Sunday, March 5, 2017

Lent 1

Readings: Genesis 2:7-9, 3: 1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

This week’s news suggests
that you really should be careful
about who it is that you engage in conversation.
For example, if you are a highly-visible supporter
of a major political party’s presidential candidate—
particularly if you are someone
who could possibly get appointed as Attorney General—
you might not want to have private conversations
with the Russian ambassador.
At the very least, it just looks bad,
and little good can come from it.
This week’s Scriptures similarly suggest
the potential dangers
of conversation with the wrong person.
For example, if you are one of the first humans,
newly arrived on the scene
and not too experienced in the ways of the cosmos,
you might not want to engage in conversation
with that oh-so-helpful serpent
who suggests to you
that you have been deceived by God,
and that doing the one thing
that God has asked you not to do
might possibly turn out really well.

Notice, in contrast, that Jesus, in today’s Gospel,
does not engage the Devil in conversation;
apart from quoting the words of Scripture,
the only thing he says is, “Get away, Satan!”
He knows that the devil has nothing worthwhile to say.
Indeed, it is actually one of the directives
in the Church’s Rite of Exorcism
that one ought not engage
a demon in conversation:
no good can come of it.
Though John Milton made Satan
somewhat glamorous in Paradise Lost,
the truth is that the devil is a tedious liar and a destroyer
whose God-given intelligence has been reduced by sin
to an animal cunning focused entirely
on turning people away from God.

Perhaps one reason we human beings
can so easily be lured into conversations
from which no good can come
is that we are, by nature, conversational.
One of the glories of being human
is our ability to use language to engage others,
to communicate and so enter into communion
with another person.
We are, you might say, conversational animals,
who need communication with others
as much as we need food or sleep or shelter.
And like any good thing that we deeply need,
the good of conversation can be turned to an evil purpose,
as when we gossip or berate or tempt.

But conversation has other possibilities.
In addition to those conversations
from which no good can come,
there are those conversations
from which great good can come:
the casual chat that begins a profound friendship,
the frank airing of differences that leads to reconciliation,
the final conversation with a dying loved one
in which you say and hear those things
that had previously been left unsaid.
These conversations can be life-changing,
which is perhaps no surprise
since the words “conversation” and “conversion”
find a common source in the Latin word convertere,
meaning “to turn together.”
To have a conversation we must turn toward the one
with whom we wish to converse,
and in so doing our life is changed.

In the holy season of Lent
we turn again to the Lord who calls us to new life.
In our Lenten Gospel readings
we will hear Jesus engaged in many conversations:
with the Samaritan woman at the well,
with the man born blind at the Pool of Siloam,
with Mary and Martha at the tomb of their brother Lazarus.
All of these are conversations of conversion,
in which people turn
from shame and weakness and fear
and turn toward Jesus who is living water,
the light of the world,
and life itself.
As we eavesdrop on these conversations,
we also hear the voice of Jesus calling us
to turn toward him in conversation and communion.

One of the traditional disciplines of Lent,
along with fasting and acts of charity,
is a commitment to deepen our life of prayer.
This is for many of us a frightening prospect.
Giving up things for Lent is relatively easy,
being a bit more generous is a small sacrifice,
but prayer is hard.
It is hard because life is busy
and prayer can seem like wasting time.
It is hard because it involves opening ourselves up
to a love that might very well change us forever.
It is hard because, unlike the garrulous devil
who yammers away in our Scriptures today,
God’s response in the conversation of prayer
is most often experienced as silence.

But this silence speaks eloquently of God’s love.
For in the conversation of prayer
God does not seek to trick or persuade,
but rather lets our spoken and unspoken yearnings
echo in the vast space of his infinite compassion,
so that our desires return to us transformed
by our encounter with God:
reoriented, reinterpreted,
released from selfishness.
In that echoing silence
God creates a place of freedom
in which we can slake our thirst for living water,
in which our eyes can be opened to the light of the world,
in which we can find the new life that comes forth
from the empty tomb of Christ.
Let this season of Lent be for us
a time to turn away
from conversations from which
no good can come,
and to turn back again
to this frightening,
life-changing conversation
that offers us nothing less
than the infinite love of God.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Sirach 15:15-20; 1 Corinthians 2:6-10; Matthew 5: 17-37

Sean Spicer, the president’s press secretary,
recently commented,
“Part of the reason the president got elected
is because he speaks his mind.
He doesn’t hold it back,
he’s authentic” (Press Briefing, 2/9/17).
I think we can all agree,
whatever we may think of our president and his mind,
that no one could ever accuse him of not speaking it.
And in our Gospel reading today
Jesus seems to commend this practice
of speaking one's mind,
telling his disciples not to swear oaths,
but to “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’
and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’”

But Jesus is not simply commending
being forthright for its own sake—
being, as they say, a “straight shooter”
(now there’s a metaphor for you),
who lets people know what is on his or her mind.
Jesus is calling his disciples and calling us
not simply to speak our minds,
but to speak the truth.
He is telling us who are his followers
that we are not to swear oaths,
but to let our “Yes” mean “Yes”
and our “No” mean “No,”
because our lives ought at all times to testify
to the truth of the words we speak.

Hilary of Poitier, writing in the 4th century,
said, “Those who are living
in the simplicity of faith
have no need for the ritual of an oath.
With such people, what is, always is,
and what is not, is not.
For this reason,
their every word and deed
are always truthful.” (On Matthew 4.23).
If you need to swear an oath
in order to get people to believe what you say,
to believe not simply that you believe it,
but that what you believe is true,
then, Jesus says, something has gone wrong
in your life as his disciple.
The practice of speaking some words under oath,
casts a shadow of doubt over the words
that we do not speak under oath.
It implies that we are bound to speak the truth
only at some times but not at others.
In a world pervaded by lies and falsehoods, however,
the followers of Jesus are called
to be people of the truth at all times:
not simply to speak their minds,
but to have in them the mind of Christ
and to speak the truth of Christ plainly
in all their words and in all their deeds.

In our second reading Paul says that we speak,
“not a wisdom of this age,
nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away.
Rather, we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden,
which… none of the rulers of this age knew.”
What is this wisdom, what is this truth,
that the powerful of the world have missed,
have overlooked,
have been blind to
and that we are called to speak?
When Paul says that “if they had known [this wisdom],
they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”
he suggests that what the Jewish and Roman leaders
did not know, could not see,
is that the one whom they crucified
is the Lord of glory.
What the mighty of Jesus’ day could not see,
the wisdom and truth to which they were blind,
is that the Lord of glory does not appear among us
clothed in the trappings of power,
but as one unjustly accused,
one tortured and humiliated,
one executed by the ruling imperial regime
as a threat to public order.
He appears among us as the truth crucified
by the powerful lies of our world.

This is the wisdom that Paul proclaims;
this is the truth that Jesus calls his disciples to speak plainly;
this is the mystery hidden from those who rule our world,
but made plain to those who have received the Spirit of God:
the Lord of glory is not to be found
among the powerful and the wealthy,
whose power and wealth are destined to pass away,
but among the poor, those on the margins,
the outcast, the refugee, the immigrant,
the homeless one in our streets,
the child in the womb.
God chose to come among us
in the form of lowliness,
and God chooses still to found
in those who have nothing,
in those who are defenseless and voiceless.
Jesus calls us to seek him there—
not in the halls of power,
where powerful people speak their minds
from positions of privilege,
but among the powerless.
We are to speak plainly
the truth of God’s presence there,
and witness boldly to the power of the Spirit
who has revealed this hidden wisdom to us,
by giving comfort to the sick,
food to the hungry,
clothing to the naked,
refuge to the stranger.
“Whatever you did
for one of these least ones,
you did for me.’

This is the truth we are called to speak.
The books of Sirach tells us that we have before us
life and death, good and evil,
and that whichever we choose shall be given to us.
We also have before us truth and lies:
the truth of the crucified Lord of glory
and the lies of those who killed him
in the name of public order;
whichever we choose will be given to us.
Let us choose to speak the truth of Christ
in the face of the world’s death-dealing lies;
let us choose to speak not our own minds
but the mind of Christ,
and let our “Yes” mean yes
to the God of life and compassion
and our “No” mean no
to the powers of death and fear,
which even now are passing away,
defeated by the truth
of the crucified Lord of glory.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Mary, Mother of God

Readings: Numbers 6:22-27; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:16-21

Once upon a time, long, long ago,
in a land far from this one,
the people of the city of Constantinople,
in their private prayer and public liturgy,
sang praises to the Virgin Mary as the Theotokos,
a Greek term that literally means “the God-bearer,”
and which Latin-speaking Christians translate as
Mater Dei, Mother of God.
Their logic was fairly simple:
if Jesus is God from God and light from light,
as was proclaimed in the Creed they professed,
and if Mary is the mother of Jesus,
then Mary must be the Mother of God.
As one of their bishops,
St. John Chrysostom, put it:
“she is the Mother of God inasmuch as of her
God was born in human flesh….
she gave birth and became the mother of him
who before all eternity was begotten of the Father.”
To praise Mary as the Mother of God
was to praise the God
who in the incarnation
had drawn so near the human race
as to have a human mother,
just like the rest of us.

One day (April 10, 428 AD, to be exact)
the people of Constantinople got a new bishop,
a man named Nestorius,
and he was a person
of considerable theological sophistication.
Like a lot of theological sophisticates
he cast a somewhat jaundiced eye
upon the popular devotion of the common people,
and he found the practice
of praising Mary as God’s mother
to be at best irrational exuberance
and at worst a kind of thinly veiled paganism,
reminiscent of the old Greek religion
in which deities gave birth and were born,
the way that Ares was born to Zeus and Hera.
Bishop Nestorius’s real worry, however,
was not with the birth of Jesus,
but with what all this might imply
about the rest of his life.
If God could have a mother,
if God could undergo birth,
just like the rest of us,
could God also undergo hunger,
undergo grief,
undergo pain,
even undergo death,
just like the rest of us?
If Mary could be spoken of
as the Mother of God,
could not the cross be spoken of
as the suffering and death of God?
Shouldn’t there be some line drawn
to delimit just how close God has drawn to us
in the incarnation,
lest God become too involved
in the sorrows and worries of the world?
Bishop Nestorius thought it much more fitting,
much more theologically correct,
to refer to Mary as the mother of Christ,
meaning that she was the mother of the man Jesus,
but not of the divine Word that dwelled within him.

As often happens
when a new bishop comes to town
and tells everyone
that they have been doing things wrong,
particularly with regard to prayer and liturgy,
the people of Constantinople would have none of this.
They had called Mary "Mother of God" for years
and were not about to change
because of some bishop's theological qualms.
Bishops from other cities were drawn into the controversy,
and even the Roman emperor (who favored Nestorius’s views),
and, to make short a very long
and not particularly inspiring story—
involving meetings of bishops,
excommunications, exiles,
a lot of fairly technical theology
using terms like “hypostatic union”
and “communicatio idiomatum,”
as well as, alas, a lot of mutual recrimination—
ultimately the Council of Chalcedon, held in the year 451,
refuted what it called “Nestorius’s mad folly,”
and affirmed that the eternal divine Son,
who was, as we say in the Creed,
“born of the Father before all ages,”
as regards his divinity,
was also truly born “for us and for our salvation
from Mary, the virgin Mother of God,
as regards his humanity:
one and the same Christ.”

But on this feast day of Mary the Mother of God,
we can set aside for the moment the tangled history
and technical theology
and focus on what first inspired people
to give this title to Mary.
We should treasure the title “Mother of God,”
not primarily for what it says about Mary,
but for what it says about God.
It says that in the mystery of the incarnation,
the great act of God drawing near to us
so as to become Emmanuel, God with us,
we can truly say that God has a mother,
just like the rest of us.
We can truly say that, in the incarnation,
God cries in the crib
and grieves at the grave,
just like the rest of us.
We can truly say that, in the incarnation,
God rejoices with friends
and is beset by enemies,
just like the rest of us.
We can truly say that, in the incarnation,
God suffers human pain and humiliation and death,
just like the rest of us.

But we must say more than this.
As we stand at the turning point of the calendar year,
looking back at a year that has had its joys
but has also had its pain and disappointment,
looking forward to a year that we hope will be better
but fear may be worse,
we seek a God who not only stands in solidarity
with our joys and hopes, our griefs and anxieties,
but a God who comes into our midst to save and heal.
In the incarnation, the great act of God drawing near to us,
we seek someone who will not just share our situation,
but who will change our situation.
We seek a savior.
The incarnation begins in the mystery
of the humility of God becoming just like us,
emptying himself and taking the form of a servant,
but it ends in the mystery
of our being lifted up to become like God,
what Paul in our second reading
calls our adoption as God’s children,
heirs with Christ to the glory of the eternal life of God,
a life beyond pain, beyond sorrow, beyond fear.

This mystery of salvation,
which ends in glory,
begins even now in grace.
It begins in the grace that transforms our lives,
the grace that consoles us in our grief
and calms us in our anxiety,
the grace that prompts and empowers us
to seek a more just and peaceful world,
the grace to resist all the forces
of injustice and dehumanization
that plague our world,
the grace that gives us signs of hope
and makes us signs of hope for others.

As we enter the ever-new season of God’s favor toward us,
may the God who in Christ became just like us,
and who by his grace makes us to become like him,
through the intercession of Mary, Mother of God,
make his face shine upon us and be gracious to us;
may God look kindly upon us
and give us peace in this new year.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Advent Penance Service

Readings: Colossians 1:9-14; John 1:1-9

Against the growing darkness
we kindle our Advent lights.
As the days grow shorter,
as night encroaches more and more,
we kindle lights in the darkness
as signs of our hope,
signs of our faith in the victory of light.

Yet these signs can seem so small
in the face of the darkness.
We look for some pale glimmer
of light on the horizon,
but our eyes see nothing
but the vast encroaching darkness
that sweeps over us like a tidal wave—
a torrent of wars and human suffering,
of dysfunctional politics,
of injustice and prejudice,
of exploitation of the earth and her people.
All around us, the news seems very bad.

But the news is even worse than we thought.
For our inability to see the light
is not simply a result
of darkness around us.
No, our blindness is a darkness
lodged within our very hearts.
Without denying the reality
of the darkness that surrounds us
we must own the reality
of our own complicity
in the sin of the world.

The violence of the wars around me
finds an echo
in the hatreds and resentments of my heart;
the dysfunction of our politics
is simply my own self-seeking writ large;
the exploitation of the earth that threatens all life
is inseparable from my own inability
to distinguish my wants from my needs.
When I own up to the fact
that the darkness around me
flows not only into me but also out of me,
the signs of hope that I can kindle
seem vanishingly small,
and the news seems bad indeed.

But we celebrate Advent amidst the encroaching night
because we believe that the bad news of darkness
does not get the last word.
We celebrate Advent because even in the darkness
we have heard, above the roar of the world’s pain,
the good news that we do not stand alone.
Even in the darkness we have heard news of a light,
the light that shines in the darkness,
a light that the darkness cannot overcome.
Even in the darkness we hear tales of light
that could not be defeated
by Herod or the Sanhedrin or Pilate,
the light could not be defeated
even by the power of death itself.
In Jesus Christ, the light
has already triumphed over the darkness,
if we can but see with the eyes of faith.
“[God] delivered us from the power of darkness
and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,
in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

The good news is that it is not our task
to defeat the darkness;
Jesus has already done that.
Our task is to live in the light that has come into the world,
to live as free citizens of the kingdom of God’s beloved Son,
to make manifest the victory that he has won.
We manifest the victory of Christ our light
when we confess our own sins
and let God’s grace fill out hearts with light,
when we let the gracious light of Jesus
flow into us and out of us.
We manifest the victory of Christ our light
when we reflect that light in the dark places of our world,
places shrouded by violence and greed and injustice.
Against the growing darkness
we kindle our Advent lights;
but the good news today
is not the lights that we kindle,
but the truth that,
through the coming of Christ into the world,
through the sanctifying fire of the Spirit,
we have been kindled as lights,
lights that herald the day that shall know no night,
when death and sorrow shall be no more
and God will be all in all.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Advent 3

Readings: Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Every election cycle the promise of change
is peddled to us like a healing remedy,
but it often proves to be more an opiate
to dull the pain of injustice and oppression
as we look for the better days that are sure to come
once the right people are in charge.
Or it is a stimulant to excite and enrage us,
to agitate us with false energy
growing from the resentments
and disappointments of life,
making us lash out at perceived enemies
who, we are told, must be put in their place
or even eliminated
in order for the promised change to occur.
And when, as so often happens,
the change that is promised does not arrive,
or—perhaps worse—does arrive
but with consequences
that we did not foresee or desire,
then our hope turns to bitterness,
until the next political season,
when new promises of change will made.

It is also what is promised to us each Advent.
Do we not hear that a day is coming
when, “the eyes of the blind [will] be opened,
the ears of the deaf [will] be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing”?
Do we not hear of Jesus,
at whose appearance among us,
“the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news
proclaimed to them”?
Do we not hear of a change that is coming,
the change to end all changes,
when suffering will be banished
and death will be no more?
What is Advent about if it is not about change?

But how do we know
that the change promised each Advent
is not the same sort of opiate or stimulant
that is peddled to us in each election cycle?
How do we know that the change
proclaimed to us in this season
does not also dull our passion for justice
with the promise of a better day to come?
How do we know the change
proclaimed to us in this season
does not also feed our resentment of those
who have things better than we do,
those whose lives have worked out
where ours have not,
making us want to put them in their place?
How do we know that the hope of change
promised to us in Advent
is a healing remedy and not a dangerous drug?

But Advent does not only promise change;
it also counsels patience.
The letter of James tells us today,
“Be patient, brothers and sisters,
until the coming of the Lord.”
Of course, the counsel to patience
might sound like another version
of promised change
as an opiate that dulls our pain,
an encouragement to sit on our hands
as we await our rescue.
But we misunderstand what patience is
if we think it is just waiting around
for something to change.
The letter of James,
perhaps more than any other writing
in the New Testament
stresses the need to put our faith into action;
it is, after all, the letter that says,
“just as a body without a spirit is dead,
so also faith without works is dead.”
This is hardly a counsel to just wait around for change.

What then do we make of patience?
The root of our word “patience”
is the Latin word patientia,
meaning to suffer.
It is the same source from which
we derive the term “passion,”
which is the name we give
to the suffering of Jesus on the cross,
the great labor that he undertook
for our salvation.
As the passion of Jesus shows us,
patience is not a matter of sitting idle;
but neither is it a matter of agitated energy
breeding anger and resentment
of those we see opposing the change we desire.
Patience is the revolutionary act of being willing
to actively suffer for the cause of God,
even as events unfold around us
in ways that we do not—cannot—control.
Patience is the virtue that allows us
not to be seduced by the empty rhetoric of change
into either a gentle haze of vague hope,
or the angry agitation of resentment.
Patience is the willingness to let God determine
when change will come,
the willingness to suffer
the slow revealing of God’s kingdom,
even as we continue to actively labor
as disciples of Jesus
for that day when the desert
“will bloom with abundant flowers,
and rejoice with joyful song.”

Each of us, when we were baptized,
was marked with the sign of the cross.
We begin and end each liturgy with that sign.
We make that sign at those key moments in our lives
when we need strength to act or patiently to wait.
In this Advent season, we mark ourselves
with the sign of Christ's suffering,
the sign of his revolutionary patience,
as a witness to our willingness
to fight for change
without succumbing to false hopes
or bitter resentments;
we mark ourselves
as a witness to our willingness
to follow the path of Jesus
through the cross
to new life in the Spirit;
we mark ourselves
as a witness to our willingness
to seek first the kingdom of God,
the kingdom that even now
is appearing among us.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 2 Maccabees7:1-2, 9-14; 2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5; Luke 20:27-38

The hypothetical situation posed to Jesus by the Sadducees
presumes the practice, based in the Old Testament Law,
of what was called “levirate marriage.”
It is prescribed in the book of Deuteronomy
that when a man dies without a son
his widow is not to marry anyone outside of the clan
but rather the dead man’s brother is to marry her,
so that, “the firstborn son she bears
shall continue the name of the deceased brother,
that his name may not
be blotted out from Israel” (Deut. 25:5-6).
Notice that the purpose is to secure offspring
in whom the name of the dead man might live on,
so that he will not be forgotten.
For the Sadducees,
who rejected belief in the resurrection of the dead,
this was the only sort of immortality on offer.
They believed that the situation that they posed to Jesus
regarding the woman who was married
successively to seven brothers,
and the question of whose wife she would be
when they were raised from the dead,
pointed out the absurdity
of believing in such a resurrection.
Much more sensible, much more realistic, they thought,
was to focus on this life and on this world
and on finding our hope of immortality
in securing offspring to carry on the memory of our name,
so that it “may not be blotted out from Israel.”

Whether it is a matter of having offspring
who will carry on our name,
or of having a life whose achievements
will merit monuments and memory,
we humans often live our lives
as if our only hope of immortality
was in leaving our mark on history,
so that our memory will endure.

But Jesus knows how fragile such hope is.
Jesus knows that even if we have children
who carry the memory of our names,
and even if our children’s children,
and their children in turn,
carry that memory,
the day will come when human memory will fail.
The day will come—
for some sooner,
for others later,
but for all eventually—
when our names will be forgotten,
when our tombstone and monuments will crumble,
when all record of our too-brief life
will be obliterated.
The idea of living on in human memory,
rather than being more realistic
than belief in resurrection,
is in fact a fantasy.

But Jesus offers us a better hope.
In responding to the Sadducees,
he brushes aside their hypothetical scenario,
because it misses the point
of belief in resurrection from the dead.
To be raised by God is not simply
to resume the life that you lived before,
but is to live in a new way.
It is not a matter of taking up again this life,
with its fears and anxieties
and its desperate attempts to keep death at bay
by making our mark on history;
rather, it is a matter of entering into
the undying life of God.

But even if we abandon the fantasy of immortality
gained though the memory of our achievements,
we can still be tempted to think
that our faith in resurrection
is based on there being some immortal “spark” in us
that is incapable of dying.
Of course it is true that we possess an immortal soul,
but faith in the resurrection of the dead
is not based on a belief about who we are—
possessors of immortal souls—
but on our faith in who God is.
For our God is the one who knows and remembers us,
even though all others should forget.
As St. Paul says in our second reading,
“The Lord is faithful.”
To be held in the memory of our children
or of those who admire our achievements
is simply a temporary respite from death’s obliteration
and a shadowy imitation of life.
But to be held in the memory of the eternal God,
is to live more truly than we have ever lived before,
for our God “is not a God of the dead,
but of the living,
for to him all are alive.”

During the month of November
we remember our beloved dead:
we remember the multitude of unknown saints
whom we celebrate on All Saints Day,
and we remember those still awaiting
the full vision of God
for whom we pray on All Souls Day.
But we do not remember them
because they live only in our memory,
as if their last remnants would vanish from life
if we were to forget them.
No, our hope for them is that they are now
more alive than we are,
because they look upon God with unveiled faces
and know the God of life even as they are known.
We remember them because in our remembering
we are sharing in God’s act of remembering,
and we touch and taste
a tiny share of their immortality,
the immortality that is promised to us
in Jesus Christ.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 2 Kings 5:14-17; 2 Timothy 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19

At the outset of his ministry,
Jesus announces in the synagogue in Nazareth
that he has come to proclaim liberty to captives.
Our scriptures today invite us to reflect
on different forms of captivity
as we are presented with examples
of people held bound
who find freedom in Christ.

The first, and maybe more obvious, case
is Paul in our second reading.
Writing from prison,
where he is in chains for preaching
the good news of Jesus Christ,
Paul says that he is willing
to suffer for the sake of the Gospel
because he knows that,
while he may be in chains,
“the word of God is not chained.”
He knows that even as he suffers in prison
he continues to bear witness to Jesus;
indeed, his suffering itself
is by God’s grace an image or icon
of the crucified Christ for us and for our salvation.
He knows that even if his captivity
should end in his death—
as indeed it did—
he does not need to fear,
for, “If we have died with him
we shall also live with him.”
The unchained word of God
has the power to free us
even from the prison of death.

Perhaps less obvious is the captivity
of the ten lepers in our Gospel reading.
Certainly their illness had chained them
to extreme physical suffering.
But it had also imprisoned them in a social isolation
no less extreme than Paul’s isolation in prison.
The Gospel tells us that,
as they called out to Jesus
to have pity on them,
“they stood at a distance from him.”
The do this because of the belief
that those with skin diseases
were ritually impure,
and therefore excluded from participation
in the religious life of Israel.
The book of Leviticus in the Old Testament
prescribes not only that they must tear their clothing
and call out “unclean! unclean!” to warn people away,
but also that, “being unclean,
[they] shall dwell apart,
taking up residence outside the camp.”
So the lepers stand at a distance from Jesus,
not simply because of fear of infection
but because, in their ritual impurity,
they were condemned to live isolated
from all that is holy,
as if chained by the Law and by their own fear.

But the unchained word of God
present in the healing power of Jesus
overcomes that distance.
Jesus’s healing of the lepers
not only frees them from their physical pain,
but releases them from the social isolation
in which they were imprisoned.
And the one who returns to give thanks
draws near to Jesus, falling at his feet,
bearing witness to the healing power of God.

Our modern world tends be dismissive
of concepts like “ritual purity,”
seeing them as primitive and superstitious;
but we too impose our own forms of social isolation
upon the sick and the aged.
Indeed, given the way in which our culture
worships youth and health
and a certain ideal of physical perfection,
I am not convinced that we are all that different
from the Jews of Jesus’ day
in our desire to place at a distance
those whose age or illness
would defile our dream of physical perfection
and perpetual youth.
In addition to their physical suffering,
the sick in our society often suffer
being ignored by a culture
that does not want to be reminded
of the fragility of the robust youthfulness
that we worship.

Part of the power
of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick,
and the reason we celebrate it publicly in this parish,
is that it brings those who are ill
into the center of our worshipping community;
it proclaims their inclusion in God’s love and in our love.
Not only are those who suffer illness not excluded,
not made to stand at a distance,
but by this sacrament
their illness is consecrated to God,
it is made something holy
by being put at the service of the Gospel,
so that they, like Paul bound in his chains,
become images or icons
of the redemptive suffering of Jesus.

Whether or not it leads to physical healing,
the sacrament of anointing
helps those who are sick
to bear with grace their illness,
just as Jesus bore their suffering
out of love for us all;
it makes them signs of Christ’s grace among us,
proclaiming to us to and our world
the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.
This sacrament makes visible
the truth of the words of St. Paul:
“If we have died with him
we shall also live with him;
if we persevere
we shall also reign with him.”

Let our celebration of this sacrament
inspire all of us
to enter into solidarity
with the sick and suffering of the world
and to draw close to Jesus,
like the Samaritan in today’s Gospel,
to give him thanks
for the healing and freedom
that he so richly bestows
on us and our world.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

A Wedding Homily

Readings: Genesis 2: 18-24; 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:8a; John 17:20-26

Ishmael, the narrator of Melville’s Moby Dick,
after commenting on the dizzying effects
of trying to write about a creature like the whale, says:
“Such, and so magnifying,
is the virtue of a large and liberal theme!
We expand to its bulk.
To produce a mighty book,
you must choose a mighty theme.
No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea,
though many there be who have tried it.” (Moby Dick Ch. 104).
What Ishmael says of books might also be said of marriages:
no less than a book, a marriage must have a theme,
something that gives it a direction and a meaning;
and a great and enduring marriage,
no less than a great and enduring volume,
must have a mighty theme,

Because marriage involves the most private, intimate love
of a man and a woman,
it is tempting to think that this should be its theme.
To quote the immortal Sonny Bono:
“They say we’re young and we don’t know,
We won’t find out until we grow.
Well I don't know if all that’s true,
‘Cause you got me, and baby I got you.
I got you babe.”
But as important as the intimate love of a man and a woman is
(and who am I to doubt Sonny Bono?),
I would suggest that for Christians
this is an insufficiently mighty theme
upon which to base a great and enduring marriage,
though many there be who have tried it.

In our first reading, from the book of Genesis,
marriage is given a cosmic significance:
God created human beings for companionship
and the mutual love of the man and the woman
are part of the perfection of God’s creation.
When Adam says, “This one, at last,
is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”
we can feel his joy, not simply in finding a companion,
but of discovering a possibility newly born within the cosmos,
the possibility opened up by one with whom he can enter
into a free and equal exchange of love:
in which love is given to another
and then received back, transformed, increased,
ready to be given and received
again and again, day by day,
growing and overflowing into love for all that God has made,
reflecting God’s own free love for the world God has made.

But for Christians this cosmic dimension of marriage
is perhaps not yet a mighty enough theme.
In our reading from John’s Gospel
Jesus prays to his Father for his disciples,
that, “the love with which you loved me
may be in them and I in them.”
This is a love that goes beyond human love,
because it is the love with which the Father loved Christ
“before the foundation of the world.”
But it is also a love that Jesus desires to share with his disciples
so that “they may be brought to perfection as one,”
and so become for the world a sign of the God who is love.
In the Catholic tradition, we teach that marriage is a sacrament,
which means that it is a human reality
by which God shares his love with us.
If marriage is taken up as a form of discipleship,
if it takes as its theme
the love revealed in the cross and resurrection of Jesus,
then the joining together of husband and wife is not simply
a part of the perfection of creation,
but becomes a means of grace,
a way in which divine love comes to dwell in our world,
to heal and to save and to bring joy.
Compared to the immensity of this theme,
this event of divine love invading our world,
the theme of “I got you babe”
seems small and flea-like,
unworthy of the great and enduring love
that we pray will pervade and sustain
the marriage of Trent and Sammy.

Trent and Sammy, I am uncharacteristically hopeful
that you will not rest content
with a small and flea-like theme for your marriage.
Face it: you have a tendency to go overboard.
Knowing as I do your tendencies to excess—
excessive books and wine,
excessive theological and literary conversations,
excessive scholarly conscientiousness,
excessive worrying over wedding preparations—
I feel confident that you will settle for nothing less
as the theme for your marriage
than that “still more excellent way”
of which St. Paul writes
in his letter to the Corinthians,
the mighty love that “bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.”
And I feel confident that God’s grace
will be there to expand your love for each other
to fill the bulk of this great and whale-like theme,
to help you endure together
through the daily crosses of suffering you will face,
to help you rejoice together
in the daily resurrections of joy that God will give you,
until that day when the perfect comes
and the partial passes away,
that day when we will see no longer dimly,
as in a mirror,
but face to face,
knowing fully,
even as we are known,
that day of which
the joy of this day,
great as it is,
is but a sign,
the day of the great wedding feast of the Lamb.
May God’s grace bring the two of you,
through the love you vow this day,
to that feast.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

Jesus begins his parable with a question:
“What man among you
having a hundred sheep and losing one of them
would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert
and go after the lost one until he finds it?”
Jesus is being his usual tricky self here,
making it sound as if what he is proposing
is obviously reasonable,
when in fact nobody with an ounce of shepherding sense
would leave ninety-nine sheep alone in the desert
in order to look for a single missing one.
Even the most basic form of risk assessment
would tell you that this is a very, very, very bad idea.

We find a version of this parable
in the second-century document
known as the Gospel of Thomas,
which tries to make this very, very, very bad idea
sound a bit more reasonable
by noting that the lost sheep is the largest of the flock,
and also by having the shepherd tell the sheep when he finds it,
“I love you more than the ninety-nine” (logion 107),
suggesting that this is somehow a very special sheep.
But the parable as we find it in Sacred Scripture
gives no such indication, makes no such excuse
for the shepherd’s professional irresponsibility.
The only thing special about the sheep is that it is lost
and the other ninety-nine are not.

We might forgive the author of the Gospel of Thomas
for trying to make Jesus’ parable
a little less offensive to common sense,
a little less foolish.
But honesty requires that we recognize
that if we measure the shepherd’s behavior
by our ordinary human standards
it really doesn’t make much sense.
This is why the fifth century bishop Peter Chrysologus,
who perhaps knew something about actual shepherding,
noted, “This story…speaks of no earthly shepherd
but of a heavenly one,
and far from being a portrayal of human activity,
this whole parable conceals divine mysteries” (Sermon 168).
It is not a lesson in animal husbandry
but in the mystery of divine love:
a love that might seem foolish by human standards,
a love that squanders security on a risky venture,
a love that favors the lost one,
no matter how seemingly unimportant that lost one is.
This is the God revealed in Jesus Christ,
the God who, our second reading tells us,
“came into the world to save sinners.”
Jesus presents the shepherd’s foolish action
as if it were completely reasonable
because, as St. Paul says,
the foolishness of God
is wiser than human wisdom,
and the weakness of God
is stronger than human strength (1 Cor. 1:25).

For most of us today, parables about shepherds
might not seem to have much in the way
of immediate relevance.
Perhaps if we want to grasp the reckless foolishness
of divine love seeking the lost one
we need new parables.
On this anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 2001,
I cannot help but think
of those first responders in New York,
police and firefighters,
who ran back into the burning, collapsing towers
to try to bring out those who were lost
within an inferno that fear and hatred had created.
Over four hundred of them lost their lives that day
in what some might call an act of heroism,
but which others might see
as a foolish and reckless mission
with little or no hope of success.

But we who seek to be followers of Jesus
ought to see in their actions
neither pointless sacrifice
nor even mere heroic bravery
but a parable of God made flesh in Jesus,
the divine lover who comes to seek the lost one,
even at the cost of his own life.
For we believe that in Jesus Christ
God ran headlong into the inferno of our world,
an inferno kindled by sin’s fear and hatred
and within which we were lost.
He took upon himself the suffering of the cross
in order to find us
in the midst of the world’s pain and chaos
and to bring us forth
into the dawning light of his resurrection.
And through the grace of his Sprit Jesus continues
to enter into the disasters of our lives—
the disasters we make by our choices
or which fortune forces upon us—
to find us and bring us home to God.
Into the pain and chaos and tragedy of my life
Jesus comes to rescue me:
not because I am the best,
not because I am special,
but simply because I am lost.

Both the reckless shepherd of whom Jesus speaks
and the heroic first responders of September 11th
should be parables to us
of the relentless, foolish, risky,
but ultimately triumphant love
that God has for the lost one,
the love that led Jesus
through the cross to the resurrection.
But the shepherd,
the heroes of 9/11,
and the cross of Christ
should also stand as a challenge to us:
in coming to seek us in our lostness,
in bringing us out
into the light of his resurrection,
Jesus calls and empowers us with his Spirit
to become sharers in his ministry of reconciliation.
He calls us to seek the lost one,
even if our efforts seem unlikely
to yield success as the world sees it.
He calls us to enter into
the inferno of fear and hatred
that sin has made of our world,
with faith that the grace of God
will find a way to use us
to speak a word of hope,
to perform an act of love,
to risk opening up our lives
so that we become parables
of the relentless, foolish, risky,
but ultimately triumphant love of God.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

A Wedding Homily

Readings: Genesis 2:18-24; Romans 12:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:13-16

We tend to think of weddings,
at least the churchy part of them,
in somewhat ethereal, disembodied term:
the Church is here to inject a “spiritual” element
into the proceedings.
Eating and drinking at the reception afterward
you may choose to indulge the body,
but at this moment we should focus on the soul, right?
But Christianity does not really divide the world up
into what is spiritual and what is bodily;
because we believe
that God took on flesh in Jesus Christ,
we believe that spirit and flesh—
the holy and the everyday—
always go together.
And the readings from Scripture
that J______ and J______ have chosen for their wedding
underscore this belief:
marriage is not simply about the uniting of two souls,
but rather is very much about the joining
of two flesh and blood human beings
who will undertake the challenging adventure of marriage
by living out their commitment to each other
in their day-to-day life together.

We hear in our very first reading,
which tells the beginning of the tale
of the first human couple,
that the man’s first reaction upon seeing the woman
is not, “this one, at last, is my true soulmate,”
but “this one, at last, is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh.”
Adam recognized in Eve
not simply one with whom he was to join
in elevated spiritual conversation,
but also the one with whom we would become one body
in living out the most ordinary tasks of daily life.

We hear in our second reading,
from Paul’s letter to the early Christian community at Rome,
a call “to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,
holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.”
Paul is saying that we should not set apart
some area of our life that we designate as “spiritual”
and think that this is the part of life
that is concerned with God
and with which God is concerned.
Paul speaks of the offering of our bodies
as a “spiritual sacrifice.”
What we do together with our bodies
in the everyday stuff of life—
washing dishes and putting gas in the car,
paying bills and showing love,
giving donations to charities and volunteering our time,
raising children and growing old—
are the things by which we are to give honor to God.

In the Catholic tradition,
we speak of marriage as a sacrament,
by which we mean an outward sign that gives us grace.
While we typically think of sacraments
as something we “receive”—
you get baptized,
you receive your first Holy Communion—
marriage is a little different:
you don’t simply receive the sacrament;
you are the sacrament.
Just as in baptism
water is the physical sign
of sin being washed away
and in Holy Communion
bread and wine are the physical sign
of Jesus’s body and blood,
so to in holy matrimony
you, J_______ and J_______,
are the physical sign
of God’s love for the world.

The sacrament of matrimony
is not what happens here this evening—
that is only the beginning.
The sacrament of matrimony
extends throughout your entire lives.
It is the sign to the world of God’s love
lived out in the ordinary daily life
that the two of you will share.
If you let the grace of this sacrament
transform you by the renewal of your minds,
as Paul puts it;
if in your life together
down through the years and decades to come
you seek together to
“discern what is the will of God,
what is good and pleasing and perfect”;
if you let your love be sincere
and “love one another with mutual affection”;
if you “rejoice in hope,
endure in affliction,
persevere in prayer;"
if you truly become bone or each other’s bone
and flesh of each other’s flesh,
then you will truly be the salt that brings savor
to the lives of those around you,
then you will truly be light for the world,
a world that seems all too often
shrouded in darkness.
On this extraordinary day Jesus is calling you
to let your light shine
in all the ordinary days to come,
to become in your love for each other
the living presence
of faith, hope, and love in our world.
May God bless you with this gift.