5th Sunday of Lent (A) – March 26, 2023
St. Paul – Lyons, KS
Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130:1-8; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45
Moved to Respond
In just under two weeks, on Good Friday, we will hear the narrative of the Passion from the Gospel of John. And John, unique among all the Gospels—John recounts a particular thing Jesus says while he is on the cross. In the midst of Jesus fighting for us, going to war to rescue us—Jesus says, “I thirst” (John 19:28). For what? Well sure, for water, something to drink. But as saints and scholars alike have pointed out, he was thirsting for something else as well. What is it that Jesus wants from us? What does God want from us? What does he thirst for? And in another passage (this one from Luke’s Gospel) I would argue Jesus gives a pretty clear response: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith” (Luke 18:8). Faith. That’s what Jesus wants.
Over these past ten weeks of “Rerouting…” I think many of us have felt the stirring of the Holy Spirit within us, prompting us, moving us in the direction (perhaps) of being overwhelmed, convincing us that this is for me, that all of this is not just words or story time but corresponds to something deep within my heart—we want to talk about this response Jesus wants. Last week we used the image of those boys being rescued from the cave in Thailand to illustrate that yes Jesus is here to rescue us, but in order to do that he needs one thing from us: our faith, our trust, our surrender. Just like those boys had to entrust their live to the divers in order to be rescued, so too we must entrust our lives to Jesus, surrender our lives into his hands. We have to make a decision. This, these last few weeks of “Rerouting…” are decision time, a fork in the road.
And so last week we finished with this question: “Will you sign the ‘title’ of your life over to Christ? Are you willing to place your life into his hands? And if not, what is holding you back?” The past ten weeks, ever since January—all of this is just a nice homily series with some handouts unless…unless we make a decision. A decision that I have prayed would be a response, a concrete response to entrust our lives, surrender our lives to Him. It is one thing to know things about God, but it’s another thing to place our faith in him. I mean, even the demons know a lot about God; but they don’t have faith. It’s one thing to know that diet and exercise is important if you want to be in shape, but you still have to do it. Same here people: none of this is worth a hill of beans unless—well, unless you make the decision to respond, to make a concrete response, to truly surrender your life, to sign the title of your life over to God.
So today’s goal is simple. Many of us are a little wary of signing our life over to Jesus. “Eh, I think I’ll just go to Mass on Sunday, Father. I don’t need any of this uber Catholic stuff.” So our goal today is to discover, “what is holding me back from surrendering my life to Jesus?” And when we know that, to be strengthened in confidence that I can (and should) surrender my life to Him.
What holds me back? What am I holding on to?
Faith has two parts. The first is the one that we like talking about: faith is clinging to Christ, clinging to the one who has rescued us. We love this! We wear crucifixes, we get tattoos, we tell people we believe in God, say a quick prayer when we feel like it. “Jesus? Oh yeah, big fan!” It’s the second part of faith that no one likes talking about: letting go of the other things we hold on to. We have to let go, surrender them, drop these “nets.” Think of the military example: it’s like you’re surrendering, but you say, “We’re going to keep all of our land and our weapons and still be in charge.” Uhm…that’s not surrendering! Faith, surrender, is dropping that and cling to Jesus alone.
The problem is I’m already clinging to some other things. Maybe you are too. If I’m clinging to these things, I can’t cling to him, I can’t surrender to him. Think of the kids in the cave: it would be like saying, “Oh yeah! We’re going to come with you. But we’re going to stay here.” Wait, what?? These things we cling to are other “Lords.” In the Biblical story, these are what are referred to as idols: we are clinging to idols. “Come on! We’re 21st century Americans! We don’t have idols! We’re not worshiping little statues in our homes. I would never bow down to a golden calf thinking it could give me happiness and freedom.” Really? What is an idol? An idol, as one author puts it, “is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give. Anything that is so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living. If anything becomes more fundamental than God to your happiness, meaning in life, and identity, then it is an idol” (Tim Keller, Counterfeit Gods).
Can you think of a few of your idols now? You want to know what they are? Look at your calendar and how you spend your time. Look at your Visa statement, where you spend your money. Check the screen time on your phone. What is it that absorbs your heart and your mind? Anything so central to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living. Imagine sports being cancelled—oh, we can. Remember COVID? How did that go? Bringing back sports was one of the most important things during the pandemic because their absence was having such an adverse effect on people’s mental health. Empty nesters: kids move out, and suddenly they don’t know what to do with their life, and watching TV and playing golf becomes their life. Finish the statement: “I can’t imagine my life without _____ .”
So does this mean that God wants every one of us to be priests and nuns? No! You have a wife, you have kids, you have grandkids, you have a role in the community—that’s how it should be! It is a question of who and what has my first energy and why. How do I make decisions in life? What will make me the most money, or what will help lead me and my family closer to Christ? What does it mean to live marriage well? We haven’t gotten divorced, or we are leading each other closer to Christ? What does it mean to raise my kids well? Just make sure they have good careers and make a lot of money, or lead them closer to Christ? Back in Wichita, a parent asked to come speak to me, and they were really hurting; none of their kids practiced the faith, none of them even believed God. And he kept saying, “I made sure they went to the best school, and made sure they got the best jobs. They were great athletes growing up. What happened?” It’s the question: What does it mean to raise kids well? Great careers, or following Christ? I’ve told you before about my parents: their question to us was never, “Will this be good for a future career?” but, “Is this what God wants you to do?”
So this is why faith is always paired with repentance. Repentance in the Greek is a fancy way of saying, “Change your way of thinking. Stop thinking as the world thinks, and see things in a new way.” This is why we begin Mass, every Mass, by calling to mind our sins, by repenting. We recall those places and parts of our life when and where we have not surrendered completely to God. This is the hard part: letting go. Think right now: “Where are my idols?” Because this will be the pitfalls of faith for you, the places where you have not yet totally surrendered to God. Faith is just something sprinkled on top of our “real life” when we are still clinging to our idols.
The Man from China (Reprised)
Do you remember that story of the man from China I told back at the beginning of “Rerouting…”? This was a man who endured weeks of brutal torture all because he refused to give up the identity and location of the Catholic priest. This was a man willing to die for his faith! He was willing to do anything for Christ! This is an image of complete surrender. But what happened? He escapes to America, the land of the free, home of the brave—and within a few years (this was the point)—what Communist China couldn’t do, what torture couldn’t do, what cattle prods couldn’t do … our culture was able to do, and it didn’t even have to try. This man was almost a martyr for the faith! But here, the idol of work, money, career, success, achievement—that led him to take back his life from Christ, to revoke his surrender, to demand the title of his life back—he began clinging to idols. And he drifted into nothingness.
When this man no longer had to make a conscious decision each and every day, it all fell apart. When we don’t make a conscious decision every day (or ever), when we don’t re-affirm the decision we have made daily…we can easily drift into this same nothingness. Especially here in the United States: this is the breeding ground for those idols which lead us to fall away from the Lord. Our culture breeds this; it doesn’t even have to try. We have to be the ones to consciously and deliberately decide to follow Christ. And the tricky thing, ironically: it will actually be harder to live the faith here than in communist China.
This is the decision of our lives. The most important decision we are ever going to make. “Will you let go of these things, and cling to the one that can rescue you?” OR, will you say, “Eh, I’m a good person,” and leave it at that?
The Saints Give Us An Example
What is Jesus’ invitation? “Come, follow me.” And Simon and Andrew drop their nets immediately and follow him. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny himself”—disown their life, sign over the title of their life to Jesus, entrust their life to Jesus, surrender their life.
Do you know who founded Pizza Hut? Dan and Frank Carney. Two brothers from Wichita. Back in 1958, they started Pizza Hut with a $600 loan from their mom. Today, Pizza Hut has over 16,000 stores in over 100 countries. World famous pizza, even here in Lyons. Frank has since passed away. But Dan? Well, you can go see Dan anytime you want in Wichita. I’m not going to tell you where—but down in Wichita, you can find Dan and his wife in a very predictable place each and every day…and that place is daily Mass at their home parish. “The founder of an international restaurant chain, the largest pizza chain in the United States with over 16,000 stores in 100 countries”—that’s probably not the “normal” way most people would expect me to introduce someone who has made the decision to drop their net, sign over the deed of ownership of their lives, and to radically follow Jesus. But that’s the point. In fact, that’s the whole point.
Our road sign this week is “Do Not Enter.” There is a fear, a fear I know is rampant in a number of us. It’s a fear that goes something like this: “Do not enter! You make the decision to drop the nets, sign that card, let go of idols, sign your life over to Jesus—means you have to give up everything you love, lose all individuality, everything in life—become a boring, lame, monotonous Catholic.”
Hardly! Who are some of the people besides our friend Dan who have made this decision? Well, go look into the lives of the saints! Married people, single people. People who were murderers and those who were victims of murder. Some saints converted as children like Therese, while others took decades like Augustine. There are politicians, professors, doctors, lawyers, scientists, nurses, teachers. There are canonized saints as young as 6, all that way to saints that died at an old age. Saints were soldiers and athletes, people who cared for the sick and people who cared for the poor. Some of these people suffered horrific abuse and slavery and torture. There is no one-size-fits-all, boring, monotonous saint.
But there is a single common theme among all of them. For each one of them, sooner or later, they had a life-changing encounter with Jesus. And as a result, they dropped the net, signed the card, surrendered to him, and said, “Lord, I will do whatever you want.”
A Battle of Two Voices
For me (and I’m not saint)—but for me, I’ve told you my story. I’ve told you the “nets” I was holding on to. I’ve known God since I was a baby—I literally cannot tell you a time I did not have this keen awareness of God. But don’t take that to mean I had it all together—I didn’t! Because for many years, very consciously, very deliberately—I put off this decision to surrender my life, to drop my nets, to sign my life over to him—all because I was deathly afraid of what it would look like. I had my own plans! I heard another voice, another beside God, telling me, “Do not enter. You’ll be miserable.”
And I think many of us can relate to hearing that voice. Which says things like: “Do not enter! You drop the net, sign the card, surrender to Jesus, you’re going to lose your identity, you’re going to have walk away from all of the things that you love. Do not enter! You’re going to lose control of your life; who can live like that? Do not enter! The Christian life is less (not more); do this, and you’re never going to have fun ever again. Do not enter! You’re going to become like them; bunch of Jesus freaks. Do not enter! You’re not good enough; not with all of the things you’ve done; if they knew they would ask you to leave. Do not enter! God’s going to make you do things you hate and do not want to do. Do not enter! It’s going to be way, way too hard.” Sound familiar? I hear it all the time.
But ladies and gentlemen: I’ve tried what this world can offer, I know people that have tried even more than me, I know people that have made it to the top of this world—and I can tell you, it’s not enough. It’s never enough. It is Jesus, and only Jesus, the path he has traced for us—this is the path that offers us abundant life!
If life seeming a little flat, and boring, and draining? Go to him, place your life in his hands. It’s a wild ride, but there is a joy and peace and a happiness you wouldn’t believe. Is there suffering and challenges? You bet. There always are with the greatest things in life.
I can tell you that when you place your life in his hands—leave everything you have planned behind and go wherever he leads you? It’s incredible. My plans—let’s see, I’m 30—my plans would have had me married with a few kids, graduated from med school, finishing up residency somewhere, right about now. But let me tell you: this is better. I can guarantee you: whatever Jesus has planned for your life, it is better.
So don’t be afraid. Do not be afraid. Enter here. Be rerouted. And don’t listen to the voice that says otherwise. There is nothing worth more than giving everything to God. Don’t listen to the voice that is trying to tell you “do not enter.” Don’t pay it any more attention. ENTER HERE. And you will find abundant life.