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

Change.
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.

Change.
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.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Isaiah 66:18-21; Luke 13:22-30

Preached a Grace United Methodist Church, Baltimore Maryland

This seems to happen all the time in the Gospels:
someone comes to Jesus with a clear-cut, yes-or-no question—
“Lord, will only a few be saved?”—
and rather than simply answering the question
Jesus launches into a lengthy discourse
(or even, God forbid, a parable)
that occasions more confusion than clarification.
All the person wants is some information—
salvation: many or few?—
and suddenly Jesus is talking about narrow doors
and homeowners who won’t answer when you knock;
then, inexplicably, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob put in an appearance,
and along with them (just for good measure) all the prophets
and then there is weeping and gnashing of teeth
and a geographically diverse crowd at a banquet,
and finally, just to drive home the point
that he really isn’t going to answer the question
he says cryptically, “some are last who will be first,
and some are first who will be last.”
Writing in the 5th century, St. Cyril of Alexandria
noted, with a bit of understatement,
“This reply may seem perhaps to wander
from the scope of the question” (Homily 99 on Luke).

But maybe Jesus has his reasons
for answering simple and direct questions
with such complexity and indirectness.
In this particular case,
perhaps he wants to show us
that asking about the salvation of others
may simply be a way of avoiding the question
of what my standing is before God.
We turn our gaze to the fate of others
so we do not have to look at ourselves.

This was certainly the view of St. Cyril,
who goes on to say:
“The man wanted to know
whether there would be few who are saved,
but [Jesus] explained to him the way
whereby he might be saved himself….
It was a necessary and valuable thing
to know how one may obtain salvation.
[Jesus] is purposely silent
to the [man’s] useless question.” (Homily 99 on Luke).
In other words,
the question of few or many
is of no use to anyone;
it is a question motivated by mere curiosity.
What is of use is the knowledge of
whether I am aiming for a door that is narrow,
whether I must strive at all times to enter that door,
whether I can let my salvation rest
on simply having been in the proximity of Jesus,
of having heard his teaching,
or whether I must seek to be his disciple
in a deeper and truer sense.

Now to Catholics and Methodists like us
this might sound pretty OK:
our traditions place a premium on holy living.
We think that justification
must be completed by sanctification
and that this sanctification must be lived out
in a concrete and visible way,
whether this is Benedictine monasticism
or the Wesley Class Meeting.
John Wesley’s views on grace
were close enough to the teachings
of the Council of Trent
that he was accused by some
of secretly being a Jesuit.
From the early Christian reform of Roman morals,
to St. Francis’s embrace of Lady Poverty,
to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union,
to participation in the Civil Rights Movement,
the Catholic and Methodist traditions
have embodied the conviction
that being a disciple of Jesus involves more
than simply being in the near proximity of Jesus,
more than simply having shared a meal with him
or having heard him teach.
One might say that, theologically speaking,
Catholicism and Methodism
are “strenuous” forms of Christianity.
If I am to be a disciple of Jesus,
then I must strive with every muscle, nerve, and bone
to enter the narrow door by living a Christ-like life,
a life of integrity and justice and peace-making.

But we should beware of thinking
that, by hearing in it a call
to a life of strenuous discipleship,
we have fully grasped the meaning of
Jesus’ lengthy, baffling, complex, indirect non-answer
to the man’s useless and idle question.
We should beware of thinking
that Jesus is telling us
that our strenuous discipleship
somehow ensures our salvation.
Just when we think
that we have got the thing wrapped up—
that we know what Jesus’ requirements are,
that we know what it means to strive,
that we know where that narrow door is located—
Jesus unravels it.
For he tells us that the door may be narrow,
but it is widely accessible:
in the wideness of God’s mercy
it welcomes those coming from the east or the west,
from the north or the south.
He tells us that we must strive to enter,
but striving is no guarantee of preferred treatment:
many who have through their striving
arrived at the door first
will suddenly find themselves at the back of the line,
while the slacker disciples who didn’t strive very hard
and arrived at the last minute
will suddenly find themselves at the front of the line.
“Some are last who will be first,
and some are first who will be last.”

Imagine the scene:
you have spent your life in strenuous discipleship,
faithfully attending church on Sundays
and a prayer group during the week,
volunteering at a homeless shelter
and taking in foster children,
passing up the higher-paying job
to spend more time with your family and volunteering,
scrupulously voting for candidates who best embody
what you think is the Gospel message,
treating everyone fairly and equally,
striving to enter that narrow door.
And on the day of judgment
you discover that, despite all your striving,
you have somehow ended up at the back of the line.
Not only that, but as you look ahead of you in line
you are shocked to see those you recognize as
liars and adulterers,
murderers and thieves,
gangbangers and whores,
bullies and racists,
terrorists and tyrants,
all those who clearly did not strive,
as you did,
to enter the narrow door.
These sinners are entering into the kingdom
ahead of you,
sitting down to join in the banquet,
while you stand outside
like some D-list celebrity
waiting and hoping
to get into the hottest club in town
before it fills up.

Does your heart fall
as you see the unfairness of it all?
Do you cry out in the name of justice
and recount all you did
in your strenuous life of discipleship,
all the striving that surely must have won you
a higher place in line?

Or does your heart leap for joy
because all of those wretched sinners ahead of you
were somehow touched by God’s grace,
somehow transformed by God’s Spirit,
so as to now share in the joy of the kingdom?
Do you cry out in praise of grace,
thankful for God’s mercy shown to those sinners
and thankful for the mercy shown to you
despite your confidence in your own striving,
despite your arrogance in thinking
that even the most strenuous discipleship
could ever make you deserving
of a place in God’s kingdom.

As we ponder Jesus’ lengthy, baffling,
complex, indirect non-answer
to the man’s useless and idle question
we might come to see
that we should strive to enter the narrow door,
to live a life of strenuous discipleship,
to practice our faith in Jesus Christ
to the greatest depth and breadth of our ability.
If you love Jesus, of course you will want to do this,
for what lover would not do everything possible
to be with his or her beloved,
to do and love what the beloved does and loves.
But, as Bernard of Clairvaux asked,
“when the soul has poured out her whole being in love,
what is that in comparison with the unceasing torrent”
that is the source of our love,
the God who loved us first (Sermon 83)?

If you wish truly to know the joy of the kingdom,
if you wish truly to feast
with patriarchs and prophets,
with people of all nations and tongues,
at the banquet of life,
never forget that in all your striving
God’s grace goes before you;
never forget that you too are saved
not by your own efforts
but by the same mercy that saves
the worst of sinners;
never forget that our hope is grounded
not in our strenuous discipleship
but in the mystery of divine love.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Wisdom 18:6-9; Hebrews 11: 1-2, 8-19; Luke 12:32-48

Promise and fulfillment,
warning and judgment,
hope and vigilance:
these are themes that we might more typically expect
to hear at the end of November
and the beginning of December
with the close of the Church year
and the start of Advent.
But God in his providence has decided
that we need to reflect on these themes
a bit early this year;
perhaps because, with our national elections
coming on November 8th,
we need urgently to hear God’s word
calling us to serve the common good of all people,
reminding us that we stand before the judgment of God,
and renewing our awareness of where our hope truly lies.

There are at least two temptations that can beset us
as we enter the frenzied final months
of the election season.
One temptation is over-investment:
to let ourselves be caught up in that frenzy;
to be filled with unrealistic hope,
should our candidate win,
and fearful despair,
should our candidate lose;
to so invest in a particular outcome
that we come to see those who disagree with us—
even our friends and family members—as enemies:
at best unwitting dupes of political manipulation
and at worst hateful, selfish, and morally corrupt.
The other temptation is under-investment:
to denounce all politics as corrupt,
to say that none of this
has anything to do with me,
and to walk away from the frenzy,
shaking the dust from our feet.
To combat these temptations,
to find our way through the frenzied months ahead,
our scriptures today call us as followers of Jesus
to recall and hold fast to some basic principles.

Our Gospel reading recounts a parable
about servants waiting for the return of their master—
servants who are rewarded
for being prepared when he arrives.
Jesus concludes: “You also must be prepared,
for at an hour you do not expect,
the Son of Man will come.”
When Peter asks “is this parable meant for us
or for everyone?”—
meaning, does this have some special relevance
to us whom you have chosen as leaders?—
Jesus resumes the parable,
this time focusing on the “steward” of the household.
The word we translate as “steward” (oikonomos) means
the servant who was placed in authority over the other servants
and was charged with making sure that things ran smoothly:
that the other servants were fed and well treated,
that the master’s resources were not squandered,
that the well-being of the entire household was guarded.
Jesus considers the case of a steward who decides
that the master is not showing up any time soon,
and so neglects and abuses the servants
who have been put in his care
and runs the master’s household
as if it were there for his own personal well-being.
Needless to say,
things do not turn out well for such a steward
when the master returns unexpectedly.

This parable,
while likely intended as a warning to leaders in the Church,
also speaks to anyone placed in a position of leadership.
A key principle of Catholic social thought
is that governments exist to serve
what we call “the common good”—
that is, all that leads to the flourishing
both of individuals and of a society as a whole;
The common good is,
as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says,
“what is needed to lead a truly human life:
food, clothing, health, work, education and culture,
suitable information,
the right to establish a family, and so on” (n. 1908).
The steward in the parable is charged
with the common good of the household;
but, forgetting that he himself is a servant,
presuming that the master is not returning,
he does not provide for the other servants,
does not see to it that they have
what they need to lead a truly human life,
but rather treats the household as a vehicle
for satisfying his own ambitions,
for fulfilling his own desires.
And he is judged harshly upon his master’s return.

This notion of the common good
is fundamental to how we as Catholics
are called to think about politics.
Political leaders are entrusted with the task
not of winning power glory for themselves,
or even of making our nation rich and powerful,
but of fostering a society that is truly human and humane,
in which the weakest and most vulnerable
are protected and cared for.
And because we live in a democracy,
there is a sense in which all of us,
and not only our leaders,
are stewards of the common good,
called to care for the household of God’s creation.
With national elections approaching,
we need to reflect now
on that Advent theme of final judgment:
when God will reveal our deeds,
when we will have to bear witness to our lives
and to whether we chose our leaders
according to our own private interests—
what benefits us
or according to what will make a truly human life
possible for all people.
So we cannot under-invest in our nation’s politics;
we cannot retreat from the task entrusted to us
of seeking a more just and humane world.

But there is another theme sounded in our readings:
while the common good that we can secure in this world
is a genuine good,
it is not the highest good.
The Letter to the Hebrews says
that even when Abraham was in the land
God had promised him,
“he sojourned [there] as in a foreign country...
for he was looking forward to the city...
whose architect and maker is God.”
We are called to seek the common good
that makes for a truly human life,
but also never forget that we ultimately
“desire a better homeland, a heavenly one.”
We desire a peace and a justice that only God can provide,
a peace and a justice that our best earthly efforts
can only feebly prepare for and dimly approximate.
At the end of the day our hope lies
not in any party or candidate,
but in Jesus Christ and his kingdom of love.
And if we keep this in mind,
then we can give ourselves whole-heartedly
to the pursuit of the common good
and still resist the temptation to over-invest
in our earthly political struggles,
an over-investment that leads
not to peace or justice,
but to strife and partisanship,
to bitterness and disappointment;
an over-investment by which we gain the world
at the cost of our souls.
"For where your treasure is,
there also will your heart be."

The frenzy of our political seasons
are challenging to everyone,
but they are even more challenging
if you are a follower of Jesus.
Our two temptations
of over-investment and under-investment
stand as warning markers
on opposite sides of the path of Christian discipleship.
Today’s readings call us to walk the razor’s edge of prudence
during the coming days of political frenzy:
we must recognize that we all
bear a responsibility for the common good
and will be judged by God accordingly,
while we must also remember
that we are citizens of a kingdom that is yet to come,
a kingdom for which we wait in vigilance,
a kingdom of peace that calls to us beyond partisan battles,
a kingdom that can quiet our fearful frenzy and give us hope.