Sunday, October 11, 2020

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Isaiah 25:6-10a; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20; Matthew 22:1-10

You get the feeling that there must be
some sort of backstory.
A king sends messengers
to invite you to his son’s wedding
but you, for some reason, refuse.
The king sends more servants,
and this time you kill them.
The king then sends an army
that kills you and burns down your city.
What the heck is going on?
Why are all of these people
acting in such inexplicable ways?
I know that there can be
a lot of tensions around weddings,
but this is ridiculous.

Of course, we have no way
of knowing for sure
what the backstory might be:
perhaps long-standing hostilities
between the king and the invitees;
perhaps some cultural context
that is now lost to us.
But we don’t need to know the backstory
in order to get the main point of the parable:
God is inviting us to the banquet of life,
the wedding feast of the Lamb,
and if we refuse that invitation
we do so to our own detriment.
Jesus draws on the imagery
with which the prophet Isaiah speaks
of the fullness of life that God wishes for us:
“a feast of rich food and choice wines,
juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.”
Why would we refuse?
What would keep us from saying, “yes”?

But that is in fact what we do.
Like the people in the parable
we often respond to God invitation
with either indifference or even violence.
Throughout history, we human beings
have studiously ignored God’s invitation
to live the values of God’s kingdom:
the values of compassion and peace,
the values of concern for the weakest among us,
the values of generosity and self-sacrifice.
We human beings have even sought to eliminate
those whom God sends to remind us of this invitation,
not least Jesus himself, whom we hung on a cross.
I think today we can simply read the news
and see that we continue to shout each other down,
demonize those with whom we differ,
ignore those most in need,
and treat life as if it were a game
that you win by defeating those who differ
and grabbing all you can for yourself.
When God is offering us abundant life
why would we act in such inexplicable ways?
So we might ask, what is our backstory?

Our backstory is what Isaiah calls
“the veil that veils all peoples,
the web that is woven over all nations.”
Our backstory is the story of fear,
the story of mistrust and lack of faith,
the story that is told in Scripture
of our first ancestors
who were offered the abundant life of paradise,
if only they would trust in God to provide,
but who instead sought to become
their own gods, their own providers;
it is the story of faithless people
who preferred slavery and death
to reliance on God’s goodness;
it is the story of wars waged
in order to win for ourselves
what God wants to give us without cost.
This is our backstory;
this is who we are:
offered life, we chose death
rather than trust in God to provide.

But our backstory is not the whole story.
The good news of the Gospel
is that our past is not our destiny:
in Jesus God is writing for us a new story,
a story in which God will destroy death forever
and wipe away the tears from every face.
The parable of the wedding feast
should be read as a warning,
not a prediction.
Through God’s grace,
our story can be the story,
not of the old Adam,
the story of fear and faithlessness,
but the story of the new Adam,
the story of Jesus Christ,
who entrusted himself
fearlessly and faithfully
to the hands of his Father
and won victory over death.
The story of Jesus,
the story of God’s beloved
whom fear and death could not defeat,
can become our story.
And with this as our story
we can say with the psalmist,
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want….
Even though I walk in the dark valley
I fear no evil; for you are at my side.”
With this as our story we can say with Paul,
“I have learned the secret…
of living in abundance and of being in need.
I can do all things in him who strengthens me.”
We can become living signs of the abundant life
that God wants all people to share in;
we can be God’s invitation
to the wedding feast of the Lamb.

I am convinced that so much
of what plagues our world
grows out of fear and mistrust:
fear and mistrust of each other,
but even more fear and mistrust of God.
We treat one another as enemies
because we do not believe
that the Lord will provide for all peoples
a rich feast, a banquet of abundance.
We treat one another as enemies
because we do not believe
that only goodness and kindness follow us
all the days of our lives.
We treat one another as enemies
because we do not believe
that God will fully supply whatever we need,
in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.
But this does not have to be our story.
Let us pray today that God, through his Spirit,
will draw us into the story of Jesus,
the story of God’s reign,
so that we can hear and answer
his invitation to the banquet of life.
And may God have mercy on us all.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Sirach 27:30-28:7; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35

The unmerciful servant in today’s Gospel,
who holds his fellow servant 
to a strict accounting of his debts,
despite having his own debts forgiven by his master,
engages in actions that are, at the same time,
so malicious and so self-defeating
that they seem to border on the inexplicable.

My wife always tells me that, when confronted
with someone’s seemingly inexplicable actions,
whether inexplicably stupid or inexplicably cruel,
you should ask yourself, 
“in what world does this make sense?”
People don’t act without a reason,
even if their reasoning seems nonsensical
from within our understanding of the world.
And while seeing how someone understands the world
does not condone their bad actions,
is can, perhaps, help make us 
a bit more compassionate toward them.
So it is worth asking ourselves,
in what world do the actions 
of the unmerciful servant make sense?

Notice that what he asks for from his master
is simply an extension on his loan,
so that he has time to pay it back,
but what he gets from the master
is complete forgiveness of his debt.
But it is as if he simply can’t accept 
that someone would really forgive another’s debt,
that his master isn’t going to show up later
and demand repayment,
so he immediately goes about trying to collect 
the debts that are owed to him by others,
so that when his master shows up 
demanding repayment,
as the servant is convinced he inevitably will,
he will have the means to pay back what he owes
and avoid the cruel penalty that the master
would undoubtedly inflict.
The unforgiving servant’s action make sense
in a world in which no one 
is ever truly compassionate,
no one is ever truly forgiving;
his actions make sense 
in a world in which the best we can hope for
is to buy a little time in order to grab what we can
from those who are weaker than us
so that we can pay off those who are stronger.

The book of Sirach tells us,
“Wrath and anger are hateful things,
yet the sinner hugs them tight.”
Actions that are malicious and self-defeating,
can seem like reasonable options in a world without mercy.
The unforgiving servant lives in a cruel and ugly world,
a world in which we must live only for ourselves,
we must trust only ourselves,
we must look out only for ourselves,
because nobody else is going to look out for us.
He lives in the same world than many today live in:
a world of zero-sum competition
in which another’s gain is always my loss;
a world in which there is never true forgiveness
but only debt-extension, 
usually with compounded interest;
a world in which I have no choice 
but to be merciless
if I want to survive, 
whether in business 
or politics
or international affairs.

But Jesus offers us a different world to live in. 
Jesus offers us a world 
in which we are not left on our own
to survive as best we can.
Rather, Jesus offers us a world in which
the master is moved with compassion
and forgives our debts.
He offers us a world in which 
we do not need to fight and claw to survive,
we do not need to trample down those in our way,
we do not need to forego mercy and compassion
lest someone take advantage of us.

It is not some fantasy world he offers, however.
People will still try to take advantage of you.
You will still have to deal with people who see the world 
in the cruel and ugly way that the unforgiving servant sees it.
Your mercy will not always be met with mercy.
But, as St. Paul reminds us,
we are not left on our own:
“None of us lives for oneself, 
and no one dies for oneself.”
If we belong to Christ,
if we seek to live in the world of mercy he offers,
we do not need to fight and claw for survival,
“For if we live, we live for the Lord,
and if we die, we die for the Lord;
so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.”
If we are the Lord’s whether we live or die,
then we can take the risk of accepting mercy
and take the risk of showing mercy.

But what about the end of the parable,
when the unmerciful servant is
“handed… over to the torturers
until he should pay back the whole debt”?
Does this mean that, at the end of the day,
God’s mercy comes to an end?
Not necessarily.
I believe that the world of the unmerciful servant
the word of cruelty and ugliness,
wrath and anger,
is itself a painful, torturous world in which to live, 
and the unmerciful servant is tormented
by his own inability 
to accept the mercy of his master.
God wants to free us from that torment.
But, having trapped himself in that world,
the unmerciful servant’s torment will not cease
until he learns to see and accept
the mercy offered to him at every moment.

Let us pray for those who live 
in an ugly, cruel world
of debt without mercy,
that their torment may be lifted.
Let us pray for those who suffer
the wrath and anger of those
who live trapped 
in a cruel and ugly world.
Let us pray for ourselves,
that we may be made free
to live for the Lord
and to die for the Lord.
And may God have mercy on us all.
 

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

23rd Week in Ordinary Time II--Wednesday (Peter Claver)

Readings: Isaiah 58:6-11; Matthew 25:31-40

We’re all familiar with the so-called Golden Rule:
as Jesus phrases it in Matthew’s Gospel,
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt. 7:12).
But this is not a teaching unique to Christianity.
We find equivalent statements
in religions and philosophies from around the world.
The prophet Muhammad is reported to have said,
“As you would have people do to you, do to them;
and what you dislike to be done to you, don’t do to them.”
In the Buddhist sacred writings we are told,
“Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”
And Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative,
even though he himself thought it far superior
in philosophical rigor to the Golden Rule,
ends up sounding pretty similar:
“Treat others how you wish to be treated.”
We might say that something like the Golden Rule
is part of the common moral inheritance of the human race.
It is rooted in our capacity to see ourselves in others,
to see the common bonds of our humanity,
to imagine ourselves in another person’s shoes.

But today’s Gospel offers us something else,
something that goes beyond the Golden Rule.
Rather than telling his followers
“do unto others as you would have them do unto you,”
Jesus says, “do unto others as you would do unto me.”
For, as he say to his disciples, “whatever you do
for one of the least brothers of mine you do for me.”
We are not simply to see ourselves in others;
we are to see Christ.

Rather than being, like the Golden Rule,
a moral intuition shared by many peoples and culture,
what Jesus teaches us today
is something unique to Christianity:
that in serving our brother or sister in need
we are offering service to God himself.
For in Christ God has taken on suffering flesh
and so identified himself with every living person,
especially those who suffer hunger or thirst,
estrangement or deprivation,
captivity or illness.

It was this command to see Christ in others
that led St. Peter Claver to undertake
his extraordinary ministry to the enslaved Africans
who were brought to the New World.
He would meet the slave ships
that arrived in the port of Cartagena
to minister to the human cargo of those ship,
many of whom were naked, sick, and dying,
sometimes literally giving them the clothes off his back.
What the world would treat as chattel to be sold,
Peter Claver treated as deserving of
the same human dignity that he himself desired.
But even more than that,
he treated them as sacred icons
in which he could see the face of Christ.
The lives of these Black slaves mattered to him
because they mattered to Christ
and Christ mattered to him.
Let us ask for St. Peter Claver to pray for us
that we too might find the face of Christ
in the face of those who suffer,
especially those who suffer
racial hatred and discrimination.
And may God have mercy on us all.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20

Our Gospel today seems particularly relevant,
since it gives something like a plan of action
for dealing with conflict and controversy,
and I think it is pretty non-controversial
to say we live in conflict-ridden times.
Jesus says that if you perceive
that someone has wronged you,
rather than seek to publicly shame them,
you should go to them one-on-one
to confront them with the truth
of the harm they have done.
If that doesn’t work,
bring a couple of other people along
so that, “every fact may be established.”
Finally, if the other person will not face up
to the truth of the harm they have brought about
then you, as it were, go public,
bring the matter before the Church community.
If your opponent does not repent and reconcile,
then they can no longer be part of the community,
and must be treated as “a Gentile or a tax collector.”

Note that this is not merely a mechanism
for resolving disagreements;
the scenario imagined is not simply one
in which two members of the community are at odds
and are seeking to reach a compromise.
Rather, it is one in which one party has wronged the other
and must be made to see the wrongness of their ways.
The issue is not simply reconciliation,
but repentance and truth-telling.
For there can be no reconciliation without truth-telling,
without a truthful account of past harms inflicted.

But telling the truth is a tricky thing.
On the one hand, it can be difficult
to speak a hard truth;
we would often prefer
to let the unreconciled elephant-in-the-room
go unremarked
rather than to deal with the messy fallout
of, if I may add another metaphor,
opening up a can of worms
we may not be able to close.
On the other hand,
I suspect we all know people
who wield truth like a weapon,
not as a means to reconciliation
but as a means
of bludgeoning others into submission,
exacerbating conflict and alienation,
perhaps even destroying the wrong-doer.
So how do we walk that line
between elephant-ignoring
and truth-weaponizing?

Paul tells us, “Owe nothing to anyone,
except to love one another,
for the one who loves another
has fulfilled the law.”
We owe one another the truth
and so we must sometimes risk the possibility
of opening a can of worms we cannot close,
but only if it is a truth spoken in love,
only if even a hard truth is spoken
out of a genuine desire
to find on the other side of the painful process
of reckoning with harms, past and present
healing and wholeness for all parties involved.
“Love does no evil to the neighbor.”
Note that the process Jesus outlines in the Gospel
is one that is very careful to save and not destroy
the person who has committed the offense.
Which is not to say
that the truth spoken in love never hurts.
Anyone who has ever undergone physical or psychological therapy
knows that pain can be a necessary part of the healing process.
Painful truth spoken in love is the spiritual therapy
that can lead to that healing that we call reconciliation.

We can see the connection of truth and reconciliation
in our on-going national struggle to deal with race
and the legacy of slavery.
We can see the temptations of elephant-ignoring
and of truth-weaponizing,
of pretending that we have put the past behind us
and of wielding truth as a cudgel
simply to balance the scales pain.
But between these twin temptations lies the narrow way
of reckoning with the truth as an instrument of love
and a means of reconciliation,
a pursuit of reconciliation that is not simply
an attempt to declare victory and go home
but involves concrete works of repair
to overcome the effects of the legacy of racism.

Over the years I have found myself
forced to rethink many things I was taught
in my upbringing in the American South,
things about the past and about the present,
things about the nobility of causes and heroes,
things about the fairness of current structures,
beliefs that, in the name of truth,
I have had to abandon.
And, though this was sometimes painful,
I owe a debt of gratitude to those who over the years
have loved me enough to inflict that pain,
who continue to confront me with the truth—
the truth that must be faced as the first step
toward true reconciliation and repair.

Of course, we Christians recognize
that the work of reconciliation and repair
is no mere human work;
indeed we recognize that our human efforts
are simply not adequate to the task
of bringing about true reconciliation,
of repairing a history of damaged relations,
whether between races or classes or nations,
and even less so the broken bond
between humanity and God
that lies at the root of all our brokenness.
Reconciliation on all levels is the work of grace,
which comes to us through Christ.
As Paul writes to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 5:19),
“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,
not counting their trespasses against them,
and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.”
The truth that we must proclaim is not simply
the truth of past and present harms,
but the truth of God’s on-going work of reconciliation,
a work that is rooted in and grows from
the painful moment of truth-telling that is the cross,
in which we see displayed the reality of divine love
against the backdrop of human evil.

Let us pray that God would give us
the grace to know the truth
and to bear that truth in love
to a world in search of reconciliation and repair.
And may God have mercy on us all.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Jeremiah 20:7-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27

As our nation’s two major political parties
wrap up their nominating conventions
the word of God this week remind us
that the call of Jesus to be his follower
is something far more radical and far-reaching
than the values enshrined in American politics,
and offers us a way of living together
beyond the endless and increasingly rancorous squabbles
that mark our public discourse.

St. Paul goes right to the heart of the matter:
“Do not conform yourselves to this age
but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”
When Paul speaks here of “this age,”
he is not thinking simply
of his own first-century Roman culture.
Rather, he is thinking of the entire sweep
of human history lived in its fallen state.
He is thinking not just of his place and time
but of every place and time
in which human beings
seek worldly goods and glory
rather than “what is the will of God,
what is good and pleasing and perfect.”

St Thomas Aquinas, commenting on Paul’s statement,
notes, “the present age is a kind of measure
of those things that slip away in time” (Comm. Rom. n. 965).
To be conformed to the present age
is not simply to follow current fads and fashions
but to love too much
the fragmentary and temporary
goods of this life,
to be so enraptured by the glittering image
of power or wealth or control
that we fail to love
what is good, pleasing, and perfect,
that we miss the moment
of Christ’s invitation to be his follower.
And when, as it always does,
fortune’s wheel turns
and our power and wealth and control
turn to dust in our hands
and ashes in our mouths,
we find ourselves equally bereft
of those eternal goods,
those things that do not slip away in time.
“What profit would there be
for one to gain the whole world
and forfeit his life?”

This is not to say
that the politics of this present age do not matter.
For example, many sincerely believe
that one or the other presidential candidate
is clearly the superior choice as leader for this country.
Many sincerely believe
that one or the other party’s policy positions
clearly reflect the superior choice
for the future of America.
And people should undoubtedly vote
according to their sincere beliefs.
But let me say, in complete frankness,
that neither political party embodies fully
the vision of the good life for human beings
as understood by the Catholic tradition.
The vision of human flourishing
that has for centuries animated
saints and scholars,
prophets and Popes,
is simply not reflected
in the pre-packaged political platforms
that we are asked to affirm.
Whether it is a question of holding human life sacred
from conception to natural death,
or of the immorality of employing the death penalty
in modern societies,
of protecting the earth, our common home,
or of protecting the rights of religious conscience,
of making space for certain traditional values,
or of making space for the migrant and refugee,
it seems there ought to be something
that Catholics should find troubling
in all of the political packages presently on offer.

But the problem is not simply the failure
of our two major political parties
to cohere with the Catholic vision of human flourishing.
The problem ultimately is something deeper.
The problem is that politics,
rather than being a means
of negotiating our way through this present age,
seems to have become for many
the sole source of ultimate meaning.
Research indicates that while Americans
have become more willing to marry
someone of a different religion
they have become significantly less willing
to marry someone of a different political party.
To me this suggests that politics
has become for many what religion once was:
a bottom-line value that shapes our lives
in the most fundamental way.
The question is,
can our contemporary politics,
which is based upon winners and losers,
my side against your side,
us versus them,
bear that sort of weight?
Or, under the pressure of that weight,
does it inevitably turn into something quite ugly?

I was speaking the other day with a friend,
with whom I have some political differences,
and she said to me that what bothered her most
on the current political scene
is the amount of hatred.
One might respond, of course,
that heated emotions are normal
because the stakes in politics are high,
and policies and priorities
have a real impact in people’s lives.
And this is true.
But for a Christian,
those stakes are not ultimate.
As important as politics is,
if it engenders hatred in us
then we must ask ourselves,
what has gone wrong?
If we cannot see that those who support
a candidate we find reprehensible
are also people
who love their spouses and children,
who are capable of kindness,
and who are, like us, seeking some sense
of meaning and peace in their lives,
then we must ask ourselves
what has gone wrong?
If we cannot find a way to pray
for our political enemies,
then we must ask ourselves
what has gone wrong?
What profit would there be
for one to win an election
and forfeit the life of one’s soul?

Confronted with his own political enemies—
the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes—
Jesus chooses the path of cross and resurrection,
And he calls us to take up the cross and follow him,
and in doing so he points us to a different path:
the path, not of hatred and rancor,
but of non-conformity to this age,
the path of transformation
by the renewal of our minds,
the path of mercy and love.
In this season of political conflict
let us pray that God would open to us
the path that Jesus calls us to walk,
and may God have mercy on us all.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

She called out to him from afar,
using a term that was alien to her
but seemed to mean a lot to the Jews:
“Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!
My daughter is tormented by a demon.”
He ignored her;
nevertheless, she persisted.
He made clear that the salvation he brought
was not for her kind, but only for the Jews;
nevertheless, she persisted.
He compared her to a dog,
begging for food that was not hers;
nevertheless, she persisted.
She persisted because persistence
was the only tool she had,
the only weapon in her arsenal.
A Canaanite and a woman,
she was doubly disadvantaged,
by her race and by her sex,
in approaching a Jewish holy man
to beg a cure for her daughter.
She had no leverage,
no angle to work,
just sheer stubborn persistence,
and a capacity to absorb pain and insult,
and a deep, deep love for her child,
who was suffering so much.
And, seeing her persistence, Jesus said,
“O woman, great is your faith!
Let it be done for you as you wish.”

The unnamed Canaanite woman
joins the ranks of persistent women
who stories are told in the Gospels:
the woman with the hemorrhage
who, after years of medical abuse,
pressed through the crowd
to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment;
the sinful woman who,
despite shame and rebuke from bystanders,
bathed the feet of Jesus with her tears
until she heard the words,
“Your sins are forgiven”;
the widow in Jesus’ parable
who, through resolute nagging,
won justice from an unjust judge;
perhaps above all, Mary of Nazareth,
who persisted in faith:
from a most unexpected pregnancy,
through the suffering of her son’s cross,
to the joy of the resurrection.
Of course, in the Gospels and throughout scripture,
it is not only women who are persistent—
certainly a prophet like Jeremiah is a model of tenacity—
but in the ancient world in which Jesus lived
the near complete powerlessness of most women
made persistence a particularly important
skill for them to have,
a capacity to carry on
in the face of rejection and setback.

But the kind of persistence shown by the Canaanite woman,
shown by the woman with the hemorrhage
and the sinful woman at Jesus’ feet,
shown by the nagging widow and Mary at the cross—
such persistence is something that all Christians need to have.
For the road to God’s kingdom is long and difficult;
and if we are to follow the way of Jesus,
we cannot walk it
burdened by the baggage of worldly power
that might win for us quick and painless solutions.
God plays a long game,
and we must too,
for our goal is nothing less
than God’s reign of love,
which calls for us to live lives
of persistent faithfulness.

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.,
in a sermon entitled “Loving Your Enemies,”
spoke of how, in struggling against racial segregation,
it was important not to relinquish what he called
“our privilege and our obligation to love.”
He continued, “While abhorring segregation,
we shall love the segregationist.
This is the only way to create the beloved community.”
This sort of love calls for persistence.
Addressing his segregationist opponents,
he said, “Throw us in jail,
and we shall still love you….
But be ye assured
that we will wear you down
by our capacity to suffer.
One day we shall win freedom,
but not only for ourselves.
We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience
that we shall win you in the process,
and our victory will be a double victory.”
To defeat your enemies, not by destroying them,
but by making them your friends
is a long, slow process of persistence—
a struggle to act out of love
and not out of hatred.
For us too, these are days that call us to persistence.
From the ongoing struggle for racial justice,
to advocating for the sanctity of human life
from conception to natural death,
to building a community that welcomes the stranger
and cares for its weakest members,
to enduring the trials of a global pandemic,
our times confront us with challenges
that cannot be remedied by hatred and violence,
though many are tempted by such remedies.
We Christians have a lesson
to teach the world about persistence.
We should be the ones who can show the world
that persistence is more than simply
white knuckling it through a crisis.
We should be the ones who can show the world
that persistence is the fruit of the Holy Spirit,
something brought about in us
by the grace of a loving God.
We should be the ones who can show the world
the beauty of persistence that springs,
not from confidence in our own power,
but from our confidence is the power of God.

Remember the Canaanite woman:
confronted with seeming rejection by Jesus,
she did not grow angry or lash out,
but resolutely acted out of love for her daughter
and her faith that Jesus could heal her.
In commending her faith,
Jesus commends her persistence
and calls us to emulate her.
So in facing the many challenges
that beset us in these days
let us act with persistent, grace-filled love,
let us walk with Christ
the long, hard road to the Kingdom,
trusting that God will bring to completion
the good work that he has begun in us.
And may God have mercy on us all.

Friday, August 14, 2020

19th Week in Ordinary Time II -- Friday (Maximillian Kolbe)


Readings: Ezekiel 16:59-63; Matthew 19:3-12

In Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons,
which tells the story of St. Thomas More,
the character More, facing execution at the hands of the king,
says to his daughter,
“When a man takes an oath, Meg,
he is holding his own self in his own hands.
Like water.
And, if he opens his fingers then—
he needn’t hope to find himself again.”
Promise-making and promise-keeping
are one of the chief ways
in which we give shape to our lives—
just as our hands give shape to water—
in which we form an identity,
in which we become the self who we are.

For Christians,
the self that is formed by promise-keeping
is a self that bears witness to the promise-keeping God.
In the prophet Ezekiel, God says that he will remain true
to his sinful and wayward people Israel:
“I will re-establish my covenant with you,
that you may know that I am the LORD.”
God does not take the Israelites’ disobedience
as an excuse to go back on his promise,
to break his covenant with them;
God remains resolutely, fiercely true to his word,
and calls his people to be faithful in turn.
This is who God is: the God of steadfast love.
And this is who we are to be:
a people of steadfast love,
a promise-keeping people.

This is why Jesus is so stringent in his expectations
for the permanence of marriage.
This is not simply a bit of marital morality.
This is something that should speak to all of us,
married or not.
This is about the power of God’s grace;
the power we sense when we realize
that the hands in which we hold ourselves
enclosed like water
are themselves enclosed
in the steadfast, loving hands of God.
This is about letting God’s grace work in us
so that in keeping our vows in good times and in bad
our lives give witness
to the God of fiercely steadfast love.

Today we celebrate the feast of Maximillian Kolbe,
the Polish Franciscan priest who died
in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.
After a prisoner escaped,
the commander of the camp
sentenced ten men to die by starvation
to deter future escape attempts.
Kolbe volunteered to take the place of one of the ten
whom he knew had a wife and child.
Having promised himself
in baptism and religious consecration
to be a follower of Jesus,
to walk with Christ
the path of cross and resurrection,
Kolbe stood at that moment
holding himself in his own hands like water.
And he chose, by God’s grace,
to be a person of fiercely steadfast love.
This is who we, by God’s grace, can be as well.
Let us ask today for the prayers
of Saints Thomas More and Maximillian Kolbe
that we too might be true to our vows
so that God might make us
witnesses in the world to the love of God.

Friday, August 7, 2020

18th Week in Ordinary Time II -- Friday

Readings: Nahum 2:1-3, 3:1-3, 6-7; Matthew 16:24-28

Today’s Gospel reading pretty much sums up

what it means to be a Christian:

“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,

but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

This is a mystery and a paradox:

that we lose everything by trying to hold on to it

and we gain everything by letting it go,

if we surrender everything for the sake of Jesus.

It also presents us with two paths:

the path of holding on

and the path of letting go.

 

If we follow the path of holding on,

we discover that there can be no end to our grasping

and our efforts to retain control of what we see as ours

end in desperation and destruction.

We can see this in our first reading,

which tells of the fate of Israel’s foe,

the city of Nineveh,

which sought through warfare

to secure its wealth and power

and dominate its neighbors.

But the conqueror is eventually conquered,

and in our first reading

the prophet Nahum offers us

vivid and horrifying images of ancient warfare:

the sound of approaching chariots,

the sun glinting off of swords and spears,

piles of dead bodies.

It is a terrifying scene,

but presented as just recompense

for Nineveh's warlike ways:

in seeking to save their lives,

they lost them.

If we turn ourselves into little Ninevehs—

if we become people who seek

to secure our lives by control and domination—

we too will lose all,

we too will find our lives ruined

by the very power we sought to wield.

 

But Jesus says that there is another path to follow,

another way to live:

“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,

take up his cross, and follow me.”

Jesus’s call to his followers to take up their cross

is a call to live our lives

with open hands and open hearts,

to surrender ourselves to his way.

This is crucial for us as we seek

to find our way through these difficult times

of pandemic, civil unrest, and political division:

we might be tempted by the path of grasping

as we seek to gain some sense of control over our lives;

we might be tempted by the path of anger and blame

directed toward those who seem to threaten our security;

we might be tempted to abandon the path of Jesus—

the path of love and gentleness,

the path of mercy and forgiveness—

as unrealistic or impractical.

But our faith tells us that

in the great paradox that is the Christian way,

in the great mystery that is the path of cross and resurrection,

it is by surrendering to God’s love that we are saved;

it is by turning ourselves over in faith to the path of Jesus

that we truly find ourselves in him,

beloved children of God sharing in life eternal.

What does it profit us to gain the whole world

if we cannot find ourselves in Christ?

Sunday, July 12, 2020

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Isaiah 55:10-11; Romans 8:18-23; Matthew 13:1-23

Having served over the past few months
at the broadcast and live-streamed liturgies
here at the Cathedral—
reading the Gospel to empty pews,
speaking to a glowing red light on a camera,
wondering who might or might not be watching—
I have a certain sympathy
for the sower in today’s Gospel.
If fact, the method of planting
employed by the sower in today’s parable
is called “broadcasting.”
Though we associate the term today
with television and radio,
it originates in agriculture
as a term for scattering seed far and wide
without too much control
as to where the seed falls
and with a measure of uncertainty
as to the yield of the seed that is sown.

The staff here at the Cathedral—
others far more than me—
have put tremendous effort
into making live-streamed liturgies,
along with other forms of electronic outreach,
available to people during the coronavirus pandemic,
to try to help them remain connected:
connected to our community,
connected to their faith,
connected to God’s word.
And though it is possible to gather metrics
regarding numbers of viewers
or how many people open email messages,
we really have no immediate way
to measure the success of this broadcasting.
We have no immediate way of telling,
in light of all our efforts,
what has fallen on the stony path,
what has fallen on shallow earth,
what has fallen among thorns,
and what has fallen on good soil.

But isn’t this always the way it works?
This is not just the experience
of “professional Catholics” like me.
All of us, I dare say, want to live our faith
so as to spread God’s reign far and wide;
all of us seek by word and action
to make a world that is
more loving,
more just,
more peaceful,
more ready to welcome
the kingdom that Jesus proclaims.
But all of us also undertake
our labors for God’s kingdom
without controlling the outcome,
often without ever knowing
what seed lies sterile and unfruitful
and what seed takes root and produces
a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.
St. Teresa of Calcutta is reported to have said,
“God does not require that we be successful,
only that we be faithful.”
That might be a fine sentiment for a saint,
but for us non-saints it can be a struggle
to pour ourselves out in service to God and neighbor
and not know if anything will come of that effort.
In word and action, day in and day out,
we seek as Christians to broadcast
the seeds of God’s kingdom,
but it can feel as if
our seeds fall only on poor soil
and never take root,
as if we are always speaking
only to empty pews
or a glowing red light.

I think about this in terms of the efforts
people have made over the past few months
to mitigate the spread of this pandemic:
people struggling to work from home
while also helping in their children’s schooling,
essential workers who have put themselves at risk
so that we might have food and medical care,
businesses closed and weddings postponed
and millions of lives turned upside down.
All these efforts, I believe,
are the seeds of God’s word being broadcast;
they are done for the sake of God’s kingdom
when they are undertaken
not out of fear or self-regard,
but out of love and concern
for the least of our brothers and sisters,
for the most vulnerable and at risk,
for the common good of the world as a whole.

And yet we still don’t know where all of this will end.
As St. Paul writes,
we await with groaning the final revelation of God’s plan.
We still don’t know when or if life will return to normal,
whatever “normal” now means.
We still don’t know for sure
which of the measures we have taken
will prove to have been effective
and which will prove to have been pointless or misguided.
We still don’t know which of our efforts will bear fruit
and which will lie fruitless on hard-packed earth.

But, in another sense,
in a deeper and more important sense,
we do know.
God tells us through the prophet Isaiah,
“my word shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it.”
In the end, the work of sowing the kingdom
does not depend upon us,
but upon almighty God.
God may use us—our words and our deeds—
as instruments through which he works,
but it is God in Christ who is the sower;
it is God’s Spirit, which blows where it will,
that will guide the seeds of the kingdom to good soil.

Our job is to remain faithful to the tasks of love
that God sets before us.
And so we broadcast seeds
of faith, hope, and love,
not holding back,
but offering our labors great and small to God
to be transformed by his grace.
Let us pray today that the Lord
would prosper the work of our lives,
and may God have mercy on us all.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Corpus Christi (Fourteenth Sunday in Corona Time)


Readings: Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14b-16a; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; John 6:51-58

When Paul asks the Christians of Corinth
the rhetorical question,
“The bread that we break,
is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”
the word translated as “participation”
koinonia
is the same word Paul later uses
when he wishes for the Corinthians
“the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the communion”
koinonia
“of the Holy Spirit.”
I mention this not simply
to make a pedantic point about the Greek text
(though I will rarely pass up a pedantic point
when one can be made),
but because I think that this helps us
to see the fundamental truth
that for us life as disciples of Jesus
is both our life with God through Christ’s Spirit
and our life with each other in Christ’s body.
Our communion in the Spirit
is inseparable from our communion in the body:
“unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man
and drink his blood,
you do not have life within you.”
The mystery that we celebrated last week
in the feast of the most holy Trinity—
the mystery of our inclusion
in the timeless communion
of Father, Son, and Spirit—
is the same mystery we celebrate
on this great feast of Corpus Christ,
for our spiritual koinonia in God
is signified and caused
by our bodily koinonia with one another
through Christ’s gift to us
of his own body and blood
become our food and drink.

This feast underscores for us the truth
that Christianity is not simply a spirituality
but also, we might say, a corporeality.
Christian corporeality means that
entering into communion with God
does not involve us leaving behind our bodies,
but, in a sense, living in them in a deeper way.

For many of us the importance of bodies
has already been brought home
by the strange experience of pandemic shutdown
that we have experienced these past months.
We ache for embodied contact
with friends and families.
And while pastors and parishioners
have made heroic efforts
to make liturgies available virtually,
few, I suspect, see such virtual koinonia
as an adequate substitute
for the bodily koinonia the happens
when the body of Christ gathers
to receive the body of Christ sacramentally.
Bodies matter:
Christ’s body and our bodies,
drawn together in ways
that we not only see and hear
but smell and touch and taste.
Our koinonia in the Spirit
is our koinonia in the body,
which is celebrated and brought about
in the sacramental life of the Church.

The disheartening news is that,
while churches in many places
have begun to reopen,
we should not presume
that this will necessarily last.
We simply don’t know
what the effects of re-opening will be
and when, or if, we will have a vaccine.
If nothing else, this pandemic
should have brought home to us
how fragile our bodily koinonia is,
how hostage to fortune,
how beset by risk and danger.
But this is nothing new to Christians.
For our sacramental life together
is founded on God’s great act
of bodily koinonia with us:
the taking-flesh of the eternal Son
who came to dwell among us,
to share our risk and danger,
to be broken on the cross.
It is not an accident that it is broken bread
that is our koinnia in the body of Christ.
Our hope is for resurrection
beyond that breaking,
but for the time being
we live still in a broken place,
in broken communion.

We see this not only
in the way that the pandemic
has fractured our families,
our friendships,
our sacramental life,
but also in the way that sin
has fractured our unity as a human race.
This too has, in recent weeks,
been brought home forcefully to us
as we face hard question about race
and the just and unjust pursuit of public order.
Here too, bodies matter.
There is no shortcut to spiritual koinonia
that will allow us to ignore
the legacy of black bodies bought and sold,
segregated and incarcerated,
lynched, and shot.
These bodies matter
not because we are trying
to “mix religion and politics,”
not because we desire to be “woke,”
not because we have some “leftist agenda,”
but because we desire to be Christian.
Our communion in the Spirit
is inseparable from our communion in the body,
and our communion in the body
means that we cannot ignore the bodily suffering
of those who are members or potential members
of Christ’s own body.

The past few months have been
some of the most difficult and trying
that many of us have lived through.
The ordinary trials of life
have been exacerbated and magnified
by the corona virus pandemic.
Most of us have been unable to receive
the sacramental food that we have counted on
to sustain us in past trials.
The brokenness of the human race
has been put on violent display.
But we cannot forget
that the promised koinonia of God’s kingdom
is something that not even death can defeat,
We cannot forget
that we have been promised in Christ
that broken bodies can be made whole,
We cannot forget
that hope that has died can be raised again,
that Christ is with us even to the end of the ages.
May the God of hope deepen our communion
with God and each other
and may God have mercy on us all.