Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

March 13, 2005

St. Martin dePorres, Cincinnati

(Based on Ezechiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45)

Five weeks ago we joined Christians all around the world in beginning a journey. We wanted to walk alongside Jesus in order to deepen our understanding of our vocation as disciples.

Lent is not about 'giving things up' or even penance in isolation from our call as Christians; it's about re-discovering who we are as the baptized people of God. We are walking with the catechumens all around our globe as they prepare for their baptism. On Holy Saturday they will profess their baptismal promises and in solidarity with them we will renew the promises of our baptism. Our hope and prayer is that it will be with new and deeper insight.

We need to realize that this is no romantic undertaking. That new insight will challenge our old ways of looking at things. It will call for transformation. That means a death to our old selves and conversion to God's point of view. The Scriptures make clear that 'God's ways are not our ways.'

In the past two Sundays, and then in today's Gospel, we are blessed with some of the richest stories in the New Testament. They are stories full of wonderful dramatic dialogue, just great stories in themselves even apart from their profound message.

We saw Jesus interacting with the Samaritan woman at the well, going back and forth with her until he tells her he knows of her five husbands. Then last week it was that delightful interplay between the parents of the man born blind and the Pharisees. Don't you just love it when they confront the leaders: "We don't know much else but we know our son was born blind and now he can see. You make what want out of that, it's enough for us." And then today we have these two very different sisters and the curious Jews from the area, and the anticipation building up over what will happen when the tomb is opened. We can almost feel our nostrils ready to recoil at the odor. Just great tales!

And each begins with the point of view of 'the world', of those not yet converted to God's ways. If we are honest with ourselves, we can identify with each of the objections. With the Samaritan woman it's the sheer practicality: "Hey, you don't even have a bucket, how are you going to get me a drink?" And it ends with Jesus telling her "I will give you living water springing up to eternal life." With the man born blind it's the disciples asking "who sinned to make him blind?" The world assumes some moral evil has brought this about. And Jesus dismisses that mentality: things like this happen for the revelation of God's glory and plan. And then both Mary and Martha act the way we so often do: "Hey, God, you're too late. You should have gotten her earlier. Where were you when we needed you?" They say, sure, Lazarus will rise much later on, at the end of it all. And Jesus says, "I am resurrection, I am life. Now. Believe in me and even though you die, you live forever."

As Ezechiel foresees it, our Baptism into Christ involves receiving a new spirit, a new heart, a whole new form of life. The way 'the world' see things is challenged. There is another way of confronting the things the world puts before us as values.

What the world views as 'wealth' is a poor illusion. What the world sees as 'smarts' is revealed as folly. What the world believes to be power is ultimately impotence. And even the way the world views death -- a thing that renders everything else useless and beyond repair and totally without meaning -- bears the seed of deeper, infinite meaning. Conversion involves being wrenched away from messages coming at us from all sides every instant, to see the dim contours of a whole different interpretation of the whole saga.

Let me share three brief images that invite us to see things differently.

A couple of Christmases ago I attended the Christmas party at an institution for people with severe mental handicaps. The residents put on songs and skits for parents and friends and the staff and Sisters who run the place. There were spastics and people who were wearing helmets to protect themselves from harm, and people with all sorts of metal braces. I thought to myself that many people would see the scene and say to themselves, "How sad!" But the reality was that I have never been in such a happy company of people. Parents, guests, residents, staff -- everyone was simply awash in sheer joy and fun and caring.

We saw a touch of that same reality the other night when they featured the woman who is legally blind but who was starting out on the grueling Iditarod race. She is driving a team of 20 dogs and she can barely make out the trail in front of her -- and she is going to do this for 700 miles across Alaska. And when they interviewed her, she said, "Don't think of me as 'courageous' or that sort of thing. This is just something I want to do."

A few years ago I read the report of a writer who spent a whole year immersing herself, a person with the ability to hear, in the reality of the deaf community. In the course of her time with them she discovered a big debate going on among them. It was about the possibility that new technology would make it possible for implants which would enable them to hear. And some among them said, "Why would I want to be able to hear? I am gifted with sensitivities and abilities that people can 'hear' can scarcely imagine. I might lose all that rich reality if I were bombarded with sounds all the time."

We need to be clear, that Jesus in promising us eternal life is implying that this world isn't worth anything. Some Christians think and act that way: we're going to have heaven so why be concerned about this world. Outsiders have reason to accuse Christians of copping out, of not taking life on earth seriously. Why bother if 'the real world' comes after this play-world is over? It's not what Jesus is proclaiming by his life but it's a seduction once you buy into life after death.

Jesus is not unfeeling in the face of human suffering, he's not some sort of Gnostic cardboard cutout. He is 'troubled in spirt, moved by the deepest emotions' at the death of his friend. So much so that he breaks down in tears and the Jews who had come out to see what this was all about were deeply impressed. "See how much he loved him!"

Jesus is committed in this world. But he taps into a deeper wisdom, that finds his Father's plan unfolding mysteriously right within the pain and contradictions of our world. Death is real but there is something more going on here.

And in two weeks he will be challenged in his own flesh.

It's fascinating to track his reactions in anticipation of that climax on Calvary. Earlier he had set his face toward Jerusalem with energetic eagerness: "I have a baptism where with I will be baptized, and I am on fire until it happens." After the dinner in Bethany where Mary had anointed his feet he is more reflective: "My soul is sorrowful -- but should I say, 'Father, save me from this hour?' No, it was for this that I have come." On the cross we hear hin cry out, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" But at the end he can say, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit" and let it go.

Our Baptism is a call to trust God's ways. We promise that we will search out his plan, his wisdom, his kind of wealth, his appreciation of life, even when things look darkest, when we can see only death and breakdown and war and violence. And in return he asks us to be receptive to and trust his promise: "I will be your God and you shall be my people." Even though you die, you will have life eternal.