Sunday, December 2, 2018

Advent 1


Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2; Luke 21:25-28, 34-36

In our Gospel reading today,
Jesus warns his followers not to let their hearts
“become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness
and the anxieties of daily life,”
so that the day of judgment not
“catch you by surprise like a trap.”
Now this is an interesting trio:
carousing, drunkenness, and daily anxiety.
While the temptation posed
by carousing and drunkenness
might seem obvious,
it is at first glance hard to imagine
being tempted by the anxieties of daily life.
While someone might say to us,
“hey, let’s go out carousing tonight and get drunk”
(it is, after all, the season of office Christmas parties),
you rarely hear someone say,
“hey, let’s hangout this evening and fret over our lives.”
Jesus seems to suggest, however, that it is
not only late-night partying and drunken revelry
that can make us inattentive
to the dawning of God’s kingdom in our world,
but also our anxious concern over all the things
that seem to demand our immediate attention,
the things we think of as making up
the fabric of our lives.
Anxiety can be intoxicating.

Though we might acknowledge
carousing and drunkenness as vices,
we can be tempted to think
of the anxieties of daily life as a sign of virtue.
I don’t mean the anxiety that some people
suffer as a psychological affliction,
over which they have no control
and from which they pray to be freed.
I mean the kind of anxiety
that we cultivate as a sign
that we are serious people
who have serious obligations
and who take our obligations seriously,
that we are important people,
who have been entrusted with important tasks
that will simply not get done if we do not do them,
that we are complex people whose complex lives
require constant attention
if they are not to come crashing down.
To be consumed with anxiety about our lives
can be a way of signaling to others and to ourselves
just how virtuous we are.
Our daily anxieties can become as intoxicating
as carousing and drunkenness,
like a drug that dulls our awareness that,
at the end of our days,
there is only one thing that matters:
the reign of God that is made present to us
in Jesus Christ.

It is noteworthy that the Greek word
translated here as “anxieties” (merimnais)
also occurs in Luke’s Gospel
when Jesus visits the home
of Mary and Martha of Bethany.
Martha, bustling about tending
to the practical needs of their guests,
asks Jesus to scold her sister Mary,
who sits at Jesus’ feet, listening to his words.
Jesus says to her, “Martha, Martha,
you are anxious and worried about many things.
There is need of only one thing.
Mary has chosen the better part
and it will not be taken from her” (10:41-42).
Martha is clearly not someone prone
to carousing and drunkenness;
she is a serious and important person
with a complicated and busy life.
But her anxiety over many things
makes her blind to the one thing necessary:
to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to his words.

Just as Jesus gently chides Martha,
so too he warns us today
about being anxious and worried
over the myriad tasks and obligations
that we have taken on or that have befallen us
and missing the one thing necessary,
the one thing truly worthy of our concern:
to look constantly for the appearing of Christ our judge.
Just as Mary of Bethany made the presence of Jesus
the sole object of her concern,
so too we should “be vigilant at all times”
and pray that we will have the strength
“to stand before the Son of Man”
in the day of final judgment.
There is nothing like keeping
the end of the world before your eyes
to focus the mind on what is really essential,
on the one thing necessary.

But the Advent season is not just about
anticipating Jesus’s return at the end of history.
It is about looking for the appearance
of Jesus in our daily lives,
those lives that are the object of our anxiety.
We, like Martha, can let anxiety over many things
dull our awareness to the one thing necessary
that is right here among us,
in the midst of our daily tasks:
in the words of Scripture in our ears,
in the sacrament of the Eucharist in our mouths,
in the poor and the needy in our world.

Our culture’s way of celebrating the Winter holidays
not only increases carousing and drunkenness,
but it also increases the anxieties of daily life:
we shop for a long list of perfect gifts
as we worry about a dwindling bank account;
we prepare for a visit to family members
by anxiously comparing our achievements to theirs
and fondly revisiting old hurts and grudges;
we scramble to finish papers for school
or projects for work
so that we can spend an anxious holiday
fretting about upcoming tasks that await us.
In the midst of all of this
it is difficult to practice the Advent waiting
to which God calls us in these days.
But it is precisely in keeping Advent as a season
of attentive waiting for the appearance of Jesus in our lives,
that we can awaken from the drowsiness of daily anxieties.
To make time to reflect on God’s word in Scripture,
to be more intentional about our participation in the Eucharist,
to seek the face of Jesus in the poor and the outcast—
these might seem like just more tasks
added to our already anxious lives,
but they are the one thing necessary:
they are what will wake us
from anxiety’s intoxication,
they are what will give us life,
they are what, as St. Paul says,
will make us “increase and abound
in love for one another and for all.”

Sunday, November 18, 2018

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Daniel 12:1-3; Hebrews 10:1-14, 18; Mark 13:24-32

Every November, as we approach Advent,
our Scripture readings take an apocalyptic turn,
pointing us to a last day of terrifying judgment.
The prophet Daniel speaks of a coming time,
“unsurpassed in distress,”
when “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth
shall awaken” to divine judgment.
The letter to the Hebrews speaks of Christ,
our high priest seated at God’s right hand,
awaiting the day when
“his enemies are made his footstool.”
And Jesus in the Gospel speaks
of a time of tribulation and the days that follow,
when “the sun will be darkened
and the moon will not give its light
and the stars will be falling from the sky,
and the powers in the heaven will be shaken.”
On that day, people will be gathered,
from east and west, north and south,
to stand before the judgment seat of the Son of Man.

We hear these and similar warnings each year at this time,
foretelling a collapse of the world as we know it
and a judgment by which our lives shall be measured.
But we have perhaps heard these and similar words so often
that their sharp edge has grown dull,
worn down by endless repetition
of warnings of a day that seems never to come,
an apocalypse that seems never to arrive.
Despite the dire warnings issued each November
the world seems to go on its way as usual.

But perhaps these words should not simply
direct our attention to a future time of judgment—
about which, Jesus tells us,
no one knows the day or the hour—
but to our own lives now,
to what we might call the ordinary apocalypses
by which the fragility of our lives is unveiled.
Most of us, I would dare to say,
know the experience of having our world collapse
and of finding our lives measured by circumstances
and, seemingly, found wanting.
Perhaps I experience a professional disappointment
and the plans I had developed for my life
crumble in my hands.
Perhaps I lose a person whom I love,
through physical death or the death of a relationship,
and the one who served as a pillar of my world
is suddenly gone
and the ground trembles beneath my feet.
Perhaps I look at my efforts
to build a more just, kind, peaceful world
and see a world grown only ever more
unjust, cruel, and brutal
and my dreams of a better future
fall like the stars from the heavens.
This is the daily apocalypse of my life:
my world collapses
and my dreams and my desires,
my loves and my labors,
seem suddenly paltry and fragile and even foolish.

The 14th-century mystic Julian of Norwich
writes of a vision she received
in which she saw in the palm of her hand
a small object, about the size of a hazelnut,
and heard a voice that told her
that this was everything that God had made.
She saw the entire universe
as something tiny, something fragile,
when measured by the infinite power
and eternity of God,
and she wondered how it could ever last.
And the voice said to her,
“It lasts, and ever shall last, because God loves it.”
She writes, “we need to know the littleness of creatures
and to see the nothingness of everything that is created,
in order to love and have God, who is uncreated.”
If we pour ourselves into this fragile world—
investing our worldly dreams and desires,
our loves and labors,
with ultimate significance—
then we will be crushed when they inevitably collapse.
Julian writes, “this is reason why we are not at ease
in our heart and soul:
we seek rest here in those things that are so little,
where there is no rest,
and know not our God
who is all-powerful,
all-wise,
all-good.”
God allows Julian to see that creation is nothing,
apart from the love by which God sustains it.
But God also allows her to see
in the fragility of creation,
in the fragility of human hope,
the love of God shining through.
In the midst of a world that is perpetually passing away,
the power, wisdom, and goodness of God remains,
offering hope that everything in our life
that we love for the sake of God
will not be lost but will return to us
in Christ’s kingdom of love.
God gives Julian the insight that our world—
the world of our dreams and desires,
our loves and labors—
is both fragile and finite,
and yet sustained at every moment
by the infinite love of God.
And to live in this world
we must place our hope in that love.
As Martin Luther King Jr. put it,
the answer to a life of shattered dreams,
“lies in developing the capacity
to accept the finite disappointment
and yet cling to the infinite hope.”

In Scripture, apocalyptic warning
is ultimately a message of infinite hope.
Jesus promises us today,
“heaven and earth will pass away,
but my words will not pass away.”
In the midst of a world
where our dreams and our desires,
our loves and our labors,
crumble around us,
where the light of love is darkened
and the stars of hope fall from our skies
we are invited to rest in Jesus’ words:
in his promise of victory over death,
in his promise of a world of justice and peace,
in his promise of love that endures.
And resting in those words,
sustained by the power, wisdom, and goodness
that knows neither limit nor change,
we rise again from the death of disappointment,
to dream and desire and love and labor once again,
as we journey on toward the fullness of God’s kingdom.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Deuteronomy 6:2-6; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 12:28b-34

A little over a week after the murder
by an anti-Semitic white nationalist
of eleven worshippers
at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh,
our scriptures remind us
of how much we Christians owe
to the Jewish people,
whom Pope John Paul II called
our elder brothers and sisters
in the faith of Abraham.
In our first reading,
from the Book of Deuteronomy,
we hear the words of the Shema,
which has been described
as the closest thing Judaism has to a creed:
Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad
“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God; the Lord is one!”
And if God is one,
then we must love this God not half-heartedly,
but with every fiber of our being:
“Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your strength.”
The one God demands of people
a single-hearted love.
Devout Jews recite the Shema each day
as part of their morning and evening prayers
to remind themselves of who God is
and who they are called to be.
The rabbis called the act of reciting the Shema
“receiving the yoke
of the kingdom of heaven.” (Berakhot Mishnah 2:5);
to say these words is to commit oneself
to the joyful task of bearing the burden
of faith in the one God.

In today’s Gospel reading,
the words of the Shema are quoted by Jesus
in response to the scribe’s question,
“Which is the first of all the commandments?”
We can presume that Jesus, as a devout Jew,
had these words on his lips twice daily,
so he probably did not have to ponder too long
as to what was the first and greatest commandment.
And he probably did have to ponder too long
before adding as the second commandment
words from the book of Leviticus:
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
For this too is fundamental to Judaism:
love of God and love of neighbor—
the first and second tables of the Law—
are inextricably linked.
Jesus bore within himself the faith of Israel,
and as members of his body
we too bear this faith,
we too receive the joyful yoke
of the kingdom of heaven.

I do not want to minimize the theological differences
between Christians and Jews.
Christians, for example, interpret the Oneness of God
that the Shema proclaims
in such a way as to include the divine Threeness
of Father, Son, and Spirit—
a notion that Jews generally find odd, to say the least.
And, as we hear today in the Letter to the Hebrews,
Christians ascribe to Jesus an eternal priesthood,
seeing in his death and resurrection
the source of the world’s salvation,
another notion that Jews find odd, to say the least.
But our honest acknowledgement of such differences
must not blind us to what we share:
faith in the one God, who is the God of all peoples,
the command to love this God with undivided love,
and the knowledge that love of God calls us
to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
We too must each day and night
take up the yoke of the kingdom of heaven.

The murders at the Tree of Life synagogue
were not only a human horror,
but did violence to our common faith.
This act assaulted the idea that God is one God,
caring and providing for everyone on earth.
It trampled on the idea of single-hearted love of God
by desecrating the sabbath worship of God’s people.
It slaughtered the command to love our neighbor
as we love ourselves.
It shattered the yoke of the kingdom of God.

How do we respond to such violence and hatred?
Not with our own retaliatory hatred,
but with the love that the Shema commands,
and with a renewed commitment to this common faith.
This violence can only be repaired by God,
but we remind ourselves day and night
of this God, to whom we owe single-hearted love,
and of the neighbor whom we love for the sake of this God.
We should recite these words
before reading the news or casting a vote;
we should teach these words to our children,
until they are written on their hearts;
we should constantly ask ourselves
what our lives ought to look like
if we truly love the one God with all our heart
and with all our soul
and with all our strength,
and if we truly love our neighbor as ourselves.
If we take upon our shoulders
the joyful yoke of this common faith,
perhaps Jesus will say to us
what he said to the scribe:
“You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Wisdom 7:7-11; Hebrews 4:12-13; Mark 10:17-30

If Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel
do not make most of us profoundly uncomfortable
then we are not really paying attention.
“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Maybe we are not paying attention to the words themselves
or maybe we are not paying attention to our own lives.
Even with our genuine struggles
trying to pay tuitions or credit card debt
or a mortgage or medical bills,
we citizens of the modern developed world
still live in a material abundance
that surpasses the richest person of Jesus’ day
and most people alive in our own day.
“How hard it is for those who have wealth
to enter the kingdom of God.”
As the Letter to the Hebrews says,
“the word of God…is sharper than any two-edged sword…
everything is naked and exposed to the eyes
of him to whom we must render an account.”
If we are not squirming,
if we are not feeling God’s word
penetrating to the deepest thoughts of our hearts,
then we are not paying attention.

But Jesus is not, I think, simply trying to make us feel guilty—
though exploiting the motivating power of guilt
is a fine Catholic tradition that I, as a parent, approve of.
Nor is he saying that our prosperity is somehow in itself evil.
Jesus’ concern for the rich man who asks him,
“what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
is not simply that he make himself poor.
The key to understanding Jesus’ words to the rich man is not
“Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor”
but what follows: “then come, follow me.”
Like Solomon in our first reading,
Jesus calls the rich man to give up what he has
in order to gain something far more valuable,
the heavenly treasure of wisdom.
Jesus, divine wisdom made flesh,
calls him to give up everything that holds him back
from being his disciple,
everything that holds him back
from following in the way of wisdom,
which is Jesus’ way of cross and resurrection.
The act of giving his wealth to the poor
is simply the prelude to following Jesus.

It is true that it is often our material possessions
that hold us back,
the things that we accumulate
and on which we stake our happiness,
which form a wall around us
to protect us from God and from other people.
But that protective wall
can be built of other, less tangible, things as well:
our self-image,
our reputation,
our ideologies,
our compulsions and our addictions.
These are all burdens that Jesus calls us to give up
in order to be free to follow him on the path of discipleship.
But can we answer this call?
Can we become free enough to follow Jesus' way?
We are, after all, just ordinary people.

Today in Rome, in the solemn rite of canonization,
the Church declared Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador,
who was killed by a government death squad
while celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980,
to be a saint.
When he became bishop of San Salvador in 1977
Romero was seen
by both the government and the Church
as an ordinary bishop, a “safe” bishop:
one who was traditional in his theology
and unwilling to interfere in politics,
one who would not cause trouble.
But when priests who worked among the poor
and advocated for their rights
began turning up dead,
killed by government-sponsored death squads,
Romero’s eyes were opened
to the plight of the poor in his country,
and he began speaking out against government repression.
The day before he was killed,
he made a direct appeal to the soldiers in the military:
“No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God.
No one has to obey an immoral law.
It is high time you recovered your consciences
and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order…
In the name of God,
in the name of this suffering people
whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day,
I implore you,
I beg you,
I order you in the name of God:
stop the repression.”

Like the rich man in today’s Gospel,
Oscar Romero heard the call of Jesus to give up everything—
the favor of Church and State,
his previous ideas of what it meant to be a bishop,
and ultimately even his life—
in order to learn true wisdom
by following Jesus on the way of the cross.
His example pleads with us,
just as he pleaded with the soldiers of El Salvador,
to value the wisdom of God above all else,
to let the two-edged sword of God’s word
probe our consciences,
to listen to the voice of God
and be willing to surrender everything for the sake of God.

Oscar Romero was an ordinary man,
someone who, like us, lived behind protective walls
of money and power,
of ideology and self-image,
of reputation and prestige.
But Jesus called him forth from that ordinary life
and stripped him of every worldly protection
and placed him amidst the demonic powers of hatred and greed
with nothing except the love of God to clothe him,
nothing but the cross of Christ to shelter him.
God made this ordinary man a saint
by teaching him the wisdom of the cross.
And God will make us saints as well,
if we are willing to practice the daily discipline
of paying attention to Jesus’ call
to come follow him,
of paying attention to our lives
and all that holds us back from answering that call,
of opening ourselves to the grace
that can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.
Saint Oscar Romero,
pray for us.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

A Wedding Homily


Readings: Genesis 2:18-24; 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:8a; Matthew 5:13-16

I take it to be a fairly uncontroversial remark—
indeed, maybe one of the few uncontroversial remarks
one can make these days—
to say that we live in a divided world.
At this historical moment,
more than at any other point in my life that I can remember,
our world seems to be pulling apart
along the lines of different political ideologies,
different races,
different economic classes,
different worldviews.
And while some seem to revel in those divisions,
seemingly intent on making them deeper,
most of us, whatever side we find ourselves on,
feel the pain of those divisions
which often cut through families and friendships,
churches and neighborhoods.
The rhetoric gets louder
and the arguments get uglier,
and our ability to find good
in those with whom we disagree
diminishes daily.

And in the midst of this division
we have come here today to celebrate unity.
We have come to celebrate the uniting of S--- and R---
in the covenant of marriage.
We have come to celebrate as well
the uniting of the D--- and J--- families.
We have gathered people from different places
into this place, this house of God,
people who undoubtedly have different political philosophies
and conflicting worldviews,
who differ on question of economics and immigration
and constitutional interpretation,
in order to celebrate the union of S--- and R---
as they speak their vows to each other
and become for each other, as the book of Genesis says,
“flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone.”
And what has drawn all of us here together is love:
the love that each of you has for S--- and R---,
and the love that they have for each other,
love that they consecrate to God on this day.

This is the love that is God’s gift,
the love of which St. Paul speaks in our second reading,
love that does not seek its own interest,
that is not quick-tempered,
that rejoices in truth.
This is the love that in our divided world
seeks to heal the wounds of division
by bearing all thing, believing all things,
hoping all things, enduring all things.
This is the love that makes the followers of Jesus
a light for the world,
shining so that people can see the path
to God’s kingdom of peace and unity.
This is the same love that will unite R--- and S--- in marriage.

In the Catholic tradition we believe marriage to be a sacrament.
This means not only that it is a source of grace to those who share in it,
but also that it is a sacred sign,
something visible and tangible that shows forth God’s love.

S--- and R---, in entering into holy matrimony,
you not only receive God’s sacramental grace,
but you become yourselves a sacred sign.
Becoming one flesh through the love you vow to each other
you are a sign of unity in our divided world.
When you hold tightly to each other for better and for worse,
through celebrations and successes,
through disagreements and disasters,
you show forth the unifying power of God’s love.
For those wounded by the world’s divisions
you can become, with the help of God’s grace,
a light that makes visible
the love that bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, and endures all things.

Our prayer for you this day
is also our prayer for our world:
that God’s grace will bless you abundantly
with love that overflows
into the lives of all you meet,
bringing peace and healing and unity.
We pray that you become in your life together
a sacred sign of the power of God to heal all division.
May God bless you on this day
and on every day of your life together.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Isaiah 35:4-7a; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37

Though we might think of Jesus’s healing
of the deaf man with a speech impediment
as simply one more of his miracles,
Christian have traditionally found a deeper,
more universal significance to this story,
seeing in the man’s deafness
a symbol of our human resistance
to receiving the good news of Jesus,
seeing in the man’s muteness
a symbol of all that holds us back
from proclaiming that good news to others.
We are the ones who are deaf and mute:
our ears shut to the Gospel that promises life,
our lips sealed to the truth we are called to profess.
We are the ones to whom Jesus speaks the word,
Ephphatha—be opened.

This is true of each us in our individual lives.
Why are we so deaf to the voice of God,
particularly when God’s calls
from unexpected quarters,
asking of us unexpected things?
We might be deaf to the voice of God
because the ears of our hearts
have grown dull to the subtle tones
with which God often speaks to us,
the quite whisper that is the breath of the Spirit.
We might be deaf to the voice of God
because we fear that if we hear and answer
we may have to change,
we may have to turn our lives
around and upside down
in order to follow Jesus
on the path of cross and resurrection.
We might be deaf to the voice of God
because our ears are so full of other voices,
voices that tell us that our main job
is to “look out for number one,”
voices that tell us that we should curry favor
with the rich and the powerful,
voices that tell us to be realistic
and that it is not true
that God can make a way
out of no way.

Why are we so mute when it comes
to speaking the truth of God?
Even if our ears have been opened
to hear the good news,
and it has taken root in our hearts,
when it comes to sharing that good news
we often censor ourselves out of fear:
fear of offending others,
or perhaps fear of losing their approval.
Why are we so mute when it comes
to speaking the truth about ourselves,
admitting our fears and failings?
I feel this muteness in myself
when I find myself avoiding
the sacrament of reconciliation,
knowing that confessing my sins
before another human being
will not simply be embarrassing
(mainly because my sins
are so mediocre and petty),
but also that it will force me
to face my true self
and open me to the radical possibilities
of God’s love.

To our deafness and muteness
Jesus says, Ephphatha—be opened.
Open your heart to receive the Gospel,
even if it will turn your life upside down;
open your lips to proclaim the truth,
even if you find it embarrassing,
open the very depths of your being
to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

This deafness and muteness is found
not simply in our individual lives as Christians,
but in our life together as a Church.
As we have again been reminded,
the Church can be resistant
to hearing the good news,
to welcoming the truth when it appears
in unexpected quarters:
in newspapers and grand jury reports,
on the lips of the abused and their families.
We as a Church can close our ears,
make ourselves deaf,
fearfully refusing the truth,
as if Jesus had not told us
that he himself is truth,
and that truth is the path to life.

We as a Church can also make ourselves mute.
We can refuse to speak the truth about the past,
locking it away in secret archives
and non-disclosure agreements.
And in doing so, we make ourselves
incapable of speaking the truth of the Gospel,
because, while we might loudly proclaim “Lord, Lord,”
the words we speak are mute in their hypocrisy.
Even Pope Francis,
who has been such an eloquent witness to Jesus,
has now muzzled his proclamation of the Gospel
by his refusal to address the accusation
that he overlooked the past abuses of Cardinal McCarrick.
There are certainly times to be silent in the face of accusation.
This is not one of those times.
In these times, a refusal to speak
cannot help but arouse the suspicion
that something is being hidden.

And to the deafness and muteness
of bishops and cardinals and Popes,
to the deafness and muteness
of the whole People of God,
Jesus says Ephphatha—be opened.
To hearts closed
to the transforming grace of the Spirit,
Jesus says, be opened!
To ears closed
to the voices of victims,
Jesus says, be opened!
To minds closed
to new ways of envisioning our life together,
Jesus says, be opened!
To sealed archives
and hidden histories,
to buried stories
and secret sins,
Jesus says, be opened!
Be opened, and let the light of Christ
come streaming in.
Be opened, and let the word of God
go streaming forth.
Be opened, for your God,
comes with vindication;
with divine recompense
he comes to save you.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Ephesians 5:2a, 25-32; John 6:60-69

Today’s readings seem almost tailor-made
for this moment in the Church’s life.
In the Gospel, many of those hearing Jesus’ words
are offended and walk away:
“many of his disciples returned to their former way of life
and no longer accompanied him.”
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians
we hear of Christ’s love for the Church,
“cleansing her by the bath of water with the word…
that she might be holy and without blemish.”
In our first reading, Joshua challenges the Israelites:
“decide today whom you will serve,”
and we hear them reaffirm their commitment to God:
“Far be it from us to forsake the Lord
for the service of other gods.”
It might seem that the obvious message today would be
an exhortation to stay committed to the Church,
to not walk away and return to your former way of life,
to not lose hope in the face of past and present scandals
but to trust in God’s power to cleanse and purify the Church
who despite all the sin and betrayal
remains Christ’s beloved bride.

That would be a pretty good homily.
In fact, that was more or less
the homily I preached two weeks ago.
And I would stand by all of what I said then,
even in light of the tidal wave of evidence
of misdeeds by priests and bishops
that crashed over the Church last week
with the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report.
I still feel that I must say with the apostles in today’s Gospel
“Master, to whom shall we go?
You have the words of eternal life.”

But I don’t think that this
is what the Spirit is saying to the Church
in today’s scriptures.
I believe that today the Spirit
is exhorting all of us to speak truthfully.
Because in today’s scriptures
it is not any misdeed that offends people,
it is not any scandal or sin that sends them away,
but it is the life-giving words of Jesus—
words that are Spirit and life—
at which they take offense.
It is one thing to be scandalized by the sins
of those who claim to speak in Jesus’ name
and choose to follow another path;
it is something else to be scandalized
by Jesus’ words of Spirit and life
and choose to remain
in your untransformed way of life.
On the whole, I would say
that people today are not walking away from the Church
because they are offended by Jesus’ words.
That would be refreshing.
I think they leave because they have come
asking for the bread of life
and have been given a stone or a snake instead.
They come looking for the life-changing challenge
of being a disciple of the crucified and risen Jesus
and are all too often told to just sit there quietly
and not make too much noise.
They come looking for the community of the Spirit
and find an institution more concerned
with saving face than saving souls.

Our leaders bear much responsibility for this.
They bear responsibility because of the unspeakable acts
committed by a relatively small percentage of the clergy,
often against the weakest and most vulnerable
of Christ’s little ones.
They bear responsibility because of the cover-ups
perpetrated by a relatively large percentage of bishops,
who thought that the souls of these little ones
were worth sacrificing for the sake of the Church’s reputation.
They bear responsibility because they too often
have heard Jesus’s words of Spirit and life
and turned back to worship the gods of this world,
gods of pleasure and wealth and pretense,
gods who thrive on secrecy and lies.

Our leaders bear much responsibility.
But, in a different sense, we too bear a responsibility.
If we want a Church
that welcomes people into the adventure of discipleship,
that values truth over reputation,
that speaks words of Spirit and life,
then those words must come from our mouths.
This is the burden of our prophetic call
that we received at our baptisms.
I think of the victims of clerical abuse
and of their families,
who, when the powerful in the Church
told them to just sit there quietly,
raised their voices in divine outrage
and bore the cross of rejection and dismissal.
They bore that burden in hope
that speaking words of truth,
words of Spirit and life,
is more healing than suffering silence
and more powerful than face-saving lies.
They bore that burden
not only for themselves
but for all of us,
because only words of Spirit and life
can save us now.
But they should no longer bear that burden alone.
Let us take upon our own shoulders
the burden of truthful speaking,
by acknowledging the failings of the Church,
by working for a Church that can hear the truth,
by hoping for a Church that can truly be
“the church in splendor,
without spot or wrinkle or any such thing…
holy and without blemish.”
Let us speak Jesus' words of Spirit and life,
and let those who reject those words
turn away to serve other gods.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: 1 Kings 19:4-8; Ephesian 4:30-5:2; John 6:41-51

This past Friday the Church celebrated
the Feast of St. Lawrence,
a deacon of the Roman Church
in the middle of the third century,
who was killed during the persecution
launched by the Emperor Valerian
by being tied to a grill and roasted to death.
He is probably best known
for allegedly having said, in the midst of his torture,
“turn me over; I’m done on this side.”
As a result, he is the patron saint
of both cooks and comedians.
Less widely known,
though historically better attested,
is the story of how,
when he was arrested,
he was given three day
to turn over the treasure
of the Roman Church to the emperor.
As the chief deacon of Rome,
Lawrence had charge
of the Church’s financial resources,
as well as for providing care
for the poor and the sick of the city.
But rather than let the Emperor be further enriched
by his persecution of the Church,
Lawrence went and distributed
the resources of the Church
to the poor of the city of Rome.
He then brought a group of the poor
before the imperial officials,
saying, “These are the treasure of the Church.”
It was perhaps because of this insolence
that the emperor decreed
that he die a particularly painful death.

About a century and a half after his death in Rome,
Lawrence was remembered by St. Augustine
in a sermon preached in northern Africa.
Augustine connected Lawrence’s liturgical role as deacon,
distributing the chalice at communion,
with his role as martyr, witnessing to Christ:
“[In the city of Rome] he ministered
the sacred blood of Christ;
there for the sake of Christ’s name
he poured out his own blood” (Sermon 304).
In our Gospel reading today,
Jesus speaks of the Eucharist
as his gift of himself for our sakes,
so that we might have life:
“the bread that I will give
is my flesh for the life of the world.”
For us and for our salvation,
Jesus holds nothing back;
he gives himself wholly to God
so that he can give himself wholly to us.
Lawrence knew that to receive
the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist
is to receive his act of self-giving into ourselves
and to be transformed.
Augustine says, “Just as he had partaken of a gift of self
at the table of the Lord,
so he prepared to offer such a gift.
In his life he loved Christ;
in his death he followed in his footsteps” (Sermon 304).

Paul, in our second reading, underscores this same message:
“be imitators of God, as beloved children,
and live in love, as Christ loved us
and handed himself over for us
as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.”
We are all called to imitate Christ’s self-giving:
perhaps not like Lawrence,
being violently consumed by material fire
(though we should never forget that to this day
there are Christians around the world
who are laying down their lives for their faith),
but assuredly we must let ourselves be consumed
by the spiritual fire of love,
the fire that that burns away, in Paul’s words,
“all bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling”
and makes us “kind to one another,
compassionate, forgiving one another”
just as God has forgiven us in Christ.

Another deacon of the ancient Church,
Ephraem the Syrian,
wrote of the Eucharist:
“In your bread hides the Spirit
who cannot be consumed;
in your wine is the fire
that cannot be swallowed.
The Spirit in your bread,
fire in your wine:
behold a wonder heard from our lips.”
When at communion we say “amen”
to the words “The body of Christ,”
we are not simply saying that we believe
that Christ is truly present
under the appearances of bread and wine,
but we are saying “amen”—so be it—
to his entire life of self-sacrificial love;
we say “amen” to taking his spiritual fire
into our very selves
so that we can burn as beacons of love,
a love that is willing to surrender itself entirely
for God and our neighbor.

But all this sounds very idealistic
in the face of the present reality of our Church.
The past few weeks have revealed, once again,
the deep sickness of abuse and secrecy in the Church.
The recent revelations concerning
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick,
the retired Archbishop of Washington DC,
and his decades-long predatory sexual behavior
directed at priests, seminarians, and children,
is one more straw on the poor camel’s back,
one more case of the abuse of power in the Church,
one more case of we clergy closing ranks and covering up,
one more case of choosing the strong and the well-positioned
over the weak and the vulnerable.
And you, the people of God,
might feel that the time has come
to do what many have done already:
to just walk away and be done with it—
to be done with the abuse and the lies
and the broken promises.
I would be hard put to tell you
that you shouldn’t go.
But I will tell you this:
the Church is Ted McCarrick,
but it is also Lawrence of Rome.
The Church is filled with leaders
in whom the fire of spiritual love has grown cold
and been replaced with a passion for pleasure and power,
but it also has saints on fire with the love of Jesus,
who know that the Church’s true treasure
is found in the poor and the weak,
the outcast and the forgotten.
The body of Christ is infected
with a disease of abuse and deceit,
which can only be healed if we let a fever burn within it,
the fever of the love that burns in the heart of Jesus,
that burned in Lawrence,
that burns in us now through God’s Spirit;
the fever of a love that seeks justice for victims
and that holds the powerful accountable,
the fever of a love that can feel at times like rage
but burns with an intensity greater
than any bitterness, fury, and anger that we can muster.

I cannot ask you to stay by ignoring
the Ted McCarrick’s of the Church.
But I will ask you to stay
because of the Spirit in the bread
and the fire in the wine;
I will ask you to stay
because at the Lord’s table
where Lawrence’s soul caught fire
our hearts too can come to burn
with the love of Jesus,
the love that is the fever
that can purify and heal the Church.
I will ask you to stay because it is your Church.
Don’t let anyone take it from you.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15; Ephesians 4:17, 20-24; John 6:24-35

Homily preached at the 13th Annual Meeting of the Boston Colloquy in Historical Theology.

I am put in mind of our vocation
as historical theologians
when I hear of the Hebrews in today’s first reading,
given miraculous bread by the Lord
to sustain them on their desert journey,
bread that appears each morning
for them to gather before it vanishes,
bread that is identified in today’s Gospel
as a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ,
God’s incarnate Word,
the true bread that has come down from heaven.
“On seeing it, the Israelites asked one another, ‘What is this?’
for they did not know what it was.
But Moses told them,
‘This is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.’”

The Word of God
has been spread abroad in human history.
It lies before us like miraculous bread,
the food of the kingdom upon which we will feast eternally,
waiting to be gathered so that it may nourish us
on our pilgrimage through that history
to the new Jerusalem.
We gather what has been spread abroad,
the supersubstantial bread of the Word,
finding it sometimes in the most unlikely places:
Christologies of mixture and early Christian dialogues,
the writings of James of Eltville and of Reginald Pole,
texts from St. Thomas and, yes, even Scotus.
We come across a previously unknown manuscript
or some long-ignored passage in Augustine
and we ask one another, “What is this?”
It is the bread that the Lord has given us to eat,
and not just us, but all of God’s pilgrim people.

As we ply our craft, in archives and classrooms,
committee meetings and academic colloquies,
we should always bear in our hearts those words:
it is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.
And even more we should bear in our hearts the words of Jesus:
“Do not work for food that perishes
but for the food that endures for eternal life,
which the Son of Man will give you….
I am the bread of life;
whoever comes to me will never hunger,
and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

The bishop Theophylact, writing in the 11th century, said
“He is the bread not of this ordinary life,
but of a very different kind of life,
which death will never cut short.”
But the true mystery of the Word made flesh
is that the bread of extraordinary life
is given to us mortals in this ordinary life,
the ordinary time of human history.
We seek out the bread of deathless life
amidst the ambiguities of the past,
power-plays and human failings,
stumbling efforts at human holiness
and the sanctified stubbornness of saints.
The task of the historical theologian as theologian
is to gather the manna scattered on the shifting sands of time,
which do not provide the comforting stability of abstraction.
We seek the bread of life that death will never cut short
in a confrontation with thinkers
possessed of mentalities very different from our own,
but with the confidence that because
they too hungered for food that never perishes,
they too thirsted for the living water,
it is not impossible that we can hear
echoed in their words
the one Word of life.
The chasm imposed by historical distance
cannot separate us from these friends,
not because we have honed
our skills of historical imagination—
though I hope we have done that—
and not because we have labored
to acquire facility with dead languages—
though I hope we have done that—
and not because of we have toiled
to gain paleographical skills—
though I hope people other than me have done that—
but because we, like they,
have been given to eat of the bread of life.
They, like us, have hungered and thirsted,
and they, like us, have been fed by Christ
with the bread of angels
so that the one Word might sound in their words.
We gather their words with care,
for it is the bread that the Lord has given us to eat.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Ezekiel 2:2-5; 2 Corinthians 12:7-10; Mark 6:1-6

We all like to feel ourselves in tune with those around us.
We like our words not just to be listened to
but to be welcomed and confirmed in their truth,
especially by those whom we think of as our own,
those with whom we have an affinity.
But our readings today suggest
that speaking the truth that God would have us speak,
very well might make us out of tune,
even with those whom we think of as our own.
The word of God that we find on our lips
might prove to be an unwelcome word.

Our first reading presents God speaking to Ezekiel,
whom God has called to bring the unwelcome word
of divine judgment to the people of Israel.
The Israelites were convinced
that because of God’s covenant with them
no evil could befall them,
no matter how evil they themselves became.
One who suggested that, despite the covenant,
they might stand especially under God’s judgment
was the bringer of an unwelcome word,
and would not be greeted with open arms
and a warm embrace,
but with ridicule and dismissal
and perhaps outright hostility.

In the Gospel we see Jesus himself
bringing an unwelcome word
to his hometown of Nazareth.
We are not told of the exact content of his words—
we are only told that he began to teach in the synagogue—
but his words must have come across
as self-aggrandizing nonsense
because his former friends and neighbors
immediately tried to take him down a notch:
“Who do you think you are, Mr. Smartypants?
We know where you’re from.
We know your family.
Don’t go getting a big head.”
Clearly, Jesus was trying to rise above his station
and the folks in Nazareth were having none of it.

Both the story of Ezekiel and the story of Jesus in Nazareth
suggest that the unwelcome word is especially difficult to speak
when you are among your own people,
those whose approval and validation you value most.
It is there, oddly enough,
that the prophet is least likely to meet with success.
As Jesus says, “A prophet is not without honor
except in his native place
and among his own kin and in his own house.”
But the prophet faces not only external rejection,
but also internal resistance,
since we all want those who are our own,
those with whom we feel generally in tune,
to welcome our words.
God suggests to Ezekiel, however,
that faithfulness, and not success,
is the ultimate criterion by which a prophet will be judged.
God tells Ezekiel that whether or not the people listen to him,
at least they will know that a prophet has been among them.

I think about this sometimes when I preach.
I have no illusion that I am a prophet
in the sense that Ezekiel was,
but I have been called and ordained by the Church
to preach God’s word
in season and out of season.
But I know that some words that I might speak,
particularly on controversial issues of the day,
might be more welcome than others,
and I can find myself shying away
from speaking the unwelcome word.
For example, I find that here at Corpus Christi,
where I am, as it were, in my native place
and among my kin,
it is easy for me to preach about
the Church’s stand on welcoming immigrants
or economic justice,
but it is not so easy to preach about
the Church’s defense of unborn life
or religious liberty.
It is easy for me to denounce
the boorishness of our president,
but not so easy to criticize
the boorishness of some of his critics.
It is easy for me to foster outrage
at the reactionary forces in our society,
but not so easy for me to commend Paul’s example
of being “content with weaknesses, insults,
hardships, persecutions, and constraints,
for the sake of Christ.”
Part of the reason none of this is easy
is that some of these issues are very complex,
and might be a better topic
for a discussion group than for a sermon
(which is one of the reasons why I enjoy so much
working with our RCIA process).
But mainly, it’s not easy
because I want you all to like me.
I want to greet you at the door after Mass
and be told “great sermon!”
and not “who the hell do you think you are?”
I want to find acceptance among the kin of my own house.

But (as hard as this might be to believe)
this isn’t really about me,
because the task of proclaiming God’s word
is not the sole preserve of the clergy
but of all Christians,
we who have been baptized
into Christ’s ministry as priest, king, and prophet.
And all of us, whether we think of ourselves
as politically progressive or conservative,
should find some parts of God’s word
that make us squirm
and do not fit easily with the ideologies
of our various affinity groups.
All of us need to examine our consciences
and ask ourselves whether we, like Ezekiel and Jesus,
have listened with open hearts to God’s word;
whether we have let it challenge us
and make us feel uncomfortable,
or whether we have let ourselves
grow smug and self-satisfied
in the bosom of the like-minded people around us.
Have we let that uncomfortable word
find a home in our hearts and on our lips?
Are we willing to speak the uncomfortable word
to those with whom we normally feel in tune,
willing to risk sounding a discordant note?

This is difficult,
but this is our call.
Not to be obnoxious and provocative
for its own sake,
like someone trolling on Twitter,
but to be willing to listen to God’s word
with open hearts
and, when we must,
to speak an unwelcome word
even to those we love most,
those with whom we are otherwise in tune,
those from whom we seek validation.
We may be pleasantly surprised
at the welcome our words receive.
But whether our words are welcomed or not,
they at least shall know
that a prophet has been among them.