Sunday, March 13, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 1st Sunday in Lent

Readings: Gen 2:7-9, 3:1-7; Rom 5:12-17; Matt 4:1-11

The readings today surely take us into the dark side of human history. The Genesis reading about Adam and Eve recounts the story of the very first transgression against God, the first sin. Paul’s Letter to the Romans describes the history of sin, how its effects are passed on from generation to generation. Finally, the temptation story of Jesus serves as a prototype of how every human being has to struggle with temptation in one way or another. Three different subjects: the first sin, the history of sin, the lure of temptations—any of them would be a fitting topic for a homily on this First Sunday of Lent.

Today I’d like to reflect on the second topic, the history of sin. I suppose that choice is greatly influenced by what I’ve been listening to lately. When I drive by myself in the car, I’ve been listening to a program from the Teaching Company: The United States and the Middle East, 1914-9/11. It’s quite enlightening, but also very discouraging. From the First World War onwards Western nations just made mistake after mistake in dealing with the Arab nations. Those mistakes had a cumulative effect. Every time a new leader came along with the best of intentions, he ran right into those amassed mistakes of the past. Soon he compounded them by making more political mistakes. This is a mess that there just doesn’t seem to be anyway out of. That’s much the same as the history of sin. It tends to have a cumulative effect.

Sins pile up and each subsequent generation faces more problems and challenges in dealing with them. There comes a point where one can see and believe that only by God’s grace and initiative can any way be found out of the mess. But we have to pray for it. That’s why I so love the words of the Preface of the Second Eucharistic Prayer of Reconciliation: "Your Spirit can change our hearts: so that enemies begin to speak to one another, those who were estranged join hands in friendship, and nations seek the way of peace together. It is your Spirit at work when understanding puts an end to strife, when hatred is quenched by mercy, and revenge gives way to forgiveness." We need to pray for it.

The history of sin needs to be faced in lives and in ministry. I suppose that one of the places you see it so often is in individual family histories. You meet that a lot when you work in parish ministry. One example I met when I was at St. Ann’s parish in Nashville, TN. Through an unusual series of events I came in contact with two women at a funeral service in a mortuary. Afterwards they asked me what parish I was from. I told them, "St. Ann’s." "Oh," they said, "we live right across the street from you." I looked at them and said, "I don’t think I’ve ever seen you before." They explained to me that they don’t attend St. Ann’s; they wouldn’t set foot inside the church; they attend the cathedral parish four miles away downtown. This all stemmed from one of their grandfathers who got into a big argument with the St. Ann’s pastor at that time. That grandfather swore he would never set foot in St. Ann’s parish again. That attitude had just been passed on from one generation after another. Nobody in the family today even knew what the original argument was all about.

The insidious aspect to our own history of sin is that often we have lived with it for so long that we are completely comfortable with it. That makes really hard to identify in ourselves. Like the two ladies I just mentioned. Whenever they looked out their front window and saw St. Ann’s church, they felt anger and revulsion. Neither of them knew why. Even worse, neither of them bothered to ask why. Lent is the time when we need to give some attention to identifying our own history of sin. When we hear those words of the Eucharistic Prayer, "It is your Spirit at work when understanding puts an end to strife, when hatred is quenched by mercy, and revenge gives way to forgiveness," it’s so easy to think of world events. But sometimes the strife, the hatred, the in our own hearts. We have to look deeply into our own hearts, and we have to pray earnestly for the help of God’s Spirit.

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