Sunday, March 13, 2011

Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving

At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. The tempter approached and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.”
He said in reply, “It is written: One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”

Then the devil took him to the holy city, and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: He will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” Jesus answered him, “Again it is written, you shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”

Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, "All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.”
At this, Jesus said to him, “Get away, Satan! It is written:
The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.”

Then the devil left him and, behold, angels came and ministered to him.
(Matthew 4:1-11)

On Wednesday we began the season of Lent which is our preparation for the Easter celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. Excluding Sundays it is a season of forty days, in imitation of Jesus spending forty days in the desert. Jesus fasted in the desert, and overcame the devil’s temptations. Jesus never sinned but in the desert he was tempted, and during these forty days of Lent we remember Jesus in the desert as we try to overcome temptation in our lives and to overcome sinfulness. There is practically no hiding place or shelter in the desert and the difficulties of the desert make whatever is inside a person come to the surface. The desert tests and shows up a person as he/she is. Lent is an invitation to us to take the courageous step of “going into the desert” and not hiding from what lies hidden deep within us. Lent is a time to put our souls before a mirror and see ourselves as we really are. Lent is an invitation to allow our sin and darkness and wounds come to the surface so that we can deal with them and allow them to be healed by the grace of Jesus. During these forty days of Lent, let us not hide from our sinfulness or prevent God speaking to us or healing us during this Lent. It is only when we admit something that we can deal with it. The first stage in overcoming anything is to admit the problem. If we remain in denial we miss out on the grace of God to heal us and renew us and make us whole. What is the favorite or most prevalent sin that we keep committing? Let us say no to the devil’s temptations to continue committing that sin, and instead let us trust in our heavenly Father like Jesus in the desert. The words of Jesus can be our words this Lent, “Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matt 4:4) Lent is not only about helping others, about doing something, it is also very much about the type of person we are.

Since the early centuries the Church has suggested three things that we undertake during Lent - prayer, fasting and almsgiving. It is for this reason that the Gospel text for Ash Wednesday every year is Jesus’ advice on prayer, fasting and almsgiving (Matt 6:1-6, 16-18). During Lent let us pray more, fast and help the poor.

For almsgiving or helping the poor, the Church makes it easy for us by giving us the opportunity to contribute to Catholic aid agencies. Helping the poor during Lent brings the words of Jesus to mind, “Whatever you did to one of the least of these you did to me.” (Matt 25:45)

Fasting is another task the Church encourages us to undertake during Lent. From the spiritual point of view, fasting symbolizes our dependence on God. It expresses the fact that we really are trying to put God first in our life. The Bible tells us that fasting from food must go together with fasting from violence and fasting from oppressing people (Isa 58:3-12). In other words, when we fast from food it is to be accompanied by a loving and forgiving attitude towards others. We could say that fasting from food in itself is not what is important, it is what the fasting symbolizes that really matters. So to fast in a way that is genuinely pleasing to God, can we make an effort to forgive those who have hurt us and not harbor resentment any longer? Why do we need to keep up grudges? Is it merely because we like to be in control? Perhaps to forgive, we also need to give up our need to dominate and control others. If we have a problem forgiving someone, let us share it with the Lord and ask his help and grace so that we may forgive. While we may not forget we certainly do not want to live being dominated by past wounds. We want to live in the present free of the past.

Lent is also a time for more prayer. We live busy lives and there is much emphasis on enjoying life but a life without prayer is a life without the joy of the presence of God. If we do not pray we are not Christians at full potential; we are only walking when we could be flying. Martha was busy serving when Jesus came but Mary spent time with him and Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” (Luke 10:41-42) Lent is not only about helping others and doing something, it is also very much about the type of person that we are. Let us pray more because all goodness comes from God and when we pray we touch God. There is a difference between a do-gooder and a Christian. A Christian is a do-gooder who also prays. God is our loving Father who greatly desires us to allow him close to us, so let us pray more this Lent and experience more of the joy of know God our Father.

The word “Lent” is an old English word which means “springtime.” May this Lent really be a new springtime in the lives of each of us. Through prayer, through fasting from food accompanied by forgiving others and not bearing grudges, and through donating from our surplus to help the poor, may we like Jesus in the desert for forty days overcome temptation and thus be well prepared to celebrate Easter.

Peace and Love,

Reverend Sue

"This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. " (1 John 4:9-10)

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Is your faith built on rock or sand?

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’
will enter the kingdom of heaven,
but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.
Many will say to me on that day,
‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name?
Did we not drive out demons in your name?
Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’
Then I will declare to them solemnly,
‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’

“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them
will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.
The rain fell, the floods came,
and the winds blew and buffeted the house.
But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock.
And everyone who listens to these words of mine
but does not act on them
will be like a fool who built his house on sand.
The rain fell, the floods came,
and the winds blew and buffeted the house.
And it collapsed and was completely ruined.”
Matthew 7:21-27

All along the Sermon on the Mount has been about how to be a true follower of Jesus. It now comes to an end with a reflection on what our words and deeds really mean. Just because we say we are followers of Jesus and cry out “Lord, Lord” does not mean we are true followers. We may even be able to do powerful deeds in Jesus' name. But in the end Jesus will be the real judge of who is a true follower.

It will not just be a question of hearing Jesus' words but of acting on them as well. Both people building a house in the final parable have heard Jesus' words in the Sermon just completed. But only the one who acts on them builds on rock. The situation is typical of Palestine where during the dry season not a drop of rain falls and the ground is dry and hard everywhere. But when the rains come rivers appear. Floods gush down the dry walls and houses built on the sandy soil are washed away. Only those built on solid rock remain.

For centuries Christians have been debating just how we are to understand the Sermon on the Mount. Is it really meant to be taken seriously? What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Are we really supposed to turn the other cheek? give our coat to someone who asks for our shirt? Yes. But in the end each of us needs to work out the details. It is more than saying “Lord, Lord.” It is more than performing great deeds in Jesus' name. It is building our life on the rock that is Jesus himself. In him the Law and the prophets are fulfilled, and the will of God is fully revealed.

The Sermon on the Mount, which concludes in today's Gospel reading, is quite simply a masterpiece of moral and ethical teaching. It holds out the defining and absolute blueprint of how to live the life in the Spirit. It is the Magna Carta, if you like, of the Christian life.

It is easier to talk about the Sermon on the Mount (or write about it, or even preach about it) than to put it into practice. It is always easier, it is true, to fight for our principles than to live up to them. However, at the end of the day, when all is said and done, Jesus' invitation is to do just this: to put the Sermon on the Mount into practice. To live it, breathe it, witness to it and be guided by it.

Peace and love,

Reverend Sue

"This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. " (1 John 4:9-10)