Heaven and Fairy Tales

5th Sunday of Lent (March 18, 2018) Year A

Ezekiel 37:12-14

Psalm 130:1-8

Romans 8:8-11

John 11:1-45

Death can be a very scary thing to talk about. But first, let me clarify. As Christians, there are two types of death we often refer to. The first is dying to sin and being reborn in Christ. This is what happens in the sacrament of Baptism. It’s exciting to know that there are several among us at St. Andrew’s that will be born again in the waters of Baptism at the Easter Vigil this year. They will be further strengthened in their new Christian life that same night when they also receive the sacrament of Confirmation AND receive our Lord in the Eucharist for the first time ever. This is the fun type of death that we can talk about all day long and get those warm and fuzzy feelings because the people who “die to sin” are still with us afterwards.

The second type of death… well…let’s just say… there are not so many warm and fuzzy feelings. I’m obviously referring to the type of death where we lose a loved one, have a funeral and then mourn for days, weeks, even years after their passing.

But the question I’m posing today for your consideration is… WHY? Why do we get so excited to see someone die to sin and be born again into God’s family through Baptism… but so sad when a faithful Christian dies to this world and is granted eternal life with God?

In a way, I believe this is the question Jesus is asking us through today’s Gospel from John. It’s a long passage so I won’t read it again to you. But basically, Lazarus has died and everyone is in mourning. Many of the people blame Jesus for not being around to save him from death. You see… they believe Jesus is the Son of God, but they still don’t yet understand the resurrection since Jesus hasn’t been crucified yet. But Jesus knows. He fully knows what’s to come and has been preaching to His followers that they will have new life in God in this life AND the next.

But still, the people blame Him while they mourn the death of Lazarus. One of my favorite parts of this passage is where Jesus shows us His human side. We read two times that Jesus is “perturbed.” Yes, even Jesus got upset and irritated at people! He is perturbed because people’s faith in His teaching on heaven and the afterlife is very weak. Rather than celebrating Lazarus’ new life with God, they mourned his death and blamed Jesus for not saving him. I can see Jesus’ eyes roll, hand on his forehead, as he gets perturbed and says, “Fine, I’ll give you one more sign but then that’s it! You really need to start believing in what I’m telling you!” Then he turns to the tomb and cries out, “Lazarus, come out!” And he did.

Now, I acknowledge that we mourn over someone’s death because we won’t see them anymore. I get that. It stings greatly. Trust me, I know. But I think we struggle with death and mourn so intensely after losing a loved one because, deep down, our faith might be a little weak when it comes to heaven.

I can see someone get baptized. I can see someone receive the Lord’s Supper. I can see someone get confirmed. But I can’t “see” what happens to someone’s soul after they die.

Death is that one moment where our faith is put to the ultimate test. We are told that we will stand before God right after our bodily death. So death is the moment that we as Christians realize if this whole “Jesus, Church, Bible” thing is true or just a nice sounding fairy tale. And I think that scares us. I know I’ve struggled with this concept for a long time. I would like to think I’m a faithful Christian who tries my best to follow Christian teachings. But I still wonder if at the moment of my death, I’ll be confident in my faith or “hold my breath” (so to speak) as I wait to see what REALLY happens after I die.

I had a very real, very concrete experience that happened to me recently that has strengthened my faith regarding heaven that I wanted to share. We Catholics pray for the “repose of the soul” of someone after his or her death. It’s a very common practice that dates back to the early Church. It’s based on the teaching that people sometimes need to go to purgatory after death, before entering heaven. Purgatory being a final purification stop on the way to heaven. Think of it as a car wash. When we pray for the repose of the soul of someone, we’re asking God to speed up the process, if possible, so they can enjoy life in heaven sooner. After my mom’s death in October 2017, I’ve been praying for the repose of her soul often.

Well… I was at Mass at the Christ the King Cathedral in Lexington this past February. Angie and I were there assisting with the next class of future Deacons. I had just received communion and returned to my pew to kneel in prayer. With eyes closed and hands folded, I prayer, “Lord, I offer up this Eucharist for the repose of the soul of my mother, Joan Wentz.” And then I froze for a few moments. After that feeling passed, I picked up the hymnal and started to sing the communion hymn… but only got 3 or 4 words out and then I froze up again. Still on my knees, I put the hymnal down and closed my eyes again. I couldn’t move… I couldn’t speak. It was at that moment that I felt my mother’s arms around me. It’s as if she was kneeling to my left, giving me a side hug with her head on my shoulder. It was very real and I just kneeled there… enjoying the hug… as I cried silently. A few minutes later, she was gone. I’m not sure if that’s the moment she left purgatory and entered heaven or if God just knew I needed a hug from my mom that day.

I’ve reflected back on that incident a lot since it happened. I have even kneeled down at Mass after communion and tried to “re-create” the incident to see if it was just in my mind. But I’ve had no luck. I truly feel that God allowed my mom to visit me that day for a brief moment. Since then, I’ve had a better sense of peace that my mom is with God in heaven. I decided to tell all of you about it today because, honestly, I think we all could use a little encouragement when it comes to death and the afterlife. Many of us have lost loved ones this past year.

So yes, don’t be afraid to mourn for those that have passed away. But as we approach Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday… really pay attention and allow all of your senses to be flooded with LOVE. Because it is with LOVE that Jesus offered His body to us on Holy Thursday. It is with LOVE that he died for us on Good Friday. It is with LOVE that He overcame death and opened the gates of heaven for all of us on Easter Sunday. And if you can see with open eyes what Jesus did for us on those Holy Days… then you will absolutely realize just how much He loves YOU. And that love WILL continue into the next life because it is NOT just a fairy tale.

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Don’t Be A Zombie

Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 13, 2016)

Ezekiel 37:12-14

Psalm 130:1-8

Romans 8:8-11

John 11:1-45

I’ve noticed a certain fascination that people have had over the past few years. It has developed a cult-like following and doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. From “Night of the Living Dead” to “The Walking Dead,” from “Zombieland” to “World War Z,” our country has an infatuation with zombies. I’ve even seen sincere interviews with families regarding how they are getting ready for the eventual “zombie apocalypse.” In case you never heard of this phrase, the “zombie apocalypse” is when zombies are going to try to take over the world. And apparently if one bites you, you’ll turn into a zombie. So obviously you need to start stocking up on supplies now because one can only imagine the chaos that will result from such an event. Sadly, not a single presidential candidate has put forth a plan on how they are going to combat this impending doom!

Zombie-Apocalypse

I bring this up because people read the Scriptures through the lens of their own reality. And if your reality is “zombies,” I didn’t want you to get confused with today’s readings. The first reading from Ezekiel states, “Thus says the LORD God: O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them.” The Gospel of John recounts the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave. So just to make this absolutely clear…we are NOT talking about zombies here!

I actually did some internet research on the ever so reliable Wikipedia to find a definition of zombie so we can distinguish them from what the Scriptures are describing. It turns out that, “zombie is a FICTIONAL undead being created through the reanimation of a human corpse. The term comes from Haitian folklore, where a zombie is a dead body reanimated through various methods, most commonly magic. Modern depictions of zombies do not necessarily involve magic but often invoke science fictional methods such as radiation, mental diseases, viruses, scientific accidents, etc.” Thank you Wikipedia! Zombies are fictional, soul-less beings that used to be humans. And apparently, these humans-turned-zombies only have one purpose in their lives, only one basic urge to satisfy, to eat. To fulfill this hunger they eat any living flesh they can find. And if they can’t find any, they just keep wandering around aimlessly.

I’m sure this is all fascinating, but why is this Catholic Deacon going on and on about zombies? Because I’m here to warn you! Although I have said twice so far that zombies are FICTIONAL, I truly think the zombie apocalypse has already begun…but not in the way you may think! Think back 10-15 years ago. When people walked around, they made eye contact and said hello to people they passed on the street. Now, we have our heads buried in our smart phones and avoid eye contact. Instead of having an actual face-to-face conversation, we send a text. Instead of watching our kids play sports, we are updating our Facebook statuses on the sidelines. We don’t go outside, we go online. It seems the more we plug into technology, the more we unplug and disconnect from reality.

no-need-to-fear-a-zombie-apocalypse-300x232

Granted, technology can be a good thing, but I’m afraid it has turned us into mindless zombies, wondering around aimlessly through life. And if we keep feeding on what the world is offering, our hunger will never be satisfied and the “zombie apocalypse” will continue to get worse.

Now, I can’t leave you in a state of despair and without hope! I mean, I pretty much just labeled all of us zombies. However, you are in luck… I have found the antidote! It boils down to two words, a name really… Jesus Christ. From today’s Gospel reading, Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” This is also what the LORD God was speaking of in Ezekiel when He said, “I will open your graves and have you rise from them.” Our God was NOT talking about reanimating corpses but instilling LIFE into our lifeless bodies! It’s about dying to sin and our selfish ways and rising to a new life in Christ. Jesus didn’t raise Lazarus to be a zombie; He raised him from the dead to give him new life!

lazarus art

And unlike zombies who feed on any flesh they can find, we Catholics need to feed our souls and sustain our lives by eating the flesh of Jesus Christ in the Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist. He is the food that sustains us, which is why it is so very important to receive Him in the Eucharist frequently.

This time of year, the upcoming Easter season, gives us the best example of how Jesus can give new life by looking at the RCIA process. This Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults is the process where non-Catholics convert to or come into full communion with the Catholic Church. At St. Andrew’s we have 6 people who, at the Easter Vigil, will die to their old selves and be given new life through the waters of baptism. We also have 4 candidates who have already been baptized in other faith traditions. These 4 will renew their baptismal promises along with all of us. And then these 10 “new” Catholics will receive the Bread of Life for the first time, the Holy Eucharist, to feed that hunger that is deep inside all of them.

John6

So my question for you is this… do you want to continue down the path of the “zombie apocalypse” or do you want to have new life in Christ?

One pathway leads to death and wandering aimlessly. The other pathway gives you life and satisfies your hunger.

So if you’re tired of being a zombie and you want to have new life in Christ, I suggest you frequent this altar as often as possible and receive the only food, the only flesh, that satisfies.

Jesus gives us new life and then feeds us through His Body in the Eucharist. It’s that simple. Now it’s up to us to choose the right path and be faithful!

Cut It Off

26th Sunday of Ordinary Time (September 29, 2013)

Am 6:1, 4-7

Ps 146

1 Tim 6:11-16

Luke 16:19-31

On April 26, 2006 Aron Ralston was hiking in the Blue John Canyon in Utah. He was an avid outdoorsman and was hiking down a slot canyon by himself. These are known to narrow, but very deep. In this particular canyon there was a suspended boulder lodged between the walls, which was blocking his way. He decided to climb down deeper and go below it. Unfortunately as he was climbing down, the 800lb boulder somehow came loose, rolled back and pinned his right arm against the canyon wall. He was trapped down in a deep canyon, with little food or water and he never told his family or friends that he went on this hike.

Aron Ralston was able to take a photo of himself while trapped in the canyon.

Aron Ralston was able to take a photo of himself while trapped in the canyon.

He spent the next three days trying to lift the boulder or somehow wiggle his arm free with no luck. Aron was becoming dehydrated and delirious. On the fourth day, he realized his only way out was to amputate his arm. He spent the rest of that day practicing making different tourniquets and trying to figure out where to cut his arm using only a two inch pocket knife. Aron gave up because he came to the realization that his little knife would never be able to cut through the bones in his arm. He ran out of food and water the next day and was trying to make peace with the fact that he was going to die in that deep chasm all alone. So he took his knife and carved his name, date of birth and presumed date of death on the sandstone wall. He fell asleep, fully thinking he would never wake up. But he did wake up the next day and had an epiphany. Without going into the gory details, he figured out how to break the bones in his forearm, then took the knife and completed the amputation. Aron was able to finally free himself, climb up out of the canyon, rappel down a 65-foot sheer wall all with only one hand. By the grace of God, another family was hiking in the area and was able to contact a rescue helicopter for Aron. In total he spent 127 hours trapped, lost 40 lbs of body weight and 25% of his blood volume. He survived the ordeal, married his wife Jessica in 2009 and became a father with the birth of his son Leo in 2010. During an interview in January 2011, Aron said, “I smiled as I cut off my arm. I was grateful to be free.”

I think this story, which may seem gruesome at first, is actually very inspiring. It can teach us a lot especially when viewed in light of today’s Gospel parable from Luke. Lazarus spent his time on earth with no money and hardly any food. His body was covered in sores so he obviously was in poor health. He was the poorest of the poor. lazarusLazarus spent his final days lying at the door of a very wealthy man hoping that this man would give him a scrap of food. Perhaps the rich man was too busy to intervene, didn’t want to get his hands dirty or just didn’t want to waste his time with a poor beggar. So, with no charity shown to him, Lazarus died. But what he lacked in earthly wealth, God more than made up for in Heaven. His lack of attachment to material things allowed him to let go of this world as the angels carried him up to God and Abraham in heaven. In an ironic twist, the wealthy man who ignored everyone else but his own needs also died. All of his wealth, all of his attachments to this world could not keep him out of the fiery pits of hell in the afterlife.

What happens next should be a wake up call to all of us. There is a definite separation between heaven and hell that can’t be crossed. Once you enter one, you are not permitted to venture to the other. Not even Lazarus in heaven is permitted to give a drop of water to the rich man in hell. Even more daunting is that Abraham denies the request of the rich man to warn his sinful brothers, who are still alive, to repent. Abraham’s reason is that those sinful people have everything they need to make good moral decisions, but still choose to do wrong. They still insist to separate themselves from God and cling to their own ways, which will ultimately lead them to the same fiery pit as the rich man.

lazarus chasm

Why do I say this is a wake up call? Because you never know when today or tomorrow will be your last day. You never know when that sin you insist to cling onto will be the very thing that sinks you deeper and deeper into the chasm of hell on your judgment day. Some may be out there thinking, “Oh come on. I am a decent person. It’s not like I burnt down a church or murdered someone.” It’s funny how we default to that mentality when we try to justify our own shortcomings. I’m pretty sure on our judgment day God isn’t going to ask you, “So…what did you NOT do?” “Well I’m glad you asked. I didn’t burn down a church or join a gang.” No, God is going to ask you, “What did you do for me? What did you do to the least of my people? What did you do with the gifts I entrusted to you?” As the rich man shows us in this parable, “seeking happiness in material things is a sure way of being unhappy” (Pope Francis, Twitter, Sept 15). We need to identify what things are pinning us down and separating us from God right now. Sometimes we may even get so involved with the wrong things that we become delirious and don’t even realize what we’re doing is harming our souls. That is why prayerfully examining our daily lives and regularly going to the sacrament of reconciliation can be so very powerful. This is how we identify what things we need to cut out of our lives. Sometimes this can hurt. Talk to someone who went through alcohol or drug rehab and they will tell you of the pain they went through to cut out their sin. But here’s the glory of it all; the thing that makes it so beautiful in the end. If you are willing and able to deal with your sin now…if you are willing to help others instead of only focusing on yourself…you too can experience the glory of heaven after death. But waiting to start tomorrow may be too late.

Remember Aron’s quote from earlier? “I smiled as I cut my arm off. I was grateful to be free.” Ask God to help you identify your sins right now. Ask God to give you the strength to cut them off right now. Ask God to show you how you can help others right now. Jesus loves you! Allow him to set you free. Allow him to raise you out of the chasm of sin. And as you are going through the pain of cutting off your sins…as you are going through the pain of letting go of your ways and following God’s ways…smile and be grateful that you are being set free in Christ.

freedom