Sunday, June 10, 2018

10th Sunday of Ordinary Time


Readings: Genesis 3:9-15; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35

When Jesus speaks of Satan in today’s Gospel,
he doesn’t use the imagery of a serpent,
as our first reading might suggest,
or of a devil with horns and tail and a pitchfork.
Rather, he speaks of Satan as the “strong man”
whom he has come to bind
and whose house he has come to plunder.

Jesus is making the perhaps obvious point
that if you are going to break into someone’s house
and take their stuff
then it is a good idea to tie them up first,
particularly if they are strong enough to try to stop you.
The home-invasion motif is a bit disturbing,
but the point Jesus is making
is that his work of casting out demons,
which the scribes accuse him of doing
through demonic power,
is actually God’s work of binding of Satan,
a prelude to his taking from Satan
what Satan has stolen from God:
the human race.
Satan is strong,
but Jesus is stronger.

When it comes to talking about Satan,
it seems to me we can face two difficulties.
For some, any talk about Satan
seems hopelessly old fashioned,
tied to infantile ideas
that no modern person could take seriously
and which were probably invented
to scare the uneducated into being good.
But it seems to me that this fails to take seriously
the fact that evil is something more
than the sum total of bad human decisions—
that evil has a kind of personal cunning
by which it seeks to tempt us and oppose God.

On the other hand,
some find the idea of Satan
not only handily explains
the character of evil in the world,
but see in Satan himself
a kind of romantic character:
the original rebel without a cause
who thumbs his nose at God,
the ultimate authority figure.
This is Satan the anti-hero of Milton’s Paradise Lost,
who says that it is
“Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”
This is the opposite error
from those who would dismiss Satan as infantile myth.
This is not granting Satan too little,
but too much.
Satan is not a force that stands
on equal footing with God.
Nor is Satan a dashing figure of rebellion,
moved by a desire for freedom,
but rather a vicious beast
that lives only to destroy God’s work
out of petty motives of envy and resentment.
In calling Satan a “strong man”
Jesus is not giving the devil his due,
but ironically pointing out his weakness.

In our modern political discourse,
the term “strongman” has come to mean
a national leader who operates in an authoritarian way,
more by personal whim than societal consensus—
a self-aggrandizing leader who imposes his will
rather than seeking the common good.
Jesus may not have this kind of figure in mind
when he spoke of binding the strong man,
but the modern political strongman nonetheless
offers a pretty good image of how Satan works.

The strongman rules
by projecting an image of strength
that people find reassuring in times of uncertainty.
Whether this uncertainty comes from an external enemy
or from internal factors,
like crime or a weak economy or ethnic conflict,
the strongman exploits this sense of vulnerability
to assert his own authority
and present himself as the solution.
He preserves his power
by making sure that people continue to feel vulnerable,
constantly finding new threats,
new enemies to engender fear.
In the story of the garden,
Adam and Eve hide after eating the forbidden fruit
because they realize that they are naked,
which in the Old Testament is connected
with the idea of vulnerability:
to be unclothed is to be exposed to danger.
The serpent, tempting them with lies and empty promises,
suggesting to them that they will only be secure
if they grasp at god-like power,
tricks them into a state of ongoing fear;
it is this fear, this sense of exposure,
that will lead human beings again and again
to turn from God and seek protection elsewhere:
in foreign gods, in kings, in weapons, in warfare.

Even if he controls the military,
the strongman ultimately rules by means of fear
and by the image he projects of his own personal power.
That image is rooted more in bluster than anything else,
which is why strongmen love
the outward trappings of power:
military uniforms and parades,
hobnobbing with the rich and famous.
Satan, too, rules by trickery and illusion,
by projecting an image of false strength;
for he has no power over us unless we let him,
unless we let fear master us and rule our lives.

Jesus’ binding and plundering of the strong man
involves dispelling his illusions of power
by giving us a better hope.
Jesus does not deny
that the world is a dangerous place,
but it is also a place of joy
if we embrace God’s kingdom,
if we embrace in faith and hope
the strength of God’s love.
The resurrection of Jesus
binds the power of our ancient enemy
and takes us from his house where we are captive
by showing us that nothing,
not even death,
can separate us from the love of God
revealed to us in Jesus,
showing us that we need no refuge in our fear
other than the power of disarmed love.

In baptism,
we renounce the illusion of fear and power
that the strongman peddles,
and plunge headlong into Jesus’ own path
of life through death and resurrection.
We arise from the waters
no longer nakedly fearful
but clothed in faith,
bearing the “eternal weight of glory
beyond all comparison.”
We arise to live that faith
and to reveal that glory
by embracing life in all its joy and danger,
trusting in the strength of God’s love.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Corpus Christi


Readings: Exodus 24:3-8; Hebrews 9:11-15; Mark 14:12-16, 22-26

One of my vivid memories from Junior High
is of a field trip to the local blood bank.
At one point, they took us into the refrigerated room
where the blood was stored.
Rank on rank of shelves
held bag after bag of dark red blood.
Turning my eyes from this slightly unsettling sight,
I looked over at one of my classmates,
a boy named Charles,
just in time to see his eyes rolling up in his head
as he keeled over onto the floor.
It was the first time I had ever seen anyone swoon,
and it was, of course, the highlight of the trip.

The reaction of poor Charles
is one that many of us might experience
at the sight of blood, especially in great quantity.
After all, typically when you see blood
it means something very not-good has happened.
Something that should be inside the body
is suddenly outside the body:
you’ve cut yourself;
there has been an accident;
someone has been injured or maybe killed.
Blood is a sign of danger.

But for someone needing surgery,
or suffering from a grievous wound,
the blood in the blood bank,
as disquieting as it may be to look at,
was also a sign of healing,
of rescue,
of salvation.

Though we call this the Feast of Corpus Christi—
the body of Christ—
its official name is the Solemnity
of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ,
and our readings today focus far more
on the blood of Jesus than on his body.
At the risk of making you swoon,
I would like to reflect on these blood-drenched readings
to see what they show us about the gift of the Holy Eucharist.

Our first reading takes us directly
into the primal heart of human religion:
the offering of sacrifice.
The Israelites, having been freed from slavery in Egypt,
journey through the desert to Mount Sinai,
where they receive God’s Law through Moses.
To mark their reception of this law
and to seal their covenant with God,
Moses sets up an altar
and slaughters young bulls for a burnt-offering.
So far, so typical:
you seal the deal with a deity by means of sacrifice.
But Moses also takes the blood
that has been drained from the bulls
and splashes half of it on the altar and,
after the people proclaim,
“All that the Lord has said, we will heed and do,”
sprinkles the other half of it on the people.

In the religion of ancient Israel,
blood was a potent and multifaceted symbol.
Not unlike our own ambivalent relationship with blood,
they saw it as something necessary for life,
but also as a sign of danger.
Contact with blood,
particularly consuming meat with blood in it,
could cause one to be cast out of the community of Israel,
because blood, the sign of life, was something sacred,
something properly belonging to God alone,
something that humans should not claim for their own,
something of such power that it had to be kept at a distance.
The book of Leviticus says,
“Any one of you who eats any blood
shall be cut off from your kin” (7:27).
To sprinkle the blood of an animal on the altar of sacrifice,
was symbolically to give back to God the gift of life itself.
When Moses sprinkles blood on the assembled people,
this substance filled with symbolic power and danger,
this sacred and taboo substance
normally reserved for God alone,
crosses the dividing line of creator and creature,
uniting the tribes of Israel to their God
in a covenant rooted in God’s steadfast love.
Moses says, “This is the blood of the covenant
that the Lord has made with you.”

In the letter to the Hebrews,
the author draws on the imagery
of the sacrifices offered in the Jerusalem Temple,
depicting Jesus as the high priest
who enters the Holy of Holies to sprinkle the altar,
not with the blood of sacrificed animals,
but with his own blood,
his own life,
which he has laid down in love for his friends.
It is this life,
this love of Jesus,
“who through the eternal Spirit
offered himself unblemished to God,”
that now purifies those
who have entered into the new covenant
through faith and baptism.

Finally, at the Last Supper,
Jesus speaks those words
that we have each heard hundreds,
if not thousands, of times—
so many, times, in fact, that our ears can grow dull
to their shocking nature:
“This is my body”;
“This is my blood of the covenant.”
Jesus’s words over the cup
deliberately echo
the words of Moses at Mount Sinai,
shockingly identifying Jesus with the animals of sacrifice.
The bond between God and humanity is sealed with blood,
only now it is not the blood of animals,
but the blood, the life, of Jesus,
poured out for our sake,
poured out in love,
to draw us into intimate love
with God and each other.
This substance filled with symbolic power and danger,
this sacred and taboo substance
normally reserved for God alone,
which the Israelites were forbidden to consume
is now given to the disciples—given to us:
not merely sprinkled upon us,
but handed over as food and drink that enters into us
and is united with our very substance,
a source of healing
and rescue
and salvation.
The life of Jesus, consecrated to God on the cross,
becomes our life as we are united to him
in the banquet of his love.

The new covenant that God enacts in Jesus
is one of such radical love
that the old rites of sacrifice must be swept away;
the new covenant of God’s steadfast love
is no longer sealed with the blood of animals,
but with the blood of Jesus himself,
within which flows the power of God,
the power of the Spirit
that enters into us as food and drink
and transforms us into lovers of God.
At the sight of such a love
we should be shocked,
and who could blame us if we swooned?

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Easter 6


Readings: Acts 10:25-26, 34-35, 44-48; 1 John 4:7-10 ; John 15:9-17

What is Christianity all about?
Some might be inclined
to answer this question
by reciting the creed,
and they would not be wrong,
because being a Christian
does involve believing certain things.
Others might be inclined to answer
by pointing to certain moral principles,
and, again, they would not be wrong,
because being a Christian
does involve behaving in certain ways.
But what Christianity is about
must be something more
than a collection of beliefs and behaviors;
it must be a mystery that sinks its roots
into the heart of life itself.

This mystery, however,
is mysterious not because it is complicated,
but because it is so simple.
Today’s readings from sacred scripture
constitute together a kind of refresher course,
in five simple lessons,
of what Christianity is all about.

First, God is love.
This has of course become something of a cliché,
so much so that if you type “God is…” into Google
“God is love” comes up
as the second most popular search item,
right behind “God is good”
(and just ahead of “God is dope” and “God is dead”).
Because it has become something of a cliché
we can forget what a revolutionary notion this was
in the world of antiquity
whose pantheons were populated
by deities that were powerful and crafty,
but not particularly loving.
Yet Christianity says not only that God is loving,
but that God is love itself.
St. Augustine wrote that if the entire Bible
contained only the words “God is love”
we should ask for nothing more.

Second, the love that is God
is crucified love.
We know the depth of the mystery of love
because “God sent his only Son into the world
so that we might have life through him.”
The cross of Jesus shows us
that the love that gives its life for our life
is love that ceaselessly, relentlessly, scandalously
pours itself out.
And it is precisely in not holding itself back,
not hesitating to give itself up,
that this love is “expiation for our sins”—
that is, it is the life-giving mystery
that we call God,
because there is no greater love than this.

Third, we are called to friendship with the risen Jesus.
As he says in our Gospel reading,
“I call you friends…
it was not you who chose me,
but I who chose you.”
We are called to friendship with God
not because of anything we are or do
but out of the depth of love
that is the divine mystery
revealed in the cross.
And the resurrection of Jesus,
which we celebrate in every Eucharist,
but especially in this Easter season,
is what makes possible
our ongoing friendship with him,
our continuous abiding in the love that is God.

Fourth, we cannot love God
if we do not love each other.
As the first letter of John puts it,
“Beloved, let us love one another,
because love is of God.”
We love God
by loving our neighbor as Jesus loved us:
loving both friend and enemy,
laying down our lives for one another
in ways dramatic and ordinary:
in acts of sacrifice and of gratitude,
in patience, honesty,
forbearance, and generosity,
for “whoever is without love
does not know God.”

Fifth, we live out our love
in the community created by the Spirit.
While we are called to a universal love
of both friend and enemy,
we live that love from the heart of the Church.
And the Spirit, who is the divine mystery of love
that shows no partiality,
gathers friends of Jesus together
into an unlikely and motley crew of lovers.
At any given place and time
we have no idea what this community will look like,
except we know it will be filled with people
whom we would not have chosen to love
if we were not friends of Jesus.
Peter, in our first reading,
would never have chosen friendship
with a Gentile like Cornelius.
But the Spirit moved and there it was.
Who was Peter to argue with the Spirit?
Look around you.
These are the people
with whom God has called you
into friendship in Christ
through the waters of baptism:
men and women,
old and young,
conservative and liberal,
gay and straight,
native and immigrant,
courageous and cowardly,
stupid and smart,
handsome and hideous,
saints and sinners,
and every type of human animal
who doesn’t quite know what they are,
except they know this one thing:
the God who is love has called them
into his crucified love.
Look around you.
Who are we to argue with the Spirit?

God is love.
The love that is God is crucified love.
We are called to friendship with the risen Jesus.
We cannot love God if we do not love each other.
We live out our love in the community created by the Spirit.
That is it.
That is what Christianity is all about.
Now believe it and live it
as if your life depended on it,
because it does.

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
in the face of hatred
to the God of love,
to testify in the face of death
to the God of life.
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 Péguy 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

Christmas


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.