He is Risen! So Let God Love You

Empty Tomb

My wife Beth asked for the recommendation of a book to read during Lent. I suggested Abba’s Child by Brenan Manning. I find his writings filled with grace. We were having dinner one night and she said that she had begun the book and it seemed to her that he was basically saying three things. One, “Get over yourself”Two, “Forgive yourself“and Three, “Let God love you.”And then she said, “I suppose we all wrestle with those things.” I think that she is right that we all wrestle with those three things in one way or another and so I thought that it might be a good idea to address them in light of this glorious day of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

First “Get over yourself.”That would be a good line in the New Beth Kasch Paraphrase Bible for when Jesus said, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”He really meant, “Get over yourself.”

And if there was ever a generation that needed to hear those words it is ours. To try to help people feel better about themselves, we have told them that not only may they self identify as any number of genders but also any age or even other species. I saw a video of a woman insisting that she was a cat and wanted to be treated accordingly. (Wonder where they put her litter box?) But extremes like this, to make us feel better about ourselves, are not working. The Chicago Tribune reported that a higher percentage of incoming college freshmen are being treated for mental and emotional illness than ever before in our history. And while it is wonderful that medications and therapy are available, it is also true that in many instances they are only treating the symptoms and not the root cause. St. Paul talked about root causes when he prophesied in 2 Timothy about the latter generations. I’m not really an end times buff but see if any of this rings true for you. “For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self control…and I’m only about half way through his list. But you get his point. We don’t need to feel better about ourselves; we need to get over ourselves.

Jesus told a great story of how we can do just that in the parable of the prodigal son. A son, who was full of himself, asked for his inheritance early so that he could go off and live life the way that he wanted to live. He gave no consideration for his Father’s wishes or anyone else. After partying all of his inheritance away he became so desperate that he took a job feeding pigs. For a Jew that was as low as you could go. Then one day it dawned on him that even the servants in his Father’s home had it better than he did so he got over himself and decided to come home. Since he has squandered his inheritance he thought that he could only be received back as a servant. But when his father saw him returning home, his father ran to greet him, put a ring on his finger and a robe over him and called for a feast because his son who had been lost was now found.

Jesus’ resurrection paves the way for us to get over ourselves and come home. In His crucifixion He addressed the core of our problem and He paid the debt of our sins. That is why St. Peter could declare, “To Him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His Name.” By His resurrection He has, as the prophet said, “swallowed up death,”and He goes to prepare a place for us so that we too will live forever in a new heaven and a new earth.

“Forgive yourself.”Admittedly this is much easier said than done. I have spoken with some pretty hardened folks over the years, who corporately have violated each of the Ten Commandments many times over. Often their guilt is so overwhelming that it paralyzes them emotionally and spiritually and they feel hopeless. But the Scriptures reveal to us a way to be set free from guilt.

First DON’T minimize the sin. The modern approach is to call sin a “mistake” but a mistake is when you forget to carry a number when doing long division. Sin is not a mistake. Ultimately all sin is a transgression against God. King David prayed, “Against Thee only have I sinned.”So step one is naming the sin, taking responsibility for it and asking for God’s forgiveness.

Step two is to forgive. Why? Because unforgiveness of others is one of the biggest blocks that keep us from forgiving ourselves. Thus we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses AS we forgive those who trespass against us.”And here I am not suggesting that you wait for a certain emotion or that you wait until you could have a beer with the offender. Some churches pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”  What Jesus is telling us to do is to rip up the offender’s IOU. That doesn’t require making the offender your best friend. It is an act of will that frees the other guy from your debt, so that you too can be free.

Step three is to put your sin in perspective with God’s mercy. Again this is not to minimize the sin but rather to embrace God’s mercy. How many times did you do that sin from which you suffer such guilt? Once? Twice? A hundred? That is terrible but the Bible says that His mercies are new every morning, so His mercies outnumber your sins. How many years did you sin? One? Two? Fifty? That is terrible too but the Bible says that His mercy is to a thousand generations, so again His mercies outnumber your sins.

“But Father you don’t understand how great is my sin. Even if God could forgive me I could never forgive myself.”  Often I answer that objection by pointing out that is in fact a very strange form of pride. What you are really saying by this is that even though God has forgiven you, you somehow know better than God and so you cannot forgive yourself. I acknowledge that sin feels enormous and that the guilt can be overwhelming but the Scripture says that Jesus has paid the price for that sin and the text say “and not for our sins only but for the sins of the whole world.”Are your sins greater than the sins of the whole world? Of course not! So you must decide. Do you want to boast in the greatness of your sins or do you want to boast in the greatness of God’s mercy.  A missionary in Peru once said, “I have given God countless reasons not to love of me. None of them have been strong enough to change Him.” Once you confess your sin to God then take your eyes off of your sin and put them on the vastness of His mercy. Then you will walk out of the prison of guilt. We can’t change our past but we don’t have to live there. David walked in the freedom of God’s mercy after committing adultery and murder. We can do it too, no matter what we have done.

“Let God love you.”I really like that Beth worded it that way. The Scriptures tell us that God is love and so if we are not getting wet it’s not because the tap has been turned off. You may have heard the saying, “If you don’t feel close to God then you need to ask yourself, ‘who moved?’”

Of course that is not always the case. The ancients spoke of “the dark night of the soul” when for reasons of His own, God allows us to spend time in a spiritual desert. But for most of the time if we do not “walk in love as Christ loved us”it is because we are not, as Scripture commands, abiding in Christ nor having the mind of Christ. What do I mean by that?

First because He is risen we can truly abide in Him. Dallas Willard said, “The Gospel is less about how to get into the Kingdom of Heaven after you die, and more about how to live in the Kingdom of Heaven before you die.”The Gospel is an invitation not to a set of doctrines but to a living relationship with the Risen Lord and God has given us means to build and maintain that relationship. But if we don’t utilize those means that God has given we will find ourselves drifting away.

Each of us as priests has had the conversation with a person who feels far away from God. The first thing we ask if they are saying their daily prayers, if they are regularly reading Holy Scripture, if they are faithfully receiving the Sacrament. When they get a quizzical look on their face, as if we had just asked if they had two heads, it is very tempting to want to knock on their forehead and ask if anyone is at home.  Prayer, Word and Sacrament are not duties we fulfill to get God to love us more. They are means of grace that God has provided so that we can abide in Christ and experience the righteous, peace and joy of His kingdom. Further we need one another to accomplish this. When we burn incense we use more than one coal because it is too easy for a coal by itself to go out. God has given us the grace of the each other, the grace of the Church to keep one another burning. Or maybe I should say to keep one another FROM burning.

In a similar way God has given us His truth, both through Holy Scripture and the guidance of Holy Spirit through Holy Tradition, so that we can know His will and have the mind of Christ. Jesus said that He is the Truth and He also said that the truth will set us free. So the more that we have the mind of Christ, the more truth we walk in, the more freedom we will know.

Jesus said that He has come that we might have life and have it abundantly. Where we blow it is when we insist on doing life our own way. We just heard from the prophet “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow of aged wine well refined.” But here we stand with our bologna sandwich in hand essentially saying back to God, “No that’s okay I brought my own, I’ll just sit over here and eat by myself.”

We need to drop our bologna sandwich, accept His invitation and let God love us. Those of you being baptized today accept His invitation, give yourself fully over to Him and let God love you. As you come forward today to receive His Body and Blood accept His invitation give yourself fully over to Him and let God love you. And the fruit of this is that you will be in a better place to love your neighbor as yourself.

Like millions around the world last week I was brokenhearted to watch Notre Dame in flames. Cardinal Dolan of New York said that it was like attending a funeral. But it also occurred to me that this tragic event happening during Holy Week invites theological reflection.

Just as the creation of Notre Dame represents the epitome of human achievement in the Middle Ages, so humanity represented the epitome of God’s achievement in creation. Genesis says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them.”

Then, just as the next day we saw the cathedral in ashes, so it will be true of each of us. We heard on Ash Wednesday, as the priest imposed ashes on our foreheads “Remember O man thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.”

But that is not the end of the story. The Resurrection of Jesus has changed EVERYTHING. Death no longer has the final word. As Notre Dame will be rebuilt, and hopefully even greater than her formal glory, so those who are in Christ have a hope and a future. St. Paul says, “So is it with the resurrection for the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.”

Our prayer for Notre Dame is that it will be rebuilt as a house of worship and not as a cultural icon. And so our prayer for ourselves is that our bodies will be temples of the Holy Spirit and not carnal playthings. St. Paul said, “Let us celebrate the feast, no with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” The Resurrection of Jesus makes that possible.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.Then get over yourself.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.Then forgive yourself.

Alleluia, Christ is Risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.Then let God love you. Amen.

Don’t Live in a Museum

Museum

I enjoy museums and I have been privileged of visiting some wonderful ones. While in seminary I regularly visited the museums of Fine Arts and Science in Boston. I have also been metaphorically lost in the Smithsonian in DC, the Chicago Museum and the Getty in L.A. But the ones that were most memorable to me were the Prado in Madrid, the British Museum in London and the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo.

The thing that baffles me is that I cannot fully explain why museums have such an impact me. I love to learn and so that is part of it. I know next to nothing about art but I know beauty when I see it and I find it healing to the soul. And it also rings true that we can only really understand our present and prepare for our future if we understand our past and museums help us do just that.

But one thing that is true for all of the museums is that they have a closing time because museums are places to visit but we are not meant to live in them. And while it may seem preposterous to suggest that anyone would want to live in a museum, I have met many over the course of the years who are doing just that. They live in museums, not in Boston or in LA, but museums of their own making.

For example, no doubt that each of you have met someone who is living in the museum of his glory days. His sole focus, and all that he talks about, are those good old days when he was a football star, or some kind of hero or when he was the best in his career. This poor soul is so stuck in the past that he barely has a present and what  is worse is that his future is very bleak because he knows that he will never be able to recoup what he had in the good old days.

Some are living in a museum of traditionalism. This is where a tradition has lost its original intent and while it is still held as sacred, in reality it is now meaningless. This was the problem of many of the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day. They were so wed to their traditions that they failed to see that they were but signs pointing to the One to come. Now that He was here the signs were no longer needed. But they were blind to that and so they continued to live in their museums. Christians can do a similar thing when we are engaged in traditions but have no idea why, except for the response, “Because that’s the way we have always done it.” Orthodox scholar Jaroslav Pelikin reminds us, Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

Some choose to live in museums of past pain. They are stuck in a time when they suffered an injustice or a time when they were betrayed by a loved one or a time when someone that they loved suffered a wrong. These museums act more like prisons because it feels very much like the inhabitants are there involuntarily. But they are not there involuntary because they could leave if they chose to do so.

Some time ago I received a certified letter from Miami. It was from a friend from so many years ago that may as well have been from a former life. We knew each other when we both were non denominational ministers in Florida, but we had no contact with one another in over 20 years. The point of his letter was to tell me that he was an alcoholic, that he had two failed marriages, that he was estranged from his children, and that he traced it all back to me.

It was true that we had gone through some very difficult things. Conflicts had emerged and none of us handled it well. There were scars all around. We were able to meet face to face and he was right in some of the things that he accused me of. I admitted where I had wronged him and I asked for his forgiveness. But at the same time I disagreed with him that I had the power to make him an alcoholic, to ruin two marriages and certainly not to estrange him from his kids. He was the one choosing to live the museum of his past pain. I told him about my life as a priest, about this wonderful church, about my marriage to Beth. I did it not to rub salt in his wounds but as a testimony that we don’t have to stay stuck in the past. I wanted him to know that in Christ, God has given us a way to move forward.

Another kind of museum that I have witnessed folks living in is the museum of their past sins. They become emotionally and/or spiritually stuck because they wrongfullybelieve that God could never forgive them. Or even if they are able to get over the hurdle of God’s forgiveness, often they don’t seem to be able to forgive themselves. It is not hard to imagine that it was this kind of thinking that led Judas to take his own life.

So the question is, what do you do if you find yourself living in one of these museums or something akin to them? The answer can be found in these dynamic words from St. Paul to the Philippians.

First St. Paul acknowledges the loss. He does not make light of his or anyone else’s suffering. He says, “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things.”In St. Paul’s case he suffered the loss of his reputation and his standing in his community. Earlier in the chapter he went through his past credentials. He was circumcised on the eight day, which made him a son of the covenant. He was of the tribe of Benjamin. He called himself a Hebrew of Hebrews. He was a Pharisee, which meant that he was an expert of the law. He was so zealous for God that he persecuted the Church. He even said that when it came to righteousness under the law he was blameless… blameless at least by all outward appearances.

And what is he now? Now he is a penniless preacher in jail for his faith and he is despised by his kinsmen. “But Paul, doesn’t all that loss devastate you?” He replies, “I count them as refuse that I may gain Christ and be found in Him.”

Do you see what he does? Rather than living in the museum of his loss, he compares it to what or rather Whom he has found and that makes what he lost seem like junk. The actual word that he uses is “dung.” Once your realize that the museum you are living in is really a sewer, then you will be happy to move out. St. Paul certainly was.

The second thing we see St. Paul doing is taking action by moving forward. He refuses to be stuck in a museum. He says “….forgetting what lies behind …I press on…” He sounds here very much like the prophet Isaiah. “Remember not the former things nor consider the things of old. Behold I am doing a new thing.”

Why forget the past? Because St. Paul is on a journey or better yet a race. He is not paralyzed by his pain. He uses the words “straining forward” to describe his progress, giving us the image that he is running with all his might, with his eye on the tape at the finish line.

If you have ever played a sport, or learned to play an instrument or developed a specific skill then you know with certainty that you will only win or succeed if your have a single focus. If Fr. BE is in a tennis match but he is worried about his upcoming sermon then you can bet that he will play poorly. If pilot Fr. Chris is thinking about anything else during takeoff or landing then I’m going to have to ask the Bishop to help me find another associate. It is St. Paul’s single focus, and the hope that it brings, that gave him the perspective and ability to write to the Philippians from prison and say “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice.”

We need also to remember that part of what St. Paul is putting behind him, by “forgetting what lies behind,”are his former sins; in particular his persecution of the church. It’s not the he literally no longer remembers. He certainly remembers and likely is why he refers to himself as “chief among sinners”and  “the least of the apostles.”But St. Paul is refusing to be stuck in those past sins because as he says, “Christ Jesus has made me his own.” St. Paul is pressing forward. He doesn’t have time for museums.

St. Paul then tells us what it is that we are to be straining forward to achieve. He says, “I press on toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” But that language is a little fuzzy. What is our upward call? Our lessons today stops too short because St. Paul goes on to define it later in the same chapter. He says, “ But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”

Our upward call is to be resurrected and to reign with Christ when He returns and His kingdom has come in its fullness. The prize is eternal life with our Lord in a new heaven and a new earth. That is the vision that gets us out of our museums and living life as God intended us to live. That is why Jesus told us in so many ways to make seeking the kingdom of God our highest priority.

 It is hard for me to believe but next Sunday is Palm Sunday and we then enter the passion of Holy Week. As Lent draws to a close, and we prepare ourselves for the Paschal Feast, it is not too late to benefit from the season. It is not nearly as important that you have successfully fasted or followed a certain discipline, as it is that you get out of your museum and press on toward your heavenly call. St. Paul said that his goal was to “gain Christ and to be found in him.”From this perspective Lent is simply a coming home to the One who loves us and gave Himself up for us. The good news is that we don’t have to reach sinless perfection to make it because He has already done that for us. St. Paul calls upon us to join him in pressing forward to attain the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  Amen.