1st Sunday of Lent
Mar 12, 2019
Cards are good letters are bad. When I was a newly ordained priest a more senior priest shared that observation with me. He told me that when I was sorting through my mail to remember, “Cards are good letters are bad.”. Over the years I’ve experienced the truth of his comment. If a parishioner wants to thank me for the pastoral care I’ve given at the death of a family member. If they want to show appreciation for a homily or give me words of encouragement. It most often comes in the form of a card. Conversely when people are angry with me nine times out of ten it comes in the form of a letter sent to me in a long white business sized envelope.
Last Christmas week I was sorting through my mail. As I thumbed through it. I came across several Christmas cards from former parishioners that had been redirected from my former parish. It was good to hear these old friends were well and still wanted to be connected to me. Then I saw that dreaded long white business envelope.
I opened it with fear and trepidation. Sure, enough it was a letter of complaint from a woman who described herself as a long-time, faithful parishioner. She was angry because of an article I had written in the bulletin just before Christmas. In the article I described some ways parishioners could be especially welcoming to Christmas visitors and those who might only come to Mass on the holidays. I wrote that hopefully if we were hospitable to those who only attend Mass at Christmas and Easter, they might start coming to Mass more often. One of the suggestions I made was for those who usually attend the 4PM Weekend Mass. I reminded them that the 4PM Christmas Mass is often very crowded. It is the one that is most popular with visitors. I suggested they might be more comfortable attending the 6 PM Christmas Eve or 10 AM Christmas Morning Mass which usually aren’t as crowded.
Well she would have none of that! How dare I suggest she give up her place at her regular Mass to accommodate someone who didn’t come to Holy Redeemer very often. She proudly stated that she and her family had coined their own derogatory term for such infrequent Mass attendees. She accused me of pandering to visitors. She added a few other uncomplimentary remarks about my leadership style before signing the letter.
Today I’m starting a new homily series for the Sundays of Lent. I’ve named the series, “From Maintenance to Mission.” The point of my homilies over the next few weeks will be our desperate need to move away from being a maintenance church. A church willing to just tread water. One willing to just survive. Into one that is really faithful to the commission Jesus gave his disciples and to us. That charge from Jesus is to be a missionary church. One that sends the faithful out into the world with the desire to be missionary disciples.
I think you will find this a very timely homily series. A series that will help provoke you to consider just what it means for you to be a disciple of Jesus. I feel this series of homilies will help you reconsider your baptismal call to invite others to be disciples of Jesus too. My desire is to help all of us put energy into becoming not only disciples who know about Jesus but disciples who know Jesus. Ones who have a real relationship with our Savior. You’ll want to make sure you are here every Sunday of Lent. You will want to learn more about how faithful Catholics are ones who imitate Jesus. The Jesus who told us he had come to call sinners and the lost and not the self-righteous. Invite your family and friends who would benefit from hearing these homilies too. Start being a truly missionary disciple this Lent.
It won’t come as news to any of you that the Church is struggling. Even before the clergy sexual abuse scandal not only the Catholic Church but all Christian Churches have been in a state of crisis. Growing secularism in our culture is one cause for the crisis but a more serious reason has been the entire Church’s loss of focus. Over the years the Church has become more attentive to the people already in the pews and their desires. They have forgotten that Jesus commissioned his church to be focused on making disciples and not just being one. He told us to focus on the lost and not ourselves. Rather than trying to satisfy parishioners with a consumerist mentality. We need to be like Jesus. Our focus needs to be reaching out to the alienated and the forgotten.
When confronted by the religious authorities of his day Jesus would always tell them that he had not come to save the righteous. He hadn’t come to save those who already had a good relationship with God. In his ministry time and time again Jesus made the sinner, tax collector, the marginalized and the prostitute the focus of his ministry. He told the crowds that came to listen to him there was more rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner than in ninety-nine righteous people who had no need to repent. Jesus was always telling his disciples that his ministry was to the lost and that was to be their focus too.
It was the consumerist mentality that I found so disturbing in the letter from the angry parishioner. She is a religious consumer and not a missionary disciple. In her mindset Holy Redeemer Church is here to meet her needs on her terms. In her opinion those who only come to Mass on Christmas and Easter should be satisfied with the crumbs that fall from the table. To her I had no right inviting these occasional Mass attendants to a place at the table. Never mind inviting them to sit at the head of the table. We shouldn’t wag our finger at the letter writer too much because we have all shared her opinion at some time. I know at times I have caught myself being a consumer disciple and not a missionary one.
In today’s gospel we heard Luke tell us of Jesus’ time of testing in the desert. Just after his baptism by John in the Jordan. Before he began to call his disciples at the beginning of his public ministry. Jesus heard the call of the Holy Spirit to go into the desert for a time of prayer and fasting. A time to test whether he really could answer God’s call. Jesus answered the Holy Spirit’s promptings to see if he really wanted to enter into his ministry. A ministry that would end by his offering his life so that humanity might be freed from death and receive Everlasting Life.
Jesus decided to be obedient to God’s call. He decided to do the Father’s will. Before he left the desert, Luke tells us that Satan tried to deter him. Before Jesus entered into the new territory that would be his ministry to sinners, the marginalized and the lost. The Devil tried to break Jesus’ determination. He tried to cause Jesus to lose his focus. Satan attempted to get Jesus to take shortcuts. The Evil One tried to encourage Jesus to win souls in easy ways. The Devil suggested that Jesus turn stones into bread. That was an easy way to win the devotion of those who were hungry. The Evil One proposed that Jesus seize political power. Such an action would win the souls and loyalty of those who felt oppressed. The Devil encouraged Jesus to throw himself from the highest point of the Temple in Jerusalem. That spectacular act would win the faith of those who longed to witness God’s spectacular power. Jesus, because he was open to the Holy Spirit resisted Satan. He chose to be authentic and to take the faithful path even if to meant suffering and pain. Jesus followed God’s will because he saw it was the only way to really establish a living faith in God’s people.
If this church is going to transform from a maintenance to a missionary one it will mean we will be entering new places. It will necessitate striking out into new territory. It will require us to follow a new path that calls parishioners to turn from being just consumers of God’s grace into missionary disciples who share grace with others. Plunging into new territory will be frightening. If we are going to strike out on a new course of faithfulness we will need to be like Jesus. We will need to be open to the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s sevenfold gifts.
If we resolve to become missionary disciples, we will have to confront dangers and forces that will try to discourage us. We will be confronted by those who will say, “We don’t do that here. You don’t understand the culture of this place.” Or claim, “We already tried that and it doesn’t work here.” As we strike out into new territory, like Jesus, demons will come out to try to dissuade us, encourage us to take shortcuts, and abandon our new efforts.
I’m not going to get all spooky with you but like Jesus we will be tormented by spirits. I’m not talking about head spinning, vomit spitting demons. No, these will be more subtle ones. They will be ones like the letter writer. They will be spirits of negativism, cynicism and sowers of doubt. The Satan we will have to face will appear to be reasonable to the average person. They might even seem appealing to us. They might even seem helpful in our efforts to further our work to become a missionary church. We must pray to discern out the harmful spirits from the helpful ones. If we are open to the Holy Spirit, we will be able to recognize the spirits of truth and separate them from those of destruction.
Like the power of evil that Jesus faced. These spirits will come when we are most vulnerable. As with Jesus the spirits will try to block our path to becoming a missionary parish. They will fad into the background for a while waiting to attack just when we feel as if we are making progress in our efforts to reach out and be a missionary church. We must ever be on guard and resist them.
As we begin this Lenten Season of fasting, prayer and almsgiving meant to renew our faith. Renew it so we can celebrate Easter as faithful disciples. We need to take a long look at that faith. We need to ask ourselves what is it we plan to do to make this Lent one that really has a lasting effect on our faith life. What will really transform our faith this Lent?
Today as you are driving home or maybe during some quiet time during the week. Take some time to ask yourself, “Why do I go to church?’ Am I here out of a sense of obligation, guilt, habit or the need to fulfill someone else’s expectations of me? Am I drawn by the music, the comfort I feel from hearing the Word of God to help guide my life? Is it the grace of the Eucharist and the opportunity to receive the Real Presence of Christ that draws me here on a regular basis? This Lent use your prayer time to stop making church all about you and what you find fulfilling about it. Start making coming to church all about how you are called to bring others to Christ by being a missionary disciple.