Be not afraid!

“I am the vine, and you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.”

So far in Lent we have focused on the change and reform necessary in our lives. We have been focusing on the various Lenten disciplines, the means and methods by which we achieve conversion, change and reform. These disciplines help us become more ardent and faithful livers of Jesus’s gospel way.

The subjects of fasting, sacrifice or giving, and study have been covered thus far. Next week we resume with the consideration of prayer and proclamation.

Our Holy Church pauses today to celebrate. We sense it because today we hear the Gloria and the Alleluia. Lenten purple is put away for this moment and is replaced by joyous white.

We celebrate because this Sunday, one-hundred and twenty-four years ago, a group of oppressed immigrants, people treated disrespectfully by oppressors in their home countries, right here in the United States, and even by their church, people thought little of by their neighbors, took the lessons learned from the Lenten disciplines they faithfully practiced and put them to action. 

This Sunday what they learned from fasting, sacrifice, study, prayer, and the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus, humanity’s Emancipator, bore fruit. They found themselves the branches of the true Vine – alive in Christ. They found themselves freed of the dead old branch pruned away because of its corruption, pruned away because it heeded deceitful spirits and followed men with seared consciences.

These heroic people stood on the side of Jesus and just as proclaimed in Wisdom, He, the Just One, confronted their oppressors with great confidence. Those oppressors stood there in awe and they still do today.

As with every true Christian. from the time of the Acts Church. those faith filled immigrant heroes stood up without fear. They heard Jesus say, Fear not little flock. They inherited and have passed on to us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.

We have Christ Jesus. We are His branches. His Father strengthens us and fills us with His good grace. We can face any fear and no longer be debilitated by it. The tender love of God has freed us from terror, from being held down, and from slavery to the opinions of those who do not know the Lord. A disciplined life strengthens us for this. Faithful trust is the fruit of the reform necessary in our lives and the world. Today we celebrate those who trusted and say with them:  In You O Lord I place my trust. Boże, do Ciebie się uciekam!

True freedom.

The sea beheld and fled; the Jordan turned back. The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs of the flock. 

This scripture, taken from today’s Alleluia verse, comes from Psalm 114. It speaks of God’s awesome power in leading the people of Israel out of Egypt to freedom. He freed His people from the bondage of slavery, and from being trapped back into it, through the parted waters of the sea.

Thus today, Jesus comes from Nazareth in Galilee with this purpose in mind. He steps into and parts the water, for a baptism He didn’t need, to save people who didn’t deserve it, so we could be truly free. 

Jesus was implementing His Father’s plan to save and free us, for each and every one of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Having no ability to save or free ourselves, Jesus steps into the waters to tie Himself, the sinless one, to the suffering state of humanity and to identify Himself with sinful mankind, “Because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors.

The scene was dramatic. Large crowds. John preaching. People confessing their sins and being baptized. Then Jesus steps into the water. He rises up, with water dripping from His body, the Spirit descends in the form of a dove and the Father’s voice is heard: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

Today is the next step in the love story that ends our bondage to sin, frees us from ever having to go back, destroys the fear of death, and offers hope for all who chose friendship with God.

This event which we celebrate today publicly proclaims to the world that the Son of God entered the battle to save us from sin and to truly free us. We are freed from eternal death and the power of the worldly who serve the evil one.

The Bible is clear, people break God’s commandments, they serve the world, but have the option to restore their lost and broken intimacy and peace with God. We all have the chance to be free.

True freedom takes true faith. It takes a faith that says no to the world, no to those that would exploit us for their own gain, and no to those who would use the Holy Name of Jesus to further their selfish ends. The world, governments, politicians, and systems cannot give freedom. Rather, freedom comes from an act of faith, our kneeling and saying, Lord, I place my life in Your hands. I repent and desire only to return to You and Your true freedom.

The good news of the gospel is that true freedom is ours for the asking. Once we have asked, we are invited onto the gospel road where we walk in the footsteps of Jesus, proclaim His message, invite those who do not know Him, and celebrate the true freedom that has removed from us any sense of unworthiness, guilt, shame, or condemnation. True freedom!

Peace!

Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.

In the first week of Advent, we focused on hope. We learned that we stand in charge, each with our own kingdom task – to offer hope. We asked that on Jesus’ return He would find us expectantly waiting and offering the hope found in His name.

This week we focus on peace, both personal peace and being peace.

In Isaiah we hear of God setting things right by freeing His people from sin. The herald is to come and prepare the landscape for the arrival of the Messiah. All is to be leveled, i.e., brought back to balance in preparation. For His arrival. The herald proclaims the good news – the Savior is near!

So, that is exactly what happens. John the Baptist, the herald arrives to cry out the good news. Through a baptism of repentance, people are forgiven and re-leveled. The valleys and hills in their personalities are leveled out so that they might have peace. The tensions, sorrows, weights and chains, frenzy that urges us to sin is cleared and we are brought back to peace. Our paths are cleared of sin so we may approach and meet the Savior.

Indeed, the Lord is returning, so as St. Paul teaches, we are to be the sort of people who conduct themselves in holiness and devotion so we may be found without spot or blemish. Paul wraps this all up and says we are to be found at peace.

This is a good time, and indeed the right time to consider our own hills and valleys, the obstacles between me and Jesus. What barriers am I putting in the way? What trenches am I digging? Is it anger and pride, my convincing myself I am right over all? Is it placing my trust in people or believing whatever self-serving truths are handed to me? Is it habitual sin or attractions that are unhealthy? There is a lot we can do to destroy peace and accord between each other and in the world and to mess up the straight path between ourselves and God.

Our first step is to get to personal peace with God through proper confession of sin, resolution to resist sin, penance for sins committed, repentance and reconciliation, and prayers for the grace necessary to stay on the level and straight peace-filled path to God. Once our valleys are filled in and our hills are leveled, we are to move to the next step, being God’s heralds of peace.

See, we could live in conflict. We could continue to toss Molotov cocktails in our words and actions, but doing so only burns us, for as St. Paul recounts: the earth and everything done on it will be found out. We will be accountable for our spiritual state and what we bring, and let it always be God’s peace.

And even when you were dead in transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh He brought you to life along with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions; obliterating the bond against us, with its legal claims, which was opposed to us, He also removed it from our midst, nailing it to the cross.

Last week we found Abraham sitting in the entrance of his test on a hot summer day. Today, his three visitors walked on toward Sodom, intent on destroying the city for its sinfulness, while the Spirit of God remained with Abraham. In one of the most classic dialogs in scripture, Abraham presumes to bargain with God. He wonders, can God forget the serious sinfulness of Sodom for the sake of those who try to live justly? Not once, but three times, he sets a challenge to God – can He look past the sins of so many for the sake of the few innocents. Perhaps it is a bit too far to say, at least at that stage of salvation history, that God would forget the sins of so many. Yet, He could look past their serious sinfulness so that that those, innocent of those serious sins, might not perish. God shows forth His mercy. God previews His approachability.

St. Paul brings our new reality in Jesus to the fore. We are all guilty, all liable, yet God mercifully sent His Son to free us, literally to obliterate every sin (every failing, serious and minor, big and small) that held us captive. Paul tells us that we have been buried with Jesus by our baptism. In those waters we, by God’s grace, the cross of Jesus, and the working of the Holy Spirit, leave sin behind. Uncleanness is abandoned, and we come alive – alive for ever. In that moment, we were raised.

The question before us, what do we do with this new freedom? What are the next steps? How should we act?

Remember that Paul refers to when we were dead. It is past tense, it was before. It is addressed to every one of us, Gentiles in the old order and the new Israel in our rebirth. Freed from our sin, we must respect and honor the fact of our freedom. Again, but how?

Respect and honor our position of freedom in the kingdom. Stand tall, look straight ahead, and pray to the Father looking Him in the eye. Ask in faith. Believe that we will receive. Give praise and thanks. The Lord has forgotten our sin and invites us to approach Him right now.

For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. For you were called for freedom, brothers and sisters. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love… I say, then: live by the Spirit

This week we approach the Fourth of July, and coincidentally, St. Paul is talking about freedom. 

We are, after all, pretty blessed by the freedoms we enjoy. Bishop Hodur and the organizers of our Holy Church made a big deal over the freedom this country espoused. After all, they were able, with only some opposition and persecution, able to organize a democratic Catholic Church without bowing to the money, political power, and influence of the Roman Church in areas of the country where they were they were the definition of “Church.” Hodur and the faithful were able to buy property, publish newspapers and pamphlets, build, educate, exercise support of Union membership, and advocate for the power of collective ownership. Pretty strong ideas and ideals, even today.

That kind of radical freedom was successful and blessed not because of actions, advocacy, or loud voices among a group of people. Rather it was from the fact that this group of people recognized and truly believed in the true freedom found only Christ Jesus. Christ set us free, and with His freedom came their and our ability and power.

Freedom means we no longer bow to any slavery. There is no slavery to politics and power. There is no slavery to money. There is no slavery to calls from the worldly – do this and that and you’ll find happiness. We clearly see that those alleged happiness’s come at the cost of a yoke and chains, bondage – slavery. In Christ we have power and ability to say no to slavery.

Freedom means power to use what we have been given for good that goes beyond simple measurement and scales. It is a freedom and power to be self-sacrificial, to go the extra mile, to go beyond even the extra.

The philosopher Jean Paul Sartre wrote on ‘radical freedom.’ Along our faith lines he posited that everyone always has a choice, and every act is a free act. He noted that those who say, ‘they had no choice,’ are lying. In Christ we have a call to freedom and honesty. So then, with St. Paul let us say I am free, and I live by the Spirit.

The days
can be…

Brothers and sisters: Watch carefully how you live, not as foolish persons but as wise, making the most of the opportunity, because the days are evil.

St. Paul was not speaking of anything new, at least in part of his letter to the Church at Ephesus. In a certain way, everyone had and has heard it before: the days are evil.

The roman poet Cicero wrote “O tempora o mores” a little over one hundred years before Paul was to write to the Ephesians. It translates literally as ‘Oh the times! Oh the customs!’ The inference is that the times and the customs are far worse today than the old days. Edgar Allen Poe used Cicero’s quote as a title for one of his poems. It appeared in the movie (staring Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur) Mr. Deeds Goes To Town. Politicians used the phrase in recent elections.

There is quite the history and tradition of looking at the evil of the day, not seeing the evil of yesterday, thinking that tomorrow will somehow be different, and giving up with the saying: the days are evil or “O tempora o mores”

The second part of Paul’s letter offers the antidote: be filled with the Spirit, address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, sing and play to the Lord in your hearts, give thanks always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.

In other words, living the life of Jesus is the antidote. There is a way of living, speaking, singing, playing, and thanking that destroys evil. We have to be different.

There is a great contemporary Christian song: Chain Breaker by Zach Williams. In it, the composer recounts how Jesus is the difference maker. Jesus takes away pain, makes a way, breaks prison bars, and breaks the chains that bind us. The wisdom in the song starts when the composer confronts us with our reality: We’ve been walking the same old road for miles and miles. We’ve been hearing the same old voice tell us the same old lies. We’ve trying to fill the same old holes inside. He then tells us that Jesus’ better life, really the best life, makes the difference.

Certainly, the days are what they are – evil – but there is a way out. It is never the way the days or certain people are, but what we can be in Jesus. Jesus explicitly tells us: the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. That is huge. We have to feed on Jesus, be part of Jesus, hold faith in Jesus, and live Jesus’ life daily.

The stone is
gone.

Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb.

Searching back through scripture we come to the various encounters between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. There are thirty-eight verses that refer to her.

Some consider her the prostitute who was going to be stoned by the crowd until Jesus intervened. Some believe she is the woman that anointed Jesus at the house of Simon the Leper, or the one who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, anointed them, and dried them with her hair.

While those women were not given a specific name, we do know from scripture that Jesus, specifically, saved her. Luke 8:1-3 is that reference to her: Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out.

Mary comes to the tomb, early in the morning and finds the stone is gone. What a beautiful scriptural testimony to what Jesus has accomplished for her and for us; the stone is removed.

We face many trials and tribulations in our lives. The world is filled with stones that stand in the way of true joy and happiness. When we face these things, when the stones of our existence confront us, we are called to remember this moment of our salvation.

Mary is our example, standing before the removed stone. She is, at first, filled with questions and wonder, and then it hits. The alternate Gospel, for this morning, taken from Mark, adds detail: On entering the tomb they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a white robe, and they were utterly amazed. He said to them, “Do not be amazed! You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Behold the place where they laid him. But go and tell his disciples and Peter.

She runs off to the Apostles. She begins to tell of it as she had been directed. She now connects fully to the removed stone.

We have a story to tell. We, the Christian faithful, have experienced the removal of our stones. By His death and resurrection, whatever stood in our way to eternal glory has been removed. Spread the joy!

Will we run across stones and confront roadblocks and obstacles? Most certainly! When we do, recall this most sacred moment, this day of indescribable joy. Whatever we confront can be climbed, and surmounted. Jesus has destroyed and overcome all stones. Alleluia! He is risen!

What is new and
the best?

Thus says the LORD: Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new!

Today’s gospel presents one of the most picturesque, most moving, and most dramatic events in Jesus’ ministry.

As usual, Jesus is in someone’s house. Everyone is there to see Him, to hear Him teach and proclaim the Kingdom. It is standing room only and people cannot even get inside the door. Four men decide to bring their friend, so he might be healed. The drama begins. They cannot get near Jesus. Like most guys, the devise a crazy plan. Let’s go up on the roof and break in from above.

Now imagine, they had to get ladders or ropes. They had to get up on the roof. They had to get their paralyzed friend up there too; he couldn’t move himself. That process had to take some time. They’re likely wondering if Jesus might leave in the meantime. The clock (or sundial) is ticking away.

They finally get up there. They start breaking open the roof. The people, down below had to have been – at least wondering. Pieces of the roof were falling down on the crowd.

The hole is open, the men begin to lower their friend. They are eager, working hard, trusting in a miracle. Our friend will walk, our friend will walk – almost like a Super Bowl cheer. And, Jesus says: “Child, your sins are forgiven.”

There is a mix of drama and disappointment. A moral drama is taking place between the Scribes and Jesus. All the while this man is laying there, suspended by ropes. His friends are teetering on the roof. They are teetering in their disappointment. They are on the edge of losing faith. They are looking at each other – What did we just do? This wasn’t worth it at all! How are we going to get out of here?

The focus is suddenly on Jesus’ question to the Scribes. It is phrased as: Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat and walk?’ This is a question about the power of God and the greatness of the gifts He offers. Which is the greatest power and gift – to physically heal or to free someone from sins?

Jesus sets the record straight. Reflecting on Isaiah’s prophecy, Jesus makes the paralyzed man’s past go away. I will remember not the events of the past. Jesus has freed the man from his past, his sins. He shows Himself as Master of the past, present, and future; the Master who can make everything new. Then to dramatically illustrate what He had done, He tells the man to get up and walk. The man’s life is totally new. He walks without bondage. The bonds and chains that drag us down vanish in Jesus’ words. This is for us. Jesus delivers extraordinary freedom for us, making all new and best. We will walk! We will walk!

The before and the
after.

Jonah began his journey through the city, and had gone but a single day’s walk announcing, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed, ” when the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.

Jonah is on the job! Well, really, finally he is doing what he was asked to do.

Today is a story of the before, the present, and the after. The story of Jonah is so well known that we can almost recite it from heart.

Jonah, a well know prophet, was asked to go to Nineveh. He was to go into enemy territory, and tell people who had no faith or belief in the One true God that He was going to destroy the city for its sinfulness. Jonah figured he was doomed, he’d end up another dead prophet. So, Jonah ran it the opposite direction. More than run, Jonah immunized himself against God’s voice – so much so that he slept through the storm God sent to redirect him. This is the before.

Each of us has a before.

Sometimes, our before is a place we have been for a long time. It is something we want to get out of. Sometimes, our before is just a moment ago. We know we aren’t where we should be and we want to be different. We want to wake up. Sometimes, like Jonah we have a longstanding before in God’s presence. Even if we knew God and carried out His will, listened to His voice, we fall back into our before. Sometimes we immunize ourselves to God’s voice. When any of this happens, God sends His voice. He urges us, calls to us. If we stay stubborn, God sends the storm. He tries to wake us up. Sometimes He send friends – as with Jonah when his shipmates had to wake him up.

God’s call finally woke Jonah up, He decided to respond, to wake up. He decided, after days of reflection, to carry out the Lord’s will. He called out to God and said: What I have vowed I will pay: deliverance is from the LORD.

Those words need to be our now. If we are in a bad place, and have come here for the first time ever, for the first time in a long time, or if we have been here for a long time, yet feel numb and cold, we need to wake up, respond, and get on the job.

The Apostles had a before. Simon and his brother Andrew… were fishermen. James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John… were in a boat mending their nets. Then they heard Jesus call. Some slipped away completely. Others fell back, fell asleep until they were woken-up. They were not unlike us, but did great things because they laid aside their before for Jesus’ now and after.

We are called to set aside our before. To realize we are freed from before so to live consistent with Jesus’ call to us – now and ever after.

Beloved:
The grace of God has appeared, saving all
and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires
and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age,
as we await the blessed hope,
the appearance of the glory of our great God
and savior Jesus Christ

Today we celebrate the ultimate encounter. Here we meet God. It couldn’t be any better. Nothing could be more amazing than this night in which all of God’s promises were fulfilled. It happened in this moment, in this manger, on this night.

Paul, writing to the early Church, summarizes what everyone knew pretty much first hand. He recalls the flash of Jesus’ glorious appearance. He recalls the beginning of transformation – Jesus brought opportunity for change, newness, and freedom. Paul helps his readers to see that the opportunity still lives. My brothers and sisters, it lives here today. Approach the manger, see it and enter into new life today.

Grace has come to earth, and it lays here today, ready to be picked up, ready to be accessed and used for a new way of living. As this passage is read in churches around the world, we not only remember an opportunity once given; we take up that chance once again in hopeful preparation for Jesus’ return in glory.

We have nothing but opportunity; a chance to reject the curriculum, the teaching of the world, the non-opportunity of death. Embracing the Christ child’s opportunity for change, newness, and freedom we turn from that which is false, old, and binding. By Christ’s birth, God gives us Divine opportunity to live new lives.

People of God, people filled with love for the newborn Babe, our ship has come in. Our chance is here. Let us link our lives together and with all who see the opportunity of God’s grace – opportunity for change, newness, and freedom – joy.