Saturday, May 30, 2020

Pentecost (Twelfth Sunday in Corona Time)

Readings: Acts 2:1-11; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23

“He breathed on them and said to them,
‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’”
The Spirit of life, whose very name means “breath,”
is given by means of breath from the risen Jesus to his disciples.
Given the past few months of pandemic,
when we have masked our faces and kept our distance,
my initial response to this is a sense of dis-ease
at Jesus’ casual and indiscriminate breathing on people.
But, given the past week,
the reference to breath also puts me in mind
of George Floyd with a policeman’s knee on his neck
for over eight minutes,
who moaned and cried “I can’t breathe,”
until he fell silent, the spirit gone out of him.

During the pandemic shutdown I have tried
to focus on the acts of generosity and creativity
that these difficult days have elicited from people.
Despite the increasing fraying of the fabric of solidarity
in the past few weeks,
I had hoped that perhaps the pandemic
could bring out the best in us,
could point us toward a better future.
But the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis,
following swiftly on the killing
of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia
and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky,
makes such hopes seem like idle dreams,
returning us to the old nightmare
of the persistent racism that has stained our history
as Americans, as a Church, and as a human race.

But what does all of this have to do with Pentecost?
And what does the word of God have to say to us this day?
Today we are offered both a positive vision
of the new world that the Spirit is creating
and a mandate from Christ to live in such a way
as to let God’s Spirit work through God’s people.

The descent of the Spirit in the book of Acts
depicts the power of God
overcoming the divisions sin has created,
as people of different lands and cultures
each hear the good news of God
proclaimed to them in their own native tongues.
Paul, writing to the Corinthians,
reaffirms the power of the Spirit
to forge unity where there had been division:
“in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body,
whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons,
and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.”
The good news of salvation is not simply
that our sins have been forgiven
or that death has been overcome,
but it is also that God has once more
breathed his Spirit into human clay
and brought to life a new humanity,
overcoming the divisions of race and sex and class
that have structured the world in which sin has reigned.
To be saved is not to be plucked
from this disaster of a world,
but it is to live now a transformed life
in the new world made by the Spirit.

But to say that the Spirit has called forth
a new humanity into a new world
is clearly not enough.
We who claim the name Christian
live with one foot in God’s new world of grace
and one foot in the old world of sin;
we are not yet fully that new humanity
that God’s Spirit would make us.
I am struck how the risen Jesus,
appearing to his disciples,
both speaks the words, “Peace be with you”
and also shows them the wounds of his torture,
as if to say, “The old world of sin is passing
and I have come with forgiveness and mercy,
but don’t forget the cost of following me,
don’t forget the blood and pain through which
this new world must be born.”
To believe truly in Christ’s message
of peace and forgiveness
we must also see the wounds
of torture and oppression.

We can focus so much
on Jesus’ message of mercy and love
that we forget his call to costly repentance.
He says to his followers not only,
“Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them”
but also, “whose sins you retain are retained.”
To retain someone’s sin is to hold them accountable.
The ministry of forgiveness
is crucial to the life of the Church,
but so is the ministry of accountability,
the ministry of not glossing over sin
when it shows itself,
the ministry of calling to repentance
so that forgiveness might become possible.
The Spirit consoles,
but the Spirit also convicts and converts.

To receive the breath of the Spirit
people have to be free to breathe it in.
And it is hard to breathe it in
with someone’s knee is pressing on your neck.
It is a testimony to our black brothers and sisters
that they have over the years managed to find ways
to breathe the Spirit in despite the knees on their necks.
And it is a testimony against us who are white
that we so persistently turn a blind eye
to the wounds inflicted on the body of Christ
by the violence of racism.
The too-often repeated cry, “I can’t breathe,”
is a prophetic call to see the ways in which
the Spirit who consoles
is also convicting and calling us to conversion.
May the Spirit whom we receive this day
liberate us all,
and lead us to a more just world
in which all God’s children
are free to breathe the Spirit in.
And may God have mercy on us all.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Funeral Homily for Angela Christman

In his Confessions,
a text that Angela loved
and taught a generation of students to love,
St. Augustine tells two different stories about grief.
In the fourth book, he writes of being a young man,
years before his conversion to Christianity,
and losing a childhood friend to death.
He writes movingly of his grief
as he experienced it at the time:
“I boiled with anger, sighed, wept,
and was at my wit’s end.
I found no calmness,
no capacity for deliberation.
I carried my lacerated and bloody soul
when it was unwilling to be carried by me.
I found no place
where I could put it down” (4.6.12).
But as movingly as he evokes this youthful grief,
he also looks back on his earlier self
with a critical eye.
He sees in his grief
a kind of theatrical self-involvement
that the young can be prone to:
his younger self was genuinely suffering,
but was also somewhat impressed
by the depth of his own suffering.
His older self can also see,
looking back at his younger self,
the fatal human error
of investing ourselves too deeply
in our worldly loves:
he writes, “in these things
there is no point of rest:
they lack permanence” (4.10.15).
For, as Augustine tells us repeatedly,
our only rest is to rest in God.

Were this Augustine’s last word on grief
we might think that it is
somehow unchristian to mourn.
We might think it is
unchristian to love anyone so deeply
that their death would leave us
with a torn and bloody soul.

But this is not his last word on grief.
In book nine of his Confessions
he writes of the death of his mother, Monica,
shortly after his conversion to Christianity,
a conversion for which Monica
had persistently prayed with many tears.
And Augustine’s words describing his grief
are strikingly similar to the words he uses
is speaking of the death of his youthful friend:
“my soul was wounded,
and my life as it were torn to pieces,
since my life and hers
had become a single thing” (9.12.30).
But, he goes on to say,
“I was reproaching the softness of my feelings
and was holding back
the torrent of sadness” (9.12.31).
Recently converted,
a sort of adolescent in the Christian faith,
Augustine finds his own grief shameful,
a sign of the power that love for passing things
still holds over him.
So he tries to hide it, even from God.
But he realizes that in denying his grief
he is also denying his love for his mother.
She had wept for him;
could he not in turn weep for her?
He says to God, “Now I let flow the tears
which I had held back….
My heart rested upon them,
and it reclined upon them
because it was your ears that were there” (9.12.33).

We come here to weep at Angela’s grave,
confident that God hears our grief
and knows the love from which it comes,
praying that God will, in time,
heal the grief so that only the love remains.
We come to weep not because we doubt
that Angela has found her rest in God,
but because we remain behind,
still pilgrims on the restless journey
that Angela has finished.
We come to weep because we will miss
the sight of her face and the sound of her voice,
which made the journey just a little bit easier.
We do not grieve as those without hope,
for we believe, as Angela believed,
that Christ has defeated death.
Still, our souls feel lacerated and bloody,
our lives feel torn to pieces.
So we come to weep,
even as we look forward to the day
when we will join Angela—
our daughter, sister, wife, mother, and friend—
in that city of God where every tear
will be wiped away,
for “there we shall rest and see,
see and love, love and praise” (Civ. Dei 22.30).

Ascension (Eleventh Sunday in Corona Time)

Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Ephesians 1:17-23; Matthew 28:16-20

For most of us, the coronavirus pandemic
has been a time of distance and separation,
a time of absence from the people and things we love.
There is, of course, the literal physical distance
that we must take from people:
no closer than six feet; faces veiled by masks.
I hear the French are even thinking of abandoning
greeting one another with a kiss on each cheek.
Then there is the separation we feel from friends and family,
an absence that technology seems unable to really compensate for:
nothing makes you appreciate the irreplaceability
of another person’s bodily presence
like an extended Zoom visit.
There is also a strange distance
that has affected our sense of time:
early March seems years, not weeks, ago.
We are above all distant from what we might think of
as our “normal,” pre-pandemic, selves:
so distant that we are beginning to think
that we may never recover those selves.

It might be tempting to thinks of the Ascension
as a feast of distance and separation and absence:
the going of Jesus to a distant place, far away from us,
his departure marking a vast distance
between us and those days
of his resurrected presence with his disciples,
a distance we try to bridge by sending up prayers,
in something like the religious equivalent of Zoom.
The joy of Easter for Jesus’ friends
was having him bodily back among them,
and the Ascension might seem to undo this.
And, indeed, the depiction of the Ascension in the Book of Acts
is something of a farewell scene:
the risen Jesus taking leave of his friends,
after which that stand, around looking up at the sky,
perhaps in wonder, or perhaps with longing
to have back again the bodily presence of the risen one.
But the scene of Jesus’s Ascension in the book of Acts
is balanced by his final words to his disciples
in the Gospel of Matthew:
“behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
The passing into heavenly glory of Jesus’s risen body
does not seem to deprive his friends of his presence.
Indeed, through the gift to them of his Holy Spirit,
Jesus is somehow more present, more with them,
than he was even in his resurrected body.
I think often of Pope Benedict’s description
of the Ascension as “the beginning of a new nearness.”
The entry of the risen Jesus into heavenly glory
does not involve him leaving here and going there,
but somehow brings here into there,
draws earth into heaven,
and in turn makes heaven present on earth
through the power of his Spirit,
who forms his followers into his body
and fills them like a temple built of living stones.
The Ascension does not deprive us
of Christ’s bodily presence;
rather, we become that bodily presence.
As Paul writes to the Ephesians,
God the Father, “put all things beneath his feet
and gave him as head over all things to the church,
which is his body,
the fullness of the one
who fills all things in every way.”
Through his ascension into glory,
Christ’s body now is spread abroad
throughout the world,
for, as the poet Hopkins, put it,
“Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

I think one reason why the suspension of public Masses
has been such a trial for so many people
is because it is in gathering together for worship
and receiving sacramentally the gift of Christ’s body
that our identity as the body of Christ
is renewed and strengthened.
The temple built of living stones
is manifested most fully
in God’s people gathered at God’s altar,
and people feel keenly the absence of that gathering.
But without in any way diminishing
the real pain of absence that people are experiencing
we must believe that God
would not let us suffer this trial to no purpose.
This time of absence and distance can become,
through God’s Spirit,
an experience of the “new nearness” of the ascended Christ.
We cannot stand around looking lost,
wondering where the body of Christ has gone.
Our challenge on this day of Ascension
is to let the Spirit fill us
so that we can become his witnesses
through the fire of love
that has been poured into our hearts.
Perhaps this is what God is showing us today:
Christ’s body, the Church,
plays now in ten thousand places,
dispersed and yet somehow one through the Spirit.

The day will come to regather,
to receive again the body of Christ,
and it will be a day of rejoicing.
But for now we wait,
suffering time’s slow passage,
trusting God to provide,
knowing that heaven has been joined to earth,
that we remain joined to one another
through the bond of the Spirit,
that we are the church
even when we cannot go to church.
May God grant us the gifts of patience and love
and may God have mercy on us all.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Easter 6 (Tenth Sunday in Corona Time)

Readings: Act 8:5-8, 14-17; 1 Peter 3:15-18; John 14:15-21

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means
to speak the truth in love.
We hear a lot of people these days who are,
as they say, “speaking their truth,”
but it seems to me that there is
rather less speaking in love.
Perhaps I’ve just been spending
too much time on various social media,
where a firm conviction of one’s own correctness
is generally taken as license to savage the incorrect.
Don’t get me wrong.
When I see or hear someone spouting
what to me is clearly arrant nonsense
I too feel the urge to expose them to ridicule
or accuse them of (take your choice)
forgetting about some vulnerable group,
or not paying sufficient attention to the facts,
or being selfish or sub-Christian,
or a slave to popular opinion
or just a garden variety idiot.
Sometimes I even give in to those urges.
And I tell myself that I have no choice
because the truth matters.

Well, the truth does matter.
But so does love.
Because the truth matters we should,
as the first letter of Peter says,
“always be ready to give an explanation
to anyone who asks you
for a reason for your hope.”
We should live our lives in a way
that is so shaped by faith, hope, and love
that it provokes others to ask us
why we live in the way that we do.
We should live lives that are, frankly, unreasonable
unless God is who the Gospel says God is:
the eternal lover who raised Jesus from the dead
and who through the Spirit draws us into that new life.

But then, when it comes time to give our account,
we cannot let our words give the lie to our life.
If we cannot give a reason for our hope
without crushing the spirits
of those who may disagree with us,
then perhaps we are not the hopeful people
that we think we are.
Perhaps we do not really believe
that the truth matters,
because we do not trust
in the capacity of truth
to defeat falsehood by its own power.
We end up like Pontius Pilate
who contemptuously sneers
“what is truth?”
What is truth
without imperial power to enforce it?
What is truth
without armies of avenging angels?
What is truth
without verbal weapons
that can eviscerate its foes?

But the first letter of Peter speaks differently,
exhorting Christians to profess the truth
“with gentleness and reverence,
keeping your conscience clear.”
Christians should have a firm conviction
of the truth of their beliefs,
since these are convictions
upon which we stake our lives.
But conviction is not permission to forget
that those to whom we speak the truth
are just as beloved by God as we are,
and that we are called to love them
as God loves them
even if we are convinced
that they are being selfish
or sub-Christian,
or slaves to popular opinion
or just garden variety idiots.
Indeed, if we seek to love them
as God loves them
we might very well discover
that their reality and motivations
are a bit more complex than they first appear.
This does not mean
that we should never say things
that people find difficult to hear,
that might even make them angry,
but this is something quite different
from words that are demeaning and derogatory.

First Peter gives us no less an example
of the power of gentleness
than Jesus himself,
who “suffered for sins once,
the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous,
that he might lead you to God.”
It isn’t simply the fact
of Jesus’s suffering that saves us,
but how and why he suffered:
as a witness to the power of disarmed truth.
Perhaps we should ask ourselves
whether our unwillingness to surrender
the weapons of invective
is not in fact a fear that we might suffer
the same fate as Jesus,
is not in fact an unwillingness
to follow the way of the cross.

In John’s Gospel,
Jesus promises to send his followers
“another Advocate to be with you always,
the Spirit of truth.”
And Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians
that the fruits of that Spirit of truth
are love, joy, peace,
patience, kindness, generosity,
faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
These fruits should be key to our discernment
of whether it is through the Spirit of truth
that we speak and act
in witness to the hope that is in us,
or whether it is some other spirit
that moves us to speak.

The coronavirus pandemic,
while in some ways shutting down our lives,
has also opened up new horizons for us.
It has called forth
amazing acts of love and creativity
as well as some of our worst human instincts.
It has presented us with a choice.
Love or hatred?
Joy or anger?
Peace or strife?
Patience or impatience?
Kindness or cruelty?
Generosity or selfishness?
Faithfulness or despair?
Gentleness or brutality?
Self-control or giving free range
to whatever impulse moves us?
In the midst of this extraordinary time,
in this moment of choice,
God continues to pour out on us
the Spirit of Truth
and calls us to bear witness in the Spirit
to the hope that is in us.
May we witness truthfully in love
and may God have mercy on us all.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Easter 5 (Ninth Sunday in Corona Time)

Readings: Acts 6:1-7; 1 Peter 2:4-9; John 14:1-12

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
I don’t know, Jesus.
That’s kind of a big ask.
I mean… easier said than done.
There is a lot for our hearts
to be troubled about at the moment.
Some are troubled at the thought
that many, many more people will die
before we have a vaccine
or effective treatment for Covid-19.
Some are troubled at the thought
that each passing day of shutdown
does more damage to people’s livelihoods
and will lead to years of poverty and lost opportunity.
Some in the first group are troubled
that people in the second group
are troubled over what they are troubled about
and some in the second group are troubled
that people in the first group
are troubled over what they are troubled about,
but most of us manage to be troubled about both things,
we humans being experts in multitasking anxiety.

Trouble is laid upon trouble
in a noxious layer cake of fear,
and though our current anxieties may be
unique to this historical moment,
humans have been feeding on fear for millennia.
So when Jesus says, “do not let your hearts be troubled”
he is speaking to the human condition
that we share with those who first heard his words.
We shouldn’t forget that Jesus is speaking to his disciples
on the night of his arrest,
and while they do not know exactly what will happen,
they know something is happening,
and it is likely going to be bad.
Troubled hearts come
from not knowing the path forward.
So before they can heed Jesus’ exhortation
to free their hearts from trouble,
they want to know where all of this is headed.
For, they think, until they know that,
they cannot leave that place of troubled hearts
where they are mired.
When Jesus promises that they will be with him
in the Father’s eternal dwellings,
Thomas—ever the skeptic—
says, “we do not know where you are going;
how can we know the way?”

But the whole point of faith
is that you can know the way
without knowing the destination.
Faith, as the Letter to the Hebrews says,
is “evidence of things not seen.”
Thomas Aquinas says that not seeing faith’s object
is what distinguishes faith from knowledge.
There remains a difference
between one who is journeying
and one who has arrived,
between what Thomas Aquinas called a viator
and a comprehensor,
between one living by grace
and one living in glory.

We know in our bones that we have not yet arrived.
We feel it is the exhaustion and anxiety and irritation
of these past two months.
We hear it in cranky children and adults,
in hurled insults and accusations.
We see it in mounting deaths rates
and unemployment statistics.
This is life on the way,
not life in the heavenly homeland.
And the way is the way of the cross.
Faith, which knows the unseen,
clings to the promise that we will arrive.
But we don’t know,
can’t know,
how long we will have to endure the way.
Our destination will take us by surprise,
like a thief in the night.
We have no map,
only a path before us to follow.

But still our hearts should not be troubled,
even in the midst of troubles,
because to turn to Christ in faith,
to set out upon his way of grace,
is to know the God who will be our glory.
The stunning claim of Christianity
is that in Jesus Christ
our destination has become the way
and the way has become our destination.
The instant we set our feet upon that road
we have in a real sense arrived at our homeland:
“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
We know this too in our bones.
We feel it in those moments of peace and consolation
that fall upon us when we have no reason
to feel peaceful or consoled.
We hear it in words of kindness and encouragement
that can come from unexpected quarters.
We see it in the faces of friends who love us
and of strangers who evoke our compassion.

Faith is an odd dwelling together
of knowing and not-knowing.
Faith directs us to our unseen destination,
but it also sees the destination in the way,
sees the Father revealed in the Son through the Spirit,
sees just enough to take another step
sees by grace the hints of glory.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.”
It’s a big ask, these days in particular.
But the call of faith is nothing if not audacious.
We are on the way of faith,
and it is the way of grace that leads to glory.
May God continue to lead us on this path
and may God have mercy on us all.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Easter 4 (Eighth Sunday in Corona Time)

Readings: Acts 2; 14a, 36-41; 1 Peter 2:20b-25; John 10:1-10

If you frequent the deeper, darker valleys of the internet
you may have come across someone exclaiming,
“Wake up, sheeple!”
The portmanteau “sheeple”
entered the dictionary in 2017,
defined as: “people who are docile,
or easily influenced:
people likened to sheep.”
While it seems to have originated
as a derisive term for technological trend-followers
who lined up to buy the latest product,
it seems most often encountered these days
in a political context
as a way of suggesting that
people are listening uncritically
to so-called experts
on a range of topics
from the reality of global warming
to the authenticity of the moon landing,
to the spherical nature of the earth,
based on the belief that such experts
are systematically misleading us,
are perhaps part of a “deep state” conspiracy,
and that we need to open our eyes
and not blindly follow their counsel.
Lately you see it used for those
who think it’s probably a good idea to follow the advice
of the majority of epidemiologists and public health officials
regarding social distancing and staying at home.

My general inclination
is to dismiss anyone who uses the term “sheeple”
as a member of the tinfoil-hat-brigade,
those inclined to conspiracy theories
who confuse adopting a blindly contrarian position
with actually being intelligent and informed.
But before I indulge in an orgy of self-congratulation,
it is good to remember that we all
like to consider ourselves to be independent thinkers
and not blind followers.
Even when we trust experts
we like to think it is because
we have made some sort of independent judgment
as to their trustworthiness and expertise.
We might roll our eyes dismissively
at those who use terms like “sheeple,”
but, at the same time, we want to assert:
not me; I’m not a sheep
blindly following along;
I listen to Public Radio
and I critically evaluate what I hear.

But then we have the Gospel.
We have Jesus presenting himself
as the shepherd of the flock
that hears his voice and follows him.
He doesn’t suggest that the sheep
critically evaluate the voice of the shepherd,
or check his credentials,
or review his sources.
Is he not suggesting, instead
that a life of following is the ideal,
the model for being his disciple,
the way by which we will have life
and have it abundantly.
Is he not calling us to trust the shepherd
so that he may lead us beside restful waters?
Is he not, in some sense,
calling us to be sheeple?

Well, yes and no.
No, he is not suggesting
that we listen to and blindly follow
every voice we hear that claims authority.
He tells us that, along with shepherds,
there are also thieves who come
“only to steal and slaughter and destroy.”
We sheep, it seems, must not abandon discernment.
While a generalized stance of suspicion
is not necessarily a sign of discernment,
neither is a generalized stance of credulity
as sign of genuine faith.

But, yes, he is calling us to trust him.
He is calling us to return,
as the first letter of Peter put it,
to the shepherd and guardian of our souls.
He is calling us to listen and respond to his voice
as sheep respond to the voice of their shepherd,
to rely ultimately on his wisdom and not our own,
trusting that he knows better than we do
the path that leads to those restful waters.

The question, then,
is how we strike the balance
between an unwarranted credulity
that leaves us subject to those
who would steal and slaughter and destroy,
and a self-defeating skepticism
that refuses any wisdom
that we cannot demonstrate for ourselves?
For ultimately faith is always a matter
of accepting a wisdom we cannot ourselves prove;
it is always a matter of accepting
the limits of what can be demonstrated
and embracing in trust a mysterious truth
that calls to us from beyond that limit.

But how do we know where to place our faith?
Jesus says later in John’s Gospel
that we can identify the good shepherd
because “a good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
This seems also the criterion suggested by the first letter of Peter:
“When he was insulted, he returned no insult;
when he suffered, he did not threaten…
He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross,
so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness.
By his wounds you have been healed.”
The true shepherd, the one to whom we should listen,
is the one who wills to share the lot of the sheep,
who lets himself be stolen and slaughtered
and destroyed for our sake,
so that we might have life.

We cannot rely on our own wisdom
because the path that this shepherd would lead us on
is one that runs counter to ordinary human wisdom.
It is the path of cross and resurrection.
If Corona Time has taught us nothing else,
it has taught us the fragility and unknowability of human life.
It has taught us that even the best-informed
and best-intentioned experts
only know so much.
But it can also teach us to seek another wisdom,
a wisdom beyond the limits of what can be demonstrated,
a wisdom that might at first seem to be foolishness.
The best of human wisdom is that which reminds us
of our own fragility and mortality:
that all life ultimately ends in death.
But the wisdom of God tells us a different story:
that death ends in new life in Christ.
The true shepherd’s voice,
the expert we can and should believe,
is the one that proclaims this wisdom.
May God have mercy on us all.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Easter 3 (Seventh Sunday in Corona Time)

Readings: Acts 2:14, 22-33; 1 Peter 1:17-21; Luke 24:13-35

I am not sure whether it is really right
to have a “favorite” resurrection story,
but if such things are allowed
then I’m pretty sure
that the story of Emmaus is mine.
In part it is because of how
the experience of the two unnamed disciples
connects so closely with our own:
they come to recognize the risen one
in the breaking of the bread.
For them, as for us,
it is the moment of sacramental encounter
in which the hidden presence of Jesus
is made manifest to the eyes of faith
through his gift of himself to us.

Of course, for many of us it has been weeks
since we have been able to receive that gift sacramentally.
And while we believe that this does not deprive us
of the presence of the risen Christ,
it has for many been difficult
to live without the bread of life.
If nothing else, we have come to feel more deeply
how important that sacramental gift is to us,
how crucial it is to our living with the risen Christ.
And even though we know that one day
we will sit once again at the Lord’s table,
we don’t know when that day will be.

Of course, this is just one of the many things
that we do not know these days.
We don’t know when a vaccine will be developed,
or if we’ll find toilet paper at the store,
or how long we will be working from home
or out of work entirely,
or when we or our kids will return to school
or whether plans we have made for next fall
will have to be scrapped.
But though the current pandemic
might make the uncertainty of our lives
more undeniable,
that uncertainty is a part of every life,
every day, pandemic or not.
It is maybe only in retrospect
that we have any idea at all
of what is really going on around us,
and even then we understand our own lives
only partially, in the dark mirror of memory.

And this is the other part of the Emmaus story
that I can identify with.
The two disciples fleeing Jerusalem,
who meet the risen Jesus on the road,
know that momentous events are occurring around them
but they really have no idea of what those events mean,
how they fit into a larger picture,
what they stem from or where they will lead,
which rumors should be believed
and which should be dismissed.
And, of course, the main thing
that they do not understand
is that the stranger who walks beside them
is the central figure in these events,
and the key to unlocking their mysterious significance:
the living one who has conquered death and the grave.
So they are like us in this regard as well:
they are clueless.
Like us, they have no idea
what their past means
or what the future holds.
Like us, they are caught up in events
too momentous for them to grasp,
and too overwhelming for them to ignore.
They, like us, can make their own
St. Augustine’s confession of perplexity:
“I am scattered in times
whose order I do not understand.
The storms of incoherent events
tear to pieces my thoughts,
the inmost entrails of my soul” (Confessions bk. 11).

So they flee, trying to leave behind
all the fear and confusion and grief of Jerusalem,
the fear and confusion and grief of Jesus’ cross,
the fear and confusion and grief of rumored resurrection.
And we flee as well.
Perhaps not physically,
but all of us to some degree
try to flee the messiness and danger of reality,
seeking refuge in fantasy or ignorance,
seeking a safe and easily graspable vision of life
offered by the various ideologies of the world.
But even as we flee, he comes to walk beside us,
and yet causing our hearts
to burn within us.
He meets us in our fear
to light in us the fire of his truth,
a truth we can grasp only partially,
a truth we cannot ignore.
He comes to show us how his word
can help us find the pattern of love
amidst the seeming chaos of events.
He comes to turn us back
from denial and ignorance and simplistic ideologies,
sending us back to Jerusalem,
that place of fear and confusion and grief.
But he sends us back now filled with his fire
to shed light in darkness
and kindle hope in those grown hopeless.
He sends us back fortified with the bread of life,
our eyes opened to his presence with us,
even in the place of fear and confusion,
especially in the place of fear and confusion:
the place of the cross,
but also the place of the empty, defeated grave.

The story of Emmaus is the story
of hope reborn in the midst of chaos and confusion,
of doubt and disappointment.
The story of Emmaus is our story,
for we too have broken bread with the risen one
and felt our hearts burn within us.
May Christ hasten the day of our deliverance
and may God have mercy on us all.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Easter 2 (Sixth Sunday in Corona Time)

Readings: Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

I am by nature a skeptical person,
so I’ve always felt a certain sympathy
for Thomas the doubter.
I generally think that if something
sounds too good to be true
then it probably is,
and certainly the news that Jesus
has been raised up by God from death,
trampling down death by death,
sounds too good to be true.

These past few weeks have provided
ample opportunity to be skeptical,
since the news we receive,
whether good or bad,
seems to be constantly shifting:
just wash your hands and don’t touch your face
and you will be fine;
stay at home, see no one, shelter in place;
masks are useless, don’t bother;
masks are a way to “flatten the curve,”
wear them whenever you go out;
the virus is only dangerous for the elderly;
the virus has killed many young people,
no one is safe;
we should be ready to “open up” in a few weeks;
we should be ready to endure this for many months.

Sometimes conflicting information is spread
because of malice or self-interest or wishful thinking,
but often it is simply the case
that we are dealing with something new
and our best, most-informed guesses
just turn out to be wrong.
And so, in the absence of knowledge, we doubt.
A general skepticism might seem like the wisest course,
and while I think that those
who are publicly violating stay-at-home orders
are mistaken, and dangerously so,
I can understand why they might be skeptical:
we have more time and means than ever
to consume what passes for news
but the messages we receive
are confusing and conflicting;
people we think we should trust
are telling us different and often opposing things.

Thomas is at least receiving a consistent message:
“We have seen the Lord.”
But perhaps he has heard alternative explanations—
that someone stole the body—
and doesn’t know which report to trust.
Perhaps, because he knows how much he himself
would like to believe that Jesus is alive,
he suspects that his friends have suffered
a collective hallucination brought on by grief,
and though they are sincere,
they are mistaken, and dangerously so;
they should remain behind locked doors,
sheltering in place,
safe from those who had killed their master.
Thomas’s response is one that speaks to the heart
of a skeptic like me:
“Unless I see…I will not believe.”
And not just see,
but “put my finger into the nailmarks
and put my hand into his side.”

When Jesus appears again, a week later,
he greets his followers with the words
“Peace be with you”
and he invites Thomas to believe:
“Put your finger here and see my hands,
and bring your hand and put it into my side,
and do not be unbelieving, but believe.”
But Thomas now doesn’t need to touch;
he immediately utters
one of the boldest confessions of faith
in the entire New Testament:
“My Lord and my God!”

What convinces him?
Is it simply seeing the risen form of Jesus?
I don’t think so.
We have in the Gospels numerous stories of people—
Mary Magdalene, the disciples going to Emmaus—
who see Jesus without recognizing him as the risen one.
Perhaps what convinces Thomas
that the one who stands before him
is not imposter or illusion
but truly Jesus risen from death
is the fact that on this night
Jesus has appeared just for him,
to lift from him the burden of doubt,
to open his eyes so that he can embrace
news too good to be true.
Jesus could have simply left Thomas in his doubts.
He could have left Thomas to struggle
with the dubious testimony of the other disciples.
But he makes a special encore appearance in the upper room
just for the sake of Thomas the skeptic.
It’s just such a typically Jesus-like thing to do.
It’s just what the good-but-impractical shepherd
who abandons the ninety-nine sheep
in search of the one who is lost
would do.
It’s just what the holy man
who squandered his reputation
by healing the suffering on the Sabbath
and eating with tax collectors and sinners
and speaking with the Samaritan woman
would do.
It’s just what the one
who loved his own in the world
and who loved them to the end
would do.
Thomas knows that it is truly Jesus
because Jesus has come back just for him,
so that he might have faith,
so that he might believe,
so that he might confess,
“my Lord and my God.”

The Gospel writer tells us
that he has written this story
so that we might believe in Jesus
and have life in his name.
He tells us this story
so that Christ might walk
through the locked door of our doubts
and we might believe
that Jesus is our Lord and God,
the risen one who comes back just for us,
who never abandons the lost sheep,
who finds us while we are yet doubting,
who loves us to the end.

We are living through an extraordinarily confusing time,
and we are struggling to know who and what to believe.
We must try to exercise prudence and wisdom
in discerning the truth during this time of crisis and fear.
But this is something each one of us can and should believe:
Jesus has died and been raised for me,
the powers of death have been put to death for me,
Jesus has return searching for me.
Let us cling to this faith in the midst of doubt and confusion
and may God have mercy on us all.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Easter (Fifth Sunday in Corona Time)

Readings: Acts 10:34a, 37-43; 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8; John 20:1-9

Yesterday brought the sobering news
that the United States had surpassed
every other nation in the world
in the number of deaths
from Covid-19.
Even taking into account
the large size of our population,
the number of deaths
in hotspots like New York has been staggering.
And for someone who has lost a loved one
it doesn’t really matter much
what the per capita death rates are;
it is that one death that devastates.
But even as we continue
the seemingly endless journey to peak mortality,
people have begun discussing what it will mean
to “reopen” the country:
to restart our economy,
for people to return to work,
for students to return to school,
for churches and other places of public gathering
to resume ordinary activities.
But one thing is clear:
there will be no sudden return
to so-called normal life.
It may be months still
before public Masses can be celebrated,
before children can go to school,
before we can dine in restaurants.

The idea was floated a few weeks
that Easter would be a nice time
for life to return to normal.
The symbolism, it might seem,
would be lovely.
But, apart from the obvious error involved
in calculating the progress of the pandemic,
and differing opinions on how long
before social distancing measures
can begin to ease up,
I think the idea of Easter as a moment
when everything returns to normal
is a theologically dubious one,
and this for two reasons.

First, it is a mistake to think of Easter
as a moment, as an instant.
Of course, there is a moment
when he who was dead rises from the tomb,
but Easter is not simply
about Jesus’ return to life.
Or, rather, it is about that,
because if it is not about that
it is not about anything.
But it is not only about that.
Easter is the ongoing activity of resurrection
brought about in us by Jesus through the Spirit.
In today’s Gospel,
Mary Magdalen, Peter, and John
all see the empty tomb
but, we are told,
“they did not yet understand the Scripture
that he had to rise from the dead.”
The reality of resurrection
that Jesus lived
was not yet fully real in them.
It seems that resurrection takes time,
and because it takes time
it involves patience,
and patience is our suffering time’s passage.
The raising of Jesus from the dead
is the decisive moment:
a corner is turned,
a new reality does begin,
a new world is opened up,
but all this begins as a tiny seed
planted in the earth of humanity,
and we are still living
through the time of its growth.
Resurrection unfolds slowly
and in often hidden ways;
the new life rises in us
not on our timetable
but on God’s.

Second, it is a mistake to think of Easter
as a return to normal.
As Paul tells us, we do not celebrate this feast
“with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness,
but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”
Jesus is not simply resuscitated,
but transformed,
the reign of God is fulfilled in him.
As they come to share in this transformation,
the lives of Jesus’ friends
do not return to normal:
Peter did not return to his nets;
Matthew did not return to his tax collecting.
As the reality of resurrection grows
the world should become for us
stranger and stranger
until the life we live
is taken up completely
into the risen life of Christ.
As resurrection grows within us
moments of unexpected grace
should become the new normal;
acts of extraordinary charity
should become the ordinary stuff of living;
lives lived against death and for God
should become our daily lives.

If Christians truly are an Easter people,
then we who bear the name Christian
can perhaps bear witness to the watching world
about what it truly means to have hope for new life.
In the days and weeks and months ahead
we can let our resurrection faith
inform our daily living.
We can show what it means
not to look for quick fixes
but rather to willingly suffer time’s passage.
We can show what it means
not to hope simply
for a restoration of the status quo,
but to think of how our world
might go forward in ways
that are more just
and more compassionate.
Whatever lies on the other side of Corona Time
is not, to be sure, the reign of God.
But perhaps it can be a world
that is just little kinder, just a little fairer,
just a little more aligned with the truth
that Christ is risen and death is defeated.
May Christ make this new life true in us
and may God have mercy on us all.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Good Friday

Readings: Isaiah 52:13—53:12; Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42

Perhaps it is a sign of our fallen state
that we seem to treat suffering as a zero-sum game:
we act as if the validation of one kind of suffering
somehow requires the negation of other sorts of suffering.
This has particularly struck me during these days of Corona Time.
A single person, suffering from isolation,
is told by those struggling to homeschool their children
that they don’t know how easy they have it.
Those who speak of the tedium of staying at home
are rebuked by others in the name of those essential workers
who must put their health at risk by leaving home
to provide for our food or medical care.
The pain of priests who cannot minister
the sacraments to their people
is pitted against the pain
of those deprived of the sacraments.
It is almost as if there is not enough suffering to go around;
as if the recognition of one person’s suffering
could somehow deprive another person of their right to suffer.
It sounds foolish, of course, if you put it that way.
But nonetheless we do persist in feeling
that our particular form of suffering
might be invalidated if we recognize
someone suffering from different circumstances.
We treat suffering as if it were a measurable commodity
and not a mystery.

In some ways this is a failure of imagination on our part.
If I am suffering from prolonged confinement with my family,
I can’t imagine how someone could suffer from living alone;
I suspect they must simply be complaining.
If I am putting my health at risk to provide essential services,
I cannot imagine how not leaving the house for days on end
could count as real deprivation.
If I am hungering to receive Christ in the sacraments
I can’t imagine that my priest is livestreaming his private Masses
for any reason other than to taunt me.
And this failure of imagination is understandable,
because while suffering sometimes has material causes
and unmistakable outward manifestations,
at its heart it is something hidden and inward;
it is a spiritual affliction,
whatever its outward cause or sign.
It may be true, as a philosopher once said,
that the human body is the best picture of the human soul,
but the depths of the soul’s suffering
are not unfailingly depicted on the surface;
it seems still to be the case that we often fail
to grasp fully, or grasp at all, the suffering of others;
we fail in our knowing of how it is
in their particular situation.

Today, the letter to the Hebrews reminds us
that in Jesus, “we do not have a high priest
who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but one who has similarly been tested in every way,
yet without sin.”
In Jesus, God knows how it is
to be in our particular situation.
We believe that, on the cross,
Jesus took on the whole of the world’s suffering,
not in order to satisfy in God a divine lust for vengeance,
but so that our suffering might be know from within
by the God who loves us and desires our good.
The cross is the event of divine compassion:
God suffers in the flesh in order to inhabit our suffering,
so that we may “confidently approach the throne of grace
to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.”

Jesus knows your suffering, and knows it is real.
Jesus, the one without sin,
does not see your suffering as in competition with his;
indeed, your suffering is his suffering.
And he calls us who have been known by him
to see the suffering of others as he sees it:
to press beyond the limitations of our imaginations
and inhabit their suffering
as Jesus has inhabited ours.
He calls us to listen for their suffering
and to hear it without needing to judge it
or to rank it against other suffering.
He calls us to know as he knows
that the forms of suffering
are as varied as those who suffer,
but the remedy for our suffering
is the one love of God.
He calls us on this Friday we call good
to a deeper compassion
rooted in the compassion of the cross.
During the days and weeks ahead,
let us pray to grow in compassion.
And may God have mercy on us all.