good color in her face.  She was thin.  She had lost her hair.  Sometimes I looked out and thought, “Alice, what are you doing here today.” 

She probably wondered why this was happing to her.  But the way she suffered with faith was inspiring to everyone in the parish.  Her attitude was powerful.  Her frail but faithful presence inspired everyone.  God was using her for the good of others.  She was losing her life for Jesus’ sake. 

Often God uses our suffering for others.  If we think of what meaning it has for our life alone, we will not see the fullest meaning.  Remember Abraham never saw numerous descendants, nor did he inherit the land.  The Israelites were be led to the promised land about 500 years later.  His journey only makes sense when you see how he suffered for future generations. 

Similarly, Jesus’ suffering as the innocent Son of God makes no sense for his life alone.   Rather, God used his Son’s suffering to redeem the world.  Our suffering should be seen in this perspective.  We will not see the full meaning of our suffering in this life.

When you remember the stories of Abraham and Jesus, then you have the faith to live like Alice.  We are called to be witnesses of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection by how we suffer for others, and by how we suffer with faith in the resurrection.  With faith, our suffering is a gift for others.

Suffering itself is part of a longer journey to glory.  Stay strong in trial every day.  Trust God in suffering hour by hour.  Lose your life for his sake.  Instead of doing what feels good, do what is helpful to others.  Be a gift for others in your suffering.

Chosen in Christ

Chosen in Christ

Today, we celebrated the Rite of Election at St. Mary’s Cathedral for catechumens and candidates from several parishes in the Diocese of Cheyenne. It was so good to have people from Gillette, Casper, Glenrock, Wheatland, Laramie, Cheyenne and other places. The homily for the Mass is below.

God often touches our hearts in surprising ways.  I recently read a story about Pope Francis that describes how God surprised him with grace as a teenager.  He was almost 17 years old and was walking to meet his girlfriend and other friends from school.  As he walked past a church where he often prayed, he felt inspired to go inside and something amazing happened.  He said,

“I saw a priest walking.  I didn’t know him; he wasn’t one of the parish priests.  And he sat down in one of the confessionals.   I don’t quite know what happened next, I felt like someone grabbed me from inside and took me to the confessional.  Obviously I told him my sins, I confessed . . . but I don’t know what happened. . . . Right there I knew I had to be a priest; I was totally certain.  Instead of going out with the others, I went back home because I was overwhelmed.  Afterward I carried on at school and with everything, but knowing now where I was headed.” 

How often God touches us to draw us into a relationship. Over the years, how has God touched your heart?  That question is not only for catechumens and candidates.  It’s for everybody – all of you who are Christians, the leaders of RCIA, godparents and sponsors, deacons and priests.  How has God taken the initiative to befriend you?  How has he chosen you?

It happens in so many different ways.  While out in the beauty of nature, we are filled with awe.  We realize how awesome God is as the Creator of such magnificence.  In my early twenties, I liked to ride my horse to the State Park five miles south of our ranch.  The Little Moreau River carved deep ravines into the land.  It was a picturesque area where I experienced God in nature.

God is constantly speaking to us in the beauty of nature, through forgiveness, by putting the right person in our path to help us in time of need. How has God taken the initiative to befriend you?  How has he chosen you?

That is why you are here today.  It is not so much that you have decided to enter RCIA or be a sponsor, but that God has touched your heart.  Believe me, I would not be in the Diocese of Cheyenne unless God had chosen me.  I’m not only saying that he chose me to be a priest or a bishop.  I mean that he chose me to be a disciple.  God initiated a relationship with me and kept nurturing it every day. God has guided my life, blessed me with forgiveness, protected me from death and spoke to me through the Scriptures.  I am here because God chose me to be in a relationship with him.

The reading from the book of Deuteronomy describes God’s relationship with the Jewish people.  This is the oldest and most important summary of Israel’s faith journey.  It is an early Jewish Creed.

“My father was a refugee Aramean who went down to Egypt with a small household and lived there as a resident alien…. When the Egyptians maltreated and oppressed us, imposing harsh servitude upon us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors, and the LORD heard our cry and saw our affliction, our toil and our oppression.  Then the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and outstretched arm, with terrifying power, with signs and wonders, and brought us to this place, and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Dt. 26:5-9)

That passage describes the gratuitous initiative of God toward the Israelites.  This is why they refer to themselves as the Chosen peopleWhenever we come to Church we should be aware of how God has blessed us personally, but also we need to be aware of God’s blessings to us as a whole people.  The Israelites recited that creed as a testimony of how God chose them as a people. 

We have inherited their witness of faith, and we add the great events of Jesus’ life.  With today’s gospel we can say, “Jesus defeated Satan in the desert.” (Lk. 4:1-13).  His triumph over the devil in the desert was a sign of his total victory over sin and evil at the crucifixion.  As a people, we are no longer trapped in sin or controlled by evil. 

First, think of all the graced moments in your life that led you here today.  In every one of those are moments God chose you.  Second, remember the biblical events where God chose his people – at the Red Sea, in desert when Jesus defeated the devil, at the Cross as he poured out his life, at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit infused the hearts of his disciples.  In all those saving events, he chose us as his own. 

The directions for the Rite of Election state this:  “This step is called election because the acceptance made by the Church is founded on the election by God, in whose name the Church acts” (RCIA, #119).   Our prayer is founded on the election of God.  We are here today, to celebrate that God chose you – all of you, not only the catechumens and candidates, but every single person of faith.  I will say: “Those who are chosen in Christ, come forward, together with your godparents.” (p. 67, RCIA)  Then each person is called by name because God calls us by name.  He establishes a personal relationship with each one of us.

The main attitude for us today should be a spirit of thanksgiving.  Being thankful for God’s constant blessings.  Thank God, then follow the final instructions from Moses in Deuteronomy.  He told the Israelites to recite the creed of all the ways God helped them, then to say, “Therefore, I now have brought you the first-fruits of the products of the soil which you, O Lord, have given me.’  And having set them before the Lord, your God, you shall bow in his presence”(Dt. 26:9-10)

After you have remembered all the ways God has guided his people over thousands of years, place your basket of first-fruits before the altar and kneel in his presence. That is what we do in the Eucharistic Prayer.  We bring up gifts of bread and wine as symbols of all God’s blessings.  Then we kneel in thanksgiving and awe.

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