My friends, the readings for this Sunday are all about how the People of God, ourselves included, keep turning from God and our loving God keeps calling us to turn around—to come back. This God of ours never leaves, unlike us at times. The love that our God has for us is really unimaginable—and as I am fond of saying, “Over the top!” So, it is not unusual that the predominant theme in the readings today for this 4th Sunday in Lent, is mercy.
Franciscan, Murray Bodo in a small book, entitled, The Threefold Way of Saint Francis speaks about mercy and states that this is how St. Francis eventually looked at all in his world—with mercy, because he saw his brother Jesus, doing the same. Last week; we talked about the Ten Commandments being, “a point of reference” for us. Jesus should always be for us, as his followers, the one we turn to, to direct and redirect our actions when in doubt about the way to go.
Bodo continues, mercy is all about compassion, or “suffering with.” Isn’t it great to know that of our God is not waiting to pounce on us for wrong doings, but always, always, about wanting to suffer with us and likewise to celebrate with us in our joy—that’s what the Incarnation is all about. It is a comfort to me and I hope to you to know that our God is not distant, but present to us, in our sorrows and joys, and walks with us throughout our lives.
During the first three weeks of Lent, the Church has called us to reflect on the promises we have made to God and this week the focus is switched to the promises God has made to us. We are astounded and humbled to realize that even though we are unfaithful, God is always faithful.
This was clearly evident in the first reading from Second Chronicles today. The people kept turning to false gods to worship, even though they knew better—the prophets came again and again to warn them, but to no avail. Finally, God allowed their enemies to overtake them, the reading states; their temple was burned to the ground and the people who weren’t killed were taken into exile as slaves. After 70 years in Exile, the Persians came to power and set the people free.
We see from this reading that the Israelites needed first, to return to God, to repent their unfaithfulness, and then they could return to Jerusalem—their home. It is interesting to realize that “repent” and “return” come from the same Hebrew word. Our first hymn today and our closing as well is about “turning”—it is in fact the words of Mary, our mother, sister and friend, as she reflected on how God had loved and cared for her and because of that, would spend her life giving her blessed Son to the world, someone who would speak for justice for all.
Because this is what Jesus was all about, “speaking justice for all of us,” it is so vital that we as his followers choose to do the same. We will have many opportunities to speak to, and stand up for, “justice for all” in the days and weeks ahead in several initiatives happening in our community:
- We are all aware of the horrific mass shooting of high schoolers in Parkland, Florida three weeks ago and there will be three events in Winona where we are invited to stand with the brave and prophetic, young survivors of this tragedy who are leading the way, marching on Washington , saying for all of us, “This is enough, no more!” On March 14, this Wednesday, one month since the shooting; we are invited at 10 A.M. to gather with Winona Senior High School students, in the front of their building for a 17 minute service to remember those who lost their lives in Parkland.
- On March 24, Saturday, from 5-6 P.M. at the Band Shell at Lake Winona, as the Parkland students have gathered in Washington and some of our own Winona students are returning from the Minnesota Capitol after “standing with,” symbolically, those in Washington, Winona people have the opportunity to “stand with” these prophetic witnesses too.
- Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourner Magazine has suggested that interfaith services be held around the country between the March 14 and 24 dates to give prayerful support to our young leaders and hopefully send the grace and blessings needed to our Congress to finally, finally move for the good of us all, where gun violence is concerned. The Winona Interfaith Council is holding such a service on Monday night, March 19 at Wesley United Methodist church at 7 P.M.
So we see that our walk in faith is constantly about checking and re-checking, returning and repenting and Lent each year is really all about that—not that we beat up on ourselves for having fallen short—only that we check to see that our focus remains on the message of our brother Jesus.
The Israelites came to realize that with God; there would always be a second chance. This is important for us as well to remember. Such is the depth, breadth and height of God’s love. We get into trouble when we forget God—when we think we can do it on our own. Our free will, our ability to choose, gets us into trouble as we don’t always choose wisely.
Paul tells us today too that God saves us out of mercy, not because we deserve it. And we can all pray with Paul, “O God, I know what is the right thing to do, why do I so often choose the wrong thing?” In the Hebrew tradition, the covenant characteristic for this steadfast love and care on God’s part is, “loving-kindness”—God not only treats us with kindness, but with loving-kindness—as I said, “Over-the-top!”
In the Gospel today—we see the extent of God’s love in the sending of Jesus into the world. John insists that God loves the world and seeks to draw people out of darkness and into the light so that they can choose rightly. And Jesus, God’s Only Begotten, will do whatever is necessary to save us from ourselves, giving us chance after chance. And so we must consider—will we choose light over darkness?
Most of us would not choose to act against God knowingly—but we must realize that when we have we been self-righteous and unwilling to hear an opinion other than our own, been arrogant in our insistence that something be a certain way, been stubborn when understanding was what was called for, to seek common ground; we have acted against our loving God. It is always good to try and find out what an adversary may be objecting to—is the problem truly within the other, or is it within us? And here all the ugly sins, the “isms” raise their heads: sexism, racism, ageism and so on.
On Thursday of this past week, we celebrated, International Women’s Day—a day set aside to remember all the strong women in our lives, a day to speak with truth and justice as John instructs in today’s Gospel, as he reflects on the words of Jesus—“people who live by the truth come out into the light, so that it may be plainly seen that what they do is done in God.”
And what is the truth that needs to be spoken/needs to be heard? That women need to be seen and accepted for the wonderful people God created them to be, paid an equal wage to their brothers for comparable work, be listened to for the piece of the truth that they possess—be seen as one advocate, Mary McAleese, Canon lawyer and former President of Ireland, who was refused the right to speak at the Vatican for the Voice of the Faith Conference said, “We are not “the cherries on the top of the cake,” but, “the leaven in the dough!” And by the way, that conference happened by taking it out of the Vatican!
I am always drawn to books on Mary, the Mother of God, that depict her not as a docile woman standing in the background, simply saying, “yes” with no personality, but as a woman unafraid to speak the truth she knows in her heart, given her by her God. Her Magnificat is testament to that! Such a book is by Lesley Hazelton, entitled, Mary: A Flesh and Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother. The author stretches her readers’ minds and hearts to see this icon of Catholic faith as not someone to be placed on a pedestal, out of sight and consideration, but out front, challenging our Church to see the gifts of all.
Hazelton delves into the culture within which “our” Mary was born and lived. Women, and most were strong, or they didn’t survive, would most certainly have known much that was practical about caring for their health, their bodies, about bringing life into this world and caring for it, once here. Mary, as one of these women would have taught her son all she knew about healing, about sustaining life. Scripture tells us that Jesus grew, “in wisdom and grace.” Certainly his mother added to his wisdom. Yes, my friends, our God chose wisely in asking a woman to be part of the loving equation.
Throughout this homily; I have focused our attention on Jesus, how he was about justice for all. He listened to people and their stories to find out what was really going on in their lives and then treated them with mercy and compassion. Mercy and compassion will be the overriding gifts needed as Winona considers becoming a Sanctuary City through the generosity first, of one church community and then the generosity of other supporting church communities , like our own. May each of us going forward, completing this Lenten time consider the ways of compassion and mercy. Amen? Amen!