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.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

10th Sunday of Ordinary Time


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Corpus Christi


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Easter 6


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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