As I write this homily Pope Francis, in the spirit of Lent and living the year of Mercy, is visiting the prisoners in a “Social Rehabilitation Center”/Prison in Juarez, Mexico on the Border of Texas and Mexico. First he greets and hugs women and men who approach him individually. Many are crying. Then he addresses them and their faces say that they are hanging on every word he says. He tells them that they are precious to God and can turn their lives around and the test of this will be on the outside. He prays that sentences may not be for whole life as those who turn their lives around will be powerful messengers of God in society. As he closes, he asks them to pray and to ask that their hearts may grow to include the forgiveness of society. He then blesses them and many are weeping openly. As he passes by the band and musicians they come forward to touch his hand and pray. Some kneel and still holding onto his hands weep uncontrollably. This is the spirit of God working powerfully in them, transforming their hearts. I believe this visit will transform many lives. May it be so for each one of us as we continue to walk our Lenten journey. May our touch and words transform lives and may we too be transformed.
Our first reading for this Sunday is Genesis 15:5-12 and 17-18 where we see God making a Covenant with Abram who is asked to look up and see the endless number of stars in the dark night sky, promising him that his descendants will be as many as the stars of the sky and the land will be theirs. Abram was transformed from Abram to Abraham, meaning father of his people as he looked, listened and loved God, and trusted and believed God’s promise. Indeed adherents of the three faiths springing from Abrahamic roots are “like the stars in the sky”. Looking and seeing and having faith in God’s promises transforms the believer from hopelessness to hopeful. As we live with hope our lives touch and can help transform other lives.
Many things happen in life and ministry that transform us. Both things experienced as negative and as positive can do this, perhaps equally so. In the last few weeks I have experienced both. We had to leave a large family in God’s hands as we had done all we could to help them. We could continue with them in prayer and emotional support but we could not make all things better for them, too many things were wrong, including possible drug addiction and the inability of the parents to listen and hear beyond what they already knew and wanted. It was beyond our ability to do any more. Another agency is finally offering shelter and trying to help. We learned to gently place them in God’s hands. This was transforming as we have felt that we had to do it all ourselves and that we could. Learning that we could not, but God could, strangely gave another kind of peace.
The positive experience was experiencing the Spirit intervene in the life of an older woman who was living in the woods for almost ten months with her cat. Often it takes many months to help such a person come “inside”. But this time there was a readiness and our resources matched the need. This woman, “Peg” was praying every day for God’s help. She was increasingly frightened in the woods although many nice people helped her in little but important ways. The unpredictable weather, the sound of the newly arrived coyotes and men in the woods nearby made nights very hard. The help came when she sought help for her cat and our Veterinarian brought her to our attention and when a man who lived in our hospitality space was simultaneously ready to move on to his own place. As soon as Peg understood that we could accommodate her dear cat with her and that we would also help her apply for Senior living but she could stay with us until her name came up on the list, she was ready to move. In less than a week she was able to move inside and her gratitude and appreciation was evident as she attended church with us. She cried and cried and whispered “I am home at last”. She had also prayed for a way back to God and to church. She told us and anyone who would listen that God heard both of her prayers and gave her a home AND a church home at the same time! Her joy transformed us from seeing so much of what we could not do and affirmed what we could do with God’s help. She was also able to help us care for a dog that the large family had to leave behind. Peg’s faith and joy touches all around her. (Below-Peg ,in green jacket on Ash Wednesday, with new friends Brenda and Nancy, and kitty ,Sarah. )
Psalm 27 then asks us to see the goodness of God in the land of the living . God is our light and our salvation now, and forever. Of whom or of what should we be afraid? But it is often harder to see God’s goodness here and now in the midst of daily struggles and not just hope for it in eternity. Seeing God’s goodness here and now is transforming.
Just as reasons for greater fear entered Peg’s camp site, God provided an inside home. WOW-whom shall we fear! I also had another cause to fear in the last few weeks. A routine mammogram revealed a mass that was not palpable. I had to have a biopsy that turned out to be a difficult procedure, and then settled in to await the results. The memory of my first cancer, this same time of year three years ago, a stomach cancer,sarcoma, called a GIST, flooded my memory and struck my heart with fear. Was it to be another major surgery? That cancer was taken away with surgery but I live with its aftermath, having very little stomach left, daily. Yet, after the first shock and deep recognition of mortality, I was thankful to be alive and able to continue with life and ministry. Now, for a while, I returned to fear. Friends and our church members prayed and supported. Mary, one of our church members who just had a mastectomy shared her journey with me on another level realizing I was facing what she has just faced. We prayed together in a new way. We truly understood each other’s pain, though mine may be less than hers. She told me “Pastor, you paid your dues with the first cancer, this one should be only a little one”. I hoped so too. Yet as I lived with it, I realized that God still “had my back”. Once again I am relieved, that while it is cancer it is contained and “the little one” Mary hoped for. I will lose at least the mass and surrounding tissue, I will not lose my life. Once again I am to be spared. And I am so thankful. I found myself at peace today and no longer anxious or frightened. I will be okay. Of what should I be afraid? I will see the goodness of God in the land of the living.
In the Epistle of Paul to the Philippians (3:17-4:1) Paul challenges Christ’s followers to stand firm in Christ Jesus, and not to let their bellies become their Gods, as some have. Paul is moved to tears as he thinks of those who say “Yes” to following Christ but actually transform nothing in their lives, keeping their own desires as most important. He is encouraging them to allow themselves to be transformed by Christ. As Pastors we are most often moved and heartened as we see our people grow in Christ and in the giving of themselves to others. Sometimes, though,we are disheartened as bickering and anger and selfishness breaks up families and relationships, and self interest looms much larger than community interest. We want them to be transformed. But that takes time and so we pray for our patience and for ways to teach without words. If I am honest, I must say, I am more frustrated with myself than with others as I do not transform so easily either! And so we pray.
In the Gospel of Luke (9:28-36) we see Jesus transformed/”transfigured”/appearing in a new way, on a high mountain top with James and Peter. Jesus often went to the mountains to pray and to commune with Abba God. He also preached in the hills and mountains. All three synoptic Gospels record Jesus taking Peter, James and John up the Mountain where they experienced who he was and saw his divinity in a new way. The other sources are Matt 17:1-9 and Mark 9:1-9)
In the Gospel Jesus is presented in divine light and connected to Moses and Elijah who suffered greatly even as they led God’s people. Jesus is seen on par with them and as the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets. He looks different. His very appearance is radiant/dazzling white including his clothing, indicating their perception of his divinity. The disciples are amazed and frightened. Then in the cover of the misty mountain cloud they hear God’s voice affirming Jesus as also happened in Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved, my Own, My Chosen One, Listen to him.” Now there is divine authority to do what Jesus asks, to follow him. To be transformed we are asked to listen to Jesus. We are also asked by the intent of the text to look around us and see God and things and people and ourselves in a new way. See the light of God in everyone and in everything. And where it seems not to be, look the hardest and listen with your “third ear” the ear of compassion and understanding, of empathy. We are asked to be transformed with Jesus, the Christ.
In his Angelus talk on the 2nd Sunday of Lent, March 16, 2014 this is what Pope Francis said about the Transfiguration/ the transformation on the mountain top:
“We need to go to a place of retreat, to climb the mountain and go to a place of silence, to find ourselves and better perceive the voice of the Lord. We cannot stay there, however. The encounter with God in prayer again pushes us to come down from the mountain and back down into the plain, where we meet many brothers and sisters weighed down by fatigue, injustice, and both material and spiritual poverty.”
We who are transformed by looking and listening and trusting God can transform the world. And toward that end, this is our prayer:
“Our loving God, Help us to see You and hear You. Your words come in many ways. Teach us to see and listen to the gentle breeze and the Gulf winds as well as the howl of the storms of upheaval; to the birds chattering and the babies, to the children and the old folks, to those who have little and to those who have much, to the teacher and the preacher, and to all of Your creation. Help us to trust You and Your promises when we read them for ourselves in the Scriptures or hear them read, or shared by the testimonies of others or experienced in our own lives. We believe, help our unbelief and thereby transform us. Amen.”
Love and blessings,
Rev. Dr. Judith A.B. Lee, RCWP
Co-Pastor Good Shepherd Inclusive Catholic Ministries, Fort Myers, Florida