Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Baptism of the Lord

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Titus 2:11-14, 3:4-7; Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

Today we pivot from our celebration of Christmas
to the beginning of what the Church calls “Ordinary Time”—
those ordinary “green” Sundays
that mark our everyday lives as Christians.
As we make this pivot we celebrate one final mystery
of Christ’s entry into our world:
the Baptism of the Lord,
the event that inaugurated
the public ministry of Jesus,
the time of his proclamation of God’s Kingdom,
the extraordinary ordinary time of his life
in which the sick were healed,
the dead were raised,
and the poor had the good news
proclaimed to them.
This is the story
that unfolds in our hearing
Sunday by Sunday
in the Ordinary Time
of our Christian lives.
But this first Sunday in Ordinary Time,
this Feast of the Baptism of the Lord,
is not simply when we begin
to tell the story of Jesus’ ministry,
it is also when we remember that
through our own baptisms
the story of Jesus
has become our story as well.

To be part of a family
is to “own” a set of family stories.
My family has stories of one group of ancestors
who emigrated from Scotland in colonial times
to seek their fortunes in the New World
and another group who emigrated from Germany
in the late 19th century
for reasons ranging
from avoidance of military service to romance.
We have stories of how my mother’s mother’s mother
ran a hotel all on her own after her husband died,
and how my father’s father ran a dancehall
that was actually the front for a speakeasy
during Prohibition.
We have stories of how my parent met at a party
the night before my father
went to sea for several months
and how when he returned
he called up my mother,
not sure she’d even remember who he was
(my presence here today
testifies to the fact that she remembered).

We all have these family stories that belong to us
or, it might be more accurate to say,
to which we belong.
We belong to these stories
because they shape who we are,
they shape how we see the world
and how we respond to what we see,
they constitute our identities as individuals
who are embedded in a communally shared history.
Even more that biological relationship,
it is these stories
that make us members of a family:
whether one is born into a family
or is adopted into it,
or marries into it,
we belong to a family
because we are heirs to its stories—
the happy and the sad,
the beautiful and the ugly.

But we are not only part
of our individual family stories.
We are also part of the story of the human family:
a story of joys and hopes,
of griefs and anxieties.
It is a story that is deeply marked by sin,
a story of war and poverty
and sickness and death.
It is a story
that has shaped how we see the world
and how we have responded to what we see,
and what we human see
and how we respond
is often not very pretty.

But the good news
is that you do not have
to let that story define you;
this shared human history
need not be your destiny.
For in baptism you have become
part of a different story:
the story of the people of Israel
and of Jesus
and of his Church.
This is the story of the becoming present
in our human history
of the eternal love that is God:
Father, Son, and Spirit.
In the baptism of Jesus
we hear the voice of the Father
calling him beloved,
and see the Spirit of love
pouring out upon him
from the opened heavens.
And when we are baptized
in the name of the Father,
and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit,
that story becomes our story.

In our second reading today,
Paul writes to Titus that God
“saved us through the bath of rebirth
and renewal by the Holy Spirit,
whom he richly poured out on us
through Jesus Christ our savior,
so that we might be justified by his grace
and become heirs in hope of eternal life.”
We become heirs in hope of eternal life
because as members of God’s family
through the grace of baptism
we are inheritors of the story
of Israel, Jesus, and the Church,
the story of hope that is now our story,
a story that can shape how we see the world
and how we responded to what we see.

An early Christian author,
writing about Jesus’ baptism, said,
“At once ‘the heavens were opened to him.’
The world we see was reconciled
with the world that lies beyond our vision;
the angels were filled with joy;
earthly disorders were remedied;
mysteries were revealed;
enemies were made friends”
(attr. Hippolytus of Rome).
And so too at the baptism
of each and every Christian:
the heavens are opened
and our vision is no longer limited
to the often brutal facts of human history
that lie before our eyes;
heavenly powers rejoice as we are freed
from the grip of sin and self-seeking;
the mystery of divine love is made manifest
as hatred is healed and division overcome.
We leave behind in the waters of baptism
the old story of sin and death
and rise into the new story of Christ,
a story of Spirit and of fire,
a story of faith and of hope,
a story of the triumph of love over death.

As you renew your baptismal promises this morning,
as you live the Ordinary Time of your life in Christ,
own that story,
and let that story own you.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Holy Family

Readings: 1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28; 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24; Luke 2:41-52

When my children were little
we gave them each a copy of a book called The Picture Bible.
This was more than simply an illustrated Bible;
it was what today they call a “graphic novel”—
a thick volume containing most of the Biblical stories
in classic comic book form.
It was the perfect vehicle
for conveying the stories of Scripture to children,
and to this day there are parts of the Bible
(particularly the battles in the Old Testament)
that my children know better than I do.

But in some ways the Bible does not really make
a very good children’s book.
Take the compact little story of the birth of Samuel
that is our first reading today.
Hannah prays to God for a child and,
in gratitude for the birth of her son, promises
“Once the child is weaned,
I will take him to appear before the Lord
and to remain there forever;
I will offer him as a perpetual nazirite.”
Hannah makes for her son a vow that,
according to the book of Numbers,
you really should only make for yourself,
a voluntary consecration to God
that involves never cutting your hair
or drinking wine,
things that mark you out
as “set apart” from ordinary life.
Moreover, as part of her vow
she takes Samuel to the Temple
and leaves him there
to be raised by the priest Eli.
Why, we might ask,
after all she has been through to have a child
would Hannah commit him
to the difficult life of a nazirite
and then abandon him into someone else’s hands?

Moreover, whatever puzzlement this story
might cause in us adults,
imagine the effects
that it might have on a child:
your parents make promises for you behind your back
and then abandon you
with some old man who lives in a temple.
It is almost as if the story
is designed to hit the sweet spot
between children’s frustration
at their lack of autonomy
and their fear of parental abandonment.
It is more like the terrifying tales of the Brothers Grimm
than what one would hope to find in the Bible,
though given stories like Abraham’s near-killing of Isaac
and Jeptha’s foolish vow that
leads him to sacrifice his daughter,
it is actually pretty mild
(In The Picture Bible,
you may be reassured to know,
Hannah’s vow is depicted more as a simple desire
that her son be a good person
and Samuel’s leaving at the Temple
is more like him going off to boarding school,
a kind of Hogwarts for prophets).

But if it is not really a story for children,
perhaps it is a story for parents,
for the story of Hannah and Samuel captures something
that is deeply true
about the relationship of parents and children.

All parents have hopes and dreams for their children,
ideas of what sort of person we want them to be,
what values we want them to embody.
For Christians
who bring their children
to the waters of Baptism,
we promise “to bring them up
to keep God’s commandment
as Christ taught us,
by loving God and our neighbor”;
we renounce Satan
and profess our faith
in Father, Son, and Holy Sprit
and state our desire
to have our children baptized
into the faith we have professed.
We do this not because we want
to violate their autonomy
or restrict their freedom,
but because we believe
that the Gospel of Jesus Christ
will give them the freedom they need
to be truly happy.
Like Hannah, we dedicate our children
to a life of love of God and neighbor,
a life that might be difficult
in a world that often rejects God’s love,
but one that promises them a joy
that ultimately surpasses
any pain they might suffer.

We parents must also realize, however,
that our children do not remain
forever in our households.
From the outset and gradually over the course of years,
they are and become, as we say, their own people.
Or, for us Christians, we might better say
that Baptism is not simply about
our hopes and dreams,
but about placing them in God’s hands,
so that they can receive
what God desires for them.
As they, like Jesus in today’s Gospel,
“advance in wisdom and age and favor
before God and human beings,”
they might do things and make choices
that cause us,
like Mary and Joseph in today’s Gospel,
great anxiety.
We desire happiness for our children,
and we seek to teach them the ways
that we believe will lead them to that happiness.
But all along they are also teaching us,
teaching us that God’s ways are many and varied,
teaching us that the one thing we can know
is that the path along which
they will make their journey to God
will surely not be our own path.
Even when we are convinced
that they are mistaken in their choices,
once we have said our piece and done our best,
we can in the end only entrust them to God’s care,
in the faith that the God
to whom we gave them in Baptism
will never abandon them,
never let them fall from his loving grasp.

Like Hannah,
we ultimately must leave our children
in God’s hands,
trusting that they have in Baptism
become children of a God
who loves them even more than we do,
and will lead them to eternal happiness.
Like Hannah,
we hope for our children
a destiny so great
that no effort of ours,
but only the merciful love of God,
can bring it to completion.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

2nd Sunday of Advent

Readings: Baruch 5:1-9; Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11; Luke 3:1-6

They killed without mercy in San Bernardino.
They killed without mercy
fourteen coworkers and acquaintances,
alongside whom they had previously
lived their lives in peace.
They killed without mercy,
seemingly in the name of God,
the God whom the Qur’an invokes
at the outset of every chapter
as “the Compassionate, the Merciful.”

He, too, killed without mercy in Colorado Springs.
He killed without mercy or discrimination
three people who happened to fall
within the sights of his weapon.
He killed without mercy,
seemingly in the name of God,
the God whom he was convinced
would mercifully cover his sins,
no matter what he did.

Some of us reacted
by taking to Facebook and Twitter,
posting and tweeting
our “thoughts and prayers” for the victims;
others of us rebuked these sentiments,
saying that thoughts and prayers are not enough,
that concrete action must be taken
to end such violence.
Many of us simply felt
immense perplexity and sadness.
We huddled,
wrapped in our robe of mourning and misery:
wanting to pray,
but not knowing what to say;
wanting to act,
but not knowing what to do;
wanting maybe simply
to hide and hope it all would go away.

I am not without sympathy
for The New York Daily News,
which responded to the politicians
who sent out their “thoughts and prayers”
with a headline that read
“God isn’t fixing this.”
I’m sympathetic because I too grow tired
of politicians and pundits
who turn prayer into a placeholder
for prudent action infinitely delayed.
I too sense with weary irony
the ambiguities of praying to God
for those who have been killed in the name of God,
by those who probably also prayed to God
before embarking on their merciless missions.

But even my weariness and my cynicism
cannot keep me from calling out,
“Lord, have mercy.”
Aware of the ambiguity and abuse
that sometimes accompanies
talk of thoughts and prayers
I still cannot suppress the primal cry
that wells up
from the depth of my heart:
“Lord Jesus, have mercy on us.”
We should never be ashamed to pray
in response to the horrors of the world,
to beg that God would have mercy on this human race,
a people that has,
as St. Catherine of Siena put it,
“declared war on [God’s] mercy
and become [God’s] enemies” (Dialogue ch. 13).

Yes, we must act to try to curb
the merciless violence
that afflicts our nation and our world,
but we must also recognize
that this violence has roots
deep within our human nature,
a nature that has been devastated by sin.
There are things we can and should fix,
but there are also things wrong with us
that only God can fix.
The large-scale acts of war against God’s mercy
that we witness in California or Colorado
grow from seeds of destruction
that we all have in our hearts:
seeds of resentment and pride,
seeds of spite and selfishness,
seeds of indifference and malice.
I, too, am at war with God’s mercy;
I, too, am a merciless combatant
in sin’s war against goodness.
Perhaps we should not expect God
to fix those situations
that call for the exercise of human wisdom
and political prudence,
but surely I must beg God to fix my warring heart.
Confronted with the darkness around and within me,
I am not ashamed to call out:
Come, God of mercy,
come and bring us back
from the darkness of our exile,
come and take from us
the robe of mourning and misery.

And so we gather together on this day
as God’s people ,
seeking God’s mercy.
And we hear in our Gospel
the voice of John the Baptist,
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths….
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
We hear the voice of the prophet Baruch,
“take off your robe of mourning and misery;
put on the splendor of glory from God forever....
for God is leading Israel in joy
by the light of his glory,
with his mercy and justice for company.”
In this season of Advent,
we light our candles of hope,
visible signs of our prayer that God’s mercy
would bring peace to our hearts and to our world.
We light our candles of hope
because we believe that God has come to us,
that in the life, death, and rising of Jesus
God has, as St. Catherine of Siena wrote,
“[given] this warring human race a way to reconciliation,
bringing great peace out of our war” (Dialogue ch. 13).
Yes, we must act to restrain
the violence that grows
from our war against God’s mercy.
But we must also pray for that mercy,
because in the end
it is only God’s mercy
that will disarm our hearts.
In the face of merciless killings
done in the name of a merciful God,
we light our candles of hope
as a sign of our prayer
that God the Compassionate,
the Merciful,
will one day reign victorious
and that we will find ourselves,
joyfully defeated,
prisoners of war
who have surrendered to mercy.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Christ the King

Readings: Daniel 7:13-14; Revelation 1:5-8; John 18:33b-37

Do you think that Pilate, the Roman governor,
breathed a sigh of relief
when Jesus said,
“My kingdom does not belong to this world”?
Did he perhaps think that Jesus
was taking himself out of the game
and saying that his kingdom had
no real-world relevance?
Was this why he would shortly go out
and tell Jesus’ accusers, “I find no guilt in him,”
because he now thought that Jesus was no threat,
that Jesus was the king, at best,
of some fantasy kingdom in the sky?

But of course Pilate misunderstood Jesus’s words.
As St. Augustine pointed out,
when Jesus said that his kingdom did not belong to this world,
“he did not say: ‘My kingdom is not in this world,’
but ‘is not of this world’” (Homilies on the Gospel of John 115.2).
Jesus’ kingdom is very much in this world,
because it is present in his life and words and deeds.

So what then does he mean when he says
that his kingdom does not belong to this world,
that although it is in this world
it is not of this world?
He is saying that that his kingdom does not grow from
the forces and motivations
that produce kingdoms and nations in our world.
It is a sad fact
that our nations and political allegiances are based
on a fundamental division of the world
into “us” and “them,”
and a desire to make sure that
by banding together
we can protect ourselves from the threat of “them.”
The kingdoms and nations that are of the world
are mechanism of control
marked by what St. Augustine called
the libido dominandi,
the lust for domination,
a desire that grows from the fear
that the lives we have made for ourselves—
our families and friends,
our possessions and pursuits,
our safety and security—
hang by a thread of fortune
and can be swept away in an instant.
This fear turns everyone who is not us
into a threat to be managed or eliminated.
We still hope that somehow,
if we can just accumulate enough economic clout,
if we can just strengthen our boarders with a higher wall,
if we can just kill enough of our enemies
fortune might be controlled,
fate might be fooled,
and we might finally have peace of mind.

So much of our political discourse is driven
by this fear and desire for control.
But Jesus says that his kingdom is not like this;
his kingdom, though it is present in this world,
does not spring from a lust to dominate,
his kingdom is not a regime of risk management
in which we trade liberty for security
and compassion for control.
Christ’s kingdom is not of this world
because it operates outside of the tyranny of fear.
It is a kingdom that spreads forth from Christ’s empty tomb
and its promise that no enemy,
not even death,
can take from us
the one possession that ultimately matters:
the love of God that comes to us through Jesus.
For he is the one,
as our reading from the Book of Revelation says,
who is “the firstborn of the dead
and ruler of the kings of the earth…
who loves us and has freed us from our sins
by his blood,
who has made us into a kingdom,
priests for his God and Father.”
In his kingdom we find true freedom,
true liberty,
because he has freed us from sin
and the fear of death;
and in doing this he has made us free
to love God and neighbor,
He has made us free to see as our neighbor
not simply those who look and live like us,
or those whom we can control and dominate,
or those whose threat we can neutralize,
but each and every person God has made,
particularly those who are most vulnerable
and in need of our love:
the poor, the defenseless, the stranger.

It is not that Christ’s kingdom
has no enemies or faces no threats.
How could we think that
when we hear in our Gospel today
of Jesus facing the man who would order his death?
But it is a kingdom that does not let itself be ruled
by fear of enemies
and calculation of risk,
but continues in the face of all this
to witness to the truth.
Christ our king is risen
and we have been set free
to live lives of generosity and mercy,
lives that befit the citizens of his kingdom:
“a kingdom of life and truth,
a kingdom of holiness and grace,
a kingdom of justice, love, and peace”
(Preface for Christ the King).

Of course, because we are still journeying
toward the fullness of Christ’s kingdom,
we continue to live in this world
with its kingdoms, nations, and tribes.
We struggle to discern God’s will,
and might disagree among ourselves
regarding how best to live out concretely our call,
as citizen’s of Christ’s kingdom,
to live lives of generosity and mercy.
But the one thing we cannot do
is to let the Pontius Pilates of this world
breathe a sigh of relief
because we live our lives
as if Christ’s kingdom were irrelevant in this world,
as if it were merely an ideal
for some other world,
some other life.
Because if we do not live
as if the defeat of sin and death
in the resurrection of Jesus
makes a difference here and now
then we may need to ask ourselves
if it is really the resurrection of Jesus
that we believe in.
If we persist in living lives ruled by fear
and the desire for control
then perhaps we have misunderstood the one who is
“the Alpha and the Omega…
the one who is and who was
and who is to come,
the almighty.”
To celebrate Christ as king
is to say to the kingdoms of this world,
the kingdoms driven by fear and exclusion,
that they do not have the final word,
because Christ’s kingdom
is present now in our midst
beckoning us to enter.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Solemnity of All Saints

Readings: Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12a

In the late 19th century
the French Catholic writer Léon Bloy
concluded his novel The Woman Who Was Poor
with the line,
“There is only one sadness…
not to be saints.”

But, we might ask,
why should not being saints make us sad
and why would he say
that this is the only sadness?
After all,
isn’t there plenty of other sadness in life—
disappointments in our careers
and creative endeavors,
our love lives
and our friendships:
promotions and recognitions passed over,
failures and broken promises.
Moreover, we do not tend to think of saints
as people who had lots of fun.
Indeed, we tend to think of them
as having become saints
because they were willing to give up
fun things that make people happy,
like money or sex or careers
or, in the case of martyrs, even their lives.
Being a saint sounds to many of us
like a pretty dreary affair—
lots of church and Bible-reading and visiting the sick—
and Jesus in today’s Gospel doesn’t help matters much
when he says that those who are blessed
(which is another way of saying those who are saints)
are the poor in spirit,
the mourning,
those hungering and thirsting for justice,
those who are persecuted for justice’s sake.
This does not sound
like a particularly happy crowd.
We might even ask,
with all due respect to Monsieur Bloy:
given all the potential occasions
for sadness in life,
why increase our sadness
by the pursuit of joyless sainthood?

I probably do not need to tell you
that I think such a view
profoundly misunderstands
both happiness and sainthood.

So, what is happiness?
Our deepest experiences of joy
are when we are doing something and say
“This, this, is what I am meant to be doing.”
We experience joy when we are engaged in some activity
that is so in tune with who we are
that it flows forth from us
with a sense of rightness,
a sense of naturalness,
a sense that this is what we were made to do,
this is who we were meant to be.
It might be joy that we feel in a career,
in which our own particular set of skills and gifts
perfectly match the meaningful task we have to do.
It might be the joy we feel in athletic
or creative pursuits,
when hours spent on the practice field
or in the studio
or at the writer’s desk
yield that moment of victory,
of achievement,
of beauty.
It might be joy that we feel
in friendship or romance,
when the love that we offer
is returned in kind.

But nobody’s life is only their career
or their art
or even their loves.
Our life as human beings is in part distinctive
because we are many things at the same time:
we are doctors or business people or teachers,
while we are also artists and athletes ,
as well as parents and spouses and friends and siblings.
Because we are many things at once,
we find happiness in many areas of our lives.
But we also find sadness,
because the activities that fulfill us
in one area of our lives
might be in conflict with finding joy
in another area of our lives,
as when pursuit of a career
negatively affects our personal relationships,
or we give up our artistic dreams
in order to help provide for our families.
It seems that none of these things
makes us happy in all that we are;
each happiness is a partial happiness.

And even more, we human beings are aware
that each and every partial joy we experience in life
is fleeting,
and so fragile
that a small turn of fortune
could take it from us.
An economic downturn
makes me lose that perfect job;
my strength diminishes,
my hands shake,
my mind grows dim,
and I can no longer engage
in my beloved athletic or artistic pursuit;
death or betrayal takes from me
that precious friend or lover.
Part of what it means to be human
is to recognize all this,
and even in moments of intense happiness
to be haunted by the question,
is there something more?
Is there a happiness
that can embrace all that I am?
Is there a happiness
that neither fortune
nor time
nor even death
can sweep away?

There is only one sadness—not to be saints.
Because it is precisely in loving the creator of all,
the one who knows us better than we know ourselves,
that the saints are fulfilled in such a way
that joy can pervade every aspect of their life.
There is only one sadness—not to be saints.
Because the saints are those who have found a joy
that no passage of time or turn of fortune,
no human failure or inadequacy,
and not even death,
can take from them.

Perhaps the life of the saints
strikes us as a sad one
because our notion of “a saint”
is a narrow and moralistic one.
But the saints are not those
who have followed all the rules;
they are not the ones
who have sacrificed all pleasure;
they are not the ones
who have cut out of their lives
everything and everyone except God.
No, they are the ones
who have abandoned themselves
to the wild adventure of being a lover of Jesus,
and have let the joy of that adventure
flow from them
to pervade their every action,
have let that love
infuse all of their relationships.
They are the ones who have found an eternal happiness
that can console us now
in the face of misfortune and disappointment,
and will one day
wipe away every tear in God’s kingdom.

To miss that love,
to miss that joy,
to miss that adventure:
truly, this is the only sadness
that God’s joy cannot overcome.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Genesis 2:18-24; Hebrews 2:9-11; Mark 10:2-16

As some of you may know, today in Rome
there begins the second phase of the Synod on the Family.
A synod is a meeting of bishops and others from around the world
to deliberate on matters of importance to the Church:
in this case, 279 bishops from 120 countries.
The Instrumentum laboris or “working paper”
that lays out an agenda for the synod
gives some idea of the topics that will be discussed:
divorce, annulments,
domestic violence, work pressures,
the plight of migrant and refugee families,
contraception, same-sex marriages, poverty,
as well as how the faith is or is not
passed on within families.

Call me pessimistic, but I suspect
that three weeks might not be enough time
to find adequate ways of addressing all of these issues.
But given the changes and challenges
to family life in the world today
it’s at least a start.

During the first phase of the synod last year,
one of the most controversial—
and still unsettled—issues
was the pastoral care of those
who are divorced and remarried,
particularly the question of participation
in the sacramental life of the Church.
And our Gospel reading this morning
puts us smack dab in the middle of that controversy.
Here we seem to find Jesus at his most uncompromising:
“what God has joined together,
no human being must separate…
Whoever divorces his wife and marries another
commits adultery against her;
and if she divorces her husband and marries another,
she commits adultery.”
The judgment passed in these words
strike our ears harshly;
they seem lacking in mercy,
lacking is appreciation
for life’s complexity and difficulty,
particularly in the emotionally fraught area of the family.

But do we really want to accuse Jesus
of not appreciating
life’s complexity and difficulty,
he who was made perfect through suffering?
Do we really want to say that Jesus does not understand
that real-life family does not fit easily into an idealized model,
that he does not know that, to be honest,
it is not just marriages that end in divorce that are “broken,”
but that all families come with some level
of brokenness
or dysfunction
or just plain weirdness?

He knows this.
Of course he knows this.
Jesus’s own family was, shall we say, decidedly “non-traditional;
and in not being ashamed, as our second reading says,
to be called our brother
he has proudly joined himself to our real life families
in all their brokenness
and dysfunction
and weirdness.

What then of this uncompromising teaching
on divorce and remarriage?
Let us take Jesus at his word:
let us presume he really means
that marriage creates an unbreakable bond,
such that it really is impossible
to forge a new bond to replace the old.
Let us further presume that he really thinks
that with the coming of God’s kingdom
it is now possible, through God’s grace,
for his followers to overcome the hard heartedness
that has so often torn apart
the two whom God had made one flesh.
I do not know how all of this
fits together with God’s mercy—
some things remain mysteries to us in this life—
but I do know that even if we grant all this,
we still have no reason to think
that Jesus means for his words to be used as a stick
to beat up on those who do not live up to them.
We have no reason to think
that Jesus does not continue to love
those whose families break up
or break down
or break apart.
We have no reason to think that Jesus ever abandons us,
no matter how broken
or dysfunctional
or just plain weird
our family lives might be.
The bishops must listen to the words of Jesus,
but I pray they will hear them as the words of one
who has plunged headlong
into all the complexity and ambiguities
of human love,
of human longing,
of human solace and sorrow.
It is only then that they will hear them truly.

Speaking last week in Philadelphia,
Pope Francis said,
“In families, there is always, always, the cross.
But, in families as well, after the cross,
there is the resurrection.
Because the Son of God opened for us this path.”
As followers of Jesus,
all of us are trying to walk that path,
through the cross to the resurrection.
Indeed, we are called to find the resurrection
within our broken,
weird families,
not beyond them,
because it is precisely in real families,
not ideal families,
that we learn what it means
to have faith,
to have hope,
to have love.

That’s the funny thing about families:
they don’t have to be perfect
in order for God’s grace to work through them.
We all fail to some degree
as spouses and parents,
as children and siblings.
But in the midst of our failure a miracle can occur:
With the help of God’s grace,
we can manage to love each other,
even as we struggle to show that love,
to accept that love,
to bear the burden of that love.

There are no perfect families;
but only families where love might grow
like a stubborn weed
that no amount of
human brokenness
or dysfunction
or weirdness
can uproot.
Sometimes we must carry our love
like a cross,
but in faith we carry it with Jesus
on the path of resurrection.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isaiah 50:5-9a; James 2:14-18; Mark 8:27-35

Presumably as part of the media run up
to Pope Francis’s visit to the United States next week,
the Pew Research Center, earlier this month,
released a report on their latest survey of Catholics in the U.S.
and the feelings they have
about various moral teachings of the Church.
In some ways, the findings were no surprise,
simply repeating what earlier surveys had found:
many Catholics in the U.S. disagree with Church teachings
regarding contraception, homosexuality, and premarital sex.

What was new
was that the survey also asked questions
related to matters on which Pope Francis
has placed particular emphasis,
specifically concern for the poor
and the environment.
As it turns out,
while 98% of American Catholics
said that working to help the poor and needy
is either essential or important
to what it meant to be Catholic
(beating out the resurrection of Jesus
by three percentage points),
only 52% said that it is a sin
to spend money on luxuries
without giving to the poor
and a mere 12% thought it is a sin
to live in a house
that is much larger than their family needs.
It might also be worth noting that
as people’s incomes go up,
they are increasingly less likely
to think that these things are sins.

Perhaps this is simply an example
of the discomfort we feel
with calling something a sin.
Many of us may feel
that the language of “sin” is harsh
and should be reserved for big things
like murder,
which is pretty handy,
since most of us don’t commit murder.

Still, while almost all of us Catholics
think it is important to help the poor and needy,
with 62% saying it is essential,
when it comes down to specifics
concerning what this means,
when it comes down to thinking
about our own way of life
and patterns of consumption,
we begin to sound like the people
of whom James speaks in our second reading,
who say to the poor,
“Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well, ”
but are unwilling to sacrifice anything
to give them food or shelter.
In other words,
helping the poor is great,
so long as it doesn’t hurt,
so long as it does not get brought down
to the personal level.
What name do you give to failure to do
something essential to the Christian faith
if not “sin”?

In today’s Gospel,
Jesus conducts his own sort of survey,
asking his disciples,
“Who do people say that I am?”
He manages to record a range of responses—
John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets—
though he lacks the tools
of modern social scientific research
needed to give us actual percentages on these.

He then makes it personal:
“Who do you say that I am?”
And Peter replies on behalf of the disciples:
“You are the Christ.”
This is a perfectly correct answer to his question,
in exactly the same way that “helping the poor and needy”
is a perfectly correct answer to the question
concerning the essentials of Catholicism.
Yet Jesus does not rest content
with Peter’s perfectly correct answer,
telling him and the other disciples
that what it means for him to be the Christ
is to be rejected by the elders,
the chief priests,
and the scribes,
and be killed,
and rise after three days.
And when Peter protests,
Jesus makes it even more personal:
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.”
It is not enough
to give the correct answer with our lips;
that answer must be lived out in our lives,
in our concrete choices.

To say truthfully that Jesus is the Christ
it is not enough to have the right words,
but we must also embody that truth in our lives.
As the letter to James tells us,
“faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
Or we might say that a true faith in Jesus
is one that is enlivened by the love
for God and neighbor
that impels us into action;
otherwise, our faith is simply fantasy.
As Dosoyevsky wrote,
“love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing
compared with love in dreams.”
Love in action, Jesus tells us,
is the cross;
love in action calls us
to give ourselves over completely;
love in action requires
a sacrifice of ourselves that is so radical
that forgoing luxuries
or living in a smaller house
is pretty small potatoes by comparison.

But who can do this?
Am I ready to respond to Christ's call
to give up everything for him?
Speaking only for myself,
I’ve got to say, “probably not.”

But perhaps my response
to the call of this great love
can begin with something as small
as looking at what I consume
and asking how this affects the poor
and the earth, our common home.
If we are unwilling even to scrutinize
our way of life
and patterns of consumption,
who can possibly make the sacrifice
of denying ourselves
and taking up our cross and following Jesus?

But with love all is possible:
not simply our feeble love
that leads us to feel
that we should help the poor,
that makes us want to follow Jesus,
if only it doesn’t demand too much,
but the great love of Jesus
that calls to us from his cross,
calls us to follow him
through concrete acts of love
that demand our all,
calls us with the promise
that those who lose their lives
for his sake
will find their lives again
in the great mystery of God.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Ephesians 5:21-32; John 6:60-69

Perhaps out of concern for the safety of preachers
the Church allows for the omission
of the first part of our second reading—
that is, the part about wives
submitting to their husbands as to the Lord.
While I appreciate the Church’s concern for my well being,
I think that we should be hesitant
to skip over such difficult parts of Scripture,
because in our struggle to hear such passages
as the word of God and as good news
we join in the struggle of Christians down through time who,
like the disciples in our Gospel reading,
have said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”

The problems with what Paul says probably seem obvious:
not only does it run counter
to our own modern, egalitarian ideas of marriage,
but this verse has historically been used to keep women
in emotionally and physically abusive relationships.
Yet these are also the words of sacred Scripture.

In our struggle to hear these words as good news,
we might begin by putting it into historical context:
Paul lived in the first century,
and what he says about husbands and wives
presumes the conventional Greco-Roman
household structure of that time,
including the patriarchal preeminence of the man.
In other words, Paul was a man of his day
and we should not expect him
to reflect all of our modern values;
but we can still listen to his words
in order to discern
what is simply a reflection
of his particular culture and time
and what is of universal and enduring value.
Some have argued that we ought to emphasize the first line
as the key to understanding everything else that Paul says:
“Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
Pope John Paul II wrote concerning this passage:
The husband and the wife are in fact ‘subject to one another,’
and are mutually subordinated to one another.…
Love excludes every kind of subjection whereby the wife
might become a servant or a slave of the husband,
an object of unilateral domination.
Love makes the husband simultaneously subject to the wife,
and thereby subject to the Lord himself,
just as the wife to the husband
(John Paul II, General Audience, 8/11/82).
Interpreted in this way, we can see that,
working within his historical context,
Paul is reinterpreting the patriarchal family structure
in a way that subtly (perhaps too subtly?)
shifts the focus from the wife’s submission to the husband
to their mutual submission to each other
as a way of submitting to God.
So perhaps through understanding the historical context
and careful interpretation
we can find a way to hear Paul’s words
as the word of God and as good news.

Yet it’s not really that easy, is it?
Attention to historical context and careful interpretation
might simply become ways of evading truths we find difficult.
And even if attention to historical context
and careful interpretation
do offer ways of better understanding Paul’s words,
as I think they do,
I suspect that some, perhaps many, of you
are still no happier with Paul now
than you were when I began this homily.
Whether we are dealing with the words of Paul or,
as with the disciples in today’s Gospel,
the words of Jesus,
there are no quick fixes
for the difficult passages of Scripture.

But here is where I believe our Gospel reading
can shed some light
on how we deal with Scriptures
that are hard and difficult to accept.

At the end of everything Jesus has been saying
about being the bread of life that has come down from heaven
and the necessity of eating his flesh and drinking his blood
in order to have life
the disciples split into two groups.
But the division is not between
those who find his words difficult to accept
and those who find them easy to accept.
Rather, it is between those who,
finding his words difficult to accept,
leave him and the company of his disciples
and go back to their former lives,
and the Twelve who,
finding his words no less difficult to accept,
hang in there with him, and with each other,
seeking to understand his words
because, as Peter says,
“Master, to whom shall we go?
You have the words of eternal life.”
Both groups find his words difficult,
but for some this difficulty
leads them to walk away
from the task of understanding Jesus,
while the Twelve stay with him
and continue to struggle with his words,
because they know that it is only in their fellowship
with him and with each other
that they can ever hope to hear his words
as words of everlasting life.

So too for us,
when we are confronted with Scriptural words
that are difficult and hard to accept,
we can either simply walk away
and go back to life as usual,
investing our Sunday mornings in brunch
or soccer leagues
or reading the newspaper
or binge-watching something on Netflix,
or, like the Twelve, we can hang in there with Jesus
and with our fellow Christians,
in the faith that the only way to hear these words
as words of everlasting life
is to struggle with them together,
as a community that gathers at Christ’s altar
to receive the bread of life.

In the face of difficult Scripture we should not seek
an explanation that will make them palatable,
but rather hear an invitation to struggle together:
to struggle together with a tradition
that is deeply embedded in history,
yet continues to be made and remade in our own day;
to struggle together with texts that can shock and annoy
yet can nourish us still if we read closely and carefully;
to struggle together to hear the words of everlasting life.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Reading: Amos 7:12-15; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:7-13

Many of us Catholics tend to think
that, among the many errors of the Protestants,
the doctrine of predestination is perhaps the worst.
We are inclined to think that this error is related
to another one of their errors:
the idea that we are saved by faith alone and not works.
So, we may like to say, whereas Protestants think
that God has already picked out beforehand who will be saved,
and therefore God doesn’t really care
how you go on to live your life,
we Catholics think that you need good works
in order to be saved,
and so God cannot yet determine who will be saved
because he’s still waiting to see
what good works we will do.

Now before we get any further
and people begin tuning out
and thinking about something
more interesting than the homily,
let me make clear
that everything I’ve just said is wrong.
It is wrong about what Protestants believe—
I don’t know a single Protestant who would say
that God doesn’t care how you live your life—
and, more importantly for our purposes here,
it is wrong about what Catholics believe.

We know it is wrong about what Catholics believe
because in our second reading this morning
the holy Apostle Paul tells us
that we were chosen in Jesus Christ,
“before the foundation of the world,”
and were “destined in accord with the purpose
of the One who accomplishes all things
according to the intention of his will,
so that we might exist for the praise of his glory.”
The translators of our scriptures
have apparently tried to soften the blow
by using the word “destined” rather than “predestined,”
but I used my minimal Greek skills to check the original
and in fact the word is προορίζω,
which literally means to pre-determine
or to mark out a boundary ahead of time.
So, despite the kindly obfuscations of our translators,
St. Paul is clearly saying
that before the world was created
we were chosen by God,
not because of any good work
that we had done or would do,
but simply because God wanted us to exist
for the praise of God’s glory.

Though it’s beginning to sound
like Catholics believe in predestination,
some of us might still find this disturbing,
not simply because that’s one less thing
that makes us different from Protestants,
but because it sounds as if God
is like someone who puts a contract out for bid,
but has already decided who will get it
before the bids are even in.
It seems both unwise and unfair,
and, perhaps most importantly,
puts the outcome beyond our control.

But think of Jesus in our Gospel reading today.
He calls the twelve to himself
and then sends them out, two by two,
to preach and to heal
and to fight against the powers of evil.
We might think that he would choose those
who are good at preaching and healing
and driving out demons,
those who have been working at developing
the right skill set for those tasks.
But not only does Jesus not bother to make sure
that the disciples are up to the task,
he also sends them without essential tools:
no food,
no sack,
no money in their belts.
Jesus knows that they don’t need such things,
because he knows that they have been chosen by God
from before the foundation of the world
to exist for the praise of God’s glory.
Neither their skills nor their tools nor their works
will bring about God’s Kingdom,
but only the power of the Holy Spirit,
which God has freely given them.

I think we misunderstand what Paul means
when he says that God chose us in Christ
before the foundation of the world
if we think of this as God surveying
everyone who will ever live
and making up in advance a list
of those who will get into heaven.
Rather, Paul is saying that before the world began to be
God has chosen to be our saving God in Jesus Christ.
What God has determined first and foremost
is not the kind of people that we will be,
but the kind of God that God will be:
a saving God,
who calls a people to exist
for the praise of the glory of his grace.

This may still be disturbing,
because it means we have a lot less control
than we would like to think we do.
But think of this in terms of a baptism:
when we bring a child to the baptismal font
we believe that this is a manifestation
of the mystery of God’s love for the world.
The child has done nothing to earn that love,
does not have the relevant skill set
for being a disciple,
yet in the sacrament of baptism
he or she is inserted by God
into the great work God is doing
for the world’s salvation
and begins to exist
for the praise of God’s glory,
not because of anything
that he or she is or does,
but because God has determined
from before the world’s foundation
to be a saving God,
to be a loving God.

Every time we gather to worship
we celebrate the mystery
of the love that has chosen us,
has predestined us,
for the task of existing
for the praise of God’s glory,
not because we are good at it,
but because God is good to us.
We celebrate,
because it is truly good news
that it is God,
and not we ourselves,
upon whom our salvation depends.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Trinity Sunday

The Holy Trinity is serious business,
so you don’t hear a lot of jokes about the Trinity,
but, maybe because I’m in the business,
I have actually heard one.
A bishop is at a parish for Confirmation
and decides that in his homily
he will quiz the teenagers
he is supposed to be confirming.
So he asks them,
“who can tell me what the Trinity is?”
They all look at their shoes,
in that way that teenagers do.
So he calls on one young man
who mumbles a reply,
in that way that teenagers do.
The bishop says,
“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that.”
The boy sighs,
in that way that teenagers do,
and replies, only slightly louder,
“Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
The bishop, wanting the boy to speak up
so everyone can hear him,
says, “I’m sorry, I still didn’t understand.”
And the boy, rolling his eyes,
in that way that teenagers do,
says loudly and clearly,
“You’re not supposed to understand it.
It’s a mystery.”

Maybe not the best joke,
but it makes a point
about how many Christians approach the Trinity.
It is a doctrine that we are taught to repeat
but cannot possibly be expected to understand.
And this is true, in a sense,
because the doctrine of the Trinity says something about God,
and God is the ultimate mystery of existence,
which our finite minds cannot comprehend.
At the same time,
our Scripture readings for this feast of the Holy Trinity
do give us some insight
into why the Church came to profess belief
in a God who, while one,
is also three distinct persons who are equally God.

In our first reading, from Deuteronomy,
we hear rehearsed the fundamental tenant
of the faith of ancient Israel:
“that the LORD is God in the heavens above
and on earth below,
and that there is no other.”
God is one, utterly unique;
God has no competitor gods,
no rival deities;
God possesses the fullness of divine power
and God commands unwavering loyalty from God’s people.
But then, in our Gospel,
the risen Jesus tells his disciples,
“All power in heaven and on earth
has been given to me.”
The power that the book of Deuteronomy tells us
belongs to God alone,
Jesus says has been given to him
by the God he calls “Father”;
what the tradition of Israel says
can only be true of God,
Jesus claims as true of himself.
And finally, in the letter to the Romans,
Paul speaks of the “Spirit of God”
who has the power to make us co-heir with Christ,
so that we too cry out to God as our “Abba,” our father.

So the Scriptures,
while teaching that God is one,
also claim for Jesus and the Spirit
things that can only be true of God.
Not three gods, but one God
eternally existing in three persons,
who are united in a perfect and eternal dance of love,
each fully sharing in what it means to be God.
This is what that rather strange word “consubstantial,”
which we find in the Creed,
is trying to get at.
Jesus and the Holy Spirit are just as much God
as the Father is:
they are not demigods or messenger boys;
to say that the Son and Spirit
are “consubstantial” with the Father
is to say something
about the incredible intimacy of God with us:
the coming of Christ into our world
is the promised coming of God,
not the arrival of some emissary
dispatched by God from above;
the presence of the Spirit in our lives
is the presence of God,
not the presence of some go-between
linking us to a distant deity.
The mystery of the Trinity
is the mystery of eternal love,
eternal joy,
into which we have been invited
through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

The 14th-century mystic Meister Eckhart wrote:
“Do you want to know what goes on
in the heart of the Trinity?
I will tell you.
In the heart of the Trinity
the Father laughs and gives birth to the Son.
The Son laughs back at the Father
and gives birth to the Spirit.
The whole Trinity laughs and gives birth to us.”
Leaving aside some finer points of theology,
Eckhart presents us
with a picture of the Trinity, of God,
as an eternal act of shared joy,
shared love,
shared hilarity,
ecstatically overflowing into the world
in our creation and redemption.

This is who our God is:
truly a mystery,
but not a mysterious force operating at a distance
nor an inscrutably stern heavenly lawmaker,
but something like the mystery of happiness
that arises from mutual love,
the mystery of an infectious act of eternal laughter
that draws us in and makes us laugh along
until cleansing tears of joy run down our faces.
So perhaps we should tell more—and funnier—
jokes about the Trinity.
Or maybe we should live our faith
in the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit
with such joy,
with such passion,
with such infectious hilarity
that those around us
cannot help but join in that laughter
and feel a bit more faith,
a bit more hope,
a bit more love.