Sunday, November 6, 2016

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: 2 Maccabees7:1-2, 9-14; 2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5; Luke 20:27-38

The hypothetical situation posed to Jesus by the Sadducees
presumes the practice, based in the Old Testament Law,
of what was called “levirate marriage.”
It is prescribed in the book of Deuteronomy
that when a man dies without a son
his widow is not to marry anyone outside of the clan
but rather the dead man’s brother is to marry her,
so that, “the firstborn son she bears
shall continue the name of the deceased brother,
that his name may not
be blotted out from Israel” (Deut. 25:5-6).
Notice that the purpose is to secure offspring
in whom the name of the dead man might live on,
so that he will not be forgotten.
For the Sadducees,
who rejected belief in the resurrection of the dead,
this was the only sort of immortality on offer.
They believed that the situation that they posed to Jesus
regarding the woman who was married
successively to seven brothers,
and the question of whose wife she would be
when they were raised from the dead,
pointed out the absurdity
of believing in such a resurrection.
Much more sensible, much more realistic, they thought,
was to focus on this life and on this world
and on finding our hope of immortality
in securing offspring to carry on the memory of our name,
so that it “may not be blotted out from Israel.”

Whether it is a matter of having offspring
who will carry on our name,
or of having a life whose achievements
will merit monuments and memory,
we humans often live our lives
as if our only hope of immortality
was in leaving our mark on history,
so that our memory will endure.

But Jesus knows how fragile such hope is.
Jesus knows that even if we have children
who carry the memory of our names,
and even if our children’s children,
and their children in turn,
carry that memory,
the day will come when human memory will fail.
The day will come—
for some sooner,
for others later,
but for all eventually—
when our names will be forgotten,
when our tombstone and monuments will crumble,
when all record of our too-brief life
will be obliterated.
The idea of living on in human memory,
rather than being more realistic
than belief in resurrection,
is in fact a fantasy.

But Jesus offers us a better hope.
In responding to the Sadducees,
he brushes aside their hypothetical scenario,
because it misses the point
of belief in resurrection from the dead.
To be raised by God is not simply
to resume the life that you lived before,
but is to live in a new way.
It is not a matter of taking up again this life,
with its fears and anxieties
and its desperate attempts to keep death at bay
by making our mark on history;
rather, it is a matter of entering into
the undying life of God.

But even if we abandon the fantasy of immortality
gained though the memory of our achievements,
we can still be tempted to think
that our faith in resurrection
is based on there being some immortal “spark” in us
that is incapable of dying.
Of course it is true that we possess an immortal soul,
but faith in the resurrection of the dead
is not based on a belief about who we are—
possessors of immortal souls—
but on our faith in who God is.
For our God is the one who knows and remembers us,
even though all others should forget.
As St. Paul says in our second reading,
“The Lord is faithful.”
To be held in the memory of our children
or of those who admire our achievements
is simply a temporary respite from death’s obliteration
and a shadowy imitation of life.
But to be held in the memory of the eternal God,
is to live more truly than we have ever lived before,
for our God “is not a God of the dead,
but of the living,
for to him all are alive.”

During the month of November
we remember our beloved dead:
we remember the multitude of unknown saints
whom we celebrate on All Saints Day,
and we remember those still awaiting
the full vision of God
for whom we pray on All Souls Day.
But we do not remember them
because they live only in our memory,
as if their last remnants would vanish from life
if we were to forget them.
No, our hope for them is that they are now
more alive than we are,
because they look upon God with unveiled faces
and know the God of life even as they are known.
We remember them because in our remembering
we are sharing in God’s act of remembering,
and we touch and taste
a tiny share of their immortality,
the immortality that is promised to us
in Jesus Christ.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: 2 Kings 5:14-17; 2 Timothy 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19

At the outset of his ministry,
Jesus announces in the synagogue in Nazareth
that he has come to proclaim liberty to captives.
Our scriptures today invite us to reflect
on different forms of captivity
as we are presented with examples
of people held bound
who find freedom in Christ.

The first, and maybe more obvious, case
is Paul in our second reading.
Writing from prison,
where he is in chains for preaching
the good news of Jesus Christ,
Paul says that he is willing
to suffer for the sake of the Gospel
because he knows that,
while he may be in chains,
“the word of God is not chained.”
He knows that even as he suffers in prison
he continues to bear witness to Jesus;
indeed, his suffering itself
is by God’s grace an image or icon
of the crucified Christ for us and for our salvation.
He knows that even if his captivity
should end in his death—
as indeed it did—
he does not need to fear,
for, “If we have died with him
we shall also live with him.”
The unchained word of God
has the power to free us
even from the prison of death.

Perhaps less obvious is the captivity
of the ten lepers in our Gospel reading.
Certainly their illness had chained them
to extreme physical suffering.
But it had also imprisoned them in a social isolation
no less extreme than Paul’s isolation in prison.
The Gospel tells us that,
as they called out to Jesus
to have pity on them,
“they stood at a distance from him.”
The do this because of the belief
that those with skin diseases
were ritually impure,
and therefore excluded from participation
in the religious life of Israel.
The book of Leviticus in the Old Testament
prescribes not only that they must tear their clothing
and call out “unclean! unclean!” to warn people away,
but also that, “being unclean,
[they] shall dwell apart,
taking up residence outside the camp.”
So the lepers stand at a distance from Jesus,
not simply because of fear of infection
but because, in their ritual impurity,
they were condemned to live isolated
from all that is holy,
as if chained by the Law and by their own fear.

But the unchained word of God
present in the healing power of Jesus
overcomes that distance.
Jesus’s healing of the lepers
not only frees them from their physical pain,
but releases them from the social isolation
in which they were imprisoned.
And the one who returns to give thanks
draws near to Jesus, falling at his feet,
bearing witness to the healing power of God.

Our modern world tends be dismissive
of concepts like “ritual purity,”
seeing them as primitive and superstitious;
but we too impose our own forms of social isolation
upon the sick and the aged.
Indeed, given the way in which our culture
worships youth and health
and a certain ideal of physical perfection,
I am not convinced that we are all that different
from the Jews of Jesus’ day
in our desire to place at a distance
those whose age or illness
would defile our dream of physical perfection
and perpetual youth.
In addition to their physical suffering,
the sick in our society often suffer
being ignored by a culture
that does not want to be reminded
of the fragility of the robust youthfulness
that we worship.

Part of the power
of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick,
and the reason we celebrate it publicly in this parish,
is that it brings those who are ill
into the center of our worshipping community;
it proclaims their inclusion in God’s love and in our love.
Not only are those who suffer illness not excluded,
not made to stand at a distance,
but by this sacrament
their illness is consecrated to God,
it is made something holy
by being put at the service of the Gospel,
so that they, like Paul bound in his chains,
become images or icons
of the redemptive suffering of Jesus.

Whether or not it leads to physical healing,
the sacrament of anointing
helps those who are sick
to bear with grace their illness,
just as Jesus bore their suffering
out of love for us all;
it makes them signs of Christ’s grace among us,
proclaiming to us to and our world
the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.
This sacrament makes visible
the truth of the words of St. Paul:
“If we have died with him
we shall also live with him;
if we persevere
we shall also reign with him.”

Let our celebration of this sacrament
inspire all of us
to enter into solidarity
with the sick and suffering of the world
and to draw close to Jesus,
like the Samaritan in today’s Gospel,
to give him thanks
for the healing and freedom
that he so richly bestows
on us and our world.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

A Wedding Homily


Readings: Genesis 2: 18-24; 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:8a; John 17:20-26

Ishmael, the narrator of Melville’s Moby Dick,
after commenting on the dizzying effects
of trying to write about a creature like the whale, says:
“Such, and so magnifying,
is the virtue of a large and liberal theme!
We expand to its bulk.
To produce a mighty book,
you must choose a mighty theme.
No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea,
though many there be who have tried it.” (Moby Dick Ch. 104).
What Ishmael says of books might also be said of marriages:
no less than a book, a marriage must have a theme,
something that gives it a direction and a meaning;
and a great and enduring marriage,
no less than a great and enduring volume,
must have a mighty theme,

Because marriage involves the most private, intimate love
of a man and a woman,
it is tempting to think that this should be its theme.
To quote the immortal Sonny Bono:
“They say we’re young and we don’t know,
We won’t find out until we grow.
Well I don't know if all that’s true,
‘Cause you got me, and baby I got you.
I got you babe.”
But as important as the intimate love of a man and a woman is
(and who am I to doubt Sonny Bono?),
I would suggest that for Christians
this is an insufficiently mighty theme
upon which to base a great and enduring marriage,
though many there be who have tried it.

In our first reading, from the book of Genesis,
marriage is given a cosmic significance:
God created human beings for companionship
and the mutual love of the man and the woman
are part of the perfection of God’s creation.
When Adam says, “This one, at last,
is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”
we can feel his joy, not simply in finding a companion,
but of discovering a possibility newly born within the cosmos,
the possibility opened up by one with whom he can enter
into a free and equal exchange of love:
in which love is given to another
and then received back, transformed, increased,
ready to be given and received
again and again, day by day,
growing and overflowing into love for all that God has made,
reflecting God’s own free love for the world God has made.

But for Christians this cosmic dimension of marriage
is perhaps not yet a mighty enough theme.
In our reading from John’s Gospel
Jesus prays to his Father for his disciples,
that, “the love with which you loved me
may be in them and I in them.”
This is a love that goes beyond human love,
because it is the love with which the Father loved Christ
“before the foundation of the world.”
But it is also a love that Jesus desires to share with his disciples
so that “they may be brought to perfection as one,”
and so become for the world a sign of the God who is love.
In the Catholic tradition, we teach that marriage is a sacrament,
which means that it is a human reality
by which God shares his love with us.
If marriage is taken up as a form of discipleship,
if it takes as its theme
the love revealed in the cross and resurrection of Jesus,
then the joining together of husband and wife is not simply
a part of the perfection of creation,
but becomes a means of grace,
a way in which divine love comes to dwell in our world,
to heal and to save and to bring joy.
Compared to the immensity of this theme,
this event of divine love invading our world,
the theme of “I got you babe”
seems small and flea-like,
unworthy of the great and enduring love
that we pray will pervade and sustain
the marriage of Trent and Sammy.

Trent and Sammy, I am uncharacteristically hopeful
that you will not rest content
with a small and flea-like theme for your marriage.
Face it: you have a tendency to go overboard.
Knowing as I do your tendencies to excess—
excessive books and wine,
excessive theological and literary conversations,
excessive scholarly conscientiousness,
excessive worrying over wedding preparations—
I feel confident that you will settle for nothing less
as the theme for your marriage
than that “still more excellent way”
of which St. Paul writes
in his letter to the Corinthians,
the mighty love that “bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.”
And I feel confident that God’s grace
will be there to expand your love for each other
to fill the bulk of this great and whale-like theme,
to help you endure together
through the daily crosses of suffering you will face,
to help you rejoice together
in the daily resurrections of joy that God will give you,
until that day when the perfect comes
and the partial passes away,
that day when we will see no longer dimly,
as in a mirror,
but face to face,
knowing fully,
even as we are known,
that day of which
the joy of this day,
great as it is,
is but a sign,
the day of the great wedding feast of the Lamb.
May God’s grace bring the two of you,
through the love you vow this day,
to that feast.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

Jesus begins his parable with a question:
“What man among you
having a hundred sheep and losing one of them
would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert
and go after the lost one until he finds it?”
Jesus is being his usual tricky self here,
making it sound as if what he is proposing
is obviously reasonable,
when in fact nobody with an ounce of shepherding sense
would leave ninety-nine sheep alone in the desert
in order to look for a single missing one.
Even the most basic form of risk assessment
would tell you that this is a very, very, very bad idea.

We find a version of this parable
in the second-century document
known as the Gospel of Thomas,
which tries to make this very, very, very bad idea
sound a bit more reasonable
by noting that the lost sheep is the largest of the flock,
and also by having the shepherd tell the sheep when he finds it,
“I love you more than the ninety-nine” (logion 107),
suggesting that this is somehow a very special sheep.
But the parable as we find it in Sacred Scripture
gives no such indication, makes no such excuse
for the shepherd’s professional irresponsibility.
The only thing special about the sheep is that it is lost
and the other ninety-nine are not.

We might forgive the author of the Gospel of Thomas
for trying to make Jesus’ parable
a little less offensive to common sense,
a little less foolish.
But honesty requires that we recognize
that if we measure the shepherd’s behavior
by our ordinary human standards
it really doesn’t make much sense.
This is why the fifth century bishop Peter Chrysologus,
who perhaps knew something about actual shepherding,
noted, “This story…speaks of no earthly shepherd
but of a heavenly one,
and far from being a portrayal of human activity,
this whole parable conceals divine mysteries” (Sermon 168).
It is not a lesson in animal husbandry
but in the mystery of divine love:
a love that might seem foolish by human standards,
a love that squanders security on a risky venture,
a love that favors the lost one,
no matter how seemingly unimportant that lost one is.
This is the God revealed in Jesus Christ,
the God who, our second reading tells us,
“came into the world to save sinners.”
Jesus presents the shepherd’s foolish action
as if it were completely reasonable
because, as St. Paul says,
the foolishness of God
is wiser than human wisdom,
and the weakness of God
is stronger than human strength (1 Cor. 1:25).

For most of us today, parables about shepherds
might not seem to have much in the way
of immediate relevance.
Perhaps if we want to grasp the reckless foolishness
of divine love seeking the lost one
we need new parables.
On this anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 2001,
I cannot help but think
of those first responders in New York,
police and firefighters,
who ran back into the burning, collapsing towers
to try to bring out those who were lost
within an inferno that fear and hatred had created.
Over four hundred of them lost their lives that day
in what some might call an act of heroism,
but which others might see
as a foolish and reckless mission
with little or no hope of success.

But we who seek to be followers of Jesus
ought to see in their actions
neither pointless sacrifice
nor even mere heroic bravery
but a parable of God made flesh in Jesus,
the divine lover who comes to seek the lost one,
even at the cost of his own life.
For we believe that in Jesus Christ
God ran headlong into the inferno of our world,
an inferno kindled by sin’s fear and hatred
and within which we were lost.
He took upon himself the suffering of the cross
in order to find us
in the midst of the world’s pain and chaos
and to bring us forth
into the dawning light of his resurrection.
And through the grace of his Sprit Jesus continues
to enter into the disasters of our lives—
the disasters we make by our choices
or which fortune forces upon us—
to find us and bring us home to God.
Into the pain and chaos and tragedy of my life
Jesus comes to rescue me:
not because I am the best,
not because I am special,
but simply because I am lost.

Both the reckless shepherd of whom Jesus speaks
and the heroic first responders of September 11th
should be parables to us
of the relentless, foolish, risky,
but ultimately triumphant love
that God has for the lost one,
the love that led Jesus
through the cross to the resurrection.
But the shepherd,
the heroes of 9/11,
and the cross of Christ
should also stand as a challenge to us:
in coming to seek us in our lostness,
in bringing us out
into the light of his resurrection,
Jesus calls and empowers us with his Spirit
to become sharers in his ministry of reconciliation.
He calls us to seek the lost one,
even if our efforts seem unlikely
to yield success as the world sees it.
He calls us to enter into
the inferno of fear and hatred
that sin has made of our world,
with faith that the grace of God
will find a way to use us
to speak a word of hope,
to perform an act of love,
to risk opening up our lives
so that we become parables
of the relentless, foolish, risky,
but ultimately triumphant love of God.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

A Wedding Homily


Readings: Genesis 2:18-24; Romans 12:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:13-16

We tend to think of weddings,
at least the churchy part of them,
in somewhat ethereal, disembodied term:
the Church is here to inject a “spiritual” element
into the proceedings.
Eating and drinking at the reception afterward
you may choose to indulge the body,
but at this moment we should focus on the soul, right?
But Christianity does not really divide the world up
into what is spiritual and what is bodily;
because we believe
that God took on flesh in Jesus Christ,
we believe that spirit and flesh—
the holy and the everyday—
always go together.
And the readings from Scripture
that J______ and J______ have chosen for their wedding
underscore this belief:
marriage is not simply about the uniting of two souls,
but rather is very much about the joining
of two flesh and blood human beings
who will undertake the challenging adventure of marriage
by living out their commitment to each other
in their day-to-day life together.

We hear in our very first reading,
which tells the beginning of the tale
of the first human couple,
that the man’s first reaction upon seeing the woman
is not, “this one, at last, is my true soulmate,”
but “this one, at last, is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh.”
Adam recognized in Eve
not simply one with whom he was to join
in elevated spiritual conversation,
but also the one with whom we would become one body
in living out the most ordinary tasks of daily life.

We hear in our second reading,
from Paul’s letter to the early Christian community at Rome,
a call “to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,
holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.”
Paul is saying that we should not set apart
some area of our life that we designate as “spiritual”
and think that this is the part of life
that is concerned with God
and with which God is concerned.
Paul speaks of the offering of our bodies
as a “spiritual sacrifice.”
What we do together with our bodies
in the everyday stuff of life—
washing dishes and putting gas in the car,
paying bills and showing love,
giving donations to charities and volunteering our time,
raising children and growing old—
are the things by which we are to give honor to God.

In the Catholic tradition,
we speak of marriage as a sacrament,
by which we mean an outward sign that gives us grace.
While we typically think of sacraments
as something we “receive”—
you get baptized,
you receive your first Holy Communion—
marriage is a little different:
you don’t simply receive the sacrament;
you are the sacrament.
Just as in baptism
water is the physical sign
of sin being washed away
and in Holy Communion
bread and wine are the physical sign
of Jesus’s body and blood,
so to in holy matrimony
you, J_______ and J_______,
are the physical sign
of God’s love for the world.

The sacrament of matrimony
is not what happens here this evening—
that is only the beginning.
The sacrament of matrimony
extends throughout your entire lives.
It is the sign to the world of God’s love
lived out in the ordinary daily life
that the two of you will share.
If you let the grace of this sacrament
transform you by the renewal of your minds,
as Paul puts it;
if in your life together
down through the years and decades to come
you seek together to
“discern what is the will of God,
what is good and pleasing and perfect”;
if you let your love be sincere
and “love one another with mutual affection”;
if you “rejoice in hope,
endure in affliction,
persevere in prayer;"
if you truly become bone or each other’s bone
and flesh of each other’s flesh,
then you will truly be the salt that brings savor
to the lives of those around you,
then you will truly be light for the world,
a world that seems all too often
shrouded in darkness.
On this extraordinary day Jesus is calling you
to let your light shine
in all the ordinary days to come,
to become in your love for each other
the living presence
of faith, hope, and love in our world.
May God bless you with this gift.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Isaiah 66:18-21; Luke 13:22-30

Preached a Grace United Methodist Church, Baltimore Maryland

This seems to happen all the time in the Gospels:
someone comes to Jesus with a clear-cut, yes-or-no question—
“Lord, will only a few be saved?”—
and rather than simply answering the question
Jesus launches into a lengthy discourse
(or even, God forbid, a parable)
that occasions more confusion than clarification.
All the person wants is some information—
salvation: many or few?—
and suddenly Jesus is talking about narrow doors
and homeowners who won’t answer when you knock;
then, inexplicably, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob put in an appearance,
and along with them (just for good measure) all the prophets
and then there is weeping and gnashing of teeth
and a geographically diverse crowd at a banquet,
and finally, just to drive home the point
that he really isn’t going to answer the question
he says cryptically, “some are last who will be first,
and some are first who will be last.”
Writing in the 5th century, St. Cyril of Alexandria
noted, with a bit of understatement,
“This reply may seem perhaps to wander
from the scope of the question” (Homily 99 on Luke).

But maybe Jesus has his reasons
for answering simple and direct questions
with such complexity and indirectness.
In this particular case,
perhaps he wants to show us
that asking about the salvation of others
may simply be a way of avoiding the question
of what my standing is before God.
We turn our gaze to the fate of others
so we do not have to look at ourselves.

This was certainly the view of St. Cyril,
who goes on to say:
“The man wanted to know
whether there would be few who are saved,
but [Jesus] explained to him the way
whereby he might be saved himself….
It was a necessary and valuable thing
to know how one may obtain salvation.
[Jesus] is purposely silent
to the [man’s] useless question.” (Homily 99 on Luke).
In other words,
the question of few or many
is of no use to anyone;
it is a question motivated by mere curiosity.
What is of use is the knowledge of
whether I am aiming for a door that is narrow,
whether I must strive at all times to enter that door,
whether I can let my salvation rest
on simply having been in the proximity of Jesus,
of having heard his teaching,
or whether I must seek to be his disciple
in a deeper and truer sense.

Now to Catholics and Methodists like us
this might sound pretty OK:
our traditions place a premium on holy living.
We think that justification
must be completed by sanctification
and that this sanctification must be lived out
in a concrete and visible way,
whether this is Benedictine monasticism
or the Wesley Class Meeting.
John Wesley’s views on grace
were close enough to the teachings
of the Council of Trent
that he was accused by some
of secretly being a Jesuit.
From the early Christian reform of Roman morals,
to St. Francis’s embrace of Lady Poverty,
to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union,
to participation in the Civil Rights Movement,
the Catholic and Methodist traditions
have embodied the conviction
that being a disciple of Jesus involves more
than simply being in the near proximity of Jesus,
more than simply having shared a meal with him
or having heard him teach.
One might say that, theologically speaking,
Catholicism and Methodism
are “strenuous” forms of Christianity.
If I am to be a disciple of Jesus,
then I must strive with every muscle, nerve, and bone
to enter the narrow door by living a Christ-like life,
a life of integrity and justice and peace-making.

But we should beware of thinking
that, by hearing in it a call
to a life of strenuous discipleship,
we have fully grasped the meaning of
Jesus’ lengthy, baffling, complex, indirect non-answer
to the man’s useless and idle question.
We should beware of thinking
that Jesus is telling us
that our strenuous discipleship
somehow ensures our salvation.
Just when we think
that we have got the thing wrapped up—
that we know what Jesus’ requirements are,
that we know what it means to strive,
that we know where that narrow door is located—
Jesus unravels it.
For he tells us that the door may be narrow,
but it is widely accessible:
in the wideness of God’s mercy
it welcomes those coming from the east or the west,
from the north or the south.
He tells us that we must strive to enter,
but striving is no guarantee of preferred treatment:
many who have through their striving
arrived at the door first
will suddenly find themselves at the back of the line,
while the slacker disciples who didn’t strive very hard
and arrived at the last minute
will suddenly find themselves at the front of the line.
“Some are last who will be first,
and some are first who will be last.”

Imagine the scene:
you have spent your life in strenuous discipleship,
faithfully attending church on Sundays
and a prayer group during the week,
volunteering at a homeless shelter
and taking in foster children,
passing up the higher-paying job
to spend more time with your family and volunteering,
scrupulously voting for candidates who best embody
what you think is the Gospel message,
treating everyone fairly and equally,
striving to enter that narrow door.
And on the day of judgment
you discover that, despite all your striving,
you have somehow ended up at the back of the line.
Not only that, but as you look ahead of you in line
you are shocked to see those you recognize as
liars and adulterers,
murderers and thieves,
gangbangers and whores,
bullies and racists,
terrorists and tyrants,
all those who clearly did not strive,
as you did,
to enter the narrow door.
These sinners are entering into the kingdom
ahead of you,
sitting down to join in the banquet,
while you stand outside
like some D-list celebrity
waiting and hoping
to get into the hottest club in town
before it fills up.

Does your heart fall
as you see the unfairness of it all?
Do you cry out in the name of justice
and recount all you did
in your strenuous life of discipleship,
all the striving that surely must have won you
a higher place in line?

Or does your heart leap for joy
because all of those wretched sinners ahead of you
were somehow touched by God’s grace,
somehow transformed by God’s Spirit,
so as to now share in the joy of the kingdom?
Do you cry out in praise of grace,
thankful for God’s mercy shown to those sinners
and thankful for the mercy shown to you
despite your confidence in your own striving,
despite your arrogance in thinking
that even the most strenuous discipleship
could ever make you deserving
of a place in God’s kingdom.

As we ponder Jesus’ lengthy, baffling,
complex, indirect non-answer
to the man’s useless and idle question
we might come to see
that we should strive to enter the narrow door,
to live a life of strenuous discipleship,
to practice our faith in Jesus Christ
to the greatest depth and breadth of our ability.
If you love Jesus, of course you will want to do this,
for what lover would not do everything possible
to be with his or her beloved,
to do and love what the beloved does and loves.
But, as Bernard of Clairvaux asked,
“when the soul has poured out her whole being in love,
what is that in comparison with the unceasing torrent”
that is the source of our love,
the God who loved us first (Sermon 83)?

If you wish truly to know the joy of the kingdom,
if you wish truly to feast
with patriarchs and prophets,
with people of all nations and tongues,
at the banquet of life,
never forget that in all your striving
God’s grace goes before you;
never forget that you too are saved
not by your own efforts
but by the same mercy that saves
the worst of sinners;
never forget that our hope is grounded
not in our strenuous discipleship
but in the mystery of divine love.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Wisdom 18:6-9; Hebrews 11: 1-2, 8-19; Luke 12:32-48

Promise and fulfillment,
warning and judgment,
hope and vigilance:
these are themes that we might more typically expect
to hear at the end of November
and the beginning of December
with the close of the Church year
and the start of Advent.
But God in his providence has decided
that we need to reflect on these themes
a bit early this year;
perhaps because, with our national elections
coming on November 8th,
we need urgently to hear God’s word
calling us to serve the common good of all people,
reminding us that we stand before the judgment of God,
and renewing our awareness of where our hope truly lies.

There are at least two temptations that can beset us
as we enter the frenzied final months
of the election season.
One temptation is over-investment:
to let ourselves be caught up in that frenzy;
to be filled with unrealistic hope,
should our candidate win,
and fearful despair,
should our candidate lose;
to so invest in a particular outcome
that we come to see those who disagree with us—
even our friends and family members—as enemies:
at best unwitting dupes of political manipulation
and at worst hateful, selfish, and morally corrupt.
The other temptation is under-investment:
to denounce all politics as corrupt,
to say that none of this
has anything to do with me,
and to walk away from the frenzy,
shaking the dust from our feet.
To combat these temptations,
to find our way through the frenzied months ahead,
our scriptures today call us as followers of Jesus
to recall and hold fast to some basic principles.

Our Gospel reading recounts a parable
about servants waiting for the return of their master—
servants who are rewarded
for being prepared when he arrives.
Jesus concludes: “You also must be prepared,
for at an hour you do not expect,
the Son of Man will come.”
When Peter asks “is this parable meant for us
or for everyone?”—
meaning, does this have some special relevance
to us whom you have chosen as leaders?—
Jesus resumes the parable,
this time focusing on the “steward” of the household.
The word we translate as “steward” (oikonomos) means
the servant who was placed in authority over the other servants
and was charged with making sure that things ran smoothly:
that the other servants were fed and well treated,
that the master’s resources were not squandered,
that the well-being of the entire household was guarded.
Jesus considers the case of a steward who decides
that the master is not showing up any time soon,
and so neglects and abuses the servants
who have been put in his care
and runs the master’s household
as if it were there for his own personal well-being.
Needless to say,
things do not turn out well for such a steward
when the master returns unexpectedly.

This parable,
while likely intended as a warning to leaders in the Church,
also speaks to anyone placed in a position of leadership.
A key principle of Catholic social thought
is that governments exist to serve
what we call “the common good”—
that is, all that leads to the flourishing
both of individuals and of a society as a whole;
The common good is,
as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says,
“what is needed to lead a truly human life:
food, clothing, health, work, education and culture,
suitable information,
the right to establish a family, and so on” (n. 1908).
The steward in the parable is charged
with the common good of the household;
but, forgetting that he himself is a servant,
presuming that the master is not returning,
he does not provide for the other servants,
does not see to it that they have
what they need to lead a truly human life,
but rather treats the household as a vehicle
for satisfying his own ambitions,
for fulfilling his own desires.
And he is judged harshly upon his master’s return.

This notion of the common good
is fundamental to how we as Catholics
are called to think about politics.
Political leaders are entrusted with the task
not of winning power glory for themselves,
or even of making our nation rich and powerful,
but of fostering a society that is truly human and humane,
in which the weakest and most vulnerable
are protected and cared for.
And because we live in a democracy,
there is a sense in which all of us,
and not only our leaders,
are stewards of the common good,
called to care for the household of God’s creation.
With national elections approaching,
we need to reflect now
on that Advent theme of final judgment:
when God will reveal our deeds,
when we will have to bear witness to our lives
and to whether we chose our leaders
according to our own private interests—
what benefits us
or according to what will make a truly human life
possible for all people.
So we cannot under-invest in our nation’s politics;
we cannot retreat from the task entrusted to us
of seeking a more just and humane world.

But there is another theme sounded in our readings:
while the common good that we can secure in this world
is a genuine good,
it is not the highest good.
The Letter to the Hebrews says
that even when Abraham was in the land
God had promised him,
“he sojourned [there] as in a foreign country...
for he was looking forward to the city...
whose architect and maker is God.”
We are called to seek the common good
that makes for a truly human life,
but also never forget that we ultimately
“desire a better homeland, a heavenly one.”
We desire a peace and a justice that only God can provide,
a peace and a justice that our best earthly efforts
can only feebly prepare for and dimly approximate.
At the end of the day our hope lies
not in any party or candidate,
but in Jesus Christ and his kingdom of love.
And if we keep this in mind,
then we can give ourselves whole-heartedly
to the pursuit of the common good
and still resist the temptation to over-invest
in our earthly political struggles,
an over-investment that leads
not to peace or justice,
but to strife and partisanship,
to bitterness and disappointment;
an over-investment by which we gain the world
at the cost of our souls.
"For where your treasure is,
there also will your heart be."

The frenzy of our political seasons
are challenging to everyone,
but they are even more challenging
if you are a follower of Jesus.
Our two temptations
of over-investment and under-investment
stand as warning markers
on opposite sides of the path of Christian discipleship.
Today’s readings call us to walk the razor’s edge of prudence
during the coming days of political frenzy:
we must recognize that we all
bear a responsibility for the common good
and will be judged by God accordingly,
while we must also remember
that we are citizens of a kingdom that is yet to come,
a kingdom for which we wait in vigilance,
a kingdom of peace that calls to us beyond partisan battles,
a kingdom that can quiet our fearful frenzy and give us hope.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Isaiah 66:10-14c; Galatians 6:14-18; Luke 10:1-12, 17-20

Our first reading, from the prophet Isaiah,
speaks of the city of Jerusalem as a mother
at whose breast—from whose very body—
her children find abundant and unfailing food and comfort.
Then, in a subtle turn at the end of the reading,
the image of Jerusalem as mother
is transformed into the image of God as mother:
“as a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.”
God is the mother who abundantly feeds us from her own body,
a reality we experience each week as we gather
to receive the body and blood of Jesus at his altar.
The fourteenth-century mystic Julian of Norwich wrote:
“The mother may give her child suck of her milk,
but our precious mother, Jesus,
he may feed us with himself, and does it,
full courteously and full tenderly,
with the Blessed Sacrament
that is the precious food of my life” (Revelations of Love, ch. 60).
This idea of God as an unfailing source of abundance
is reflected not only in our first reading’s imagery
of God as a loving mother,
but also in the words of Jesus in our Gospel reading:
“The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few.”
Our readings call us to reflect on God’s abundance
and our call to be workers in God’s field,
missionary disciples gathering in God’s harvest.

As many of you know,
the Archdiocese is engaged in a process of planning,
to discern how best to use our resources
as we seek to be a community of missionary disciples.
As part of this, you were all invited last winter to take a survey
to help us determine our parish’s readiness to take up that mission
and for the past several weeks
the parish staff and a group of parishioners
have been meeting to review the results of that survey,
to assess the opportunities and challenges that we have as a parish,
and to produce a document that will be shared with the Archdiocese
as part of the planning process.
In the coming weeks there will be opportunities
for parishioners to offer feedback on that document
so that the widest range of viewpoints can be represented.

As we participate in this planning process
there is a temptation to think that all of this
is really about managing parish closings or mergers
in an age of ecclesiastical scarcity.
But we should resist that temptation,
for while it is undoubtedly true that there will be
some restructuring of parishes and how they are staffed,
the Archbishop says, and I believe him,
that first and foremost this is about reflecting on how we can best
present the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our time and our place,
by identifying and facing the challenges and opportunities
that God’s abundant providence has given us.

Jesus sends out seventy-two missionary disciples,
telling them, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few.”
Notice that the image that Jesus uses
is not one of sowing and planting, but of harvesting.
Jesus is, I think, quite deliberate in his choice of imagery.
The seventy-two are not being asked
to plant the seed of God’s word where it has not been
but to harvest the fruits that have burst forth from those seeds.
The implication is that through the words of Jesus
and the hidden working of the Holy Spirit
God’s word has been planted and already now is ripening.
The work of the seventy-two missionary disciples
is not to bring God into a situation
from which God has up to that point been absent,
but to recognize the abundant fruits of the Spirit
growing in the field of the world
and to gather them in.

On our parish survey, 48% of those who responded
said that the greatest obstacle they had to sharing their faith
was a desire not to push their beliefs on others.
But what if we think of our task as missionary disciples
not so much as sowing and planting—
pushing seeds into the soil where they have not been before—
but rather as giving those within whom the Spirit is moving
the life-giving and challenging opportunity
to be gathered into a community of faith?
Just as the many grains of wheat from the field
are ground and kneaded and baked into one loaf,
so too those in whom the Spirit is at work
can through their unity be transformed
into the living body of Christ,
given as food for the life of the world,
becoming part of how God’s abundance feeds and comforts.
In inviting others to reflect with us
on God’s work in their lives
we are not planting the seeds of our own opinions
but harvesting the work of the Spirit
by sharing with them how God has worked
and continues to work in our lives.
Not to share your faith,
not to share the love you have for Jesus,
is to let those fruits go unharvested.

Of course, perhaps our hesitation comes not simply
from a desire not to offend others
but from a fear of being met with hostility or indifference.
Our Gospel today seems to presume that the seventy-two
are being sent out into a world that is often hostile toward them.
The harvest may be plentiful,
but the harvesters are sent out like lambs among wolves
and the prospect of a positive response seems dubious.
If the seventy-two felt that they faced hostility,
many of us today may feel that we face indifference.
In our parish survey, 39% of parents
said that the greatest challenge they faced
in passing on the faith to their children
was “swimming against the tide
in a society that does not value faith,”
and 31% of respondents said that lack of interest in others
was the greatest obstacle they faced in sharing their faith.
The indifference to faith that we perceive in our society
might lead us to think that,
whatever may have been the case in the time of Jesus,
the harvest today is certainly not abundant.

But I suspect that the disciples in today’s Gospel
were just as dubious
when Jesus told them the harvest was plentiful.
The plenty of the harvest can hidden from our eyes,
masked by our presumptions
about the the hostility or indifference of others.
Saint Augustine noted how Jesus instructed the seventy-two
that they were to offer the greeting
“peace to this household”
in whatever house they entered.
Augustine wrote:
“Since we do not know who is a son of peace,
it is our part to leave no one out, to set no one aside,
but to desire that all to whom we preach this peace
be saved” (Admonition and Grace 15.46).
We should not presume indifference or hostility;
indeed, we should presume
as we step into the field of the world
that Jesus has already been there,
planting the seed,
that the Spirit of God has already been there,
giving growth to the fruit
that we are being asked to gather in.

If we are to be missionary disciples,
we must cling to faith in a God of abundance and generosity.
It is an act of faith to offer the peace of Christ
to a seemingly indifferent or hostile world:
it is an act of faith in the efficacy of the Spirit’s sowing,
an act of faith in the boundless power of God’s generosity.
The field of our modern world may look barren to us
but Jesus assures us that the harvest is abundant,
because, like a loving mother
who holds her child at her breast,
God is providing for her children.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

10th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: 1 Kings 17:17-24; Galatians 1:11-14a, 15ac, 16a, 17, 19; Luke 7: 11-17

What hopes did the widow of Nain have on that day,
as she accompanied the funeral procession
on the journey to her son’s place of burial?
They certainly did not include what actually happened.
She may have had, as many Jews in her day did,
a hope that someday God’s kingdom would come
and the dead would be raised to new life,
but she surely was not hoping
that her son would be returned to her that very day;
she surely was not hoping
that death would be pushed back into its lair,
even for a moment;
she surely was not hoping
that the Rabbi from Nazareth would become,
as the fourth-century poet Ephrem the Syrian put it,
“like a sponge for her tears
and as life for the death of her son.”
But Jesus says to her, “Do not weep.”
He says to the lifeless corpse,
“Young man, I tell you, arise!”
And the crowd exclaims in response,
“God has visited his people.”

What expectations did Paul have on that day,
as he traveled the road to Damascus
on the journey to continue his campaign of persecution
against the followers of Jesus,
a campaign, he tells us in our second reading,
that was “beyond measure” and sought nothing less
than the destruction of this heretical faction within Judaism?
He may have expected that God would reward him for his zeal,
that the good work he was undertaking
of purifying God’s people of the contagion of this blasphemy
would make him righteous in the eyes of God.
But he surely did not expect
that Jesus would be revealed to him as God’s Son;
he surely did not expect
that God had called him from his mother’s womb
to bring the Good News of Jesus to the Gentile outsiders;
he surely did not expect that Christ, by his grace,
would raise his soul from the death of sin
just as surely as he had raised the body
of the son of the widow of Nain.
But God, through Jesus, in the power of the Spirit,
steps into Paul’s life
in a personal and immediate way
and things would never be the same again.
Paul, his eyes opened by grace, suddenly sees,
no less than the crowd who had witnessed
the raising of the widow’s son,
that in Jesus Christ,
“God has visited his people.”

What hopes and expectations do we have on this day,
as we find ourselves in the midst our life’s journey?
We may expect that Mass will once again
run a bit longer than we wish it would,
though we hope it will at least be worth it.
We may hope that the Oriels
will continue to have a triumphant season,
though we expect that they
will fall apart as usual
after the All Star break.
We may even hope that today
we will catch a glimpse of something
that will deepen our lives of faith, hope, and love,
though we probably expect
that our everyday lives will go on as usual.
But what if we take seriously the possibility
that our Scriptures this morning
hold before our eyes?
What if we take seriously the message
that in Jesus God has visited his people
with the power to push back death’s kingdom,
that in Jesus God has stepped into our lives
in a powerful and personal way,
calling out to each of us,
and waiting for us
to hear and to answer?

In the story of widow of Nain and in the life of Paul
we see that God not only goes beyond
what we might hope or expect,
but even upsets and overturns
the so-called normal pattern of how life goes,
that way of getting by
in which we pretend we have made our peace
with the forces of sin and death.
We may think that death wins in the end,
and even now rules our lives,
holding us back in our aversion to risk
and our fear of loss.
We may think that we are left on our own
to deal with our regrets,
to put behind us the pain
that we have suffered or inflicted.
We may think that God is a lofty concept,
something distant and uninterested,
to which we can relate only as an abstract ideal.
But the good news this day—
the good news every day—
is that God has visited his people
in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The good news this day—
the good news every day—
is that God continues to visit his people
through the Holy Spirit,
who prays within us with signs to deep for words,
who makes us call out to the God
who is no distant and bloodless abstraction
but the endlessly fascinating mystery
who is at work in our world and in our lives.
The good news this day—
the good news every day—
is that this mysterious God draws near to us,
enters into our world and our lives
with a disturbing intimacy,
and calls us to leave behind our ordinary
(and, frankly, pretty boring)
hopes and expectations of what life can offer
and holds out to us the adventure of eternity.

Each and every one of you, this day,
is the widow of Nain mourning beside her son,
is Paul embarking on his mission of destruction.
Each and every one of you has before you
Jesus’ offer of life and forgiveness and transformation.
Each and every one of you
has been called by God from your mother’s womb
to take up that offer,
to become agents of life and forgiveness
as members of Christ’s body.
For here, in this place,
now, in this moment
God has visited his people.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Ascension


Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Hebrews 9: 24-28, 10:19-23; Luke 24:46-53

Before he ascends into heaven,
Jesus recalls to his followers what they have seen—
his life, his death, his resurrection—
and says, “You are witnesses of these things.”
“You are witnesses.”
On the one hand, it is a statement
that they have been present
and have seen these wondrous things take place.
But it is also a call
to not simply be witnesses,
but also to bear witness.

To be a witness
you don’t have to do anything
but be there and have your eyes open,
but to bear witness
you must be willing
to get on the stand
and give public testimony
to what you have seen.
The difference between being a witness
and bearing witness
becomes particularly clear in cases
of what we call “witness intimidation.”
Often—all too often in our own city—
people might be witnesses to a crime,
but are not willing to bear witness
because they fear for their safety
or the safety of their family,
because they do not believe
that the police can protect them from reprisal.

Jesus says to his disciples, however,
that no matter how intimidating it may be,
no matter what threats they may face,
because they have been witnesses,
they must now bear witness.
Throughout his earthly ministry,
Jesus has been God’s faithful witness,
speaking God’s truth whatever the consequences,
showing God’s love to the unlovable,
manifesting in his words and actions
the reality of God’s kingdom.
At his Ascension, Jesus bestows on his disciples
a share in this ministry of witness.
But he does not leave them
to do this on their own;
rather, he says to them,
“you will receive power
when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
throughout Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth.”
The Spirit will be given to them
so they can both be witnesses
and bear witness.

In the book of Acts,
the Holy Spirit gives the apostles
eyes to see the work of God
that is ongoing in their midst,
enabling them to discern the new reality
that the Spirit is creating.
It is the Spirit who enables them to see
that the Gentiles, whom they had formerly viewed
as “outsiders” and “unclean,”
have now been brought
into the community of God’s people
and made clean through the blood of Christ.
Likewise, it is the Spirit who enables them to see
that the power of Imperial Rome,
which claims to dominate the known world
is something they did not need to fear,
and before which they do not need to bow,
because it is nothing compared to the power of God,
which has raised Jesus from the dead.
The Spirit gives them eyes to see,
to be witnesses to God’s work,
and the same Spirit empowers them to bear witness,
despite the “witness intimidation” that they face
from the religious and political authorities of their day.

We might say that the Spirit
is God’s “witness protection program.”
But, unlike what we see in the movies and on television,
God’s witness protection program is not a matter
of hiding people away and giving them fake identities.
Rather, God’s witness protection program
puts them on the streets and in the public square,
prodding them to proclaim
their identities at disciples of and witnesses to Jesus,
giving them confidence to walk along
what the letter to the Hebrews calls
“the new and living way”
that Jesus has opened up for us.
It is not a promise that they will not suffer,
but rather that the meaning of their suffering
has already been transformed
in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

And this work of the Spirit
goes on in our day as well.
Last week saw the passing
of Fr. Daniel Berrigan,
the controversial Jesuit priest
who for 94 years
was a consistent apostle of Christ’s peace,
protesting war and the arms race,
speaking out for the rights of the defenseless,
from children in the womb to people with AIDS.
When threatened, he was not intimidated,
but doubled-down on his life of witness;
whether in the pulpit,
on the streets,
or in a jail cell,
he was a constantly irritating presence
to people of all sorts of political perspectives—
not unlike Jesus,
in whose ministry of witness he shared.
Dan Berrigan walked the new and living way of Jesus,
knowing that through Baptism
he had already died
and was risen with Christ;
he believed that through the Spirit,
God’s promise from on high,
he was in God’s witness protection program,
and that nothing could separate him
from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

As for the apostles,
as for Dan Berrigan,
so too for us.
In ascending to his Father,
Christ has promised us his Spirit,
who makes us witnesses,
giving us eyes to see the signs and wonders
that God works in our midst,
and the courage to give testimony,
to bear witness to what we have seen.
We too, through our Baptism
and the Spirit’s gift in Confirmation,
are in God’s witness protection program,
not hiding away from the intimidating task
of proclaiming Jesus crucified and risen,
not disguising our identity as Christians—
embarrassed by our belief
or fearful of giving offense—
but being willing to speak
of the transformative presence in our lives
of Jesus Christ through the Spirit,
not in order to imposed our beliefs on others,
but so that those whom we meet
may themselves be witnesses and bear witness
to the reality of God’s presence in the world.