Sunday, April 8, 2018

Easter 2

Readings: Acts 4:32-34; 1 John 5:1-6; John 20:19-31

“Jesus came and stood in their midst
and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’”
Did he said, “Peace be with you”
because he knew that,
when they saw him standing among them,
still bearing the marks of torture and betrayal,
they might have thought
that he had come for retribution?
After all, they had each betrayed him
to one degree or another.
Maybe they had not sold him out for cash, like Judas,
or denied him with their lips, like Peter,
but they had all fled,
they had all abandoned him to his fate.

The light and the joy of Easter day
can sometimes lead us to forget
that the disciples to whom Jesus appeared
in that upper room
were not a faithful remnant,
devoutly waiting for God to raise him up.
They were, in fact, an unfaithful remnant,
those who had failed him,
failed the one who had offered them
nothing less than God’s kingdom.
Was their sin not worse than that
of the political and religious leaders
who play so prominent a role
in the passion narratives,
but who cared little about Jesus,
seeing him only as a pawn
to be played in some larger game?
What was thoughtless disregard
and casual cruelty
in comparison with
the knowing abandonment of Jesus
by those who claimed to love him?

I sometimes wonder if the disciples
in that upper room on that Easter evening
remembered Jesus’s enigmatic words
about rising on the third day,
or pondered the mysterious message
of the women about the empty tomb,
and devoutly hoped that none of it was true.
For if Jesus was risen,
would he not return to demand
an eye for an eye,
and a tooth for a tooth?

But he stands before them and says,
“Peace be with you.”
Peace, not payback.
And we are told,
“the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.”
They rejoiced, not simply because he had returned,
but because the first words he had spoken to them
were not “How could you?”
or “How dare you?”
or “you owe me,”
but “peace be with you.”
They rejoiced because,
even though he still bore the wounds of his betrayal,
he spoke the word “peace.”
They rejoiced because the miracle of Easter
was not simply that Jesus had returned to life
but that he offered forgiveness and peace
to this unfaithful remnant.
Had he returned for retribution,
then the kingdom of God
would still have lain dead in the tomb;
for the defeat of death through resurrection
is always also the defeat of sin through forgiveness.

And then Jesus breathed forth upon them the Holy Spirit,
and drew them into this miracle,
drew them into his resurrection,
drew them into the new life of forgiveness.
He said, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,
and whose sins you retain are retained.”
Those who had received new life through Jesus
were now entrusted with his ministry of reconciliation.
And we too, to whom the risen Jesus
still speaks his word of peace:
if we are to be people of the resurrection,
then we must be people of forgiveness,
people of mercy;
we too must speak his word of peace.
When we offer peace to each other at Mass,
just before we come forward
to receive the risen Christ in the Eucharist,
we are not simply taking a moment
to engage in idle chatter or superficial friendliness.
Rather, we are enacting resurrection.
We are engaged in the awe-filled task
of letting the Spirit speak through us
the very words of the risen Christ:
“Peace be with you.”

Of course, there are plenty of people
who will tell you that mercy is for suckers,
for the weak,
for doormats.
These people make up
what our second reading calls “the world.”
The world says that people must be held accountable
so that the scales of justice can be balanced.
The world says that you will never have peace
until you have exacted the vengeance that is your due.
The world says that if you forgive people
they will only betray you again.
The world will tell you that Jesus Christ is not risen,
that mercy has not blossomed forth from his tomb,
that he has not shown his wounds to his betrayers
and said “peace be with you.”
But Saint John tells us,
“the victory that conquers the world is our faith.”
To believe that Jesus is risen from the dead
is to believe that forgiveness is possible,
that mercy cannot be held
within the tomb of hurt and hatred.
We may still bear the wounds of betrayal,
but we also bear the risen life of Jesus
that is ours through the Spirit,
into which we have been baptized.
This risen life courses through us
and breaks through the confines
of what the world thinks is possible,
creating a new world of new possibilities:
the possibility of forgiveness,
the possibility of mercy,
the possibility of peace.
“Peace be with you.”

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Holy Thursday

Readings: Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; John 13:1-15

“You shall eat like those who are in flight.”
This is how God commanded the Israelites
to celebrate the Passover,
instituted to commemorate
their salvation from slavery in Egypt.
You shall eat like those who are in flight,
dressed in your traveling clothes,
shoes on your feet,
your walking stick in hand.
You shall eat like those who are in flight
because you must not tarry in the place of slavery,
the place of bondage,
the place of death.
You shall eat like those who are in flight
because the land of captivity is not your home,
because you are made for freedom and for life eternal
in the land of God’s promise,
because you are a people marked out and set apart
by the blood of the lamb that has been slain.

When Jesus came to eat the Passover with his disciples,
on the night he was handed over,
he, too, ate like one who was in flight.
But he was not fleeing from captivity,
but into the hands of his betrayers.
He was not fleeing from the place of death
but toward it.
For he was the lamb of sacrifice
whose blood would consecrate his followers,
marking them as his own.
He knew that his Passover—
his passage from death to life—
was not a flight from danger,
but a flight into danger,
into the decisive moment when death and life
would meet in combat,
so that death might be defeated
and life might spring forth from the tomb.

Yet in the midst of this headlong flight to Calvary,
this hastening toward the battlefield of cross and tomb,
Jesus pauses to wash his disciples’ feet.
He pauses for an act of humble service,
to attend to a simple material need.
At the turning point between his coming forth from God
and his return to God,
Jesus takes a towel
pours water into a basin,
and washes their dirty feet.

Yet this pause is not a suspension
of the drama of salvation;
it is the meaning of that drama.
It is the meaning
of Calvary and cross and tomb.
The disciples, as usual,
do not understand all this.
For them it is just one more odd
and vaguely embarrassing
thing that Jesus does.
But what Jesus is performing
before their uncomprehending eyes
is the very meaning of his flight toward the cross,
the very mystery of his existence.
It is for this that he came,
to be poured out in love
over the sad and sinful human race,
like the water flowing over his disciples’ filthy feet.
He eats his final meal like one who is in flight
yet takes the time to kneel and serve
the humblest of human needs.

We, too, must eat like those who are in flight.
We must eat, like the Israelites,
as those who are fleeing
the place of captivity,
the land of death.
We must eat, like Jesus,
as those who strain toward
their own decisive hour,
the moment when we, too,
will be called to bear witness
to the God of love
in the face of hatred,
to the God of life
in the face of death.
The Eucharist is not a feast
that leaves us satisfied and indolent,
but food that makes us yearn
to be on our way,
out from the bondage of sin,
along the road of grace,
and into the land of glory.

And yet, even as we eat like those who are in flight,
we must, like Jesus, pause to wash feet.
For this is the meaning
of the drama of sin and grace and glory
that we live in these days:
“as I have done for you, you should also do.”
Even as we hasten to the land of promise
and the decisive hour
we must, like Jesus, kneel to serve our neighbor,
especially those who are most in need,
those stripped of their dignity as God’s image.
We pause in our flight to glory
so that we might not arrive there alone.
As the poet Charles PĆ©guy wrote,
“We must arrive together before the good Lord.
What would he say
if we arrived before him,
came home to him,
without the others?”
We pause to wash feet
not as part of a comprehensive plan
to fix what is wrong with the world,
to create a utopia,
to be the world’s savior,
but as a parable of hope for the hopeless,
rooted in the saving work of Jesus
and his gracious presence through the Spirit.
Jean Vanier writes,
“We have to remind ourselves constantly
that we are not saviors.
We are simply a tiny sign,
among thousands of others,
that love is possible.”

We eat like those who are in flight,
like those who have shed the burdens
of the land of bondage:
burdens of self-interest and self-justification,
burdens of self-seeking and self-protection.
And freed, of those burdens,
we pause in our flight to glory
to wash feet,
to seek the lost,
the bind up the wounded,
to visit the captive,
to enact before the watching world
the mystery of divine love
that has been given to us in Jesus Christ.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Palm Sunday

Readings: Mark 11:1-10; Isaiah 50:4-7; Philippians 2:6-11; Mark 14:1-15:47

The story is familiar:
we hear it every Palm Sunday and Good Friday;
we might reflect on it in the stations of the cross
or the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary.
But for all its familiarity,
the story of Jesus’ death
remains shocking in its brutality,
disturbing in what it reveals
about our human capacity
to inflict pain on one another.
It begins slowly,
with Judas’s kiss of betrayal
and the arresting soldiers’ clubs and swords.
It gathers momentum
with lies carefully crafted to ensure Jesus’ death,
with spitting and fists,
Peter’s threefold denial
and Pilate’s injustice.
The cascade of cruelty becomes unstoppable
as Jesus is beaten and mocked and stripped
and nailed to a cross:
placed on shameful display.

To make it through the day,
I force myself to forget
what cruel beasts we humans are,
the ferocity with which we tear at each other,
our capacity to crush the weakest
and to destroy the human spirit.
I don’t want this to be true about us,
about me.
But year after year the passion of Jesus
confronts me with the truth of human cruelty,
a truth that is on display all around us,
if we will simply open our eyes to see it:
in prisons and slums,
on battlefields and city streets.
It is a truth that I must own as my truth:
I, too, have my share in that rage to destroy,
to inflict pain, to humiliate, to kill.
I, too, join Peter in his denial,
Pilate in his cowardice,
the crowd in its cries
of “crucify him,
crucify him.”
At home,
at work,
in the voting booth,
in the church pew,
I, too, let myself get caught up
in the careless cascade of cruelty
that courses through human history.

But even as it confronts us
with the cruelty of our species—
with our own cruelty—
the passion of Jesus
confronts us also with God’s love.
Golgotha, the place of the skull,
the place of supreme brutality,
is only a few short steps from the garden tomb
in which Joseph of Arimathea will lay the body of Jesus,
a few short steps from the place of hope,
from which new and unending life will spring.
A few short steps,
but a distance that can be spanned
only by the infinity of God’s love.
For love of us, Jesus hurls himself
into the cascade of human cruelty,
to bear our hatred and break its power,
to rise triumphant
from the tomb of brutality
and offer us a new life to live,
a new story to tell,
a new path to walk,
the path of God’s infinite love.
In the days ahead,
in this most holy of weeks,
let us walk together
on that new path
and let God’s love carry us
those few short steps
from cruelty into compassion,
from the cross into the new creation.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Lent 3

Readings: Exodus 20:1-17, 1 Corinthians 2:22-25; John 2:13-25

Paul says in our second reading
that Jews demand signs
and Greeks look for wisdom.
As a first-century Jew,
Paul saw the world divided up
pretty neatly into Jews and Greeks—
those who were heirs of God’s covenant
and those who were not.
Jews, heirs to God’s covenant,
looked for the saving power of God to appear,
restoring Israel to its former strength and prosperity.
Greeks, lovers of wisdom,
looked for knowledge
that could help them lead the good life,
one that would lead to happiness.

We today don’t typically
divide the world up between Jews and Greeks,
but it seems to me that it is still true
that people are looking basically
for two different things from religion:
some—those who demand “signs”—
seek manifestations of divine power,
hoping that they can tap into that divine power,
can use God’s power in their lives
to make those lives better;
others—those who look for “wisdom”—
seek a knowledge of how the world works
and, particularly, how one leads a good life
so as to attain happiness for oneself and others.
To put it slightly differently,
when it comes to religion,
some seek supernatural power
and some seek ethical insight,
some seek magic
and some seek morality.

The seeker of magic might feel drawn
to the setting of our Gospel reading:
the grand Temple built in Jerusalem by Solomon
and rebuilt by king Herod,
the dwelling place of the divine presence,
where God’s favor could be bought painlessly,
for the price of an ox or a sheep or a dove.
Within Israel itself,
this magical approach to religion
was criticized by the prophets,
who decried those who came to offer sacrifice
and neglected justice for the widow,
the orphan,
and the stranger.
Yet the magical mindset is powerful
and the temptation persists to turn God
into a cosmic vending machine
of painless prosperity.

The seeker of morality,
on the other hand,
might feel drawn
to the scene depicted in our first reading:
the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai.
Rather than painless prosperity,
moralists pursue a path of strenuous effort
to transform their world and themselves,
and construct God’s kingdom of justice and peace.
Ignoring the fact that God’s Law
is revealed to Israel amidst signs and wonders,
dark cloud and thunder,
to a people who stand in fear and trembling,
the seeker of moral wisdom
sees God’s agenda clearly laid out,
only awaiting our implementation,
looking to us to tend to the widow,
the orphan,
the stranger.
There is nothing magical,
or even particularly mysterious,
about it.

You can see these two approaches to religion
in the different ways
people approach the disciplines of Lent.
The seeker after magic sees it
as a time to win God’s favor,
through giving things up, or taking things on—
offering small sacrifices in hope of great blessings.
The seeker after morality approaches Lent
as a time for moral improvement
through giving up bad habits
and seeking more strenuously
to make ourselves and our world better.

But Paul seems to suggest
that being a Christian
is about neither magical power
nor moral wisdom
but about Jesus Christ crucified,
a stumbling block of weakness
to those who seek divine power
and a foolish waste
to those who seek clear moral guidance.
The magical mindset is repulsed by the notion
that God offers, not painless prosperity now,
but new life that is found only
on the far side of the agony of the cross.
The moralist scoffs at the foolishly wasted life
of one who could have done so much good in the world
if only he had acted more prudently, more wisely.
People seek either magic or morality,
but Jesus offers us neither.

Or, rather, he offers us both,
but in a form we can only recognize
if we embrace the logic of cross and resurrection:
“Destroy this temple
and in three days I will raise it up.”
As Paul tells us,
the weakness of the cross is the power of God;
the foolishness of the cross is the wisdom of God.
The sacrifice that defies all cost-benefit analysis,
the giving of our lives to a cause
whose outcome we cannot control,
the pouring out of our very selves
into the abyss of divine love,
this is true power and wisdom,
this is the true meaning of Lent
and of the entire Christian life.

People are not wrong when they seek in faith
for supernatural power and ethical wisdom,
for magic and morality.
But the message that we as Christians
are called to bear to the world,
is a message of magical weakness
and moral foolishness,
the message of the Temple
destroyed by human hands
but rebuilt by God,
the message of Jesus Christ
crucified and risen for us
and for our salvation.
Let us seek signs.
Let us seek wisdom.
But let us never seek them anywhere
save in the cross of Jesus,
the sure foundation of our hope.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Job 7:1-4, 6-7; 1 Corinthians 9:16-19, 22-23; Mark 1:29-39

Maybe I’m just projecting,
but I get a sense of weariness from Jesus
in today’s Gospel.
After saying (with perhaps a touch of hyperbole)
that “the whole town was gathered at the door”
Mark tells us that Jesus
“cured many who were sick”
and “drove out many demons,”
and then, the next day,
“rising very early before dawn,
he left; and went off to a deserted place,
where he prayed.”
Waking to find Jesus gone,
the disciples are said
not simply to go looking for him,
but to “pursue” him,
as if he were fleeing from them;
and maybe he was.
To touch so much human pain
must be draining, wearying, exhausting.
Yet when they find him and tell him
(again, with maybe a bit of hyperbole)
“everyone is looking for you,”
he does not plead weariness or exhaustion,
but steps back into the fray,
saying “Let us go on to the nearby villages
that I may preach there also.
For this purpose have I come.”

For this purpose have I come…
this is who I am…
this is the meaning of my existence:
to spend myself and hold nothing back
for the sake of the Good News.
In Jesus, the saving power of God
does not work at a distance,
pressing a button on the cosmic remote control,
but rather steps into the midst of our suffering,
into the mess that is the human condition,
becoming one with us
in every situation of human pain:
those whose lives are wracked with sickness,
those who struggle with dark spiritual forces,
those who are rejected and outcast,
those whose lives seems hopeless and without meaning.
For this purpose have I come…
to touch your place of pain,
to heal and transform and console,
to cast out your demons
and fill you with my Spirit,
to step into your darkness
and be your light.
This is who I am,
God’s saving Word made flesh.

And we who have felt this touch
are in turn called to join him in his ministry
of stepping into the dark places of human suffering.
St. Paul knew this,
writing to the Corinthians,
“I have become all things to all, to save at least some.”
As a follower of Jesus,
there is nothing that any human being suffers
that I can push away from me,
saying this has nothing to do with me.
If I truly claim Jesus as Lord,
then I, like Paul, must become all things to all,
because Jesus became one like us in all things but sin.

And in becoming one with us,
Jesus does not distinguish between
the deserving and the undeserving.
As Paul puts it in his letter to the Romans,
“God proves his love for us in that
while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
Jesus does not ask
whether we are responsible for our own suffering,
whether we are worthy of his healing and forgiveness,
whether we are one of the deserving poor
or the good, hard-working kind of foreigner
before he enters into our suffering.

And neither should we ask,
if we wish to be his followers
and share in his ministry of reconciliation.
As God in Christ became one with us in our suffering,
regardless of whether or not we were deserving,
so too are we called to join in solidarity
with all those who suffer around us,
regardless of their deserving or not deserving:
with the lovable, but also with the unlovable;
with the blameless, but also with the blameworthy;
with the victim, but also with the criminal.

We cannot, of course, suspend all moral judgment—
we should not cease distinguishing right from wrong
or recognizing injustice where it is present.
But we should not, cannot, let such judgement
put anyone beyond the scope of our compassion
or prevent us from seeing in them
a beloved child of God.
It is for this purpose
that Jesus came
and it is for this purpose
that he has called us to be his followers,
to “become all things to all, to save at least some.”

Of course, it is an overwhelming task
to enter into the pain and suffering of the world,
particularly when it is the pain and suffering
of those who seem to us
unworthy of our compassion.
We, like Jesus,
may wish to sneak out before the sun is up
just to escape the incessant, exhausting demands
of those who suffer.
But the love of God
that has taken flesh in Jesus
is never exhausted.
In Jesus, the power of God to save and heal
is present without measure:
present to us in Word and Sacrament,
in prayer and community.
If we can sink our roots down deep
into the saving love of Jesus
then the torrent of the world’s pain
will not sweep us away.
If we let ourselves receive his healing touch
then we too will have strength
to stretch out our own hand
to touch the world’s pain.
It is for this purpose that he came,
and it is for this purpose that he has called us.
May God grant us this day
the grace to know his healing touch
and to extend that touch to all we meet.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:16-20

There is nothing like
an impending ballistic missile strike
to focus the mind
and make us assess our priorities.
When the message went out
over the cell networks in Hawaii—
“Ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii.
Seek immediate shelter.
This is not a drill.”—
I imagine people’s priorities
got somewhat reshuffled.
I suspect people didn’t stop
to update the apps on their phones
or check in for flights the next day.
I am pretty sure no one bothered
to switch the laundry from the washer to the dryer
or to clean the bath tub.
And I would be very surprised if anyone
checked to see how the market was doing
or what was up with the Kardashians.
But I do suspect that people
did things that might have otherwise
seemed to be trivial matters
that could be put off:
embracing loved ones,
letting go of long-standing grudges,
offering a prayer to God
for mercy and protection.
There is something about the prospect
of a nuclear weapon hurtling toward you
that makes things you believe important
seem suddenly trivial,
and things you treat as trivial
seem suddenly urgent.

“Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:
‘This is the time of fulfillment.
The kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe in the gospel.’”
Jesus is issuing the spiritual equivalent
of a warning about an incoming ballistic missile.
The drawing near of God’s kingdom
causes us to reshuffle our priorities,
making important things trivial
and trivial things urgent.

In today’s Gospel, our translation says
that when Jesus called Peter and Andrew
“then they abandoned their nets and followed him,”
and that when he came across James and John,
“then he called them,
so they left their father Zebedee in the boat…
and followed him.”
But a more literal translation
of the original Greek would be,
immediately they abandoned their nets and followed him,”
and “immediately he called them,
so they left their father Zebedee in the boat…
and followed him.”

Now when a preacher begins talking to you
about the original Greek of the New Testament,
I generally think you are permitted
to let your eyes glaze over,
since you are likely in for
an irrelevant yet ostentatious
display of the thin veneer of learning
that people acquire in formation.
But, in this case, I ask you to indulge me.
For the Greek word that Mark uses here—euthus
is one that he uses throughout his Gospel;
indeed, he uses it some forty times
in his sixteen short chapters,
to propel his story forward with a sense of urgency.
Once the story begins, everything happens “immediately”
as Jesus hurtles toward his destiny in Jerusalem,
launched on a trajectory that ends in cross and resurrection.
To be his follower is to be caught up
in that immediacy,
in that urgency,
which reshuffles our priorities,
so that possessions and work and even family
take second place to God’s kingdom.
Peter and Andrew leave their boat and nets,
their very livelihood,
in order to follow Jesus.
James and John leave their father Zebedee behind
in order to be Jesus’ disciples.

In our second reading, from St. Paul,
we find a similar sense of urgency:
“The time is running out.”
The preoccupations of this world—
family and possessions, joys and sorrows—
all look different in the light of the kingdom of God,
for, as Paul says,
“the world in its present form is passing away.”
Paul’s point is not, as some have suggested,
that Jesus is returning soon
and, therefore, we should focus our attention
on getting ready rather than on life in this world.
The point is rather than in Jesus
the kingdom has already drawn near
and the priorities and values of the world
are already in the process of passing away,
of being transformed
into the priorities and values of God’s kingdom.
For Paul, no less than for Peter and Andrew,
or for James and John,
it is the call of Jesus to follow him
that makes important things trivial
and trivial things urgent.
Paul writes to the Philippians,
“I… consider everything as a loss
because of the supreme good
of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things
and I consider them so much rubbish,
that I may gain Christ.”

If you don’t feel a certain urgency in your life as a Christian,
you may have to ask yourself
whether you have truly understood who Jesus Christ is.
If your response to Jesus’ call to follow after him
does not involve a reshuffling of life’s priorities,
you may want to ponder the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
the German theologian who was executed by the Nazis:
“When Christ calls a person, he bids them come and die.”
If you do not see why you need to respond immediately,
then you might want to listen again to the words of Jesus:
“This is the time of fulfillment.
The kingdom of God is at hand.”
Indeed, it is hurtling toward us,
making important things trivial
and trivial things urgent.

But, in addition to its sense of immediacy and urgency,
the Gospel of Mark also has a clear-eyed awareness
that those who sincerely desire to be disciples of Jesus
often falter and fail,
that they let the priorities and values of the world
deter them from following him all the way to the cross,
that they do not yet know in the deepest sense
who Jesus Christ is.
Yet the promise with which Mark’s Gospel ends,
that the risen Jesus has gone before us
and will meet us on the way,
is the promise that, despite our faltering failures,
despite our misplaced priorities and values,
despite our blindness
to the presence of God’s kingdom in Jesus,
God is merciful and forgiving and relentless:
the call to follow is renewed again and again,
and the kingdom is still at hand,
hurtling toward us on love’s trajectory.
The risen Jesus still calls us:
This day is the time of fulfillment;
repent and believe in the Gospel.

Monday, December 25, 2017


Readings: Isaiah 9:1-6; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14

The Christmas story begins with an empire.
It begins with Caesar Augustus—
which is not a name, but a quasi-religious title
that was taken by Octavian,
the dictator who defeated two former allies
to become the sole ruler of Rome’s empire,
while maintaining a veneer of the old democracy.
It begins with an empire that secures peace—
the famed pax Romana—
through the conquest and control of peoples.
It begins with that empire’s power over “all the world,”
exercised by bureaucratic functionaries
like Quirinius, the governor of Syria,
and manifested in the tax census,
carried out to catalogue and extract
the wealth latent in the empire’s conquered lands.

The outward contours of empire
have changed since the ancient world,
but the reality should be familiar to us all.
It is the aspiration to world-dominance
through bluff and bluster
and sheer, raw power.
We see it today in the superpowers
that jockey with each other
for military and economic hegemony.
We see it in corporations that seek to play the tune
to which the governments of the world dance.
We see it in our own nation’s recently released
National Security Strategy, which assures us that,
“America’s values and influence,
underwritten by American power,
make the world more free, secure, and prosperous.”
In fact, from the time of Octavian-called-Augustus
to that of Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Donald Trump,
the promise of peace through dominance
has so pervaded our world,
that many have come to assume
that empire simply is the human story.
The long history of imperial power
is a perhaps-regrettable-but-nevertheless-inevitable tale
with which we must make our peace
if we wish to be free, secure, and prosperous.

But on this night the story of empire
is interrupted by a child.
In the middle of the tale of Octavian’s power
the voice of God sounds forth
in the cries of a newborn child.
In a world ruled by wealth and power
an angel appears to poor shepherds
with good news of great joy.
In a land conquered and subjugated
by the armies of Caesar Augustus
an army of angels sings out,
“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace.”

Just as a child might interrupt
a boring story told by adults
about the latest political scandal
or a long-term workplace rivalry
or a long-held family grudge
with its own fantastic tale
of dragons and magic and adventure,
so too the Christ child comes to interrupt
the tedious-yet-deadly story of worldly power
with a fantastic tale of glory and peace and joy.
Only this tale is no fantasy;
it is the very truth of God.
It is the eruption into the story of empire
of the truth that can lift the yoke of oppression
and smash the rod of the taskmaster,
the truth that consumes
every boot that tramped in battle
and every cloak rolled in blood.
In the cry of the Christ child
we hear the voice of every person
crushed beneath the yoke of power,
but we hear also the cry of the one called
Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero,
Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.
We hear the cry of one whose dominion
is vast and forever peaceful.

And yet, the story of empire goes on.
Burdens are still laid
on the shoulders of the poor
and boots still tramp in battle.
The coming of Christ
has not brought that story to an end.
But even as the story of empire
continues its predictable narrative arc,
the voice of God in the cry of the Christ child,
in the proclamation of the angel,
in the song of the heavenly army,
interrupts that story
and begins to tell a new tale
in which we who are followers of Jesus
all play a part.

For the saving grace of God
has appeared among us in the person of Jesus:
in his humble birth,
in his faithful ministry,
in his willingness to die for the truth,
in his defeat of death and rising to new life.
This grace has appeared, not rescuing us out of this world,
but “training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires
and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age.”
In Jesus, the interruptive grace of God
creates a new people who live a new story
as they await the final coming of Jesus,
when the story of empire will end,
and the world will know
the freedom of God’s servants,
the security of God’s love,
and the prosperity of God’s generosity.

But until that day, we wait in hope,
and tell with our lives the new story
begun by Christ in the days of Caesar Augustus,
when Quirinius was governor of Syria
and Mary and Joseph made the long journey
to the city of David.
Through God’s grace,
that story continues to be written in us,
when we remember those who suffer
and make their sorrows our own,
when we speak out to defend the defenseless
and to hold those in power accountable,
when we gather week by week
to tell the story of Jesus,
and eat and drink his body and blood:
he who was peace in the midst of conflict,
who was hope in the midst of despair,
who was light in the midst of darkness,
who was undying life in the midst of death.
Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace, hope, light and life
to those on whom God’s favor rest.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Malachi 1:14B-2:2B, 8-10; 1 Thessalonians 2:7B-9, 13; Matthew 23:1-12

In the 1930’s a theater critic is purported to have said:
“Theaters are the new Church of the Masses—
where people sit huddled in the dark
listening to people in the light
tell them what it is to be human.”
To be in a position to tell people what it is to be human
is to be invested with immense—
indeed, almost god-like—power,
power that can be easily abused.
And in recent weeks, we have been confronted
with an unending stream of news stories
of cases of sexual abuse and harassment
by powerful men in the entertainment industry.
Each day seems to bring new allegations,
showing that such behavior is not rare but pervasive.

We Catholics have lived for at least the past fifteen years
with the depressingly frequent experience
of being smacked in the face by the failures of our clergy,
particularly the repeated revelations
of sexual abuse of children and young people
by priests, deacons, and religious.
Most recently, the Netflix documentary series The Keepers
has chronicled in horrifying detail
the widespread abuse of girls by a priest
who work as a counselor in the late 60s and early 70s
at Keough High School here in Baltimore.
Even if, as the Archdiocese claims,
The Keepers is somewhat misleading
in its portrayal of the Archdiocese’s response
to the allegations of abuse,
nobody seriously questions the truth
of the allegations themselves
or the way in which
the religious authority of the priesthood
was used to enable horrific acts of abuse.

It is a powerful thing to be in the position
of telling people what it means to be human,
whether it is done in a church or in a theater,
and the exercise of such power is seductive and intoxicating.
And make no mistake: these cases of abuse,
whether by priests or producers or political pundits,
are about power, not sexual desire.
They are about the thrill of having someone totally in your control,
the titillation found in bending someone’s will to your own,
the ancient human delusion
that one exercises God-like power over others
because one has the authority
to declare the meaning of human existence.
And the fact that the meaning of human existence
proclaimed by the Church is true
doesn’t make the abuse of power by the clergy better;
in fact, it makes it worse.
It becomes not only a violation of human dignity,
but a perversion of the truth of God.

The seduction of religious or quasi-religious power
is not, of course, anything new.
Jesus identifies it in the religious leaders of his own day:
“They preach, but they do not practice….
They love places of honor at banquets,
seats of honor in synagogues,
greetings in the marketplace.”
These things might seem comparatively minor
compared to violent acts of abuse,
but they grow from the same poisoned root.
In Jesus’ day, as in ours,
the power to proclaim the meaning of human existence
is quickly and easily twisted
into a tool for domination.

But what does Jesus say?
“The greatest among you must be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled;
but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
And Jesus doesn’t just speak this truth, he lives it;
he lives it to the point of death, death on a cross.
And in that life, in that death,
not only the meaning of human existence,
but the true power of God is revealed.
In our quest for god-like power,
we not only mistake ourselves for God
but we also mistake the nature of God’s power.
God’s power, as revealed in the cross,
is not a power over others
that allows God to control and manipulate
in order to enhance and increase his own sense of power.
Rather God’s power is one that constantly pours itself out
in creating, in healing, in forgiving,
in giving itself to be shared in.
We truthfully proclaim the meaning of human existence
when we exercise power in this way,
the way that Jesus reveals
in his life, death, and resurrection.

Writing to the Thessalonians,
Paul gives us a picture of such a proclamation:
“We were gentle among you,
as a nursing mother cares for her children….
Working night and day in order not to burden any of you,
we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.”
Paul uses the image of the nursing mother
who shares her own bodily substance with her child
to speak of the nature of true religious authority.
How different this is from those exercises
of religious or quasi-religious power
that find their end in self-gratification
through control and manipulation.

Those of us who are clergy ought to look to Jesus and Paul
to teach us how to proclaim the good news.
We cannot let the abuses of power
by those who are called to proclaim
the meaning of human existence
cause us to cease our proclamation.
Because the world still needs the good news of God,
and there are plenty of peddlers of other gospels
waiting to step into the breech should we fall silent.
We must find a way to proclaim that good news
as Jesus did, as Paul did,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
so that those who receive it may find, as Paul says,
“not a human word but… the word of God,
which is now at work in you who believe.”

When I was ordained a deacon,
Archbishop Keeler
placed the book of Gospels in my hands,
saying, “Receive the Gospel of Christ
whose herald you have become.
Believe what you read,
teach what you believe,
and practice what you teach.”
This is an awesome charge.
To fulfill it, I need you to hold me accountable
to exercising the kind of authority
that does not exalt itself,
that does not seek its own advantage,
but seeks only to build up the body of Christ
here in this place.
I also need you to pray for me,
to pray for all bishops, priests, and deacons,
that we may have the power to be gentle,
the power to proclaim what it means to be human
by seeking no glory except the glory of the cross.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Ezekiel 18:25-28; Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32

It is hard to be entirely unsympathetic
to the second son in today’s Gospel—
the one who,
when asked by his Father
to go out into the vineyard,
responded “Yes, sir,”
and then did not do it.
We should not presume
that he was lying when he said, “Yes, sir.”
I can easily imagine that he meant what he said,
but then began to think of what
a long, hot day laboring in the sun would be like,
and decided he did not want to help his father after all.
Or maybe he would have gone,
but other things got in the way:
some unexpected guest showed up
who need to be entertained,
the kids needed to be driven to soccer practice
and his wife had to be somewhere else,
the cable guy didn’t show up when he said he would
and so he spent the entire day waiting for him.
Or maybe, having said “yes” with the best of intentions,
he simply forgot,
procrastinated a bit,
got caught up on Facebook or Instagram,
let it slip his mind until the end of the day
when he thought, “Oh shoot,
I forgot to help Dad in his vineyard.
I hope he isn’t mad.”

But perhaps the point of the parable
is that in responding to the call of God
the right words and a passing good intention
are not really what’s called for.
The Gospel calls us to something more.
Perhaps this is why the first son
initially said “I will not.”
Perhaps he knew that a day in the vineyard
would be long and hot.
Perhaps he knew that there were other things
that he had to do that day.
Perhaps he knew that if he said yes,
then making himself available to his father
would have to be his first—
indeed, his only—priority.
So initially he says “I will not,”
but then perhaps he thinks
of all that his father has given him,
of all the love his father has shown him,
of all the times his father
has made himself available to him,
and he has a change of heart,
because suddenly it seems
that the only proper response
to so great a love,
is to make himself available to his father,
to go out to labor in his vineyard,
even if the day will be long and hot.

I don’t think this parable
is primarily about obedience—
at least if we mean by “obedience”
merely submitting to the command of another,
perhaps in hope of winning their favor.
It is about making ourselves available to another,
in response to a love
that has always already been given to us.
In our second reading today,
St. Paul too calls us to such availability:
“humbly regard others
as more important than yourselves,
each looking out not for his own interests,
but also for those of others.”
And Paul tells us that our model for this
is Jesus himself,
who, though possessing the fullness of divinity,
emptied himself in carrying out his Father’s will,
dwelling among us as one of us
and even accepting the humiliation of the cross.
Having received all things from his Father,
Jesus empties himself of all things,
making himself available to the Father
by making himself available to us.

There is a mystery here.
Jesus possesses the fullness of divinity
precisely in emptying himself
for us and for our salvation.
And this mystery is our own mystery
as baptized members of Christ’s body.
In joining the command to love God
to the command to love our neighbor,
Jesus has given us a way of life
that he himself lived among us:
a life in which love of God
is lived out through love of neighbor
and our love of neighbor
is rooted and grounded
in the faith, hope, and love
by which we give ourselves
to the God who has always already
given us everything.
We make ourselves available to God
by making ourselves available to each other,
and we can only make ourselves
available to each other in a truly radical way
when we make ourselves available to God.
Because when we put ourselves at God’s disposal
the Spirit of God comes to dwell in us
and the infinite love of God bursts open
the narrow confines of our hearts,
emptying us of all that holds us back,
transforming our “I will not”
into Jesus’ “not what I will
but what you will.”

Of course, such availability is difficult and risky.
The vineyard of God is the entire world
and our labor there is long
because the need is so vast.
How can we answer “yes”
to every cry for help:
cries that come from distant lands
and from within our own families,
cries for material sustenance
and spiritual consolation,
cries that tear at our hearts
even as they deplete our resources?

But when our Father calls us to labor in his vineyard
we cannot let the vastness of the world’s need
make us say “I will not”;
we cannot let our inability to solve all problems
prevent us from doing what we can,
or tempt us to make ourselves unavailable.
Even we tax collectors and prostitutes,
reluctant children and unwilling disciples,
can, through the grace of God’s Spirit,
have our “I will not” transformed into “Yes, Lord,”
and take a step into the risk of availability,
trusting that same Spirit to keep us afloat
as we are swept along by the torrent of love
that Jesus has emptied into our world.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20

Many people,
of various political persuasions,
love participating in protests:
the exhilaration that comes
with marching in the streets
and speaking truth to power;
the deep sense of solidarity
of a people united
in standing up for what is right
and holding evil-doers accountable.

I am not one of those people.

While I have done my share of marching—
protesting wars and police brutality,
advocating for nuclear arms reduction
and a more just economic system—
I can’t say that I have ever enjoyed it all that much.
I am the type of person who can’t help wondering,
even as I march—especially as I march—
whether all this marching is really going anywhere,
if power listens when you speak truth to it,
if the people united will really never be defeated.
I look around at the signs that others carry
and say to myself,
“I’m not sure that I entirely agree
with the precise wording of that sentiment.”
I join in chanting slogans,
while at the same time thinking, “Well, you know,
the issue is really a bit more complicated than this.”

And yet our Scriptures today seem to say
that when you see wrong being done,
when you see people separating themselves
from God’s love by their evil actions,
you have a moral obligation to raise your voice,
to call them to repentance and conversion.
God tells the prophet Ezekiel in our first reading
that he must “speak out
to dissuade the wicked from his way,”
and Jesus in our Gospel reading confers on the Church
the power to “bind and loose,”
the obligation to exercise judgement
and to hold people morally accountable
for their actions.
Our Scriptures recognize
that speaking out
may or may not prove to be effective
in changing someone’s behavior,
but regardless of its effectiveness
we still have a moral obligation to speak,
we cannot keep the truth hidden
when it is under attack,
for if we do it is we who will be judged,
it is we who will be held accountable
for the evil we did not protest.

This past week the Catholic bishops of the United States,
fulfilling their role as successors to the apostles—
the role of binding and loosing,
of holding morally accountable—
issued a statement
in response to President Trump’s cancelation
of the policy of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
This Obama-era policy allowed people who were
brought illegally to the United States as children
to remain in the country and to obtain work permits,
rather than being deported back
to countries of which they often have no memory,
and whose language they might not even speak.
The bishops, in their statement,
call the cancellation of this policy “reprehensible”
and say that such action represents
“a heartbreaking moment in our history
that shows the absence of mercy and good will,
and a short-sighted vision for the future.”

Depending on the issue,
some people on both the political left
and the political right
get annoyed
when the bishops do this sort of thing,
saying that the bishops are meddling in politics—
that they should stick to religion and the Bible
and leave politics to the politicians.
But it is precisely our religion that compels us to speak up.
It is our sacred Scriptures that tells us that all people
are created in the image and likeness of God;
it is our sacred Scriptures that command us,
“You shall treat the alien who resides with you
no differently than the natives born among you” (Leviticus 19:34);
it is Jesus Christ himself who says to us,
“I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
a stranger and you gave me no welcome…
I say to you, what you did not do
for one of these least ones,
you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:42-43, 45).
In speaking out, the bishops
are simply obeying God’s command
to stand up for the weak and defend the defenseless,
to welcome Christ in welcoming the stranger,
to call the wandering to repentance.
Just as when they advocate for the unborn or the elderly,
just as when they denounce racism or exploitation of the poor,
they are continuing the apostolic tradition
of prophetic protest against evil,
of binding and loosing and holding accountable.

You may be one of those people who, like me,
find yourself in the midst of such protest
saying, “I’m not sure that I entirely agree
with the precise wording of that sentiment,”
or “well, you know, the issue
is really a bit more complicated than this.”
And it is true,
the details of immigration law and policy
are incredibly complicated.
But the heart of the Gospel is not complicated:
“Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another;
for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law…
Love does no evil to the neighbor;
hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.”

This law of love is simple, but it is not easy;
it demands that we come to see the world
through the eyes of Christ,
who fearlessly spoke the truth
and who laid down his life
out of love for us sinners;
it demands that we ourselves
love one another as he has loved us.
We love the oppressed
when we speak up
to denounce their oppression;
we love the oppressor
when we call them
to repentance and conversion;
we love the truth itself
when we refuse to let it be hidden
and give our lives to its service.