Return to Me with all your heart

4th Sunday of Lent (C)

You may see some flowers[1] in your church this weekend. Enjoy them while you can, because they’ll be gone again next week. The fourth Sunday of Lent, known as Laetare Sunday, is a breather, so to speak, from the rigors of our Lenten fast. Laetare [ley-tahr-ee] is Latin for “Rejoice;” it’s a day of celebration. Hurrah, we’re halfway to Easter! The end, or to be more accurate, the beginning, is in sight!

If you were unaware of the liturgical significance of Laetare Sunday, the sight of fresh flowers on the altar after so many weeks of absence (or their replacement with overturned empty vessels) might feel a little bit like the stunt Old Man Winter often pulls on us Northerners, you know, slipping in a few warm, sunny days so all the people of the world (it seems) can step outside of their stale and germy houses to breathe some air that won’t freeze their faces off, only to resume business as usual the very next day with a record-breaking blizzard or arctic freeze. But in reality, bringing fresh flowers into the desert of our sanctuaries—like an early winter thaw—serves as an aperitif; a reminder of the ultimate Feast we will celebrate with the entire world on Easter.

Speaking of the world, it’s no coincidence that the theme of this weekend’s readings is the joy of Forgiveness and Reconciliation.

Forgiveness is hard work. Reconciliation is hard work. Heck, tolerance is hard work. Pride, legitimate differences, misunderstandings, selfishness, ancient grudges, deep hurts and resentment get in the way of making peace. It seems a particularly daunting task nowadays just to agree to find the common ground required for conciliatory talks to start. No one is listening; everyone is shouting.

Returning to God with all our hearts is hard work, too. Alice Camille writes, “The need to forgive so many wrongs in the world “as is” often reaches into the most private sanctuary of all: the relationship between us and our God.”[2] Relinquishing our self-power, recognizing our wrongs and vowing to do better, comprehending our true identity, our interconnectedness with all people and all of creation and our implicit responsibility to care for it all; it’s hard, hard work for human beings.

But Jesus teaches us that, like the son whose father never lost hope in his return [Lk 15:11-32], God is always ready, always waiting for our homecoming.

While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. [Lk 15:20b]

I so love to meditate on the image of our creator running to us, embracing us and kissing our faces. (For the record I generally do not anthropomorphize God, in that God is pure spirit, but I find comfort in this image. You may agree.)

The experience of resting in Wholeness is the joy of reconciliation. Whether our reunion is between humans, the earth and its creatures, or with our Creator, re-joining broken pieces is not something we should leave unfinished. But we resist.

Why should we care about reconciliation when it requires so much of us? Because being able to forgive one another, to reconcile ourselves with all of humanity and all of God’s creation is and will always be the greatest accomplishment our species is capable of doing.  You want to see a miracle? We have the power to bring about the reconciliation of the world!

Today is a day to rejoice and continue to work for reconciliation. We began Lent with these words, “Return to Me with all your heart,” [Joel 2:12]. Our faith exhorts us to forgive and ask forgiveness of our brother, our sister, our neighbor, our community, the world, and make amends; start fresh. We are to return to the earth; take off our shoes—it is Holy Ground—reduce our footprint, and steward, rather than exploit creation. Envision wholeness, and restore life to our empty, broken vessels. Return to the Lord, learn what is good, and be strengthened so that tomorrow we can to do it again.

Laetare!

[1] GIRM, 305.

[2] Alice Camille, Paul Boudreau, The Forgiveness Book. ACTA Publications, Skokie, IL, 2008. 16.

Insiders, outsiders, and everyone in-between

6th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

It’s hard to believe, but the stigma of leprosy is still alive and well, and by that I do not refer to the unacceptable social alienation suffered by many of our brothers and sisters. I mean it literally. In a report dated January 22, 2015, Reuters news agency reveals the presence of discriminatory laws in around 20 countries where leprosy survivors’ rights to marry, work, study and travel are limited.

Although leprosy was once believed to be highly contagious, nowadays cases are quite rare and are easily treated with antibiotics. Still, being cured is apparently not enough; millions suffer a lifelong stigma rooted in antiquated laws and fears. In some countries entire families are regularly evicted from their neighborhoods and left to live a life of unbearable loneliness.

In Biblical times, any variety of dermatological conditions could be suspected as leprosy. Once spotted, a person afflicted with a “scab, pustule, or blotch” was obliged to meet with the priest whose positive diagnosis included no cure, only immediate isolation from the community. Of course, the reason for quarantine was to prevent the spread of the disease, particularly in public worship spaces. However, the outcome was the creation of colonies which separated the clean and the unclean who also could be understood as the whole and the broken, the insiders and the outsiders, the useful and the useless.

Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus removing barriers, bridging the gap between insiders and outsiders, returning broken people to wholeness, liberating the socially alienated and bringing people to a new understanding of what his Father’s kingdom was really about. Jesus is both the great emancipator and the great unifier. In her book of reflections on the lectionary, God’s Word is Alive, author Alice Camille writes “Jesus understood that people needed community more than they needed a cure.” She’s right. And while we might not be lepers, nor are we possessed, and we might not have a wilted hand or a sensory disability, many of us suffer from isolating social conditions. Loneliness, for example, is one which continues to magnify the distance between social insiders and outsiders.

A friend of mine who struggles with loneliness told me it reaches its peak when she is in a crowded place. There, she says, she is neither an insider nor an outsider because from her point of view those two labels still imply some kind of community to which she does not belong. When she shared with me her sense of Jesus in the midst of her desolation I suggested that perhaps her loneliness and desire to belong were a mirror of God’s longing for her and for the entire world. Think of this. Might the divine spark which dwells in each of us, and in whose image we were created, drive our desire to build meaningful and life-giving relationships? Yet, for countless unacceptable reasons a vast gap still exists between those who fit in and social outcasts. As an evangelizing people  we are compelled to seek the missing, widen our welcome, eliminate barriers, heal brokenness and loneliness, practice forgiveness, and work to unify God’s people in all that we do, just as Jesus did.

Today’s readings can be found here. 


http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/01/22/us-health-discrimination-leprosy-idUSKBN0KV27T2015012

Image © Depositphotos.com [Daniel Dunca]