Saturday, June 29, 2019

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: 1 Kings 19:16b, 19-21; Galatians 5:1, 13-18; Luke 9:51-62

As many of you might know,
last month I spent two and a half weeks
traveling by raft with family and friends
down the Colorado River
through the Grand Canyon.
The thing about this sort of trip
is that once you set out
you are committed for the long haul:
except for a lengthy hike to the Canyon rim
or a quick-but-costly medevac by helicopter,
there is only one way to the journey’s end,
only one direction that the current flows,
only one takeout point, many days and miles ahead.

I knew this, of course, in a theoretical way,
before setting out,
but you don’t really know
what you’ve gotten yourself into
until you’ve tried to set up camp in the rain,
or spent an hour pumping river water through a filter
so that there would be something to drink,
or taken a four-hour side-hike
that ends up lasting seven hours,
or stood above a class-nine rapid
listening to more experienced boaters discuss
all of the places in the rapid
where you definitely don’t want to end up.
The trip was much more arduous and challenging
than I anticipated,
the kind of vacation
where you need
another vacation afterward,
just to recover.

But the current flowed just one way;
there was no going back,
even if at times I wondered
what I had gotten myself into.
And it was a good thing that I had no choice,
that quitting was not an option
and weariness or fear could not change my course,
because along the way I saw wonders
that I could not have seen in any other way:
crystal-blue waters flowing from side canyons,
billion-year-old stone walls,
bighorn sheep climbing sheer rock faces,
the undimmed stars crowding the night sky,
the violent pounding force of the rapids,
and people of varied background, skill, and ability
working together to make the journey possible.

I say all of this not just to let you know
that I had an awesome vacation—
though it was awesome
(in the literal sense of the term).
Rather, at the risk of turning
a geologic marvel into a metaphor,
I can’t help thinking of how such a journey
tells us something about the journey
of our life as followers of Jesus.

Jesus says in today’s Gospel
that once you set out
on the journey to God’s kingdom,
once you embark
on the adventure of being his disciple,
you are committed for the long haul:
“No one who sets a hand to the plow
and looks to what was left behind
is fit for the kingdom of God.”
He warns his followers, repeatedly,
of the arduous and challenging nature of the journey:
“foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests,
but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”
But it is only along the way that we discover
exactly what it is that we have gotten ourselves into:
the labor of being people of faith, hope, and love,
the perils of misunderstanding and rejection,
the thirst we feel in times of doubt and spiritual dryness,
the struggle to keep our hand on the plow
and not look back at what we have left behind.
But there is no turning back
because we are caught in the current of the Spirit
who carries us forward on the journey.
And thanks be to God for that,
for it is along this arduous way
that we discover wonders:
the beauty of God revealed in the face of Jesus,
the glory of God shown forth in the Word and sacraments,
the love of God displayed in the lives
of those who travel with us on the journey.
This journey with Jesus
leads us into the very meaning of existence.

It is a journey we share together,
each of us bringing with us
our varied background, skills, and abilities.
It is a journey that is held in common
and yet is also unique to each of us.
We share common milestones that mark the way:
Baptism, Confirmation,
our weekly gathering at the Eucharist.
We each also have
our individual milestones
by which we chart our journey:
joys, sorrows,
losses, triumphs,
illnesses, friendships,
marriages, religious vows,
births, deaths.
But in the Body of Christ
these individual milestones are
in some mysterious way,
through the one Spirit that we all share,
also part of our common journey:
your joys become my joys,
your sorrows become my sorrows.

Twelve years ago,
immediately before I was ordained as a deacon
through the laying on of hands and prayer,
I knelt before Cardinal Keeler
with my hands joined in front of me.
He put his hands around mine, asking,
“Do you promise respect and obedience
to me and my successors?”
and I replied, “I do.”
Then the Cardinal said,
“May God who has begun the good work in you
bring it to fulfillment.”
Amidst all the ritual and symbolism
of the rite of Ordination,
this moment has always stood out for me.
This promise of obedience was a milestone
that made concrete for me
something that had been true
since the day of my baptism:
my life belonged not to me but to the journey,
and to belong to the journey is to be truly free.
It was not simply about submitting
to ecclesiastical authority,
but about listening for the voice of Jesus
when he calls us to leave behind the things we love
and step into the current of the Spirit,
so that the wonders of the journey
might be brought to fulfillment
in the freedom that comes
from answering Christ’s call.

This, of course, is true for every follower of Jesus.
As Paul says, “you were called for freedom.”
All of us must listen for his voice,
calling us into the current of the Spirit.
The difference for me, as an ordained person,
is that the voice of Jesus—as strange as this may seem—
can sound like the voice of the Archbishop of Baltimore.
And it seems that the voice of Jesus
is calling me to leave behind this community that I love
so that our common journey can continue in a new way.
This is one of those arduous, challenging moments of the journey.
This is one of those moments when you wonder
what you have gotten yourself into.
This is one of those moments
when you must tighten your grip on the plow
and step forward in faith.

I have worshipped with you for twenty-two years
and served you as deacon for twelve,
and quite honestly it is hard for me to imagine
what it will be like not to gather with you each Sunday.
But if it truly is the current of the Spirit
that moves us forward on the journey,
if it is in answering the call of Jesus
that we find true freedom,
then we must trust that new wonders
will be revealed to us along the way.
And if it is truly the one Spirit
in whose current we are floating
then we are still journeying together,
even when it seems that we are separated.
For we all, wherever Christ calls us to be,
however scattered in time and space,
remain together members of his body,
Corpus Christi.
This is perhaps the greatest wonder of all.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Pentecost


Readings: Acts 2:1-11; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13; John 14:15-16, 23b-26

Jesus promises his disciples that the Spirit
whom the Father will send in his name
will teach them “everything.”
Everything?
That’s a pretty big promise.
I don’t know about you,
but I can’t imagine what it would feel like
to know everything.
My knowledge of quantum physics, for example,
is pretty limited,
as is my understanding of
how my smartphone works,
or why people buy jeans that are pre-ripped.
My knowledge clearly falls far short of “everything.”
But maybe the “everything” that the Spirit teaches
is not this sort of knowledge,
not a collection of facts or insights
concerning this or that.
Perhaps the “everything” that the Spirit teaches
is a truth of such surpassing importance
that it changes everything for those who accept it;
perhaps it is a truth that becomes the lens
through which we view everything else.

St. Paul suggests, in our second reading,
that one way to put into words
what the Spirit teaches us
is to confess that “Jesus is Lord.”
Indeed, he says that no one can truly say
that Jesus is Lord apart from the Spirit’s gift.
When the Spirit prompts us
to proclaim that Jesus is Lord
the Spirit is teaching us that everything,
every aspect of our existence,
finds its center and meaning in Jesus.
In Jesus’ life and teachings,
his death and resurrection,
the universe snaps into focus;
through Jesus we can see things
with a new clarity,
against a new horizon,
the horizon of the love that death cannot defeat
that we have been celebrating in this Easter season.
We see that even in the midst of
violence and conflict,
fear and disappointment,
sickness and death,
there lives, as the poet Gerard Manly Hopkins put it,
“the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
   Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
To know this—
to have met the risen Lord,
to have glimpsed the bright wings of the Spirit—
is to have been taught everything,
because it changes everything,
brings everything into focus.
It frees us from fear and gives us boldness
to proclaim to the world the message of Easter hope.

But this message of hope,
this “everything” that the Spirit teaches us,
is not a private possession.
It is a communally held gift.
The truth that the Spirit teaches us
is too vast and all-encompassing
for any single individual to contain.
On the day of Pentecost
the Spirit speaks a multitude of languages
in order that the mighty acts of God might be proclaimed,
the Lordship of Jesus might be confessed,
because no one language can capture everything.
St. Paul tells us that the gifts of the Spirit
are distributed within the body of believers,
in such a way that it is only the entire community of faith
that can truly proclaim that Jesus is Lord.
It takes a multitude to speak what the Spirit teaches;
it takes everyone to say everything.

Some of us, however, might feel
that we have nothing to say.
We might feel that our faith is weak,
our hope is wavering,
our love has grown cold.
But St. Paul says that all of us
who have been baptized into the Spirit
have been given some manifestation of the Spirit,
and that it has been given to us
for the benefit of the body as a whole.
If we are truly to know
the “everything” that the Spirit teaches
then I must tell you what I see
in light of Jesus the risen Lord,
and you must tell me what you see.
I must share with you the way in which
love and joy have fallen upon me
in times of sorrow,
how peace and patience have sustained me
in times of trial,
how kindness and goodness have been shown to me
in times of need.
And you must share with me
how you have found faithfulness
in the midst of doubt,
how you have found gentleness
in the midst of conflict,
how you have found self-control
in the midst of temptation.
We must share our joys and sorrows,
our tales of how we have felt the breeze
stirred by the Spirit’s bright wings,
our stories of how faith has brought us through,
if we are to have even the slightest insight
into the “everything” that the Spirit teaches.
For while we all confess Jesus as Lord,
each of us confesses Jesus as Lord
in our own way,
in our own language,
out of our own lives
and our particular circumstances.
This is what it means to live our faith
as members of the body of Christ,
so that the gift of each becomes the gift of all.
Let us pray on this feast of Pentecost
that the Spirit will be spoken
in a multitude of tongues,
and that we will hear
in the murmur of that multitude
everything that the Spirit teaches.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Easter 4


Readings: Acts 13:14, 43-52; Revelation 7:9, 14b-17; John 10:27-30

Jesus the Good Shepherd is a familiar image
and an apt metaphor for the one who calls and gathers us,
who guards and guides us,
who will even lay down his life to protect us;
as our Gospel today reminds us,
no one can take us out of the hands
of Jesus our shepherd.

This is all very fine,
but our second reading, from the Book of Revelation,
offers us a stranger, less easily understood,
image of shepherding.
Earlier, the seer John beholds a throne on which is seated
one of who’s appearance it is said only
that it “sparkled like jasper and carnelian”—
like precious stones.
And before this sparkling one seated on the throne
he sees a lamb standing.
Not a cute little fluffy white lamb,
whom we might imagine draped
around the shoulders of the good shepherd,
but one “standing as if it had been slaughtered,”
a sacrificial victim, blood-drenched and flesh-torn.
And this is the Lamb of whom it is said in today’s reading,
“The Lamb… will shepherd them
and lead them to springs of life-giving water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Christ our shepherd is this slaughtered Lamb.

John offers us a startling—
I’m tempted to say “psychedelic”—
set of images in which
the lamb is shepherd,
the victim is victor.
John’s Apocalypse makes clear
what we might miss
in the Gospel metaphor of the Good Shepherd:
the shepherd in whose hands we are held,
for whose voice we should listen,
is not one who triumphs over threats,
who slays the wolf and the thief,
but one whose life is sacrificed on the cross,
who wins through weakness,
who offers us life not as the avoidance of death,
but as the passage through the cross to resurrection,
who calls us to surrender our lives
into the Shepherd’s pierced hands.
The Lamb is slaughtered
yet standing,
slain
yet victorious.
Like I said, it’s all kind of psychedelic.
But what really makes it hard to understand
is that it runs counter
to everything the world tells us
about how power works,
about what victory looks like,
about what counts as winning.
John’s vision of the Lamb
suggests that the ordinary calculations of power
by which our world operates,
the ordinary standards of what counts as winning,
might not be the way that God sees things,
and perhaps should not be the way we see things either.

This past week saw the death of Jean Vanier,
the founder of the L’Arche movement,
which since the 1960s has created communities
in which the mentally disabled live together with others
who not only help them cope with the practicalities of life
but who offer them friendship and dignity.
Over the years, Vanier always stressed
that this was transformative
not only of the lives of the mentally disabled
members of his communities
but of those who lived with them as friends and helpers.
Vanier said that living with the mentally disabled
forced him to rethink what we mean by “ability”
and to reassess who is the giver
and who is the receiver in those relationships.
He wrote, “To be human is to be bonded together,
each with our weaknesses and strengths,
because we need each other.
Weakness, recognized, accepted, and offered,
is at the heart of belonging.”

Jean Vanier was always clear that his work
grew out of his Catholic faith,
out of his belief that in Christ the Lamb
God has redefined what counts as a life worth living,
God has redefined the possibilities of human community,
God has redefined victory.
Vanier wrote in a commentary on John’s Gospel,
“In front of the power and armies of Caesar,
in front of their mighty weapons,
stands a lamb, the lamb of God.
What can this lamb do?
The lamb will break down walls of fear, of aggression,
of violence, of sin
which imprison people in themselves
and incite them to seek their own glory.
He will liberate in each person a new life of communion with God,
with other people and with what is deepest in the self,
sowing seeds for universal peace.”

Jean Vanier was one of those who,
as the Revelation of John puts it,
“have washed their robes
and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
He was one who learned from the Lamb,
slaughtered and yet standing,
that it is not the powerful or the capable
but the weak and the vulnerable,
who will lead us to the waters of life
by revealing to us
our own weakness and vulnerability.

What does it mean to be a Christian?
Jean Vanier and John the visionary suggest to us
that it means letting yourself be shepherded by the Lamb.
It means placing yourself in the pierced hands of Jesus,
trusting them to shelter you from the great tribulation.
It means living by a new standard of what counts as victory.
It means learning from the Lamb
how to let yourself be wounded,
even slain, for love
and yet still stand,
bearing witness
to the God who chose what is foolish in the world
to shame the wise,
the God who chose what is weak in the world
to shame the strong,
the God who is revealed to us
in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Easter Sunday


Readings: Acts 10:34a, 37-43; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-9

Given the timing and the weight of accumulated history,
it was inevitable that people would go looking
for symbolic significance
in the fire that came close to destroying
Paris’s cathedral of Notre Dame this past week.
Some suggested that it was a metaphor
for the crisis of European Christianity,
beset by decades of declining membership and church attendance.
Others, mindful of Holy Week, saw it as a symbol
of the destruction of the temple of Christ’s body—
and drew hope that Our Lady’s cathedral, like Christ himself,
would one day rise again in glory.

But maybe the lesson of the fire at Notre Dame
is not some deeply hidden message or metaphor,
but something pretty obvious:
the things we human beings construct—
no matter how beautiful or culturally significant—
catch on fire and burn.
They also rot and decay;
they get swept away in floods
and brought down by earthquakes.
And, in this way, they are like us, their makers.
The message of last Monday’s fire
is the message of Ash Wednesday
with which we began this Lent:
remember that you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.
Eight-hundred and fifty years is a long time,
but it is not eternity;
and even if, as seems likely, Notre Dame is restored
and continues for a time as a place of Christian worship,
we know that one day this too will come to an end,
shall return to dust like everything we humans create,
as we ourselves shall as well.

Pretty somber news for an Easter morning.
But in the face of this somber new
we Christians proclaim the Good News
of Jesus’ resurrection.
Even as what is beautiful and noble falls to ruin,
Christ’s resurrection brings us glad tidings:
we are indeed dust,
but we are dust bound for glory,
for our life is hidden with Christ in God
and Christ is truly risen.
All that is good,
all that has value,
is treasured eternally
in the heart of the risen Jesus.

But because there has never been a silver lining
that I could not find a dark cloud to wrap around,
I am afraid that I have news this Easter morning
even more somber than the inevitable mortality
that shadows our lives.
There is something more deeply wrong with the world
than the finite timespan of every creature.
This something is what we call “sin,”
and we can see it at work in the death of Jesus.
For Jesus doesn’t just die
because his human lifespan runs out;
rather, he is killed.
As Peter reminds the assembled crowd in Jerusalem,
“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.”
He is killed
because something far darker than death
has invaded human life.
He is killed because we have a rage within us,
a cruelty that makes us heedless of each other
and willing to cut short
the finite and fragile miracle of human life.

In a sense, the real events of recent days
that capture the full disaster of the human condition
is not the accidental fire that nearly destroyed Notre Dame,
but the deliberate burning
of three historically African American churches in Louisiana--
and now I suppose we must add
the churches bombed and the scores of people killed
this morning in Sri Lanka.
These were, of course, far more humble structures
than the gothic glory that is Notre Dame,
but they were temples no-less-holy,
where worship was offered to the living God.
And while the fire at Notre Dame
speaks to us of the world’s fragility and finitude,
the burning churches of Louisiana,
the bombed churches of Sri Lanka,
speak to us of sin.
They speak to us of those deeds
that grow from fear of what it different,
from a distorted sense of superiority,
from a twisted love of self,
even to the point of contempt of God and neighbor.
They speak to us of something that we can see
in our own selves,
in our own petty deeds
of fear and pride and self-involvement.

But even this somber news of sin
must yield to Easter joy.
As Peter tells the crowd gathered in Jerusalem,
“everyone who believes in him
will receive forgiveness of sins through his name.”
The good news of the resurrection
is not simply that we
have been made sharers in eternal life,
but that the wounds of sin
can be healed through faith.
Our world can be different.
You and I can be different.

John’s Gospel tells us that Mary Magdalene
came to Jesus’ tomb “while it was still dark.”
We too come to this Easter morning while it is still dark.
For the shadow of mortality and the wounds of sin
still darken our world
and make it hard for us to see the tomb standing empty.
But if we lift our eyes to the horizon,
if we heed Paul’s call to “seek what is above,”
even in the darkness of death and sin
we can see the light of the resurrection
breaking in upon us,
illuminating our world
with the Spirit’s gifts of faith, hope, and love.

It is still dark,
but the light of Christ’s risen glory
is already dawning.
It is dawning in the people of Paris,
who, kneeling as they lift their eyes
to their beloved cathedral engulfed in flames,
sing Je vous salue, Marie, Hail Mary…,
a song of hope in the face of tragedy.
It is dawning in the Rev. Harry Richard
of Greater Union Baptist Church
in Opelousas, Louisiana,
who says, “We’ve been through the fire…
We are heading for a resurrection.”
It is dawning in you and me,
fragile and finite and, yes, sinful,
but called by God to be witnesses of Easter joy,
called by God, while it is still dark,
to reflect the light of Christ’s resurrected glory.
Christ is truly risen, alleluia.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Easter Vigil


Readings: Genesis 1:1-2:2; Genesis 22:1-18; Exodus 14:15-15-1; Isaiah 55:1-11; Ezekiel 36:16-17a, 18-28; Romans 6:3-11; Luke 24:1-12

“Remember,” the angels tell the women.
“Remember what he said to you
while he was still in Galilee.”
“And they remembered,” we are told,
and “returned from the tomb.”
This night is the night of remembering.
It is the night of reciting and recalling
God’s goodness to God’s people,
from the creation of the world to the covenant with Abraham,
from salvation from slavery to the promise of new life.
It is the night of remembering
God’s dangerous and disruptive interruption of history.

But even as we gather to remember
God’s mighty acts of salvation,
even as the angels command us to remember
all that Jesus said and did,
we are also put to the question:
“Why do you seek the living one among the dead?”
The angels’ question should alert us to a danger:
memory can too easily lapse into nostalgia,
a homesickness for the past that keeps us
from receiving the new heart and new spirit
that is the promise of Easter.
When memory becomes nostalgia,
when dangerous remembrance becomes pious reminiscence,
we are seeking the living one among the dead.

We seek the living one among the dead
when we seek Christ simply
as a great moral exemplar from the past
whose words and deeds might inspire us,
whose story might comfort us,
but who is not the living Christ
who challenges us to risk everything
for his sake and the Gospel.
We seek the living one among the dead
when we seek him
in some idealized past of the Church,
whether it is the 1950s,
when parishes and seminaries were full-to-bursting,
or the 1970s,
when the spirit of Vatican II
was blowing powerfully through the Church,
or (if you’re like me) the 1270s,
when theology was considered the queen of the sciences,
but do not seek him in the messy present,
in the glorious and wounded body of Christ
that God has called us into in this time and place.
We seek the living one among the dead
when we seek him in an idealized past of our own lives—
when our faith was fresher, our life less complicated,
our friends more faithful, our fears less consuming—
and do not seek him in our present joys and hopes,
our griefs and anxieties,
our daily dying and rising.

I am not saying that we do not learn from the past,
nor that we do not need tradition
in order to know who we are now
and to orient us toward the future.
There is a reason why we gather on this night
to hear these ancient words,
to tell these ancient stories;
there is a reason why the angels tell the women
to remember the words that Jesus spoke to them,
to guard the dangerous memory of resurrection.
But if we seek him only in the memories that we can muster—
in the past that lives no more, if indeed it ever did—
then we are merely seeking the living one among the dead
and we have not yet grasped the good news of Easter.
Resurrection is not a matter of our pious efforts
at remembering the past—
we cannot remember Jesus out of the tomb;
we cannot remember our way out of history’s injustices
or life’s dead ends.
Remembering may be humanity’s best weapon against death,
against the relentless flow of time that sweeps everything away,
but it is not enough.
Even our most treasured memories
falter, grow faint, and fail.

The good news of Easter is not that we remember Jesus,
but that Jesus remembers us.
The good news of Easter is not
that we treasure in our hearts
the words and deeds of Jesus,
but that we are treasured in the heart of the living one,
the one whose human life has been taken up into deathless eternity.
Easter is not about our remembering what God has done,
but about receiving a new heart and a new spirit
to see what God is doing at this moment:
God is remembering us.
At every moment our lives are enfolded
in the eternal thought of God
who knows us more perfectly
than we could ever know ourselves.

In a few minutes,
we will renew our baptismal promises:
an act by which we recommit ourselves
to life in the body of Christ.
We will remember our baptism,
when, as St. Paul says,
“our old self was crucified with him”
so that “just as Christ was raised from the dead…
we too might live in newness of life.”
But even more than our act of remembering,
this is an act of being remembered by God:
God’s act of re-membering us into the risen Christ,
knitting us anew into his glorified body.
This re-membering is God’s gracious gift to us,
not something that we have done for ourselves.

So whether you have kept the Lenten fast with zeal,
or felt your love grow cold and God grow distant,
God remembers you this night.
Whether you have come here full of faithful expectation
or feel that the faith you once possessed
has become a faded memory,
God remembers you this night.
Whether you come hoping for a new heart and a new spirit
or simply stand confused and conflicted in wordless longing
for something that you cannot name,
God remembers you this night.
God remembers us into resurrection
so that we live eternally in the heart of Christ.
For Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and on those in the tomb bestowing new life.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Lent 5


Readings: Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 38-14; John 8:1-11

Typically, the Scriptures exhort us to remember:
remember what God has done for us,
remember who we are as God’s people.
But today our Scriptures
exhort us to leave the past behind
and reach out toward the future.

Our first reading, from the Prophet Isaiah,
begins, in typical scriptural fashion, with the past,
reminding the Israelites,
now held captive in Babylon,
of how in ancient days
God had saved them from slavery in Egypt
and made them God’s people.
But then God says,
“Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not;
see, I am doing something new!”
Though languishing in Babylon,
the Israelites should hope for an even greater salvation.
Yes, God has done great things for Israel in the past,
but God’s goodness is never exhausted;
the greatest things are not in the past,
but lie ahead in the future.

Echoing God’s words spoken through Isaiah,
Paul writes to the Christians of Philippi,
“forgetting what lies behind
but straining forward to what lies ahead,
I continue my pursuit toward the goal,
the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.”
Paul looks at his past life with a sense of achievement—
for he had lived a life of zeal for God’s Law—
and of shame—
for his zeal had led him to persecute
the newborn Jesus-movement.
But Paul now knows that his former life,
both its good and its bad,
counts for nothing.
His former life is “rubbish”
(or, more literally, “dung”)
compared to the hope
he has been given through faith in Jesus.
He sees in Jesus the “new thing” that God will do.
He leans into the future,
he strains toward it,
drawn by his hope in God’s promised kingdom.

Perhaps less explicitly than Isaiah or Paul,
the familiar story of the woman caught in adultery
that we hear in today’s Gospel
is also about leaving the past behind
and straining toward the future.
When the woman’s accusers depart in shame,
their own sinfulness revealed,
Jesus tells the woman,
“Neither do I condemn you.
Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”
He speaks not of her past,
but of her future: “from now on.”
The forgiveness of God
that Jesus extends to her
has made a way for her
through the wasteland of her past,
and made life-giving waters flow
in the desert of her despair.
It is as if he is saying to her
the words God spoke to the Israelites:
“Remember not the events of the past;
see, I am doing something new!”
She must forget what lies behind,
and strain forward to what lies ahead.

Of course, we can’t completely forget the past,
nor should we.
Good or bad, it is part of who we are.
Each Passover, the people of Israel remember
how God’s goodness saved them from captivity.
Paul remembers his zeal for God’s Law—
zeal that made him a persecutor of the Church.
The woman caught in adultery remembers that she sinned,
because she knows herself forgiven.
We don’t completely forget our past,
but neither do we dwell there.
We may celebrate it or mourn it
or sometimes do both things as once,
but it doesn’t define us.
Baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus,
we are defined by “the prize of God’s upward calling,”
we are defined by God’s kingdom:
being formed among us even now by God’s Spirit
whose fullness we still yearn form.
We reach out for that future,
we strain toward it,
we let the Spirit lift us into God’s reign.

In The Divine Comedy,
before Dante can pass from Purgatory into Paradise,
he is immersed in the waters of Lethe,
the ancient Greek river of forgetting,
and the memory of his past sins are washed away.
Beatrice—his muse and guide—
then leads him to drink from the river Eunoƫ,
which restores to him the memory
of the good he has done in his life.
He still knows he had sinned
because he knows himself forgiven,
but he no longer dwells in that past.
He remembers the good that he had done,
but now knows that good to be God’s gift.
For Dante, these rivers speak
of the waters of Baptism:
the waters of life that God can make flow
through the driest deserts of despair,
the waters of a hope that calls us
out of our past and into God’s future.
He writes,
“From these holiest waters I returned
to her reborn, a tree renewed, in bloom
with newborn foliage, immaculate,
eager to rise, now ready for the stars” (Purgatorio 33:142-145).

Our celebration of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus
is rapidly approaching.
These most holy days are not only
days of remembering past events
but also days of reaching out and touching the future
that God has promised to us in Jesus’ resurrection,
when every tear shall be wiped away,
every stain of sin washed clean,
every wounded memory healed,
so that we, like the people of Israel,
like Paul the zealous persecutor,
like the woman caught in adultery,
might be reborn,
eager to rise, now ready for the stars.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Lent 1


Readings: Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Roman 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13

Doesn’t it seem like Jesus
makes resisting demonic temptations look easy—
maybe a little too easy?
First, Jesus doesn’t seem at all frightened by the devil.
Luke doesn’t tell us what the devil looked like,
but Jesus seems completely unruffled
by whatever form it is in which the devil appears.
Second, Jesus never seems to be seriously tempted
by the devil’s offers of food, fortune, and fame.
He acts as if he is completely unmoved
by these undeniably desirable things.
Third, Jesus seems to know exactly what to say
in response to the devil’s temptations.
Rejecting the devil’s attempt to engage him,
the appropriate verses of Scripture
come effortlessly to Jesus’ lips
and effectively silence the devil.

To be honest,
were I in that situation,
I can’t imagine it turning out quite the same.
First, I would be terrified
by the sight of the devil,
who I’m pretty sure looks something
like a cross between Godzilla and a giant housefly.
Second, while I might be able to resist
temptations to fortune and fame
(but who am I kidding?),
after forty days in the desert I’d be hungry
and I’m pretty sure I would turn the rocks
not just into bread
but maybe into a nice juicy cheeseburger.
Third, despite my fear,
I would undoubtedly chat with the devil
at great length,
flattered that such an important entity
saw fit to tempt me.
And if I thought to quote scripture to him
I am pretty sure that it would be
some wildly inappropriate verse
that would occur to me,
like, “You must also make linen pants for them,
to cover their naked flesh
from their loins to their thighs”
or, maybe, “As dogs return to their vomit,
so fools repeat their folly.”
In other words,
I have a hard time relating to Jesus
when it comes to his temptations in the desert.
I don’t think I would find resisting those temptations
as easy as Jesus seems to.
The letter to the Hebrews says that Jesus was
“tempted in every way that we are, yet without sin.”
It’s that “without sin” part that sends me scurrying for excuses.

The easiest excuse, of course,
is that I, unlike Jesus, am not the incarnate Son of God;
I am not the Word who was with God in the beginning;
my human nature is not hypostatically united
to the divine nature.
Clearly Jesus has superpowers that give him
an unfair advantage.
Who could blame me if I,
lacking such powers,
were to succumb to demonic temptation?

But, at least in this case,
the relevant difference between Jesus and me
is not that he is God and I am not.
The difference between Jesus and me
is that he is unafraid to be fully human and I am.
He is unafraid to be hungry,
to be powerless,
to be unknown and unacknowledged by the world,
while I hide from my humanity
and the neediness and fragility that comes with it.
I want to be able to turn stones to bread
to always supply my physical wants.
I want to have power and wealth
to always control the people and things around me.
I want acknowledgement and notoriety from the world
to validate my shaky sense of self-worth.
In facing the devil’s temptations
it is not the divine power that Jesus possesses
that separates me from him,
but rather his embrace of human weakness,
his lack of illusion about what being human entails.

In our first reading, from the book of Deuteronomy,
Moses instructs the people of Israel
to embrace their identity as God’s people
as they present the firstfruits of their harvest at the Temple,
an identity grounded in their need for God.
At the very moment when they might be tempted to think
that they are doing something great for God,
supplying some divine need,
Moses tells them to recite and recall their story:
the story of how God rescued their ancestor from slavery
and gave them the very land that has produced their offering.
He tells them to remember that anything they do for God
is but a pale echo of what God has always already done for them.
He tells them to embrace their humanity in its neediness
even as they offer their gifts to God, saying:
“I have now brought you the firstfruits
of the products of the soil
which you, O LORD, have given me.”

In his letter to the Romans,
Paul too reminds his readers
that their salvation is not something
that they have procured for themselves
but is what God has wrought for them
in raising Jesus from the dead.
He reminds us that it is not
in our possessions or power or popular acclaim
that we find our salvation,
but in calling upon the Lord in our neediness,
in confessing with our lips and believing in our heart
what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.

And we too should remember and recite
all that God has done to bring us through
in our moments of weakness and need,
which, let’s face it, is every moment of our lives.
Lent gives us a season to turn
from our illusions of self-sufficiency,
with which the tempter entices us,
back to the God who supplies our need.
It is a second chance to embrace and love
in all its fragility and poverty
the humanity that God has given us.
It is a second chance to remain hungry,
so that we may be filled by God,
to remain powerless,
so that we may be lifted up by God,
to remain unknown and unacknowledged by the world,
so that we may be known and loved by God.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

4th Sunday of Ordinary Time


Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19; 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13; Luke 4:21-30

I have preached a lot of sermons
on the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
This is, of course, because it is a favorite choice for weddings.
After all, it uses the word “love” eight times.
But how we hear texts can change
depending on the contexts in which we hear them.
Paul’s hymn to love sound different
when sandwiched between our first reading and our Gospel for today,
which deal with the prophetic missions of Jeremiah and Jesus.
What does love look like when we put it in the context
of Jeremiah’s mission to speak a word of judgment against his own people,
or of Jesus’ saying, “no prophet is accepted in his own native place”?
And what does the prophetic call to speak God’s truth look like
when read through the lens of Paul’s hymn to love?

The first thing we might note
is that if we take Jesus and Jeremiah as our models,
there should be no conflict
between words of prophecy and words of love.
Even difficult truths can be spoken out of great love.
Of course, sometimes people claim that they are being prophetic
when actually they are just being jerks.
As Paul writes, “if I have the gift of prophecy,
and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge;
if I have all faith so as to move mountains,
but do not have love, I am nothing.”
Elsewhere Paul writes of “speaking the truth in love.”
You can be right without speaking righteously,
that is, with love.
When we must speak a hard truth
we can wield it as a weapon
with which to wound those
with whom we are in conflict.
Or our words can convey a love
that, as Paul says, “rejoices with the truth.”

Second, when we have spoken the truth in love,
when we have said the hard but necessary
things that need to be said,
we might even so meet opposition
and find our words are rejected.
Do we turn our backs and walk away,
retreating to nurse our bruised egos?
If we have been motivated by love in our speaking,
we will have the persistence of a Jeremiah or a Jesus
in proclaiming the truth, no matter what the cost.
If truth is joined to love in our words,
then God will say to us what God said to Jeremiah:
“They will fight against you but not prevail over you,
for I am with you to deliver you.”
If we look to Jesus
as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,
then we can embrace the cross of rejection
in sure and certain hope of truth’s resurrection.
If our words of truth are spoken in love
we can endure rejection
because, as Paul says, love
“bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.”

Third, even as we speak the truth
with love and persistence,
we should take to heart Paul’s words:
“we know partially and we prophesy partially…
At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror.”
Jesus was God’s Word incarnate;
he saw truth not indistinctly, but face to face;
he knew his Father even as he was known.
His words were perfect in love
and, therefore, perfect in truth.
But, not to put too fine a point on it,
last time I checked, none of you is Jesus.
And, just to be clear, neither am I.
Neither you nor I have a pure intuition of the truth;
neither you nor I can peer into the human heart.
Because we know in part and prophesy in part
we must speak the truth we know
with a certain humility,
a certain willingness to listen,
seeking to hear in the words of others
that part of the truth that our words lack.
So while holding fast to the truth we have seen,
to the wisdom we have been given,
we must speak that truth with a love that
is not pompous,
is not inflated,
is not rude.
In this life, even for a saint,
it will be through our love,
not through our knowledge,
that we will be most like Christ.

So we must proclaim the truth
with love,
with persistence,
and with a measure of humility.
Paul’s hymn to love should guide us
when we need to speak a difficult truth
to a family member or a friend.
We must walk a narrow path
in speaking with both love and firmness,
in being persistent while acknowledging
that we do not speak with full knowledge,
in being open to revising our estimate of the situation
without being a pushover or letting ourselves be manipulated.
Likewise, in our public discourse,
these days there is not a lot of truth being spoken in love.
In some cases, of course, the issue is a failure to be truthful.
But even when truth is spoken,
we should ask: is it being spoken in love
or is it being spoken in a way that is dismissive and destructive;
is it spoken with contempt for the stupidity of our opponents?
Both in our personal and in our public lives
we need to examine our consciences and ask,
“am I speaking the truth in love”?

Even once we have examined our consciences
the challenges of speaking the truth with love remain.
How do you speak with love when confronting someone
about an addiction or an unhealthy relationship?
How do you share the wisdom you have found
without being overbearing or coercive?
How do you denounce injustice or express righteous anger
without demonizing those who disagree?

In the face of these challenges,
we should take comfort in the words of Paul:
“love never fails.”
For the love that never fails
is not our faltering human love,
but God’s love,
the love that is God’s gift to us in Jesus,
poured into our hearts through God’s Spirit.
Let us allow that love that never fails
to grow ever stronger in us,
so that love’s truth may be proclaimed
in our words and in our deeds.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Baptism of the Lord


Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7; Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

Today’s celebration
of the Baptism of Jesus as a young man,
just a much as last week’s celebration
of the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus,
is the celebration of an “epiphany,”
a “manifestation,”
an event that shows forth and reveals
the identity of Jesus as God’s anointed,
the beloved Son with whom God is well-pleased.
Indeed, the Baptism of Jesus is a manifestation
not only of the identity of Jesus as God’s beloved,
but also of the mystery of the Trinity:
Jesus the eternal Son, born now in time,
upon who the Father sends the Holy Spirit
as he begins his time of public ministry.
The infinite, timeless dance of love that is God
shows itself in this particular historical moment,
and from this moment flows forth all that would follow:
Jesus’ proclamation of God’s reign,
the saving sacrifice of his passion and death,
the new dawn of his life-giving resurrection and ascension.

In our own baptisms,
we become sharers in this epiphany.
The sacrament of baptism is an epiphany of grace;
it shows the reality of God’s love
in a way that makes that love present
in this historical moment,
making us a new creation in Christ.
We become by grace what Jesus is by nature:
to everyone who rises from the waters of baptism God says,
“This is my beloved son.”
“This is my beloved daughter.”
Through baptism we share in the identity of Jesus
and become a part of that infinite, timeless love that is God.

But what does this really mean?
What does it actually look like
to become by grace what Jesus is by nature,
to live as a son or daughter of God?
I would suggest that to be baptized into Christ
is to be invited to live out the drama of our lives
against the backdrop of an infinite horizon.
We humans can be tempted to constrain our lives
within the comfortable confines of the knowable,
to find meaning in what we at least think we have in our control:
a career or a family,
an ethnic identity or a political ideology,
accumulated honors or achievements.
But to be baptized into Christ is to be called
beyond a life that we can control
into the wild adventure of the reign of God,
into the dizzying world-turned-upside-down
that bursts into our ordinary lives through faith in Jesus.
To be baptized into Christ is
to live within the mystery of God,
the infinite, timeless dance of love
that is the source of all life.

To put it another way,
we who have been baptized into Christ have become,
as St. Paul puts it in our second reading,
“heirs in hope to eternal life.”
If we Christians fail as Christians,
it is in hoping for too little.
We might think of the baptism of Jesus
not just as the epiphany of his divine identity
but as the epiphany of hope,
for through it we are invited to an infinite hope,
a hope for nothing less than everything.
As St. Paul wrote to the Christians of Corinth,
“everything belongs to you… the world or life or death,
or the present or the future: all belong to you,
and you to Christ, and Christ to God” (1 Cor. 3:21-23).
This hope for everything
is planted in the hearts of all who surrender
the controllable hopes that they have for lesser things.
It is not a hope only for the strong or the wise,
for the rich or the powerful,
but for each and every life newborn in Christ,
no matter how young or how old,
how famous or how obscure,
how blessed with joys or how afflicted with sorrow.
Each is a life of infinite value,
the life of a son or daughter of God,
a life that counts in the eyes of God.

To we who have been baptized God says,
hope for everything.
Hope for the reign of God to be made real in you
and live a life that risks radical love;
hope to know the saving passion of Jesus in your own life
and grow in compassion for all who suffer;
hope to know the new creation that triumphs in Christ’s resurrection
and live fearlessly in the face of opposition and misunderstanding;
hope that the you may one day join your voice
to the hymn of all creation,
and praise without ceasing the eternal love
in which we live and move and have our being.
For everything is yours,
and you are Christ’s,
and Christ is God’s.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Advent 4


Readings: Micah 5:1-4a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45

Mary comes to Elizabeth
with a new world in her womb.
Of course, every child who is born
brings with it a new world,
for every person who enters our world changes it:
relationships are reconfigured,
a unique perspective is introduced,
history is set on a new trajectory.

But in the case of Mary,
the new world in her womb is something
even more radically new:
a world in which the mighty are cast from their thrones
and the lowly are lifted up,
a world in which the hungry are filled with good things
and the rich are sent away empty,
a world in which God and humanity are united
and heaven joined to earth.

Mary comes to Elizabeth with Jesus in her womb,
the new creation that God had wrought
in the midst of the old creation,
the new world of blessing
in the old world of curse,
the new world of mercy
in the old world of judgment,
the new world of peace
in the old world of violence.

Within the womb of his mother Elizabeth,
John the Baptist, the last prophet of the old covenant,
he who stands at its edge
and looks into the new world that is coming,
leaps with joy at the new thing God has wrought:
curse usurped by blessing,
judgment passing into mercy,
swords beaten into ploughshares,
heaven wed to earth in the person of Jesus.
For Mary does not bear blessing, mercy, and peace
in her womb as abstract concepts,
but as a person.
The new world that Mary carries in her womb
is not an idea, an ideal, or an ideology,
but Jesus himself.
Jesus is the new creation;
in him the reign of God takes flesh.
He comes not to give us new information about God
but to dwell among us as Emmanuel, God with us.
He comes not to give us a new set of moral rules
but to display in his living and dying and rising
the contours of new life in the reign of God.

Mary visits her kinswoman Elizabeth
with this new world in her womb.
And we are invited to share
in Mary’s ministry of visitation.
As St. Ambrose put it,
“Christ had only one mother in the flesh,
but we all bring forth Christ in faith.”
Just as Mary brought joy to Elizabeth and John
through the new creation that she bore within her,
we too are called to bring joy to a world that waits
for blessing, mercy, and peace.
Through the gift of faith, we too
bear glad tidings of the new creation:
the world of the mighty cast down
and the lowly lifted up,
the world of the hungry filled
and the rich left empty,
the world of heaven joined to earth
and God made flesh.
And this privilege that we share with Mary,
the privilege of bearing Christ to the world,
should be for us a cause of great joy.

But we have even greater cause for joy
for the mystery here is even greater.
We do not simply bring news of the new creation,
but we are that new creation.
St. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth,
“if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:
everything old has passed away;
see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17).
Through faith and Baptism
we have become members of Christ’s body,
members of that new creation
that Mary bore in her womb.
This means that we, like Jesus,
do not present the waiting world
with an idea or an ideal or an ideology;
we offer no new information or rules of conduct;
we present no comprehensive plan for peace.
Rather, we reveal through our being together in Christ,
in our living and dying and rising together in Christ,
the contours of the new world
waiting to be born in its fullness
but already present in mystery,
present when we gather as Christ’s body
to hear his word and celebrate his Eucharist,
to worship in Jesus’ name
and serve him in the stranger and the hungry one,
those who are sick and those imprisoned.

But until the return of Christ
the presence of the new creation
remains a hidden presence,
veiled in sacrament and mystery,
hidden within our imperfect worship
and our stumbling attempts at serving,
hidden like the child within Mary’s womb.
The new world born in Christ in Bethlehem
still awaits its birth in us
because Christ is not yet fully formed in us.
The old creation continues within us its life
of curse and judgment and violence,
but in Jesus the victory of the new world is certain.
We feel in ourselves still
the sorrows of the old creation,
but, with the eyes of faith,
we know these now
as the birth pangs of the new creation,
the pain of old things passing
and everything becoming new.

In these final days of Advent waiting,
let us not grow drowsy,
intoxicated by the anxieties of daily life,
mired in the sorrows of the old creation,
but let us yearn more eagerly
for Christ to be formed in us,
for the new world to be brought forth in joy,
for the full unveiling of the new creation.