B: 4th Sunday of Lent

Catching a Three-legged Chicken

March 30, 2003

John 3: 14 – 21

 A man was driving down a country road and he noticed that there was a chicken running ahead of his car and keeping pace with it.  He looked at his speedometer and he was driving fifty miles an hour.  So he increased his speed to sixty, and then seventy miles an hour.  But the chicken just sped up.  Outrunning the car, it took a right turn into a small farm and disappeared behind the farmhouse.  The man was so astonished by the performance of the chicken that he pulled into the farm and knocked on the farmhouse door.  A farmer answered.  The man said, “I don’t want to be bold, but do you know that you have a chicken that can run seventy miles per hour?”  The farmer said, “Oh I have a lot of chickens who can do that.  On this farm we breed three-legged chickens and they are very fast.”

 “Three-legged chickens,” said the man, “I never heard of that!  Why would you want a three-legged chicken?”  “For very personal reasons,” said the farmer.  “You see, I live here with my wife and my son and we all like drumsticks.  And so when we have a chicken dinner, we are always fighting over who is going to get the drumsticks.  But, with a three-legged chicken each one of us has our own drumstick.  There is peace in the family.”  “That’s amazing!” said the man.  “I never heard of a three-legged chicken.  Are they good?  What do they taste like?”  The farmer shrugged his shoulders, “I have no idea.  We haven’t been able to catch one yet.”

Sometimes more is not better.  Sometimes the very things we think are going to help us actually pull us in the opposite direction.  Just examine American culture.  There has never been a country in the history of the world where more people live a higher standard of living than we do in America today.  Longevity of life, discoveries in medicine, and the amount and variety of food are all increasing.   But the number of sad people and people dealing with clinical depression is also increasing.  China, which has a much lower standard of living and where most people are struggling to make ends meet, has four times less cases of depression than we have here in the United States.  Worldwide, the incidence of depression is on the rise especially among the young and the affluent.

Now this shows that the things we have do not guarantee happiness.  For all the things that we posses, there are still many in our midst that live with emptiness, a spiritual hollowness that robs us of joy.  This can in part be explained because it is easy to confuse two things: fun and happiness.  Fun is an emotion that we feel while we are doing something.  Happiness is what we experience once we’ve done something and are simply living.  Happiness is deeper and more lasting than fun.  You can buy fun.  You can’t buy happiness.

If you have money and resources, you can buy a ticket for a Caribbean cruise or a trip to Disneyland.  You can choose to enlarge the square footage in your house or buy a luxury automobile.  All of these good things can be fun.  But none of them will necessarily make you happy.  Our children today have the opportunity of playing more sports with better equipment and better technology than anything we could have imagined while we were growing up.  I believe that all of these advancements add to the fun of playing sports.  However, that does not mean that children today are more happy than the children growing up forty years ago.  We as Americans can travel, communicate and live in comfort on a scale that would amaze most of the people in the world.  But none of these advantages indicate that we will wake up tomorrow more happy to be alive than a tribesman in the Congo or a peasant in Ecuador.

What we have does not make us happy.  Who we belong to does.  If we can love ourselves and give and receive love from others, that is the secret of happiness.  If we can live in those relationships, we can be happy despite what we have or do not have.  That is why Jesus’ words are so important in today’s Gospel.  Jesus describes our most important relationship, our relationship to God.  Jesus says that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that we might have life.  We believe in a God who loves us and wants to give us life.  Therefore, if we can open ourselves to that love, we can in the same action open ourselves to the love of others.  Such love and such relationships are the only way of finding happiness.

So, do not confuse fun and happiness.  If we can take God’s love in and share it with one another, that will make us happy.  But do not be deceived.  Our odds of being happy through the fun we can buy or the things that we posses are very small.  They are about as good as the odds of catching a three-legged chicken.

The World God Loves

March 26, 2006

John 3:14-21

Catholics are often lacking in their understanding of the scriptures. Whereas other Christians can quote chapter and verse, Catholics often struggle to keep the characters and the stories straight. Therefore, it is likely than when a Catholic sees a reference to Scripture such as John 3:16 (on a bumper sticker or held up in the end zone of a football game), it might not be apparent to which verse that reference points. The reason I bring up John 3:16 today is because this verse is in today’s Gospel. “God so loved the world that God gave His only Son, that all who believe in Him might not perish but might find eternal life.”

Some Christians keep writing this verse on everything that they can find because they are convinced that this verse, above all others, sums up the entire Gospel. I would agree that this verse is an excellent summary of the Gospel: out of love for the world, God gave us Jesus that we might find eternal life. But the question I would like to pose today is: What does it mean to believe in Him, to believe in Jesus, and how far does that belief in Jesus extend? I pose this question because I think that most of us understand “believing in Jesus” in much too narrow a way. We limit “believing in Jesus” to our acceptance of Christ in our hearts. John 3:16 is used by many Christians to promote the truth that we must accept Jesus as our Savior. This is certainly essential but it is also incomplete. To limit the presence of Christ only to my particular choice of Him, is not big enough. Christ is present in ways that are beyond my heart, beyond my faith community, even beyond those who believe in Him. Because God so loves the world, we believe that Christ’s presence continues in the world, in all aspects of world, even where Christ’s name is not known or honored.

Our Jewish ancestors in faith provide a good example of this kind of faith. Hundreds of years before Christ, the Jews were conquered by Babylon, and the Babylonians burned their temple and destroyed Jerusalem and took the Jews into captivity. In that captivity, which lasted for many decades, Yahweh, the God of Israel seemed to have no power.  Yet when a Persian King by the name of Cyrus, invaded Babylon and allowed the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem, our Jewish ancestors dared to believe that it was their God, Yahweh, working through King Cyrus, to bring them home. Now Cyrus was not a Jew. He did not believe in the God of Israel. Yet the Jewish captives insisted that even without Cyrus knowing it, their God was working through his victory to return them to Jerusalem. Today’s first reading makes this claim. It dares to read God’s influence in the political events of its time. It asserts that Yahweh directs the policies of Cyrus, who had no faith in the God of Israel.

This kind of Jewish belief should be an example to us. For we believe that the same God of Israel now works through God’s Messiah, who is Jesus. We believe that the power of God and God’s Messiah influences the entire world, that Jesus has an impact upon the political events of our times, even in situations where there is no recognition of his name.

This kind of faith is not easy. It is difficult to look at the violence and the mixed motives present in Iraq and believe that Christ is somehow active there. Yet Christians are called to trust that God loves Iraq and its people and will guide them, whether they know the name of Jesus or not. It is difficult to look at the hatred and violence of the Middle East and believe that Christ’s power is somehow active there, and that God loves both Jews and Palestinians and is working to bring about peace. It is difficult to imagine that Christ is present in Washington or on Wall Street, where so many of the decisions made in those halls of power seem to be based only on self-interest and greed. Yet Christians believe that Christ is the Light of the World and that Light continues to shine whenever and wherever darkness is found.

Believing that Christ is present in all places, is not magic. By believing in this way, we do not imagine that things will always get better and never get worse.  And, of course, when we believe in this way we are challenged to contribute our own energies and influence in building God’s kingdom. But prior to our efforts and prior to any kind of success, those who “believe in Jesus” must hold to an optimism that God is present in ways that go beyond my heart, beyond my faith community, even beyond all people of good will. “Believing in Jesus” challenges us to believe that God intends to save not only me, not only my church community, but the entire world which God so loves—all of it.

“Lord, It’s Me”

March 22, 2009

John 3:14-21

Late one afternoon, a teenager sneaks into the back row of church. He takes off his backpack, unplugs his i-pod and rolls his basketball under his seat. He’s overwhelmed because he lives in that strange land between childhood and adulthood, and he tries to cope with everyone’s expectations: the expectations of his teachers that he be a scholar, the expectations of his coach that he be a champion, the expectations of his friends that he be cool. In the quiet of the church he centers himself. He begins to pray, “Lord, it’s me, Joe.”

In another part of the church a businessman sits with his head in his hands. It has been a horrible day. He has had to fire five people from his small business. The work just isn’t there. He tried to do all that he could to keep them on the payroll, but he couldn’t make the numbers work. Although he knows it was the necessary thing to do, he now feels like the worst person in the world. As he clears his mind, he begins to say, “Lord, it’s me, Sam. Help me keep this together.”

Before mass begins, a woman in her forties is praying. She’s reciting a prayer off a card that her friend gave her. As she says the words, her mind is somewhere else. She’s thinking about yet another confrontation with her daughter, about the sure signs of her mother’s growing dementia, about what she could do with the growing estrangement between her and her husband. Suddenly she stops reciting the prayer and says in her own words, “Lord, it’s Megan. I don’t know whether I have the strength to go on.”

We all have burdens to carry. Some of them are really difficult. We get stuck in things we can’t change about ourselves, about our work, about our families. And it’s when we must carry those burdens that we need to know above all, that God is real and that there is someone we can turn to. It’s when these difficulties of life press in upon us that we need to have faith.

That is what makes today’s gospel so important. Today’s gospel tells us where faith begins. It contains perhaps the most well known line of the New Testament, John 3-16. This is the line that is held up on placards by evangelists at political rallies and football games. “God so loved the world that he sent his only son, that those who believe in him might not perish, but must have eternal life.” This verse from the scriptures tells us where faith begins. It begins in the love of God. If we are to have faith, we need to believe in that love that God has for us. We need to believe that God so loves the world and so loves us that the power of God is available to us in Jesus Christ. We need to believe that we’re in a relationship with a God who cares for us, a God who will be with us in our time of need. Faith has to be personal, believing in a God who cares for us and will act on our behalf.

Seen from this perspective, it is clear that faith is so much more than knowing the Ten Commandments or coming to mass on the weekend. Faith is believing in God’s love for us, a love that is deep enough and real enough to be present in our lives. It is so easy to let this fundamental truth slip from our view. We begin to fall into an empty routine of just coming weekly to mass, into a routine of the externals, thinking of ourselves as Christians on holidays, on Christmas and Easter. We do not realize that faith is not just a matter of the mind. It is entering into a relationship that has the power to change us, a power that is overwhelming. We must understand that God’s love for us is what grounds our belief.

So, what do you do then, if the love that God has for you seems to be absent in your life? What if you’ve been hurt and it’s difficult for you to believe that God cares? What if you’ve been busy or preoccupied and God’s presence in your life seems far away or even an illusion? What if you have doubts, doubts about God’s real presence in your life and you can’t remember the last time when your faith was personal, when your prayer was real?

The great thing about faith is that we can ask for it whenever we are ready. There are no preconditions because faith does not depend on our love for God but on God’s love for us. So we can ask for that love whenever we need it. But it’s important to know what we’re asking for. We’re asking for the awareness of God’s overwhelming love in our life. We’re asking that we might know that God so loves the world and so loves us that faith can be real. And if we have that love, then everything else follows. But if we don’t have that love, then faith is useless. It has no power.

So then let us ask for faith, real faith, today. We can ask for it without any preconditions. We can ask for faith in our anger or our fear. We can ask for faith in our emptiness or in our doubt. We can ask for faith in our confusion or in our joy. The burdens of life are too heavy for us to carry them on our own. So let us ask for what we want and what we need today. In whatever place or whatever time you choose, simply place yourself in God’s presence and say, “Lord, it’s me. Let me know your love.”

Leaving the Darkness

March 18, 2012

John 3: 14-21

Jesus tells Nicodemus in today’s Gospel that the light has come into the world, but that people loved darkness rather than light. Now what sense does that make? Who would love the darkness more than the light? The truth is all of us would in one way or another. All of us have parts of our lives that are unhealthy, perhaps even destructive.  Those negative habits hold us in the darkness. Even though we know that the light is for our good, we cling to the darkness. We choose the darkness over the light.

Perhaps we have been hurt. Someone has treated us poorly or betrayed us, and we cannot bring ourselves to forgive that person. Every time we think of him or her, our stomach churns and our anger rises. We know that holding on to that hurt will lessen our lives. Yet we do not let it go. We choose anger and hurt over freedom. Perhaps we are in an unhealthy relationship. We want to be someone’s friend. We want to love someone. But the person who we are trying to love does not respect us, ignores us, perhaps even abuses us. We know that we should change the relationship, perhaps even leave that relationship. Yet we are afraid, and so we remain in an unhealthy relationship even though that relationship has no freedom and no future. Perhaps we are jealous of others. We compare ourselves to what others have. We want to be what others are. By making these comparisons, we become unhappy because we cannot have what others have. Yet we continue to compare ourselves to others. We will not let go of our jealousy. We choose the darkness rather than the light.

We all have areas of darkness. Yet we keep clinging to what hurts us. What can we do to break this negative cycle? Jesus shows us the way. In the Gospel he tells Nicodemus, “Those who walk in the truth, come to the light.” The way to the light is to acknowledge the truth about ourselves and about our relationship to God. We leave the darkness, not by focusing on the darkness but by focusing on a truth.  The truth on which we focus depends upon the darkness in which we find ourselves.

If we are unable to forgive, the truth on which we should focus is our own imperfection. Have others hurt us? Yes. Was that wrong? Certainly. But, we ourselves are not perfect. We ourselves have hurt others, and we ourselves must depend upon their forgiveness and God’s forgiveness. When we can claim the truth of our own imperfection and our dependence upon the forgiveness of others, it can free us to forgive and to leave the darkness behind.

When we find ourselves caught in an unhealthy relationship, the truth that we need to focus on is our own value. We might not be the most attractive or talented people, but we are people of worth. We are children of God. No child of God deserves to live in a relationship in which he or she is not valued. When we claim our own worth in God’s eyes, we find the courage to change the relationships that are unhealthy and to leave the relationships that are destructive.

When we are jealous of others, the truth on which that we must focus is the truth of being blessed. We might not have what others have, we might not be what others are, but we do have talents, relationships, and real gifts. It is by being thankful for those gifts that we can find joy in the real life that God has given us.

When we accept the truth of our own imperfection, we can forgive. When we accept the truth of our own value, we can leave destructive relationships behind. When we accept the truth of how blessed we are, we can come to find joy in our lives. Now of course, it is not always easy to face the truth and enter the light. But is well worth the effort. If we do not choose to enter the light, our only other option is to remain in the darkness.

The Two Feet of Love

March 15, 2015

Ephesians 2:4-10

If you went up to the counter at McDonalds and said, “I’ll take a large fries,” and the person behind the counter said, “We don’t sell French Fries here,” what would you think? Wouldn’t you ask, “Is this really a McDonalds?” You see McDonalds stands for a certain menu, and there are specific items we expect to be available at every McDonalds. Something similar is true of the Catholic Church. If you were to walk into a Catholic Church and have someone tell you, “In this church we do not respect the Blessed Virgin, or we do not oppose abortion, or we do not recognize the authority of Pope Francis,” you would ask, “Is this really a Catholic Church?” It is the responsibility of every Catholic parish to respect the essential parts of the Catholic tradition. And it is my role as pastor to see that all essential Catholic teaching is present at St.

All Christians accept the teaching in today’s passage from The Letter to the Ephesians: we have been created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them. Christians must do good works. We are to love our neighbor by our actions. But what does love look like? Here the Catholic tradition is clear. Our tradition identifies two kinds good works that disciples of Jesus should perform. They are works of mercy and works of advocacy. Mercy loves by meeting an immediate need of our neighbor. Advocacy loves by attempting to change the structures that cause the need in the first place.

The difference between mercy and advocacy can be illustrated by this parable. There was once a Christian village situated by a river. The Christians of that village worshiped God and followed the teaching of Jesus. One day severely wounded people began to float down the river past the village. The people there immediately began to rescue and care for those floating in the river. They provided food and medicine. They reverently buried those who died. Day after day more distressed people kept floating by their village. In time the villagers built housing for the homeless, hospitals for the sick, orphanages for the children who lost their parents. Their work was crucial and they did it all in the name of Jesus. Then one day a young man said, “We are doing wonderful work caring for the sick and dying. But should we not send an expedition party up the river to find out why so many people are floating down to us and then do something to stop it?” The town agreed and the party was formed. The parable ends here, but its point is clear. Pulling people out of the river is mercy. Discovering the cause of their suffering and working to eliminate it is advocacy. Both are essential. Both are ways to love. Both are expected of Christ’s disciples.

Catholic social teaching calls mercy and advocacy the two feet of love. Both are necessary to walk the way of Christ. Every Catholic parish, then, should have ministries of mercy and ministries of advocacy. Over the last year our Parish Pastoral Council has been working with me in this area. Our work uncovered two things about our parish. First, most parishioners are not aware of the role of advocacy. They see loving our neighbor simply as mercy, as meeting immediate needs. Second (and this is obviously related) although our parish promotes several excellent ministries of mercy, it has no obvious ministry of advocacy. The Council has therefore recommended with my full support that we emphasize to our parishioners that Christ’s command to love has two feet and that we select a specific ministry of advocacy to establish in our parish.

This is why we have been emphasizing the roles of mercy and advocacy in the bulletin, on our website, and today in this homily. We are asking for your help in selecting which ministry of advocacy would be best for St. Noel. We have identified four possible ministries. They are outlined on our website. I am asking each parishioner to review these four possibilities and then express your preference in a survey present on our website. The survey is brief—only five questions. It will be available until Easter Sunday. We will then tabulate the responses and report back to you. To assist you in understanding the four options and to address any questions you may have, representatives of the Pastoral Council and Social Justice Committee will be presenting a brief 25 minute program after this Mass and after every Mass this weekend and next. These programs will be held on the lower level of our building. I strongly encourage you to attend one of these sessions either this weekend or next. You do not need to attend a meeting to complete the survey, but doing so will assist greatly in understanding the choices before us.

I believe that we are at an important moment in the life of our parish. We want to follow the command of Christ to do good works. We want to be aware that Catholic teaching insists that both mercy and advocacy are necessary to follow Christ’s command. We want to be sure that St. Noel has a viable and active ministry of advocacy on our service menu. Please attend a meeting after one of our Masses. Please visit our website to register your preference for what ministry of advocacy we should undertake. I am convinced that working together we will more fully understand Christ’s commandment of love and be able to walk in Jesus’ steps with the two feet of mercy and advocacy.

A God of Love or Condemnation

March 11, 2018

John 3:14-21

Sometimes at a football game or as you are walking along the street, you might see someone with a poster on which is written “John 3:16.”  This is because some Christians believe that this particular verse of John’s gospel is the most important verse in the New Testament. It is found in today’s gospel that we have just heard. You all know it, “God so loved the world that He gave His only son; that whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” What John 3:16 reveals to us is the reason that God saves us. That reason is love. God gave His son out of love that we might have eternal life. What more good news do you need than that?

But, two verses later, in the same gospel, things seem to change. In John 3:18, Jesus says, “Whoever does not believe is already condemned.” Within three verses, we receive two very different pictures. Which is right? Is God a God of love or a God of condemnation? Are we in the process of being saved or in the process of being rejected? Is our future towards eternal life or eternal punishment?

These are drastic alternatives. They are not just theoretical. Everyone in church here today can plot his or her relationship to God on a continuum that runs from love to condemnation. Wherever we place our relationship to God on that continuum determines the way we live our faith. If we place our relationship to God closer to love, our faith tends to be positive and hopeful. We believe that God sees us as valuable and is always willing to forgive us. We see ourselves as sons and daughters on the way to glory. If, on the other hand, we plot our relationship to God closer to condemnation, we imagine that God is always looking over our shoulder to see when we will make mistakes. We wonder whether God really does care for us and is willing to forgive us. We worry about our worthiness to reach heaven.

The difference between love and condemnation is fundamental. It is very important to get it right. Each one of us here, of course, will have to decide where we place ourselves on the love-condemnation continuum. But before making any final choices, allow me to make three observations. First, salvation is best described as letting the love of God in, in believing that John 3:16 is right: that God wants to save us. Our role as disciples, then, is to let the love of God deeply into our souls. I am convinced that any person who allows God to love them will find salvation.

The second point is this: Condemnation is best defined as keeping love out, as refusing to give love priority in our lives. Now, some Christians would say that the only way that we can live in the love of God is to consciously—and even verbally—accept Jesus as our savior. If we do not do that, we will be condemned. The Catholic stance on this is much more flexible. It states that you do not need to believe in Jesus, or even to believe in God, to be saved. As long as you do your best to let love into your life to the extent you understand it, you will find eternal life. The only way to be condemned is to keep all love out.

This leads to my third point. God does not condemn anyone. God simply loves. We can condemn ourselves by keeping all love from our lives. But that of course is very difficult. It is not easy to be so self-absorbed, so selfish, that we keep all goodness and love out. But, it is possible, and if we were to succeed in doing that, there would be condemnation. But the condemnation would not come from God. It would come from us.

These three points together, assert the priority of God’s love. It is possible to be condemned, but we would have to work very hard to achieve it. Another way of saying this is that John 3:16 and John 3:18 are not equal. God’s love is stronger than our condemnation. God’s grace is more powerful than our sin. Eternal life is more likely than eternal punishment. In other words, John 3:16 is the most important verse of the New Testament. It tells us that our salvation flows from God’s love. All we need to do is let it in.

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