Sunday, July 13, 2014

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time


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

The novelist Tom Robbins once noted
that there are two kinds of people:
those who think that there are two kinds of people
and those who know better.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is at a point
where he has been preaching for some time.
Some have listened to him
and others have reacted with hostility;
so we might be tempted to think that
with regard to Jesus and his message
there are two kinds of people:
those who are for him
and those who are against him.
But Jesus knows better,
and in his parable of the sower
he prompts us to think about the different ways
that people might respond to the word of God.

There are some who are like a hard-packed path
in which the scattered seed can find no purchase,
presumably those who do not even give Jesus a hearing
but reject his words out of hand.
Some are like shallow soil,
responding at first with enthusiasm
but lacking the depth
in which the word of God can take root.
Others again are like soil
that is already choked with thorny weeds,
because they are so preoccupied
with the concerns of daily life
that there is no room for the word within them
to flourish and grow and bear fruit.
Finally, there are those who are like good soil,
deep in their commitment
and free from preoccupation with other things,
in whose lives Jesus’ words bear much fruit.

Jesus’s parable, like all his parables,
is intended not so much
as a way of conveying information –
as if it were telling us
that there are four, and only four, types of people –
but rather as a prompt to reflection and action.
It is intended to make me ask myself,
what type of soil am I?
Do I let the Jesus’s word and Spirit
take root in my heart
and, if so, what becomes of that seed?
I suppose if I were to identify myself
with one of the types of soil in the parable,
it would be with the weedy ground
in which the shoots coming from the seed
are choked by the concerns of daily life.

When I look at myself,
I find that I am preoccupied with many things.
It is an interesting word: “preoccupied.”
We tend to use it to mean “distracted”
but it literally means
that our minds are already occupied,
already inhabited, already filled.
Our hearts and minds are already filled
with cares and anxieties
just as the ground in the parable
is already filled with thorny weeds.
Jesus identified what is pre-occupying
the soil of our souls
as “worldly anxiety and the lure of riches.”
But our soul can be preoccupied with many things;
and some of them, in and of themselves,
are worthy of our attention:
My heart is full of my job
and the many things there that need doing;
My heart is full of my children
and how I can support them
as they move into adulthood and independence;
My heart is full of my aging parents
and how they can still count on me,
even though I am far away.
These things pre-occupy my heart
and they are all worthy concerns.
But they can also choke out
the tender shoots of God’s word
before they can bear the fruits of the Spirit:
love, joy, peace,
forbearance, kindness, goodness,
faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
The great irony is that
it is precisely these fruits of the Spirit
that I need in order to face my worries
about work, children, parents, or anything else.
Without love, joy, peace and the other fruits of the Spirit,
my justified concerns become the thorns of anxiety
and, as Paul says,
though we have the firstfruits of the Spirit
“we also groan within ourselves”
as we await redemption.

So Jesus’s parable is a call
to reflect on the kind of soil
that his word will find in my heart.
But it is not a call simply to decide
that I am a certain type of soil –
hard-packed or shallow or weedy or good –
and then leave it at that.
The fourth-century theologian John Chrysostom
asked why it was that the sower
was so careless in sowing his seed,
scattering it not only on the good soil
but also on the path, the shallow ground, the weedy plot.
This is hardly good agricultural practice,
since we can predict with some accuracy
what will become of the seed
when it is sown on the path
or on shallow or weedy soil.
But here, Chrysostom says,
we see the difference between soils and souls.
He says when it is a matter of souls,
“There is such a thing as the rock changing,
and becoming rich land;
…the thorns may be destroyed,
and the seed enjoy full security.
For had it been impossible,
this sower would not have sown” (Homily on Matthew 44.5).
When I look within my weed-choked heart
and I see the firstfruits of the Spirit
struggling amidst the thorns,
it all seems impossible and I feel like despairing.
But if I can turn my eyes from myself
and consider who it is that is the sower
who in his wisdom has planted his seed within me
then I pray in hope that the stony path,
the shallow soil,
the weedy plot
can all be transformed by him
to become good soil
bearing abundantly
the fruits of the Spirit.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Ascension


Readings: Acts1:1-11, Ephesians 1:17-23, Matthew 28:16-20

In medieval art, Jesus’s Ascension into heaven
was often depicted as Mary and the Apostles gathered together
looking up at a pair of legs and feet dangling from a cloud.
For people in the Middle Ages,
the universe was thought to be
a series of spheres
centered on the earth
and bounded by an outermost sphere
called the Empyrean heaven, a realm of pure light,
which was the dwelling place of God.
It was to this Empyrean heaven that Jesus had ascended.
Dante gives poetic expression to this
at the end of his Divine Comedy,
when he describes seeing God – Father, Son, and Spirit –
as three differently colored circles that are somehow one.
And the middle circle, Dante writes,
Within itself and in its coloring
Seemed to be painted with our human likeness
So that my eyes were wholly focused on it
(Paradiso, Canto 33).
Our humanity, which God the Son took upon himself
in being born of the Virgin Mary,
has in Christ’s Ascension entered into the life of God.
The union of God and humanity is not a temporary state
but has become an eternal reality
and serves for Dante as the focal point that allows him
to have some glimpse of our sharing
in the perfect peace of God,
the peace that surpasses our understanding.

Certainly for us
who no longer conceive of the universe
as centered upon the earth,
with heaven located somewhere above us,
pictures of feet dangling from clouds,
and perhaps even Dante’s sublime image
of a human figure
at the highest point of the empyrean heaven,
do not capture the mystery of the Ascension.
I suspect, however, that our difficulty
is not in the end
a problem with their picture of the universe
and of how to fit the mystery of Christ’s Ascension
into whatever our current picture of the universe might be.
It is rather the difficulty
of finding words to express so great a hope –
the hope that our poor, mortal humanity
might share in the riches of God’s glory,
might even now be dwelling
within the surpassing greatness of God’s power.
St. Gregory the Great wrote,
“The disturbance of things
may still be driving your hearts to and fro,
but fix the anchor of your hope
now in your eternal home” (Homily 29).
The Ascension of Jesus gives us
an almost unspeakable, unimaginable hope.

In the face of this mysterious hope,
all of us must make our own the words of Dante:,
O how pale now is language and how paltry
For my conception! And for what I saw
My words are not enough to call them meager
(Paradiso, Canto 33).
And yet we continue to seek ways to imagine
and words to express this hope.
The writer Maya Angelou, who died this past week,
concludes a poem entitled “Still I Rise”
with the following lines:
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.
Angelou is writing about
the perseverance and hope
of women and African Americans
in the face of oppression,
a hope that cannot be held down
but from the darkest depths
surges ever upward toward the light.
But Angelou’s poem also gives us words to speak
of a more universal struggle
and a more universal hope.
Indeed, in the voice of the poet,
we can hear an echo of the voice of Christ,
the voice of the one who has ascended
above the night of fear and death
into the wondrously clear daybreak of the resurrection,
the voice of the one
who now fills all things in every way,
and is the dream and the hope
of all of those who are enslaved by sin and suffering,
the voice of the one who has lifted our humanity
into the life of God himself.
It is the voice that speaks to us who,
tossed to and fro in this world,
find in Jesus the anchor
that fixes our hope in eternity.

Though our words and images
may be less than meager,
we still give voice to the hope
born in us through Christ’s Ascension.
In every Mass,
as we enter into the Eucharistic Prayer,
the priest bids us to lift up our heats
and we reply that we lift them up to the Lord.
We proclaim that our hopes are fixed on Jesus
who in the Eucharist lifts us with him
out of the nights of our terrors and fears,
and into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear.
We rise
we rise
we rise.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Easter 3

Readings: Acts 2:14, 22-33; 1 Peter 1:17-21; Luke 24: 13-35

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once noted
that life could only be understood backwards;
but it must be lived forwards.
Of course, this is not something
that we need a philosopher to tell us.
The passage of time gives us a perspective on our lives
that allows us to understand past events
better than we did when we were going through them.
I am pretty sure that my fifty-two-year-old self
understands my twenty-two-year-old self
better than my twenty-two-year-old self did.
My twenty-two-year-old self had no idea
what people and events were truly significant in my life.
I thought that the girl who had just broken up with me
was the most important person in my life,
little realizing that the Jesuit priest who,
in casual conversation,
suggested a year of volunteer service after college
would end up being the occasion
of my moving to Texas
where I met my future wife,
which led to three children,
and a job in Baltimore,
and me standing here today,
in this church,
speaking to all of you.
What seemed at the time
like a casual conversation
with a near-stranger
was a key turning point in my life.
When I look back,
I tell the story of my twenty-two-year-old self
in a way that my twenty-two-year-old self never could,
a way that is not simply different, but truer,
because life can only be understood backwards.

We see this in the story
of the disciples on the way to Emmaus.
It is only after Christ had shown himself to them
in the breaking of the bread
that they could know the true significance
of the stranger who had met them on the road.
He had walked with them,
listening to them recount a story
that they were not yet in a position to understand,
the story of the death of Jesus
and the strange reports of his empty tomb.
Looking back they say,
“Were not our hearts burning within us
while he spoke to us on the way
and opened the Scriptures to us?”
Looking back they say,
“The Lord is truly risen!”
But as they walked with him,
they had no idea.
What they come to identify
as their hearts burning within them
was likely in the moment simply a vague feeling
that they could not yet understand or name.
They only begin to understand this event,
to know the significance of this person,
in looking backwards
from the perspective of their eyes
being opened to the risen Jesus
in the breaking of the bread.

Of course, even when we look backwards,
we are still living forwards.
Lest my fifty-two-year-old self
should begin to get too smug,
thinking how much more I know
than my twenty-two-year-old self,
I must remember that at some point
I will be looking back on this day
and understanding it far better than I do now.
Kierkegaard wrote that,
“life at any given moment
cannot really ever be fully understood;
exactly because there is no single moment
where time stops completely” (Journals 1843).
The self that is trying to understand backwards
is the same self that is living forwards, on the road,
and so we must constantly re-tell the story of our lives.
If my fifty-two-year-old self
better understands my twenty-two-year-old self,
then presumably my eighty-two-year-old self,
should God grant me that many years,
will better understand both of those selves
and doubtless tell the story of my life
differently than I do now.
Who is the stranger walking beside me
on the road this day
who will, looking backward,
prove to be the key to the story of my life?
Living forward, on the road,
I never truly understand myself
because I have not yet reached
the end of the journey;
I am not yet in God’s kingdom,
where time shall be fulfilled.

Yet that is not entirely true.
In the story of Emmaus there comes a moment
when their eyes are opened
and they see the truth
of the story they have been living.
While he is with them at table,
he takes bread,
says the blessing,
breaks it,
and gives it to them.
In that moment, the kingdom of God
makes itself present to them
through a sacramental sign.

And for us too, in our Eucharist,
Jesus gives us the story of our lives,
and the story of our world,
looking, as it were, backward from the Kingdom.
We know him in the breaking of the bread,
but we also come know ourselves –
or at least we catch a glimpse
of what our lives might truly mean.
The bread of himself that Christ breaks and gives to us
is a foretaste of that heavenly supper of the Lamb,
where one day, our long journey ended,
we will feast and tell tales:
we shall tell the story of our lives
as we will then see them,
bathed in the light of resurrection:
a story with unanticipated plot twists
and unexpected heroes.

But even now,
with Christ,
at this table,
we catch a glimpse of that final story,
the story of the stranger
who has walked beside us,
the story of words
that made our hearts burn within us,
the story of the one
who is life itself,
accompanying us through the valley of death.
On this day, at this table,
we catch a glimpse of that day
when, as St. Augustine says,
“we shall rest and see,
see and love,
love and praise” (Civ. Dei 22.30).

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Easter Vigil


Readings: Genesis 1:1-2:2; Exodus 14:15-15-1; Isaiah 55:1-11; Baruch 3:9-15, 32-4:4; Ezekiel 36:16-28; Romans 6:3-11; Matthew 28:1-10

“They went away from the tomb,
fearful yet overjoyed.”
And who can blame them,
encountering the fathomless mystery of God.

The first man and the first woman opened their eyes
to see displayed before them
the wondrous array of God’s creation,
and they heard the voice of God saying,
“Be fertile and multiply;
fill the earth and subdue it.
Have dominion over the fish of the sea,
the birds of the air,
and all the living things that move on the earth.”
They thought of the gift of life and freedom
that had been given to them,
and the call to tend the world
that had been entrusted to them,
and they stepped into paradise,
fearful yet overjoyed.

Moses stood on the edge of the Red Sea,
the song of victory still ringing in his ears:
“I will sing to the LORD,
for he is gloriously triumphant;
horse and chariot he has cast into the sea.”
He looked at the armies that had pursued them,
now covered by the waters;
he thought of the mysterious God
who had called him to lead his people
into the land promised to their ancestors,
and he turned to resume the journey,
fearful yet overjoyed.

The prophet Ezekiel heard the word of God:
“I will sprinkle clean water upon you
to cleanse you from all your impurities,
and from all your idols I will cleanse you.”
He felt the burden of the mission that had been given to him
of proclaiming to Israel that they were to abandon their idols,
to worship God alone –
the God who is holy mystery –
and he went to bear this word to his people,
fearful yet overjoyed.

Throughout the history of salvation
people have been caught up
in the terrifying yet joyful experience
of encountering the mystery of the living God,
of being called by the incomprehensible
and endlessly fascinating source of all life
into an ever-deeper immersion in the mystery that is God.
It is like the dizzying experience of falling in love:
it is an encounter that promises everything,
an encounter that changes everything,
an encounter that calls one to risk everything.

As the Sabbath turns into the week’s first day,
the women go to the place of the dead
where the one whom they had loved now lies entombed. 
But the tomb is open and an angel is there,
instructing them to bring to the disciples
the incredible message
that Jesus has been raised from the dead.
They go away from the tomb,
fearful yet overjoyed.

As they leave the tomb,
the women meet the risen Jesus himself.
They embrace his feet and worship him,
for in the risen one who has triumphed over death
they have encountered
the one who is the creative source of life itself,
the one who raised Israel from captivity in Egypt,
the one who spoke through the prophets,
the fathomless mystery of God.
They are fearful yet overjoyed
because now everything is different:
the old certainties of death and the grave
have been broken open
and they are faced with the dizzying prospect
of new lives that can mean more
than they could have ever imagined.
All they have to do is risk everything
and give their lives to the mission and the task
of proclaiming the good news of the resurrection.

And we too, here tonight,
should be fearful yet overjoyed
for we too have been called to risk everything
in giving our lives
to the mission and the task
of proclaiming the good news;
we too have been called to a new life
that is more than we could have ever imagined:
“We were indeed buried with him
through baptism into death,
so that,
just as Christ was raised from the dead
by the glory of the Father,
we too might live in newness of life.”
We celebrate the sacraments of initiation
in this night of resurrection
because it is through Baptism,
Confirmation,
and the Eucharist
that we, like those women,
have been called
to the fearful yet joyful task of being disciples
of the one who was crucified and raised;
it is in these sacred mysteries
that we encounter the living God
who promises everything,
who changes everything,
who calls us to risk everything.

But, in the end,
for us who are disciples of Jesus
joy must triumph over fear
just as life has triumphed over death;
for the living God whom we encounter at the empty tomb
is not a faceless mystery who speaks to us from the abyss.
God is the one whose enfolding love
has been revealed in the face of Jesus.
Fearful yet overjoyed,
we hear the mystery speak to us
in the voice of the risen one:
“Do not be afraid.”

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday


Readings: Matthew 21:1-11; Isaiah 50:4-7; Philippians 2: 6-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66

For most of us, it is an old story,
a story we have heard year after year,
whose sharp edges have grown a bit dull with familiarity,
and which we cannot but hear in light of its Easter sequel.
No shock.
No horror.
No sense of, “how could this possibly happen?”
It is a story that we hear and nod our heads,
“Yes, that’s how it happened.”
But if we are attentive to what is happening in our world,
it is a story that we hear year after year,
day after day,
in new guises,
shocking and horrific guises.

Just this past Monday, Fr. Frans Van Der Lugt,
a Jesuit priest from the Netherlands
who had lived in Syria for nearly fifty years,
was beaten and shot to death in the city of Homs.
He had spent his life there working with both Christians and Muslims,
particularly with young people with mental illnesses and disabilities.
In recent months he had spoken out
about the suffering of the people of Homs,
who live amidst violence and deprivation
as a result of the Syrian civil war.
In a video message to the world, he said,
“We do not want to die out of pain and hunger.
We love life and love living it.”
Yet when he had the opportunity to be evacuated last January he refused.
He set his face like flint, unwilling to leave behind
the people to whom he had devoted his life.
Not surprisingly,
the government blames the rebels
and the rebels blame the government for his death.
And in that death he joins the more than 150,000 Syrians
who have died in this war.

In his death, however, he also joins Jesus.
His story presents us once more with the passion of Christ,
who emptied himself and took the form of a servant,
who went to his death because he refused to abandon the cause of God.
In Fr. Van Der Lugt’s passion
we see displayed before us the passion of Jesus,
because he suffered his passion out of love for Christ crucified,
and in the faith and hope that no matter what his fate,
it was already redeemed,
already transformed,
by the death of Christ.

As a Jesuit, Fr. Van Der Lugt would have had the experience
of praying the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola.
At the end of the first week of those Exercises,
after seven days of reflecting on one’s sins,
Ignatius says to imagine oneself
before the crucified Jesus
and to ask:
What have I done for Christ?
What am I doing for Christ?
What will I do for Christ?
Fr. Van Der Lugt answered those questions
with his life and with his death,
and re-sharpened for all of us
the cutting edge of this ancient story.
What will I do for the one who loved me enough,
even in my sins,
to endured the shame and suffering of the cross?
How will I give my life
to the one who gave his life for me?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Lent 5


Readings: Ezekiel 37:12-14; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

Throughout Lent,
we have journeyed with Jesus through a series of encounters:
into the Wilderness, to encounter Satan;
to the Mountain of Transfiguration, to encounter Moses and Elijah;
to a well in Samaria, to encounter the much-married Samaritan woman;
to Jerusalem, to encounter the man who was born blind.
And in today’s Gospel, we journey to the village of Bethany
where Jesus encounters Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus.
But even more, today he encounters death, grief, and sin.
And this is fitting on this last Sunday before we enter Holy Week.
For in the raising of Lazarus, we see a foreshadowing
of the great combat between life and death
that is the drama of Holy Week;
we see the encounter between death
and the one who is himself resurrection and life.

In the Gospel of John, it is this story,
even more than in the Passion story,
that allows us to see the humanity of Jesus:
we are told of the love that he has
for Mary and Martha and Lazarus;
we are told how in the face of Lazarus’s death
he is “perturbed and deeply troubled”;
and when he is taken to Lazarus’s tomb
we are told, “Jesus wept.”
It is in this story, perhaps more than any other in the Bible,
that we see Jesus’ solidarity with us,
who ourselves must encounter death.
We will all, of course, encounter death when our own life ends.
But that is not what I would like to focus on today,
for our encounter with death is not only at our ending;
in the midst of our lives we already encounter death.

We encounter it in the loss of family members and friends,
the loss of the presence of those whom we love.
In today’s Gospel Jesus encounters death
in the grief of Martha and of Mary,
and also in his own grief, in his own weeping.
Martha and Mary believed, and Jesus knew with divine certainty,
that death was not the last word for Lazarus:
“whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live.”
But this did not stop their grief or tears.
They still felt the pain of loss. 
And so too in our own encounters with death and loss;
our faith does not prevent us from feeling grief.
No matter how firmly or feebly we may believe
that Jesus is himself resurrection and life
and that he shares his risen life with us,
we still find ourselves longing for one more conversation,
one more goodnight kiss,
even one more frustrating argument
with the loved ones whom death has taken from us.
Those whose faith in eternal life is most certain
still long for the time to be shortened
until the day of death's final defeat.

Our encounter with death in the midst of our lives
is not, however, limited to physical death.
We encounter death also in the experience of sin,
the spiritual death that separates us from God and our neighbor
as surely as physical death separates us from those whom we love.
This separation ought to grieve us as much as, if not more than,
the separation of physical death.
There is a long Christian tradition of interpreting the story of Lazarus
not simply as a story of a mighty miracle worked by Jesus
but also as an allegory of God’s power to triumph over human sin.
Lazarus laid in the tomb represents humanity,
entombed in spiritual death;
Jesus’ crying in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out”
shows us God’s desire that we confess our sins,
bringing them out into the light of day;
Jesus’ command that Lazarus be untied
is a symbol of our being freed from the bondage of sin:
we who were dead in sin become alive to righteousness
through him who is himself resurrection and life
and are freed from the bondage of our separation from God.

In our grief and in our sin,
even in the midst of life, we are in death.
To whom can we turn for comfort?
We turn to the one who loves us,
to the one who weeps over our dying,
to the one who opens our graves,
and who calls to us in a loud voice: “come out!
Come out from the tomb of death!
Come out from the tomb of grief!
Come out from the tomb of sin!
Come out and be unbound,
for I am the resurrection and the life.
‘I have promised, and I will do it, says the Lord.’”

Sunday, February 9, 2014

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Isaiah 58:7-10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Matthew 5:13-16

There is a word that scares many Catholics: “evangelization.”
We associate it with people going door-to-door,
disturbing innocent people’s Saturday afternoons with talk of God,
or with co-workers who always want to tell you
about their personal relationship with Jesus.
We tend to think of it a bit of intrusive over-sharing,
not unlike parents (usually the father, for some reason)
who want to tell you the graphic details
of the birth of their child
or perhaps their child’s latest adventures in potty-training.
“Look, I know this is an important thing in your life,
but I don’t really need a blow-by-blow recounting of it.”

Yet in today’s Gospel Jesus tells his disciples
that they are the light of the world,
and that they are not to hide their light
under a bushel basket.
Now normally when we use that phrase –
“hiding your light under a bushel” –
we are referring to those
who keep hidden their abilities and achievements .
But that is not what it means here;
it is not about hiding the good things we have done,
but about hiding the good things God has done in and through us.
“You are the light of the world…
Your light must shine before others,
that they may see your good deeds
and glorify your heavenly Father.”
Our light is always a reflected light,
a light that has its source
in the glory of God that has shone upon us.
Moreover, the good news about God that we are called to share
is not merely good news for us personally,
like the birth of our child
or the joyous day when little John or Mary
finally uses the potty.
It is good news for all people:
the good news of God’s love for the world,
revealed in the saving life, death, and resurrection of Jesus
and in the sending of the Holy Spirit into our hearts.
One can hardly over-share such news.
As Pope Francis wrote recently,
“if we have received the love
which restores meaning to our lives,
how can we fail
to share that love with others?” (Evangelii Gaudium 8)

Jesus makes it clear that if we are to be his followers
we must share the light of the good news we have received,
but he also makes it clear that our sharing of this good news
is inseparable from the witness of our lives.
“Your light must shine before others,
that they may see your good deeds…”
Of course, this does not mean
that we simply do good deeds and leave it at that,
which I think is perhaps the strongest temptation for many of us.
Talk about religion is awkward.
But if we are to give a truthful account of our lives
at some point we must commit the embarrassing social faux pas
of using the words “God” and “Jesus.”
At the same time, those words will only be interesting to anyone else,
will only seem like something other than intrusive over-sharing,
if they are linked to a life that shows forth the power of faith.
To quote Pope Francis again, “all religious teaching
ultimately has to be reflected in the teacher’s way of life,
which awakens the assent of the heart
by its nearness, love and witness” (Evangelii Gaudium 42).
We need both words and actions –
and actions that match our words.

With regard to actions:
the prophet Isaiah, in our first reading,
casts light on the kinds of actions
that show forth God’s glory:
“Share your bread with the hungry,
shelter the oppressed and the homeless;
clothe the naked when you see them,
and do not turn your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn…”
Acts of mercy and compassion toward the poor and oppressed
are one of the chief ways in which our lives reflect the glory of God,
because they reflect the way in which God
has dealt with us in Jesus Christ.
To quote again the eminently quotable Pope Francis,
“Jesus’ whole life, his way of dealing with the poor,
his actions, his integrity,
his simple daily acts of generosity,
and finally his complete self-giving, is precious
and reveals the mystery of his divine life” (Evangelii Gaudium 265).
Perhaps nothing speaks more eloquently to the world
of the mercy and love that God has shown to us
than the acts of mercy and love
that we show to those most in need.

With regard to words:
in our second reading St. Paul says to the Christians of Corinth:
“When I came to you… proclaiming the mystery of God,
I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom.
For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you
except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling…”
Paul did not arrive in Corinth
with complex arguments or fine speeches,
but speaking of his own experience of suffering,
his own experience of neediness,
his own experience of new life found through faith in Jesus.
To share the good news of God’s work in our lives
we don’t need words like “hypostatic union” or “transubstantiation”
(as much as I personally love such words)
but words like “God”
and “Jesus”
and “cross”
and “resurrection.”
Indeed, we don’t need stories
of our achievements or good deeds,
but stories of how God
has sustained us in our own neediness.
It is in confessing our own weakness,
our own struggle,
our own need for the grace of faith,
that we bear witness to the power of God.

To give good Pope Francis a final word:
“we are called to be living sources of water
from which others can drink.
At times, this becomes a heavy cross,
but it was from the cross, from his pierced side,
that our Lord gave himself to us as a source of living water.
Let us not allow ourselves
to be robbed of hope!” (Evangelii Gaudium 86)
And let us also not allow others to be robbed of that hope;
rather, by both our actions and our words,
let us always be ready to give them
an account of the hope that is in us.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Funeral Homily for Clayton A. Sweeney

Readings: Isaiah 25:6a, 7-9; Revelation 21:1-5a, 6b-7; Matthew 11:25-30

Clayton Sweeney was a busy man.
Of course, no one who raises six children gets much downtime,
even if he has a force of nature like Sally Dimond
to do a lot of the parental heavy-lifting.
But you can add to that his work as a lawyer, a corporate executive,
a board member, an adjunct law professor,
not to mention the almost full-time job
of being a sibling to his brother and six sisters,
and an uncle to literally scores of nieces and nephews,
for whom he was always a source
of willing and generous support.
Even in his so-called “retirement” at Lake Chautauqua –
his own version of Yeats’s Lake Isle of Innisfree,
where he sought the peace that “comes dropping slow/
dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings” –
even there his life was a flurry of activity:
serving on the boards of numerous non-profits,
singing in the choir at his beloved parish
of St. Isaac Jogues in Sherman,
hosting an endless stream of family and friends
and friends of friends in his home,
and keeping track of the exploits and misadventures
of his ten grandchildren.
All of this activity bore fruit in a long list
of noteworthy achievements
and significant contributions to his family, his church, and his community.
Clayton was a busy man in part
because he was an extraordinarily talented man
who was often called upon by groups and individuals for his expertise,
and, because he was also an extraordinarily generous man,
he rarely said “no.”

But now we have come to lay this busy man to rest.

When the early Christian theologian St. Augustine wrote,
“you have made us for yourself, O God,
and our heart is restless until it rests in you,”
he put his finger on something fundamental about being human:
we are made by God to live with God,
and God alone can quench our thirst for meaning and love.
No achievement, no honor, no paycheck or bonus
can still the restless seeking of our hearts,
but only the one who says, “Come to me,
all you who labor and are burdened,
and I will give you rest.”
For all his achievements and honors,
Clayton remained not just a busy man, but a restless man.

It does not diminish Clayton’s memory
to say that he was not perfect,
to say that in the restless journey of his life
he labored and was burdened,
for we know that we are saved by God’s mercy,
not by our own perfection.
So, for example, it was rumored that Clayton could be a bit stubborn
(a trait that he passed along to at least a few of his children),
and it could be quite terrifying to watch a Steelers game with him,
particularly if things were going badly.
But he also struggled with demons
more troubling and more difficult to face,
demons that were hardly unique to him,
but seem, in one guise or another, to afflict all of us
in our restless journey through this life.
In the almost thirty years that I knew Clayton,
it seems to me that his greatest burden,
his greatest source of unrest,
was the struggle to let those whom he loved
know just how deeply he loved them.
Again, this struggle is hardly unique to him;
all of us want so badly to let those whom we love
know how much we love them,
but often the words don’t come, or they come out wrong.
Even the best of us,
who busy ourselves with all we can do for others,
all we can give to those whom we love,
can still hold back ourselves,
perhaps afraid that the naked gift of ourselves
will not be enough to merit love in return.

When Clayton died I posted a picture of him on Facebook
from his seventieth birthday celebration,
surrounded by his ten grandchildren,
all engaged in various acts of mischief and misbehavior,
and Clayton looking as happy as I have ever seen him.
It garnered a number of comments,
but one in particular stood out to me:
“What a golden picture, and a foretaste. Eternal rest.”
It was a picture of a happy moment from the past,
but also, I think, a picture of what we now hope for Clayton.
On our restless journey through this life
we are sustained by the grace-filled glimpses we are granted
of what it must be like to rest in God.
For the seer John in the Book of Revelation
it was the image of a new heaven and a new earth
in which God would dwell with humanity.
For me, it is that golden picture,
which captures the busy man in a moment of rest,
surrounded by squirming grandchildren who, like God,
loved him not for anything he had done, but for who he was;
loved him not for anything he had achieved,
but simply because he was their Papa.
“Although you have hidden these things
from the wise and the learned
you have revealed them to little ones.”
Clayton was a busy man, a restless man, who achieved much,
but in the end I think that he, like all of us, wanted only this:
to love and be loved for who he was.
And he, like all of us, was burdened by the fear
that who he was would not be good enough.
But now he can lay that burden down; now he knows:
through the mercy of Christ, it is enough;
it was always enough.
Now he is surrounded, as in that golden picture,
by the love of God,
the love that will strip away from him
all that is fearful, all that is false,
and reveal him to himself as who he truly is:
Clayt, Dad, Papa, brother, uncle, friend,
beloved child of the living God.
The busy, restless man is now at rest.

It seems appropriate in this place to end with words
from another notable Catholic lawyer: St. Thomas More.
On the night before he was executed,
he wrote to his daughter Margaret
words that I believe Clayton even now is saying to us:
“Farewell, my dear child, and pray for me,
and I shall for you,
and for all your friends,
that we may merrily meet in heaven.”

Until then, Clayton, rest in peace.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Epiphany


Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12

Matthew tells us that “magi from the east,”
who came seeking a newborn king,
“prostrated themselves and did him honor.”
But sometimes I wonder:
before bowing down and worshiping the Christ child,
do you think they were secretly disappointed,
even if only for a moment?
Do you think that, arriving in Bethlehem
at the end of a long and difficult journey,
and seeing the unimpressive dwelling
of the unimpressive parents
of this unimpressive child
the magi might have thought,
“we came all that way for this?”
After all, an astronomical event
spectacular enough to be visible in in a distant land
sets up a pretty high set of expectations.
Did the magi, not unreasonably,
expect a palace with a treasury
that could receive their gifts
of gold, frankincense, and myrrh?
Did they perhaps confer discretely among themselves
as to whether they should find some alternative gifts
that would be more suitable for these simple folk
and keep the fancy stuff in reserve,
just in case another star appeared,
heralding another king,
perhaps a more normal sort king?
Did they perhaps even find themselves thinking that King Herod,
who, though ruthless, was quite effective at wielding power,
seemed a bit more of a king than a squalling baby
and his shabby parents.

Matthew doesn’t tell us of the magi
having this disappointment,
and maybe I’m simply projecting,
but if they did doubt, who could blame them?
Surely what the world needed was a ruler
who could take on petty tyrants like Herod,
not to mention major tyrants like the Roman Emperor.
And just as surely
there was nothing that they found in Bethlehem
that gave any indication
that such a ruler was to be found there.
No palace, no treasury, no obvious royal lineage.
Just a poor baby of poor parents,
and a star, and a prophecy:
you, Bethlehem, land of Judah…
from you shall come a ruler,
who is to shepherd my people Israel.


Matthew says nothing
of the disappointment and doubts of the magi;
what he does tell us is that,
“they prostrated themselves and did him homage.”
He does tell us that, “they opened their treasures
and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
If at first they felt that their expectations had not been met,
something seems to have changed.
The word “epiphany,” which is the name of this feast,
means a “manifestation” – literally a shining-forth of light.
At the end of a long journey
that ended at an unexpected destination
the magi seem to have found new eyes
to see the divine light that shone,
not from a star in the heavens,
but from a child cradled in his mother's arms.
They found new ears to hear the voice of God,
no longer in ancient prophecies,
but in the cries of a wordless infant.

One detail of Matthew’s telling of this story
that has always struck me
is his statement that the magi
“departed for their country by another way.”
Of course the reason that they did this
was in order to avoid having to go back to Herod
and tell him where the infant Jesus was.
But perhaps Matthew is also telling us
that the magi were changed by their encounter with Jesus.
Their prior expectations overturned,
the long journey back was a quite different one
from the long journey out
because everything was seen with new eyes,
everything was heard with new ears,
and they now journeyed through a world redeemed by love
shining forth from a powerless child.

After the journey of Advent and our arrival at Christmas,
we too may feel a sense of disappointment and even doubt.
Perhaps we too have not found the savior whom we sought,
the savior who would bring us
peace or healing or reconciliation.
Perhaps we, like the magi, brought to Bethlehem
a set of expectations that have not been met.
But the God whom the magi found in Bethlehem
is clearly not a God whose top priority
is meeting our expectations,
but a God of surprising grace.
And we too, like the magi,
can have our expectations transformed
by the grace of the Christ child;
we too can return home by a different way,
having new eyes with which to see,
and new ears with which to hear.
Let us pray that we will find
true peace and healing and reconciliation
in the new world that awaits us as we continue our journey.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Advent 4


In today’s Gospel,
Joseph finds himself in a delicate situation;
the pregnancy of Mary, his betrothed,
has put him into quite a quandary.
He knows that the baby is not his
and so he reasonably (though wrongly) presumes
that the father must be some other man.
Our Gospel writer tells us that, “he was a righteous man,
yet unwilling to expose her to shame.”
He was a righteous man, a just man,
which in the first-century Jewish context
meant that he obeyed the Law that God had given to Moses,
and the Law that God had given to Moses said,
“If there is a young woman, a virgin who is betrothed,
and a man comes upon her… and lies with her,
you shall bring them both out to the gate of the city
and there stone them to death. . . . Thus shall you purge
the evil from your midst” (Deuteronomy 22:23-24).
Harsh justice, but justice all the same,
intended to make sure that a man’s heirs were indeed his,
which was crucial for the peaceful functioning
of a patriarchal society.
Harsh justice, but justice all the same,
intended to purge from the community the evil of injustice.

But, our Gospel tells us,
while Joseph was a righteous man, a just man,
he was also a merciful man.
Though he would have been within his rights to do so,
he did not want to expose Mary to shame,
which, given the Law, meant to expose her to death.
She was his beloved,
and in his heart mercy called him to go beyond justice
and to let Mary’s life be spared,
merely breaking off the betrothal.
And after the angel appeared to him in his dream
and showed to him how the Spirit of God
was at work in these events,
Joseph’s heart opened to even greater mercy:
casting aside all fear of shame and of transgressing the Law,
he took Mary into his home so that they might live together.

The fourth-century theologian John Chrysostom
saw in Joseph’s small act of human mercy
a hint of the great act of divine mercy that was to come.
He wrote: “It is like the sun not yet arisen, but from afar
more than half the world is already illuminated by its light.
So did Christ, when about to rise from the womb –
even before his birth –
cast light upon the world” (Homily on Matthew, 4.4).
In Joseph’s act of mercy
the grace of God is already showing itself
and we begin to understand what it is
that we will celebrate at Christmas:
mercy that goes beyond what justice requires.

But God’s mercy goes beyond even the mercy shown by Joseph,
as the brightness of the sun outshines the pale light of predawn,
for while Mary was innocent of all sin, we are not.
We human beings have misused our freedom,
and chosen to turn away from God our creator,
and we justly suffer the effects
of a life lived apart from the creative source of life itself:
conflict and violence and, ultimately, unending death.
And God could have justly left us on our own,
exposed to the shame of our own injustice.
But we are God’s beloved,
and in the very heart of God
divine justice is enfolded within divine mercy.
And behold, a virgin conceived and bore a son,
and God came to live with us
and the light that dimly shone in Joseph’s act of human mercy
burst forth in all is blinding brilliance
and purged the darkness of evil from our hearts.

In Advent we still await the coming of that light.
We await the light of mercy that surpasses justice,
and we pray that, like Joseph, our merciful actions also
might be dim reflections of the divine mercy.

Many find this to be a season that tries their mercy.
Think about it: this is the season
when we drag ourselves through crowded malls
to shop for gifts for people
that we don’t really even like very much.
This is the season
when we are forced to spend time with family members
whom we manage successfully to avoid for the rest of the year.
This is the season
when we brood over old hurts and past insults,
generosity unappreciated and favors unreturned,
when we want to hold people accountable; when we want justice.
But the coming of God to live with us is not about justice;
it is about mercy.
The birth of Emmanuel is not about what we deserve
but about the forgiving love that God shows to us,
and which God calls us to show to each other.
This is the season when the dawn of Christ is already appearing.
Come, let us celebrate this feast of mercy
by following the example of Joseph
and letting God’s mercy and forgiveness
fill our hearts and guide our actions.