Sunday, October 20, 2019

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Exodus 17:8-13; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2; Luke 18:1-8

In our second reading, Paul writes to Timothy,
“be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient.”
And in today’s Gospel, the unrighteous judge
obviously finds the persistence of the widow inconvenient.
Fearing neither God’s law nor human opinion,
he is one of those people who rise to power
by sheer force of their shamelessness,
who care nothing for justice,
but use power for their own benefit.
But he meets his match in the persistent widow,
though she is the most powerless sort of person
in the patriarchal culture of Jesus’s day:
a woman alone with no male protector or advocate,
and no money with which to bribe the judge.
Yet the inconvenient persistence
of this powerless widow
defeats this shameless man.
In her relentless quest for justice
she eventually bends him to her will,
and out of nagging or shaming
or a fear of being punched
(or perhaps a combination of all three)
he is persuaded to act, against character,
in a just manner
and give her what she asks for.

There is much inspiration to be drawn for our own day
from this story of the persistent widow,
much to be learned about the power of the powerless
who have the courage to be inconveniently persistent.
But, at the same time, there is something puzzling here.
Jesus tells this parable to encourage his disciples
“to pray always without becoming weary.”

Is Jesus comparing God to an unjust judge
who cares nothing about his petitioners,
but can be bent to our will
by nagging or shaming or a fear of being punched?
Jesus’ point, of course,
is that if even an unjust and shameless judge
can be swayed by inconvenient persistence
then we should believe that a just and loving God,
will answer our persistent prayers.

And, of course, we do not believe
that God needs to be cajoled
into granting our prayers;
we do not believe
that we need to wear God down
with our inconvenient persistence.
We do not believe it,
but it sometimes feels that way.
And I think that may be part of Jesus’ point.
While our faith may tell us that God
is always more ready to give than we are to ask,
our actual experience of prayer
can be a frustrating one.
We may often feel we are trying to cajole
a God who seems not unlike the judge in the parable:
someone who holds what we want
for ourselves and our suffering world
tightly in his stingy grip,
someone who perhaps might loosen that grip
if only we persist long enough in our praying.
But how long?

How long, O Lord, must I feel so alone?
How long, O Lord, must I resist this temptation?
How long, O Lord, must the hungry go unfed?
How long, O Lord, must the poor endure injustice?
What more must I do before you answer, O Lord?
Such prayer is spiritually exhausting;
it is impossible to pray in this way without growing weary.

Let me suggest two things that might help:
one having to do with how we understand God,
and one having to do with how we understand ourselves.

First, regarding God,
the 14th-century mystic Julian of Norwich wrote,
“some of us believe that God is almighty and may do everything,
and some that he is all wisdom and knows how to do everything;
but that he is all love and willing to do everything—
there we stop short” (A Revelation of Love ch. 73).
This “stopping short” is what Julian calls
“doubtful dread”:
the fear of God that leads us
to doubt God’s goodness,
to see God as a powerful and clever
but ultimately unloving
and unconcerned with our well-being.
The cure for this doubtful dread, Julian says,
is to see God through the cross of Jesus,
to see God as one who wills
to pour himself out in love for us
with an eternal persistence,
to see God as one
whose answer to our prayers is never “no,”
though it may be “not yet”
or even perhaps “I’ve got a better idea.”

Second, with regard to ourselves,
we should see that our struggles
to persist in prayer
come not from God’s unwillingness
to answer our prayers
but from a kind of blindness—
our doubtful dread that God
is an unrighteous judge
who does not will our good.
We struggle to persist in prayer,
we struggle with doubtful dread,
because we are human,
living the mystery
of our common journey
to God’s eternal kingdom,
a journey of faith, and not of sight.
We struggle to persist because it is hard
to surrender our wills to God’s will,
to forego our plans for God’s plans,
to seek not our answer but God’s answer.
God does not judge our doubtful dread
but heals it with relentless persistence
that opens our eyes
to see God’s love revealed in Jesus.
We can persist because God persists with us.
The God who endured the pain of the cross
knows our struggles and gives us the grace
to share in God’s eternal persistence,
to utter one more prayer when all hope seems lost,
to listen to the silence in which God’s answer is spoken.

May the inconvenient persistence of God
sustain us in our prayers this day,
heal our doubtful dread,
and open our hearts to hear God’s words of love.

Click here for a video of this homily.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Wisdom 9:13-18b; Philemon 9-10, 12-17; Luke 14:25-33

In today’s Gospel, Jesus offers two brief parables—
one about a man building a tower
and the other about a king preparing to go to war.
He seems to offer us a clear message:
before you begin something
make sure you know what your endgame is.
Before you start to build,
make sure you have the funds to finish;
before you march to war
make sure you have an army big enough to win.
Clear and sensible advice
that is useful, if maybe a bit obvious.
The thing is,
I generally find that when it seems like Jesus
is dispensing clear and sensible advice—
when he is saying something obvious—
it is a good idea to go back and look again,
since “obvious” is not really Jesus’ style.

A glance back at the Gospel reading
proves this to be true.
For the apparently clear and sensible advice
about planning your endgame,
is preceded and followed
by some of Jesus’
most confusing and shocking statements.
He says that anyone who comes to him
without hating
father and mother,
wife and children,
brothers and sisters,
and even one’s own life,
cannot be his disciple.
Anyone who does not renounce
all their possessions
cannot be his disciple.
Shocking statements,
even offensive statements.
Does Jesus really want us
to hate our parents,
our spouses,
our children and siblings?
Does he really expect us to give up
all our possessions?
Who does he think he is?

Of course, the relevant question here
is not who Jesus thinks he is,
but who we think he is.
To know who Jesus is
is to know him as the one
for whom we should be willing
to give up everything,
because he gives us everything,
even life eternal.
To know Jesus is to know him
as the one through whom
everything came to be,
in whom everything hangs together,
who gives us everything that we are and have,
who gives us nothing less than God’s kingdom.
How do you calculate the cost
when the cost is everything
because that which is sought is infinite?
How do you plan your endgame
when your end is eternal life with God?

This perhaps accounts for
the vehemence of Jesus’ words:
hate your parents and spouse and siblings
and even your own life;
give up all of your possessions.
Jesus is not, I think, telling us to loathe and abhor
those whom we have hitherto loved and adored.
Nor is he, I think, telling us to make ourselves destitute—
though from St. Anthony of Egypt
to St. Francis of Assisi
to St. Teresa of Kolkata
people have found in this a route to holiness.
But he is telling us that,
as we calculate our costs,
as we plan our endgame,
these things that we hold so dear
count as nothing.
Even those human relationships
that represent what is best,
what is most noble,
what is most fulfilling in this life—
indeed, even this life itself—
cannot tip the balance
when weighed against the infinite good
of being Jesus’ disciple.

But that is not all than can be said
about our human relationships.
Later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says,
“there is no one who has left house or wife
or brothers or parents or children,
for the sake of the kingdom of God,
who will not get back very much more in this age,
and in the age to come eternal life.”
The relationships we surrender
for the sake of being Jesus’ disciple
are not lost to us
but are transformed.
Once they are no longer figured into
our calculation of costs,
once they play no role in our endgame,
once we place them into Jesus’ hands,
we find that we receive them in a new way,
as divine gifts.
Once they no longer must bear the weight
of giving meaning and purpose to our lives
they can become for us
joyful signs of God’s goodness to us.

So Jesus’s shocking call
to hate our loved ones
so that we might be his disciples
is a call to let our relationships
be radically transformed by following him.
It is a call to plan and calculate
in a new way;
it is a call to plan an endgame
where the end is life eternal.
Being a disciple of Jesus is not one more thing
that we try to fit into our life;
it is our life.
Following Jesus is not one factor among others
that we must figure into our endgame;
it is the endgame.
We know that it is only when our offerings
of bread and wine
are placed on the altar,
given into God’s hands,
that they can become for us
the gift of Christ’s body and blood.
In the same way, let us place
all that we have and love—
parents and spouses,
children and siblings—
into God’s hands,
so that we can receive them back transformed,
into the precious gifts of God
given in love to God’s people.

Video recording of the homily.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isaiah 66:18-21; Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13; Luke 13:22-30

The question Jesus is asked in today’s Gospel —
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?” —
seems like a natural question to ask.
After all, when you are entering a contest
you kind of want to know
how hard it might be to win it.
Jesus’ answer is frustratingly indirect,
but it doesn’t sound like the odds are very good:
“Strive to enter through the narrow gate,”
but “many” who “attempt to enter…
will not be strong enough.”
It also sounds, however,
as if the consequences of losing the contest
are disturbingly severe:
those who find themselves on the outside
will depart to wail and grind their teeth.
Sobering news.
The kingdom of God, it might seem,
has sharply policed borders
and stringent conditions for admission.

But at the end of this sobering news
the words of Jesus take a somewhat different turn.
He says that “people will come
from the east and the west
and from the north and the south
and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.”
Rather than a single point of entry,
and a narrow one at that,
Jesus speaks in a way reminiscent of our first reading,
from the end of the book of the prophet Isaiah,
which speaks of how God will “come to gather
nations of every language,”
and that this multitude will stream
to God’s holy mountain in Jerusalem
“on horses and in chariots,
in carts, upon mules and dromedaries,”
a mighty caravan of new citizens for God’s kingdom.
The people of God is made up
of all sorts and conditions of humanity.
The table at which they feast
seems capable of infinite expansion.
The kingdom of God, it seems,
has open borders.

So, which is it?
Is God’s kingdom entered
through a single, narrow gate,
a gate that many will fail to enter,
or is it a kingdom into which
a multitude will stream
from all directions?
Perhaps it is somehow both.

When we hear the call of Jesus,
we hear the call to strive:
the call to strengthen our drooping hands
and our weak knees,
the call to learn obedience
through the discipline of the cross.
St. Ignatius Loyola, in the very first of his Spiritual Exercises,
directs us to imagine ourselves before Christ on his cross,
and to ask ourselves,
what have I done for Christ?
what am I doing for Christ?
what ought I to do for Christ?
If we call ourselves followers and companions of Jesus,
then of course we ought to strive to serve him.

But there is a danger and a temptation in our striving.
As I ask myself what I have done for Christ,
I might forget what Christ has done for me.
As I try to calculate how much striving is necessary,
I might forget that God’s grace is beyond calculation.
As I can strive to enter the narrow gate,
I might forget that my salvation
is not a reward for my striving
but the free gift of God,
won for me through the passion, death,
and resurrection of Christ.
There is a reason why St. Ignatius directs us
to imagine Jesus on the cross
before asking ourselves
what we have done, are doing, or will do for him.
Because all our striving should be nothing but
our grateful response to what Christ
already has done, is doing, and will do for us.
We are saved first and foremost
not by adherence to a code of conduct or a creed—
as important as those things are—
but by being drawn into the narrow gate
of the love of Christ crucified.

And here we can see how the glorious vision
of the multitude steaming into God’s kingdom
can fit with Jesus’ command
to strive to enter the narrow gate.
For if we strive to enter into the crucified love of Jesus
we begin to see the world as he sees it:
not divided into strivers and non-strivers,
but one giant herd of lost sheep that he longs to shepherd.
We begin to see that the love that we have received
is not a love cautiously measured out
but one that pours forth from his pierced heart,
a love that cannot be contained,
a love with unpoliced borders
that embraces a multitude.

Jesus calls us to enter through the narrow gate,
but that is a gate that leads us
into the heart of Jesus himself,
who loves us and saves us not because of our striving
but because of his own goodness and generosity.
So let us make our own the prayer
with which St. Ignatius concludes
his “Contemplation to Attain Divine Love”:
Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me. 

Watch this homily here.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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

Imagine that you see me at the train station:
you see me repeatedly check my watch,
check the arrival board,
perhaps check my appearance
in some reflective surface.
At a particular moment,
you see me stand up
and move toward the entrance
to a specific platform,
looking intently at the crowd.
You see a look of recognition cross my face
as I approach a woman and kiss her
(you surmise—correctly—that this must be my wife)
and then you see us happily depart the station together.
If someone were to ask you what I was doing
when you saw me at the station,
you would likely say
that I was waiting for someone.

Now imagine that you see me
on another occasion at the train station:
you see me browse the magazine rack at a newsstand,
buy an iced coffee at Starbucks,
stare blankly at crowds of people departing the trains,
yawn, scratch, read the paper, blow my nose,
and, eventually, leave the station alone,
having done a bunch of stuff
without any obvious single purpose.
If someone were to ask you what I was doing at the station
you would probably not say
that I was waiting for anyone or anything.
You might say instead that I was “loitering”
or, maybe, if you wanted to make me sound less criminal,
“killing time.”

“Waiting” is something different from simply “killing time.”
Waiting is not merely hanging around as time passes;
it is about your life coming into focus
around the person or thing that you are awaiting.
When you await someone or something,
your anticipation gives shape to time.
Every moment is given meaning and significance
by the act of waiting
because each moment moves you closer
to that for which you wait.

Killing time, in contrast,
is shapeless, formless, directionless.
Time moves forward, but isn’t going anywhere;
passing moments have no particular significance,
no particular goal or end.
Killing time is, frankly, boring;
as the term itself suggests,
it renders time lifeless.
Waiting, on the other hand, brings time to life,
as our moments are filled with meaning.

In today’s Gospel reading
Jesus calls on us to live lives of waiting,
not lives of merely killing time:
“be like servants who await
their master’s return from a wedding,
ready to open immediately
when he comes and knocks.”
Jesus speaks of your lamp being lighted
and your loins being girded—
symbols of wakefulness and readiness for action.
The servants whom the master commends
are not those who pass their hours killing time,
but those who keep an active watch
for the one whom they await.
The passing of time for these servants
is not the slow trickling away of life,
but a mighty flow that carries them
toward the arrival for which they wait.

The master whom we are awaiting
is Jesus himself, of course.
He is the master who returns from the wedding,
who with his arrival brings with him
a measure of that celebration’s joy.
Indeed, he bids his waiting servants
take their place at his table
so that he can serve them and share with them
all that he has received from his Father.
Jesus is the one whose awaited arrival
brings time to life,
gives form and direction and meaning
to the moments of which our days are made.
To be his disciple, to know him as master,
is to stand with lamp lighted and loins girded,
ready at every moment to welcome his arrival.
To await him is to accept time itself
not as something to be endured or killed,
but as God’s gift to us
to be used for God’s glory.

Yet even before the master returns
the time that he gives us,
the time that is brought to life by awaiting him,
is already filled full with his presence.
Indeed, the one we await arrives
at an hour we do not expect
because is arriving at every moment.
He comes to us invisibly,
in the gift of grace.
He comes to us visibly,
in the poor,
the imprisoned,
the stranger,
the suffering,
in all those we serve for his sake.
He comes to us in the Eucharist that we celebrate,
sharing with us the joyful wedding feast of the Lamb,
bidding us to receive from him
the food and drink of eternity.
We wait for one
who is already present with us in our waiting.

Time given over to awaiting the master
who arrives at every moment
is time that carries us forward
into the fullness of God’s kingdom.
Time given over to our own pursuits,
our self-made goals and personal agendas,
is simply killing time,
no matter how important
those goals and agendas might seem.
The call of Jesus in today’s Gospel
is to embrace time as God’s gift to us
and to use it for God’s glory,
standing ready
with lamps lighted and loins girded,
servants awaiting the master
who gives life to our days of waiting.
As I begin my ministry with you
here at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen
I pray that our days together
will not be merely killing time
but will be time that is filled full
of the presence of the one
whose arrival we await.

Watch this homily here.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Kings 19:16b, 19-21; Galatians 5:1, 13-18; Luke 9:51-62

As many of you might know,
last month I spent two and a half weeks
traveling by raft with family and friends
down the Colorado River
through the Grand Canyon.
The thing about this sort of trip
is that once you set out
you are committed for the long haul:
except for a lengthy hike to the Canyon rim
or a quick-but-costly medevac by helicopter,
there is only one way to the journey’s end,
only one direction that the current flows,
only one takeout point, many days and miles ahead.

I knew this, of course, in a theoretical way,
before setting out,
but you don’t really know
what you’ve gotten yourself into
until you’ve tried to set up camp in the rain,
or spent an hour pumping river water through a filter
so that there would be something to drink,
or taken a four-hour side-hike
that ends up lasting seven hours,
or stood above a class-nine rapid
listening to more experienced boaters discuss
all of the places in the rapid
where you definitely don’t want to end up.
The trip was much more arduous and challenging
than I anticipated,
the kind of vacation
where you need
another vacation afterward,
just to recover.

But the current flowed just one way;
there was no going back,
even if at times I wondered
what I had gotten myself into.
And it was a good thing that I had no choice,
that quitting was not an option
and weariness or fear could not change my course,
because along the way I saw wonders
that I could not have seen in any other way:
crystal-blue waters flowing from side canyons,
billion-year-old stone walls,
bighorn sheep climbing sheer rock faces,
the undimmed stars crowding the night sky,
the violent pounding force of the rapids,
and people of varied background, skill, and ability
working together to make the journey possible.

I say all of this not just to let you know
that I had an awesome vacation—
though it was awesome
(in the literal sense of the term).
Rather, at the risk of turning
a geologic marvel into a metaphor,
I can’t help thinking of how such a journey
tells us something about the journey
of our life as followers of Jesus.

Jesus says in today’s Gospel
that once you set out
on the journey to God’s kingdom,
once you embark
on the adventure of being his disciple,
you are committed for the long haul:
“No one who sets a hand to the plow
and looks to what was left behind
is fit for the kingdom of God.”
He warns his followers, repeatedly,
of the arduous and challenging nature of the journey:
“foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests,
but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.”
But it is only along the way that we discover
exactly what it is that we have gotten ourselves into:
the labor of being people of faith, hope, and love,
the perils of misunderstanding and rejection,
the thirst we feel in times of doubt and spiritual dryness,
the struggle to keep our hand on the plow
and not look back at what we have left behind.
But there is no turning back
because we are caught in the current of the Spirit
who carries us forward on the journey.
And thanks be to God for that,
for it is along this arduous way
that we discover wonders:
the beauty of God revealed in the face of Jesus,
the glory of God shown forth in the Word and sacraments,
the love of God displayed in the lives
of those who travel with us on the journey.
This journey with Jesus
leads us into the very meaning of existence.

It is a journey we share together,
each of us bringing with us
our varied background, skills, and abilities.
It is a journey that is held in common
and yet is also unique to each of us.
We share common milestones that mark the way:
Baptism, Confirmation,
our weekly gathering at the Eucharist.
We each also have
our individual milestones
by which we chart our journey:
joys, sorrows,
losses, triumphs,
illnesses, friendships,
marriages, religious vows,
births, deaths.
But in the Body of Christ
these individual milestones are
in some mysterious way,
through the one Spirit that we all share,
also part of our common journey:
your joys become my joys,
your sorrows become my sorrows.

Twelve years ago,
immediately before I was ordained as a deacon
through the laying on of hands and prayer,
I knelt before Cardinal Keeler
with my hands joined in front of me.
He put his hands around mine, asking,
“Do you promise respect and obedience
to me and my successors?”
and I replied, “I do.”
Then the Cardinal said,
“May God who has begun the good work in you
bring it to fulfillment.”
Amidst all the ritual and symbolism
of the rite of Ordination,
this moment has always stood out for me.
This promise of obedience was a milestone
that made concrete for me
something that had been true
since the day of my baptism:
my life belonged not to me but to the journey,
and to belong to the journey is to be truly free.
It was not simply about submitting
to ecclesiastical authority,
but about listening for the voice of Jesus
when he calls us to leave behind the things we love
and step into the current of the Spirit,
so that the wonders of the journey
might be brought to fulfillment
in the freedom that comes
from answering Christ’s call.

This, of course, is true for every follower of Jesus.
As Paul says, “you were called for freedom.”
All of us must listen for his voice,
calling us into the current of the Spirit.
The difference for me, as an ordained person,
is that the voice of Jesus—as strange as this may seem—
can sound like the voice of the Archbishop of Baltimore.
And it seems that the voice of Jesus
is calling me to leave behind this community that I love
so that our common journey can continue in a new way.
This is one of those arduous, challenging moments of the journey.
This is one of those moments when you wonder
what you have gotten yourself into.
This is one of those moments
when you must tighten your grip on the plow
and step forward in faith.

I have worshipped with you for twenty-two years
and served you as deacon for twelve,
and quite honestly it is hard for me to imagine
what it will be like not to gather with you each Sunday.
But if it truly is the current of the Spirit
that moves us forward on the journey,
if it is in answering the call of Jesus
that we find true freedom,
then we must trust that new wonders
will be revealed to us along the way.
And if it is truly the one Spirit
in whose current we are floating
then we are still journeying together,
even when it seems that we are separated.
For we all, wherever Christ calls us to be,
however scattered in time and space,
remain together members of his body,
Corpus Christi.
This is perhaps the greatest wonder of all.

Sunday, June 9, 2019


Readings: Acts 2:1-11; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-7, 12-13; John 14:15-16, 23b-26

Jesus promises his disciples that the Spirit
whom the Father will send in his name
will teach them “everything.”
That’s a pretty big promise.
I don’t know about you,
but I can’t imagine what it would feel like
to know everything.
My knowledge of quantum physics, for example,
is pretty limited,
as is my understanding of
how my smartphone works,
or why people buy jeans that are pre-ripped.
My knowledge clearly falls far short of “everything.”
But maybe the “everything” that the Spirit teaches
is not this sort of knowledge,
not a collection of facts or insights
concerning this or that.
Perhaps the “everything” that the Spirit teaches
is a truth of such surpassing importance
that it changes everything for those who accept it;
perhaps it is a truth that becomes the lens
through which we view everything else.

St. Paul suggests, in our second reading,
that one way to put into words
what the Spirit teaches us
is to confess that “Jesus is Lord.”
Indeed, he says that no one can truly say
that Jesus is Lord apart from the Spirit’s gift.
When the Spirit prompts us
to proclaim that Jesus is Lord
the Spirit is teaching us that everything,
every aspect of our existence,
finds its center and meaning in Jesus.
In Jesus’ life and teachings,
his death and resurrection,
the universe snaps into focus;
through Jesus we can see things
with a new clarity,
against a new horizon,
the horizon of the love that death cannot defeat
that we have been celebrating in this Easter season.
We see that even in the midst of
violence and conflict,
fear and disappointment,
sickness and death,
there lives, as the poet Gerard Manly Hopkins put it,
“the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
   Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
To know this—
to have met the risen Lord,
to have glimpsed the bright wings of the Spirit—
is to have been taught everything,
because it changes everything,
brings everything into focus.
It frees us from fear and gives us boldness
to proclaim to the world the message of Easter hope.

But this message of hope,
this “everything” that the Spirit teaches us,
is not a private possession.
It is a communally held gift.
The truth that the Spirit teaches us
is too vast and all-encompassing
for any single individual to contain.
On the day of Pentecost
the Spirit speaks a multitude of languages
in order that the mighty acts of God might be proclaimed,
the Lordship of Jesus might be confessed,
because no one language can capture everything.
St. Paul tells us that the gifts of the Spirit
are distributed within the body of believers,
in such a way that it is only the entire community of faith
that can truly proclaim that Jesus is Lord.
It takes a multitude to speak what the Spirit teaches;
it takes everyone to say everything.

Some of us, however, might feel
that we have nothing to say.
We might feel that our faith is weak,
our hope is wavering,
our love has grown cold.
But St. Paul says that all of us
who have been baptized into the Spirit
have been given some manifestation of the Spirit,
and that it has been given to us
for the benefit of the body as a whole.
If we are truly to know
the “everything” that the Spirit teaches
then I must tell you what I see
in light of Jesus the risen Lord,
and you must tell me what you see.
I must share with you the way in which
love and joy have fallen upon me
in times of sorrow,
how peace and patience have sustained me
in times of trial,
how kindness and goodness have been shown to me
in times of need.
And you must share with me
how you have found faithfulness
in the midst of doubt,
how you have found gentleness
in the midst of conflict,
how you have found self-control
in the midst of temptation.
We must share our joys and sorrows,
our tales of how we have felt the breeze
stirred by the Spirit’s bright wings,
our stories of how faith has brought us through,
if we are to have even the slightest insight
into the “everything” that the Spirit teaches.
For while we all confess Jesus as Lord,
each of us confesses Jesus as Lord
in our own way,
in our own language,
out of our own lives
and our particular circumstances.
This is what it means to live our faith
as members of the body of Christ,
so that the gift of each becomes the gift of all.
Let us pray on this feast of Pentecost
that the Spirit will be spoken
in a multitude of tongues,
and that we will hear
in the murmur of that multitude
everything that the Spirit teaches.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Easter 4

Readings: Acts 13:14, 43-52; Revelation 7:9, 14b-17; John 10:27-30

Jesus the Good Shepherd is a familiar image
and an apt metaphor for the one who calls and gathers us,
who guards and guides us,
who will even lay down his life to protect us;
as our Gospel today reminds us,
no one can take us out of the hands
of Jesus our shepherd.

This is all very fine,
but our second reading, from the Book of Revelation,
offers us a stranger, less easily understood,
image of shepherding.
Earlier, the seer John beholds a throne on which is seated
one of who’s appearance it is said only
that it “sparkled like jasper and carnelian”—
like precious stones.
And before this sparkling one seated on the throne
he sees a lamb standing.
Not a cute little fluffy white lamb,
whom we might imagine draped
around the shoulders of the good shepherd,
but one “standing as if it had been slaughtered,”
a sacrificial victim, blood-drenched and flesh-torn.
And this is the Lamb of whom it is said in today’s reading,
“The Lamb… will shepherd them
and lead them to springs of life-giving water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
Christ our shepherd is this slaughtered Lamb.

John offers us a startling—
I’m tempted to say “psychedelic”—
set of images in which
the lamb is shepherd,
the victim is victor.
John’s Apocalypse makes clear
what we might miss
in the Gospel metaphor of the Good Shepherd:
the shepherd in whose hands we are held,
for whose voice we should listen,
is not one who triumphs over threats,
who slays the wolf and the thief,
but one whose life is sacrificed on the cross,
who wins through weakness,
who offers us life not as the avoidance of death,
but as the passage through the cross to resurrection,
who calls us to surrender our lives
into the Shepherd’s pierced hands.
The Lamb is slaughtered
yet standing,
yet victorious.
Like I said, it’s all kind of psychedelic.
But what really makes it hard to understand
is that it runs counter
to everything the world tells us
about how power works,
about what victory looks like,
about what counts as winning.
John’s vision of the Lamb
suggests that the ordinary calculations of power
by which our world operates,
the ordinary standards of what counts as winning,
might not be the way that God sees things,
and perhaps should not be the way we see things either.

This past week saw the death of Jean Vanier,
the founder of the L’Arche movement,
which since the 1960s has created communities
in which the mentally disabled live together with others
who not only help them cope with the practicalities of life
but who offer them friendship and dignity.
Over the years, Vanier always stressed
that this was transformative
not only of the lives of the mentally disabled
members of his communities
but of those who lived with them as friends and helpers.
Vanier said that living with the mentally disabled
forced him to rethink what we mean by “ability”
and to reassess who is the giver
and who is the receiver in those relationships.
He wrote, “To be human is to be bonded together,
each with our weaknesses and strengths,
because we need each other.
Weakness, recognized, accepted, and offered,
is at the heart of belonging.”

Jean Vanier was always clear that his work
grew out of his Catholic faith,
out of his belief that in Christ the Lamb
God has redefined what counts as a life worth living,
God has redefined the possibilities of human community,
God has redefined victory.
Vanier wrote in a commentary on John’s Gospel,
“In front of the power and armies of Caesar,
in front of their mighty weapons,
stands a lamb, the lamb of God.
What can this lamb do?
The lamb will break down walls of fear, of aggression,
of violence, of sin
which imprison people in themselves
and incite them to seek their own glory.
He will liberate in each person a new life of communion with God,
with other people and with what is deepest in the self,
sowing seeds for universal peace.”

Jean Vanier was one of those who,
as the Revelation of John puts it,
“have washed their robes
and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
He was one who learned from the Lamb,
slaughtered and yet standing,
that it is not the powerful or the capable
but the weak and the vulnerable,
who will lead us to the waters of life
by revealing to us
our own weakness and vulnerability.

What does it mean to be a Christian?
Jean Vanier and John the visionary suggest to us
that it means letting yourself be shepherded by the Lamb.
It means placing yourself in the pierced hands of Jesus,
trusting them to shelter you from the great tribulation.
It means living by a new standard of what counts as victory.
It means learning from the Lamb
how to let yourself be wounded,
even slain, for love
and yet still stand,
bearing witness
to the God who chose what is foolish in the world
to shame the wise,
the God who chose what is weak in the world
to shame the strong,
the God who is revealed to us
in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Easter Sunday

Readings: Acts 10:34a, 37-43; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-9

Given the timing and the weight of accumulated history,
it was inevitable that people would go looking
for symbolic significance
in the fire that came close to destroying
Paris’s cathedral of Notre Dame this past week.
Some suggested that it was a metaphor
for the crisis of European Christianity,
beset by decades of declining membership and church attendance.
Others, mindful of Holy Week, saw it as a symbol
of the destruction of the temple of Christ’s body—
and drew hope that Our Lady’s cathedral, like Christ himself,
would one day rise again in glory.

But maybe the lesson of the fire at Notre Dame
is not some deeply hidden message or metaphor,
but something pretty obvious:
the things we human beings construct—
no matter how beautiful or culturally significant—
catch on fire and burn.
They also rot and decay;
they get swept away in floods
and brought down by earthquakes.
And, in this way, they are like us, their makers.
The message of last Monday’s fire
is the message of Ash Wednesday
with which we began this Lent:
remember that you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.
Eight-hundred and fifty years is a long time,
but it is not eternity;
and even if, as seems likely, Notre Dame is restored
and continues for a time as a place of Christian worship,
we know that one day this too will come to an end,
shall return to dust like everything we humans create,
as we ourselves shall as well.

Pretty somber news for an Easter morning.
But in the face of this somber new
we Christians proclaim the Good News
of Jesus’ resurrection.
Even as what is beautiful and noble falls to ruin,
Christ’s resurrection brings us glad tidings:
we are indeed dust,
but we are dust bound for glory,
for our life is hidden with Christ in God
and Christ is truly risen.
All that is good,
all that has value,
is treasured eternally
in the heart of the risen Jesus.

But because there has never been a silver lining
that I could not find a dark cloud to wrap around,
I am afraid that I have news this Easter morning
even more somber than the inevitable mortality
that shadows our lives.
There is something more deeply wrong with the world
than the finite timespan of every creature.
This something is what we call “sin,”
and we can see it at work in the death of Jesus.
For Jesus doesn’t just die
because his human lifespan runs out;
rather, he is killed.
As Peter reminds the assembled crowd in Jerusalem,
“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree.”
He is killed
because something far darker than death
has invaded human life.
He is killed because we have a rage within us,
a cruelty that makes us heedless of each other
and willing to cut short
the finite and fragile miracle of human life.

In a sense, the real events of recent days
that capture the full disaster of the human condition
is not the accidental fire that nearly destroyed Notre Dame,
but the deliberate burning
of three historically African American churches in Louisiana--
and now I suppose we must add
the churches bombed and the scores of people killed
this morning in Sri Lanka.
These were, of course, far more humble structures
than the gothic glory that is Notre Dame,
but they were temples no-less-holy,
where worship was offered to the living God.
And while the fire at Notre Dame
speaks to us of the world’s fragility and finitude,
the burning churches of Louisiana,
the bombed churches of Sri Lanka,
speak to us of sin.
They speak to us of those deeds
that grow from fear of what it different,
from a distorted sense of superiority,
from a twisted love of self,
even to the point of contempt of God and neighbor.
They speak to us of something that we can see
in our own selves,
in our own petty deeds
of fear and pride and self-involvement.

But even this somber news of sin
must yield to Easter joy.
As Peter tells the crowd gathered in Jerusalem,
“everyone who believes in him
will receive forgiveness of sins through his name.”
The good news of the resurrection
is not simply that we
have been made sharers in eternal life,
but that the wounds of sin
can be healed through faith.
Our world can be different.
You and I can be different.

John’s Gospel tells us that Mary Magdalene
came to Jesus’ tomb “while it was still dark.”
We too come to this Easter morning while it is still dark.
For the shadow of mortality and the wounds of sin
still darken our world
and make it hard for us to see the tomb standing empty.
But if we lift our eyes to the horizon,
if we heed Paul’s call to “seek what is above,”
even in the darkness of death and sin
we can see the light of the resurrection
breaking in upon us,
illuminating our world
with the Spirit’s gifts of faith, hope, and love.

It is still dark,
but the light of Christ’s risen glory
is already dawning.
It is dawning in the people of Paris,
who, kneeling as they lift their eyes
to their beloved cathedral engulfed in flames,
sing Je vous salue, Marie, Hail Mary…,
a song of hope in the face of tragedy.
It is dawning in the Rev. Harry Richard
of Greater Union Baptist Church
in Opelousas, Louisiana,
who says, “We’ve been through the fire…
We are heading for a resurrection.”
It is dawning in you and me,
fragile and finite and, yes, sinful,
but called by God to be witnesses of Easter joy,
called by God, while it is still dark,
to reflect the light of Christ’s resurrected glory.
Christ is truly risen, alleluia.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Easter Vigil

Readings: Genesis 1:1-2:2; Genesis 22:1-18; Exodus 14:15-15-1; Isaiah 55:1-11; Ezekiel 36:16-17a, 18-28; Romans 6:3-11; Luke 24:1-12

“Remember,” the angels tell the women.
“Remember what he said to you
while he was still in Galilee.”
“And they remembered,” we are told,
and “returned from the tomb.”
This night is the night of remembering.
It is the night of reciting and recalling
God’s goodness to God’s people,
from the creation of the world to the covenant with Abraham,
from salvation from slavery to the promise of new life.
It is the night of remembering
God’s dangerous and disruptive interruption of history.

But even as we gather to remember
God’s mighty acts of salvation,
even as the angels command us to remember
all that Jesus said and did,
we are also put to the question:
“Why do you seek the living one among the dead?”
The angels’ question should alert us to a danger:
memory can too easily lapse into nostalgia,
a homesickness for the past that keeps us
from receiving the new heart and new spirit
that is the promise of Easter.
When memory becomes nostalgia,
when dangerous remembrance becomes pious reminiscence,
we are seeking the living one among the dead.

We seek the living one among the dead
when we seek Christ simply
as a great moral exemplar from the past
whose words and deeds might inspire us,
whose story might comfort us,
but who is not the living Christ
who challenges us to risk everything
for his sake and the Gospel.
We seek the living one among the dead
when we seek him
in some idealized past of the Church,
whether it is the 1950s,
when parishes and seminaries were full-to-bursting,
or the 1970s,
when the spirit of Vatican II
was blowing powerfully through the Church,
or (if you’re like me) the 1270s,
when theology was considered the queen of the sciences,
but do not seek him in the messy present,
in the glorious and wounded body of Christ
that God has called us into in this time and place.
We seek the living one among the dead
when we seek him in an idealized past of our own lives—
when our faith was fresher, our life less complicated,
our friends more faithful, our fears less consuming—
and do not seek him in our present joys and hopes,
our griefs and anxieties,
our daily dying and rising.

I am not saying that we do not learn from the past,
nor that we do not need tradition
in order to know who we are now
and to orient us toward the future.
There is a reason why we gather on this night
to hear these ancient words,
to tell these ancient stories;
there is a reason why the angels tell the women
to remember the words that Jesus spoke to them,
to guard the dangerous memory of resurrection.
But if we seek him only in the memories that we can muster—
in the past that lives no more, if indeed it ever did—
then we are merely seeking the living one among the dead
and we have not yet grasped the good news of Easter.
Resurrection is not a matter of our pious efforts
at remembering the past—
we cannot remember Jesus out of the tomb;
we cannot remember our way out of history’s injustices
or life’s dead ends.
Remembering may be humanity’s best weapon against death,
against the relentless flow of time that sweeps everything away,
but it is not enough.
Even our most treasured memories
falter, grow faint, and fail.

The good news of Easter is not that we remember Jesus,
but that Jesus remembers us.
The good news of Easter is not
that we treasure in our hearts
the words and deeds of Jesus,
but that we are treasured in the heart of the living one,
the one whose human life has been taken up into deathless eternity.
Easter is not about our remembering what God has done,
but about receiving a new heart and a new spirit
to see what God is doing at this moment:
God is remembering us.
At every moment our lives are enfolded
in the eternal thought of God
who knows us more perfectly
than we could ever know ourselves.

In a few minutes,
we will renew our baptismal promises:
an act by which we recommit ourselves
to life in the body of Christ.
We will remember our baptism,
when, as St. Paul says,
“our old self was crucified with him”
so that “just as Christ was raised from the dead…
we too might live in newness of life.”
But even more than our act of remembering,
this is an act of being remembered by God:
God’s act of re-membering us into the risen Christ,
knitting us anew into his glorified body.
This re-membering is God’s gracious gift to us,
not something that we have done for ourselves.

So whether you have kept the Lenten fast with zeal,
or felt your love grow cold and God grow distant,
God remembers you this night.
Whether you have come here full of faithful expectation
or feel that the faith you once possessed
has become a faded memory,
God remembers you this night.
Whether you come hoping for a new heart and a new spirit
or simply stand confused and conflicted in wordless longing
for something that you cannot name,
God remembers you this night.
God remembers us into resurrection
so that we live eternally in the heart of Christ.
For Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and on those in the tomb bestowing new life.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Lent 5

Readings: Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 38-14; John 8:1-11

Typically, the Scriptures exhort us to remember:
remember what God has done for us,
remember who we are as God’s people.
But today our Scriptures
exhort us to leave the past behind
and reach out toward the future.

Our first reading, from the Prophet Isaiah,
begins, in typical scriptural fashion, with the past,
reminding the Israelites,
now held captive in Babylon,
of how in ancient days
God had saved them from slavery in Egypt
and made them God’s people.
But then God says,
“Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not;
see, I am doing something new!”
Though languishing in Babylon,
the Israelites should hope for an even greater salvation.
Yes, God has done great things for Israel in the past,
but God’s goodness is never exhausted;
the greatest things are not in the past,
but lie ahead in the future.

Echoing God’s words spoken through Isaiah,
Paul writes to the Christians of Philippi,
“forgetting what lies behind
but straining forward to what lies ahead,
I continue my pursuit toward the goal,
the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.”
Paul looks at his past life with a sense of achievement—
for he had lived a life of zeal for God’s Law—
and of shame—
for his zeal had led him to persecute
the newborn Jesus-movement.
But Paul now knows that his former life,
both its good and its bad,
counts for nothing.
His former life is “rubbish”
(or, more literally, “dung”)
compared to the hope
he has been given through faith in Jesus.
He sees in Jesus the “new thing” that God will do.
He leans into the future,
he strains toward it,
drawn by his hope in God’s promised kingdom.

Perhaps less explicitly than Isaiah or Paul,
the familiar story of the woman caught in adultery
that we hear in today’s Gospel
is also about leaving the past behind
and straining toward the future.
When the woman’s accusers depart in shame,
their own sinfulness revealed,
Jesus tells the woman,
“Neither do I condemn you.
Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”
He speaks not of her past,
but of her future: “from now on.”
The forgiveness of God
that Jesus extends to her
has made a way for her
through the wasteland of her past,
and made life-giving waters flow
in the desert of her despair.
It is as if he is saying to her
the words God spoke to the Israelites:
“Remember not the events of the past;
see, I am doing something new!”
She must forget what lies behind,
and strain forward to what lies ahead.

Of course, we can’t completely forget the past,
nor should we.
Good or bad, it is part of who we are.
Each Passover, the people of Israel remember
how God’s goodness saved them from captivity.
Paul remembers his zeal for God’s Law—
zeal that made him a persecutor of the Church.
The woman caught in adultery remembers that she sinned,
because she knows herself forgiven.
We don’t completely forget our past,
but neither do we dwell there.
We may celebrate it or mourn it
or sometimes do both things as once,
but it doesn’t define us.
Baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus,
we are defined by “the prize of God’s upward calling,”
we are defined by God’s kingdom:
being formed among us even now by God’s Spirit
whose fullness we still yearn form.
We reach out for that future,
we strain toward it,
we let the Spirit lift us into God’s reign.

In The Divine Comedy,
before Dante can pass from Purgatory into Paradise,
he is immersed in the waters of Lethe,
the ancient Greek river of forgetting,
and the memory of his past sins are washed away.
Beatrice—his muse and guide—
then leads him to drink from the river Eunoƫ,
which restores to him the memory
of the good he has done in his life.
He still knows he had sinned
because he knows himself forgiven,
but he no longer dwells in that past.
He remembers the good that he had done,
but now knows that good to be God’s gift.
For Dante, these rivers speak
of the waters of Baptism:
the waters of life that God can make flow
through the driest deserts of despair,
the waters of a hope that calls us
out of our past and into God’s future.
He writes,
“From these holiest waters I returned
to her reborn, a tree renewed, in bloom
with newborn foliage, immaculate,
eager to rise, now ready for the stars” (Purgatorio 33:142-145).

Our celebration of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus
is rapidly approaching.
These most holy days are not only
days of remembering past events
but also days of reaching out and touching the future
that God has promised to us in Jesus’ resurrection,
when every tear shall be wiped away,
every stain of sin washed clean,
every wounded memory healed,
so that we, like the people of Israel,
like Paul the zealous persecutor,
like the woman caught in adultery,
might be reborn,
eager to rise, now ready for the stars.