Sunday, February 1, 2015

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 7:32-35; Mark 1:21-28

St. Paul’s words this morning,
from his First Letter to the Corinthians,
may not fall pleasingly upon our ears,
at least not the ears of those of us who are married.
While the unmarried are
“anxious about the things of the Lord,”
a married man or woman is
“anxious about the things of the world,”
seeking to please his or her husband or wife,
and thus is “divided”—
seemingly not fully committed.
It sort of makes us married folks
sound like second-class Christians.
And if you are a Catholic of a certain age
(you know who you are)
it may remind you of the days
when it was implied or often stated
that the true Christians
were the celibate priests and sisters
and that if you were serious about your faith,
if you had a “vocation” or “calling,”
you had better avoid the worldliness of marriage.

In Paul’s defense,
I would note that if we place this passage
in the context of his letter as a whole,
he is in fact defending marriage
against those Christians in Corinth who were arguing
that no Christian should be married,
that marriage and all that went with it—
managing households, owning servants, raising children—
was part of the old creation that was being swept away
by the new creation in Christ,
which would soon reach its consummation
in the return of Jesus to judge the living and the dead.
While Paul commends the fervor of these enthusiasts,
he tells them, a bit earlier in the letter,
that while he might “wish everyone to be as I am”—
that is, celibate—
“each has a particular gift from God,
one of one kind and one of another” (1 Cor. 7:7).
In other words,
celibacy is a divine gift and calling,
but so too is marriage.

Yet it is undeniable that while Paul
affirms the goodness of marriage,
he holds celibacy is special esteem.
And it is undeniable that in the tradition of the Church
the consecrated life of poverty, chastity, and obedience
has had—
and continues to have—
an indispensible role in the life of the Church.
But what exactly is that role?
What distinctive things do those who vow themselves
to a life of celibate chastity
bring to our common life in the Body of Christ?

Let me try to answer that question
from my perspective as a married person.
I don’t think, as was sometimes implied in ages past,
that those who undertake celibacy
necessarily achieve a surplus of holiness
that makes up for my lack of holiness,
a lack brought about by my married state.
I have known a fair number
of celibate men and women over the years:
some have seemed to me quite holy;
some were noticeably not.
But what they have done, all of them,
is to remind me,
by their very act of promising themselves to celibacy,
that the call of Jesus is a call to radical love,
a love that reaches into the roots of our being,
a love so radical that one might for its sake
renounce other perfectly legitimate forms of human love.
By responding to Jesus’ radical call in their lives
by promising themselves to a life of celibate chastity,
they have challenged me, in my own life,
to find a response
that is as radical
as the call I have received.

At least for me, it takes something as drastic,
something as strange,
something as shocking
as a promise of celibacy
to drive home just how radical
my own calling has been.
The writer Flannery O’Connor,
in explaining why her novels and short stories
often had such appalling plot twists,
noted, “to the hard of hearing you shout,
and for the almost blind
you draw large and startling figures.”
For me, celibacy is a large and startling figure
that pulls me up short,
that makes me ask myself,
“What do I do in my life
to respond to the love of Jesus,
the love that gave up everything for me—
for me
even to the point of death on a cross?”
I think in our society as a whole
the life of celibate chastity
serves as a large and startling figure.
In a culture in which sex is a valuable commodity,
used for everything from selling products
to affirming our self worth,
the act of giving up something so valuable
seems shocking, unthinkable.
It is perhaps one of the few things
that you could tell someone about yourself
and elicit the response, “You’re what?”

Celibacy is a sign of contradiction
because it reminds us
that we do not live for this life alone,
but for the Kingdom of Jesus Christ,
and we live for that kingdom by clinging to God’s grace
and by that grace being transformed
into the likeness of Jesus.
This is an easy thing to forget,
and we need things that grab our attention,
things that startle and even shock us.
So we owe a debt of thanks
to our fellow members of Christ’s body
who have, by the consecration of their lives,
become living signs and reminders
of Christ’s call to radical love,
the love that opens its arms on the cross
to embrace me, and you, and all of God’s creation.

Sunday, January 4, 2015


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

You may not know that the first American city
with gas street lights
was our own beloved Baltimore.
The brainchild of the painter Rembrandt Peale,
who also founded Baltimore’s first art museum,
the first street lamp was lighted on February 7, 1817,
and the papers of the day tell us,
“that the effect produced
was highly gratifying to those
who had an opportunity of witnessing it,
among whom were several members
of the Legislature of the State.”
A monument to this lamp stands to this day
on the corner of North Holliday and East Baltimore Streets
(at one end of a rather notorious strip known as The Block).

No doubt one reason that witnessing
the lighting of this lamp
was highly gratifying
is because we humans are not by nature nocturnal creatures:
we have evolved in such a way that the light of day
is the environment in which we most naturally
live and move and have our being.
In Scripture and tradition, the darkness of nighttime
represents everything perilous about life,
everything outside of our control,
everything from which we pray God to protect us.
In the opening verses of the book of Genesis
God speaks the words “Let there be light”
and pushes back the chaotic darkness
in order to make a place for us.
In contrast, one of traditional names for the devil
is princeps tenebrarum—the prince of darkness.
As an old Scottish poem puts it:
“From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!”
St. Augustine imagined our final heavenly rest in God
as a Sabbath day would never be ended by night.
Night and day, darkness and light, are powerful images
of peril and salvation.

This morning we read from the book of the prophet Isaiah,
“Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem!
Your light has come,
the glory of the Lord shines upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth,
and thick clouds cover the peoples;
but upon you the LORD shines,
and over you appears his glory.”
God chose the Israelites, the family of Abraham,
to receive his promise of light,
to be an island of light in a world of darkness. 
Yet God’s chosen people did not receive
God’s light and glory
simply to bask in its protecting glow;
rather, they were to reflect that glory
so as to themselves become a light
by which other peoples, other nations, might walk—
a light of divine goodness
that presses back the night of evil.
In our Gospel reading, Matthew uses the story of the Magi
as a way of symbolizing that God’s promise of light
has now through Christ been shared with the Gentiles,
those who are not physical descendants of Abraham;
the story of the Magi shows that people of all nations
have become, as St. Paul puts it,
“coheirs, members of the same body,
and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus
through the gospel.”
Through Jesus, the light of God s
preads deeper into the night of sin.

Today, through technology,
we have colonized the night
and turned it into day that is 24/7.
Beginning with that first gas street lamp,
we have illuminated everything.
For most of us, the night no longer holds hidden terrors:
we no longer the need to huddle together
amidst the encircling gloom of nightfall,
we no longer fear the darkened path along which we stumble.
Every dark place can be made bright with a flick of a switch.
But even if our electrified, light-polluted nights
have lost their power
to symbolize all those things
that we fear,
that are beyond our control,
from which we seek protection,
this does not mean that we have vanquished
everything perilous in life,
that we have brought all things
under our control,
that we no longer need God’s protection.
The very fact that the monument
to the first street lamp in our country
is located on the edge of
one of the seedier areas of our city
reminds us that the night
of evil and violence and human degradation
remains with us regardless of our technical mastery
of light and darkness.
We see it in the news and, alas, find it in ourselves,
beyond the reach of any technological solution.

This night cannot be vanquished
with the flick of a switch.
This night can only be vanquished
by the true light,
the light that God promised to the Israelites,
the light that the Magi sought in Bethlehem,
the light that God bestows upon us
in his word and sacraments.
The light that we celebrate on this Epiphany
has been given to us,
not to be kept as a private possession
with which to keep our personal night at bay,
but as something to be joined to the light of others
so that the glory of God might saturate
the dark places of our world
and the true light of God revealed in Jesus Christ
might lead all people
to that Sabbath day that has no end.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Holy Family

Readings: Genesis15:1-6, 21:1-3; Hebrews11:8, 11-12, 17-19; Luke 2:22-40

Abraham was already an old man when God called him.
At seventy-five, he probably thought himself
well past his sell-by date.
Yet God called him forth from his homeland
and promised that he and his wife Sarah,
who had been childless for many decades,
would have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky.
It seemed an unlikely scenario,
but, as the letter to the Hebrews tells us,
“he thought that the one
who had made the promise was trustworthy.”
He had faith in God’s promise,
and from him and Sarah
came forth the nation
into which Jesus Christ was born.

Simeon also was an old man
who had received God’s promise:
in this case the promise
was that he would not die
before seeing God’s anointed,
the one who would fulfill the promise
that God made to Abraham and his descendants
that through them all the families of the world
would be blessed.
He lived in hope,
as he grew weary and weak with the years.
Yet his weariness did not prevent God’s Spirit
from leading him to the Temple in Jerusalem
on the day that Mary and Joseph brought Jesus there
to offer the sacrifice of redemption for their firstborn.
His weariness did not prevent the Spirit
from giving him eyes of faith,
with which to recognize in the Christ child
the one for whom he and his people
had waited for so many years.

Anna the prophetess had, like Simeon,
grown old in God’s service.
We might imagine the grief she felt
when she was widowed after only seven years of marriage,
grief that led her to seek solace and hope in God.
At eighty-four, Luke tells us,
she never left the Temple area,
but led a life of fasting and prayer.
With her prophet’s eyes, she too, like Simeon,
recognized in the child Jesus
the arrival of God’s salvation
and she too offered up
a prayer of thanks to God.

So what is it with all these old people
in our readings today?
Isn’t Christmas about baby Jesus?
Isn’t it about something new, not something old?
Isn’t it about life that is just beginning,
not about life that is nearing its end?
So much of our celebration of Christmas
is tied up with images of childhood—
often highly sentimentalized and unrealistic images
of innocent, cherub-like tots
nestled all snug in their beds,
while visions of sugar-plums
dance in their heads.
So the presence on this feast of the Holy Family
of such emphatically old people
as Abraham and Simeon and Anna
can seem just a bit jarring.
This is particularly true in a culture like ours,
which seems to prize youth so highly
and to relegate the elderly to the margins,
seeing them as economically unproductive
and perhaps a discomfiting reminder of our own mortality.
Some even speak of those who are old and sick
as having “a duty to die”
so as not to drain resources
that could be used by the young
or burden them with their care.
And some elderly people internalize this way of thinking:
suffering from social isolation
imposed not only by their own infirmity,
but also by a culture that wants to hide them away,
they come to see their own lives as useless.

But this is not how God sees things.
God does not see age or weakness or infirmity,
but the potential of the human spirit
to be transformed and renewed by God’s Spirit
at every stage of life’s journey.
When God wanted to establish a people to be his own
he did not choose parents who were young and fertile,
but Abraham and Sarah:
old and barren—
as the letter to the Hebrews says, “as good as dead”—
yet fruitful in the hope of God’s promise of life.
When God wanted the Messiah’s arrival
heralded in God’s Temple
he did not choose fresh-faced prophets
who could relate to the young,
but Simeon and Anna:
sight failing with the passage of many years,
yet gifted with the eyes of faith
to recognize God’s salvation.
Where we may see only the infirmities of old age,
God sees disciples who are reborn in the Spirit
each and every day:
in God’s Spirit the eyes that have grown dim
can have the keenest of spiritual sight;
in God’s Spirit the body that is failing
can still show forth the glory of God,
even in its weakness.

The Holy Family of God’s people is, we might say,
a multi-generational family
in which young and old live together
within the household of the Church,
sharing with each other our unique gifts,
gifts that are bestowed on young and old alike.
When I think of my own parents,
of my elderly friends,
of parishioners here at Corpus Christi,
I think of the gifts of wisdom and experience
that age can bring.
But even more I think of the gift of the Spirit,
the Spirit that makes the young see visions
and the old dream dreams,
the Spirit whose love binds all of us—
young and old and in-between—
into one Holy Family of God.
May the prayers of Abraham and Sarah,
Simeon and Anna,
assist us as the Spirit works within us
to make us into a community
in which the gifts of all
are welcomed and valued.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Advent 2

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8

“Be prepared.”
It’s the motto of the Boy Scouts,
so it must be good advice.
The founder of the Scouts, Robert Baden-Powell,
explained this motto back in 1908:
Be prepared in mind by having disciplined yourself
to be obedient to every order,
and also by having thought out beforehand
any accident or situation that might occur,
so that you know the right thing to do at the right moment,
and are willing to do it.
Be prepared in body by making yourself strong and active
and able to do the right thing at the right moment, and do it.”

“Be prepared.”
It might also be thought of as the motto of John the Baptist,
with whom St. Mark associates the prophetic words:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
Be prepared, so that you will know and do
the right thing at the right moment.

It is therefore surprising, perhaps,
that people in Jesus’s day
proved to be so thoroughly unprepared for him:
that when the right moment came—
that moment in human history
when God’s promise of comfort and salvation
was to be fulfilled—
almost no one was prepared to do the right thing.
In Mark’s Gospel in particular,
as we shall hear in our Sunday readings
over the course of the next year,
not only did the crowds and the religious leaders of the Jews
fail to do the right thing at the right moment,
but even Jesus’s closest followers,
even Peter who had confessed Jesus to be God’s anointed,
were unprepared when the moment of Christ’s passion came.

But perhaps we should not be surprised.
In the very first sentence of his Gospel,
Mark hints that the story he is about to tell
will be so strange,
that no one could have been prepared for it:
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”
He first tells us that this story is “gospel”—“good news”—
which in the ancient world was a term used to denote
the announcement of a royal birth
or a victory in battle.
And then he tells us that this good news
concerns Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God:
one who shares the nature of God
in the way that a child shares
in the nature of his or her parent.
Perhaps after this opening
we should be prepared to hear a story
that is not like your typical story,
since it is, after all, the story of the Son of God.
But just when we have prepared ourselves
to hear a marvelous story
of the mighty deeds
and the triumphant victories
of the Son of God,
Mark proceeds to tell us a story
of misunderstanding and rejection,
a story of betrayal and abandonment,
a story of suffering and death,
and a mysterious message at an empty tomb.
Who would have predicted that the story of God’s Son
would take such a form?
Who could have possibly,
in the words of Robert Baden-Powell,
“thought out beforehand
any accident or situation that might occur”?

It seems that the point that Mark is making in his Gospel
is that no matter how much we prepare,
no matter how thoroughly
we think things out beforehand,
no matter how strong and active
we make ourselves,
we are never prepared for Jesus:
we are never prepared for the surprising story
of the eternal Son of God
who takes on the form of a servant
for us and for our salvation.
We are never prepared because we inevitably think
within our human categories,
according to our human notions
of what the right thing is
and when the right moment.
But Jesus comes precisely to overturn
those categories and notions:
to make us rethink
what we have thought out ahead of time,
to undermine our idea of what it means to be strong.

Yet Mark’s Gospel also bids us,
“prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
Indeed, the Church gives us this season of Advent
as a time of preparation for the coming of Jesus.
So how do you prepare for the one who is
the one for whom you can never prepare?
Perhaps we prepare not by making plans,
but by making space.
Not by thinking things out ahead of time
but by opening a place in our hearts and minds
for the Word of God that comes to us in Jesus Christ.
Not by becoming strong and active,
but by making our hearts soft and pliable to God’s Spirit.

This is, of course,
the most difficult sort of preparation there is,
particularly in the season of frenetic activity
that leads up to Christmas.
But this is the challenge of Advent:
to clear some time in our busy lives,
to make some space in our crowded minds,
to prepare a way into our hearts
for the one for whom we can never prepare,
but who comes to us to shock us,
to surprise us,
to delight us with his love.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6; Matthew 25: 14-30

In today’s Gospel the master says to the servant
who buried his single talent in the ground,
“You wicked, lazy servant!”
But was laziness really the servant’s problem?
After all, digging the hole to bury the money in
must have required some effort—
perhaps even more effort than putting it in the bank,
which was the master’s suggestion.
I think the servant was speaking truthfully
when he said that it was out of fear
that he buried the talent in the ground.
After all, his master was a demanding person
and while a talent was a lot of money
(about a thousand dollars),
he had still been given less
than the other two servants,
so he had less margin of error
and had to be careful.
According to rabbinic law
if someone entrusted you with something and you buried it
then you could no longer be held liable for its loss,
since you had taken the safest course of action
(far safer than entrusting it
to the speculation of bankers).
The servant’s problem was not laziness, but fear:
a fear of a master who would hold him
to an exact accounting
and a fear of loosing what he had
in the pursuit of something greater.

This parable is not, obviously, about how we need
to be industrious entrepreneurs with our money,
and about how laziness is a great evil.
Nor is it simply, I think, about how we need
to be industrious entrepreneurs
with the spiritual gifts that God has given us
and about how spiritual laziness is a great sin.
I think it addresses a deeper question of how we see God:
whether we see God as one who’s chief interest
is exacting from us what is owed,
or as one who wants to say to us,
“Come, share your master’s joy.”
The problem is not spiritual laziness.
As shocking as it may seem
in the context of contemporary American culture,
Jesus is not calling us to work harder,
to invest more wisely,
to put in more hours,
or to “lean in”
so that we can “have it all”
(spiritually speaking, of course).
Rather, Jesus is calling us to dig up the gift
we have buried in our fear—
the gift of the good news of Jesus himself—
and unleash it on the world.

To do this, we must let our fear be replaced by love.
If we act out of a conviction that God’s desire
is not to exact his due
but to have us share our master’s joy
then we become radically free
from the fear of loosing what we have
and radically free
for taking risks for the sake of God’s kingdom.
Indeed, according to the logic of God’s kingdom,
it is only if we risk all we have
that we can keep anything.
Perhaps more than any other,
love is a treasure that can be lost through fear.
We can keep it only if we risk its loss
by opening our heart to another
and setting that other’s good above our own,
never knowing ahead of time whether our love will be returned
or will be met with indifference and even hostility,
just as the love of Jesus was met with the scourging pillar,
the crown of thorns, and the cross.
The path of love might seem imprudent
but it is only if we take the risk of Christ
that we can share in the resurrection of Christ
and hear the invitation,
“Come, share your master’s joy.”

We should be willing to risk everything
for Christ’s kingdom of love.
But what does this mean in the concrete?
Well, it might mean in part something as simple
as installing showers for the homeless
in the public restrooms in St. Peter’s Square,
as the Vatican announced it would do this week.

And what about us, here at Corpus Christi?
We might feel as if we, being such a small parish,
are a bit like that servant
who was given but a single talent.
We have limited resources,
so perhaps it would be wisest
to focus on preserving what we have
and not to risk new ventures.
But this is the path of fear,
not the path of love;
this is not the path of resurrection,
which is the path of risk.
Not to put too fine a point on it,
but if Jesus is right, and he usually is,
we will lose everything if we seek only to maintain,
if we fearfully bury out talent in the earth
rather than thinking of new ways
of living our Christian life together
and proclaiming the Gospel
in our neighborhood and city.
With our new small Christian communities
and outreach to immigrant children
we are beginning to do this,
but we must always be looking for new risks to take.

If God is truly the one revealed
in the cross and resurrection of Jesus,
what risks can we undertake
for the sake of God’s kingdom?
We must always be asking ourselves what new thing
the God who desires nothing more
than that we share his joy
is calling us to do,
is calling us to be.
I believe that we are being called to be,
by God’s grace, true to our name:
Corpus Christi, the body of Christ;
by God’s grace we can be the body
that opened itself in love on the cross
and was raised by God to new life
to bring life and faith and healing to the world.
As the parent of teenagers,
I never thought I'd utter these words,
but get out there and engage in risky behavior.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

An All Saints / Wedding Homily

Readings: 1 Corinthians 12:31–13:8a; Matthew 5:1-12a

I’m not sure S______ and J______ were aware of it at the time
but the day that they chose for their wedding
is one of the great feast days of the Catholic Church: All Saint’s Day.
The saints are those who have, as St. Paul put it,
fought the good fight,
finished the race,
kept the faith;
they are those holy ones who have received the crown of glory
and are even now enjoying life in God’s eternal kingdom.
Some of these saints are known to us and named as individuals,
and many of them have special days each year
on which we remember them.
But we believe that there are many saints
whom we do not know,
whom we cannot name,
and so we have this feast day to remember
all of those holy people
who lived out their lives in God’s service
quietly and out of the world’s sight.

Our two readings give us a picture of what it means to be a saint.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us
the qualities possessed by those who are blessed
and what rewards await them:
they are “poor in spirit,”
meaning that they humbly know their need for God,
they are meek, and they hunger and thirst for righteousness,
they are merciful,
pure of heart,
and peacemakers.
They are the ones to whom God will grant his kingdom:
they will be comforted,
shown mercy,
and called children of God.
St. Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians,
draws all of the virtues of the saints together
into the one virtue of love:
a love that is patient and kind,
that does not seek its own interests,
a love that bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things,
a love that can fight the good fight,
finish the race,
keep the faith.

But how does one become a saint?
Is it simply a matter
of trying really, really hard to be a good person?
While that is, of course, important,
becoming a saint is really something much more mysterious.
It is mysterious because it is something
that God’s grace does to us,
something that is brought about
by the mystery God’s love at work within us.

S______ and J______, today you enter in a new way
into the mystery of God’s love.
In the Catholic tradition we believe marriage to be a sacrament,
meaning it is both a sign and a cause of God’s grace.
In other words, your married life together
will both make God’s love present to you in a special way
and also show that love to those whom you meet.
But even more,
if you open yourselves up to the grace
that God gives you in your married life together,
you can become saints.
Your marriage can make you
into one of those people we celebrate today,
those who in their everyday lives fight the good fight
in the cause of love and mercy.
My prayer for you on your wedding day
is that the years ahead
be filled with joy that comes from God’s grace,
the grace that can transform you together
into the holy ones of God.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 4:6-9; Matthew 21:33-43

In both our first reading from Isaiah
and in our Gospel from Matthew,
we hear about vineyards.
And in both Isaiah and Matthew the vineyard is representative
of the people of God:
those whom God has called into his covenant of love.

But there is an interesting difference:
while Jesus’ parable is addressed to and focuses on
those whom the owner has put in charge of the vineyard—
“the chief priests and the elders of the people”—
Isaiah’s oracle makes no mention of leaders or caretakers,
but focuses on the vineyard itself.
In Matthew, the leaders of God’s people Israel
are held responsible for their failure
to give God his due and to respect his emissaries.
It is a powerful indictment of religious leaders
who use their positions for their own benefit
and forget that they are here to serve God and God’s people.
In Isaiah, however, it is the vineyard itself that is at fault;
it is the vineyard, not those who are put in charge of it,
that is accused of producing wild grapes
that are bitter and unfit for consumption
rather than the good fruit
that is a source of joy and nourishment.
It is the vineyard itself
that must bear God’s rebuke,
not those who tend it.

So what does this mean for us, who are God’s people,
the vineyard that God has planted and protected,
in which God has erected the winepress of the sacraments
and the strong tower of God’s Word, revealed in Christ?
On the one hand, it means that those into whose care
God has entrusted the Church
must never forget
that they are but tenants, caretakers;
Church leaders must carefully tend
what God has planted,
always remembering that it is God’s Church, not theirs,
and all the spiritual fruit that the Church produces
must be returned to God to do with as he will.
According to Jesus’ parable, when the tenants forget
whose vineyard it is that they are tending
the result is violence directed at God’s messengers,
and, ultimately, God’s Son.
I suspect that the result of such forgetting today
is less obvious.
Some Church leaders may treat God’s vineyard
as something to exploit for their own personal gain.
But a more common result of forgetting whose vineyard it is
is an overdeveloped sense that what grows in the vineyard
is something that they must control.  
Of course, part of the good stewardship
that leaders should exercise
is tending the life of the Church
in ways that will make her
fruitful and pleasing to God.
But this is something different from trying
to micromanage the spiritual growth of the vineyard
so that it produces the fruits that they desire,
forgetting that it is God’s vineyard
and that it is God to whom
the harvest of its fruits is owed
and who will judge
which are pleasing and which are not.

But in reflecting on the meaning
of Jesus’ parable of the vineyard,
we ought not forget the vineyard of Isaiah.
Remember, in Isaiah no fault was found
with those tending the vineyard;
rather the vineyard itself was faulted
for producing bitter, wild grapes.
At various times and places
the Church may have good or bad leadership,
and we may not even agree
on what constitutes good or bad leadership—
I might think that Pope Benedict was a careful, thoughtful leader
and that Pope Francis is dangerously off-the-cuff,
while you might think Pope Benedict was a stodgy old coot
and Pope Francis a refreshing breath of fresh air
(I should note that both are excellent Popes
compared to some of the Popes of, say, the 10th century).

At the end of the day, however,
while it is better to have good leaders than bad,
you who are the people of the Church
have to stand on your own two feet
and take responsibility for your life as Church.
Dissatisfaction with the leadership of the Church
is no excuse for disengaging or producing bitter fruit.
If we want to be a vineyard that produces good fruit
then we must make it happen—
by which I mean that we must let God make it happen in us;
we must let the Holy Spirit fill us with, as St. Paul said,
“whatever is true, whatever is honorable,
whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious.”
At the end of the day,
the kind of fruit that the Church produces
is as much the responsibility of you who are the vines
as it is of any bishop, priest, or deacon.

God has planted us in this vineyard
so that we might bear good fruit
and God has given us what we need to do so:
the consolation of the Spirit present in our community
and manifest in our commitment to each other,
God’s word and sacraments to strengthen us,
and the peace of God that surpasses all understanding
to guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
God has provided all of this to us in abundance.
Now let’s bear some fruit.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

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

Imagine this scenario:
I do something—let’s say gossiping—
that causes harm to Sam,
who is a fellow parishioner at Corpus Christi,
and so one night, over a few beers,
he confronts me with what I have done
and asks me to change my ways.
I refuse:
maybe I don’t believe that talking about him
really is gossip,
or I think that my gossiping
has not really caused him any harm.
So, he gets a couple of fellow parishioners
to come with him to talk with me again.
After hearing both our sides of the story, they agree
that I really am in the wrong
and must change my ways and apologize.
Still I refuse,
so Sam presents his complaint to all of you,
during the announcements at Mass,
and everyone, after some prayer and reflection,
agrees that I have done wrong
and need to change my ways.
I, however, remain recalcitrant,
so Fr. Marty tells me
that I can no longer participate
in our community’s celebration of the Eucharist
because I have shown such little regard
for the peace and unity
that is at the heart of that Eucharist.

It seems hard to imagine this scenario actually happening.
In part, it seems hard to imagine
that Sam would bother confronting me in the first place,
rather than simply trying to avoid or ignore me.
We are a small parish,
but with some effort Sam could limit our contact,
or maybe simply find another parish to go to.
Either would be easier than that confronting me.
It also seems hard to imagine that,
if his initial efforts failed,
Sam would then bring in other parishioners
to help settle the dispute.
What business is it of theirs?
No need to air such dirty laundry
in front of others;
it might prove to be embarrassing.
Even if Sam asked, they would likely say,
“What does this dispute between the two of you
have to do with us?
Besides, who are we to judge?”
Finally, even if Sam were embarrassment-proof enough
to stand up at Mass and air his complaint against me,
it seems hard to imagine that the rest of you
would appreciate Sam’s interruption
of your weekly prayer time.
It is also hard to imagine
that people would be willing to tell me
that I could not participate in the Eucharist
since, after all,
religion is such a personal and private thing.
As difficult as it might be to imagine, however,
this is more or less
what is described in our Gospel reading.

Behind Jesus’s teaching in our Gospel
is a picture of human beings and of the Church
that runs somewhat counter to many of the assumptions
of 21st-century American culture.
Whereas we Americans tend to love our freedom—
the idea that we belong to ourselves and no one else—
Jesus seems to be saying that we belong
not first and foremost to ourselves,
but to one another.
St. Paul says in the letter to the Romans,
“Owe nothing to anyone,
except to love one another.”
Yes, I am free;
except that I owe you, all of you, one thing: love.
The one thing I am not free to do
is to withhold my love,
because we are bound together in Christ.
My conflict with Sam
is not simply between him and me
but affects the entire Body of Christ:
if Sam avoids me by declining to participate
in a ministry I am in charge of,
then the Body of Christ
suffers the loss of his ministry;
if he switches parishes rather than confront me,
then our community loses the gifts
that the Spirit has given to Sam.
Sam owes it to me and to all of you
not to leave our conflict unaddressed.
Our freedom is not a freedom from obligation,
but a freedom for love,
even if that love will involve conflict.

the idea that we would bring our conflicts
to the Church to be settled
presumes a different picture of the Church
than most 21st-century Americans have.
The Church that our Gospel envisions
is not simply a place
where I come for personal renewal and strength,
or a large organization
providing spiritual goods and services.
Rather, it is the Body of Christ,
the living sign of God’s reconciling love.
For what we hear proposed in today’s Gospel
to be imaginable
we cannot be a community of strangers or acquaintances,
but must truly know and love one another
as brothers and sisters in Christ.
The Church would have to be
the kind of community that could engender trust,
trust that even so drastic an action
as excluding me from the Eucharist
was done out of love for me
and for the sake of my ultimate salvation,
something intended to bring me to my senses
and heal the communal body.

Let’s be honest: this is not the Church we have.
This is not what the Universal Church is
and this is not what we as a parish are.
The larger structures of the Church
often do not engender our trust,
precisely because they seem more caught up
in bureaucratic self-preservation
than in seeking the lost,
healing the broken,
and reconciling the sinful.
Even here at Corpus Christi,
we often do not seize the opportunity
to come to know each other better,
so that we could trust each other more.
We too often treat our community as, at best,
an hour-long obligation
that we try to fit
into an overly-busy schedule.

My point is not to scold
or to make you feel guilty;
I am as guilty of these things as anyone,
and what we hear in our Gospel
has been an enduring challenge
to the Church and her people
at all times and in all places.
The challenge remains,
but God’s grace is strong.
We are an imperfect Church,
an imperfect parish,
imperfect people,
but we are also filled with God’s Holy Spirit,
and Christ has promised,
“where two or three
are gathered together in my name,
there am I in the midst of them.”
We should be filled with hope,
because Christ is present here,
in word
and in sacrament
and in each other,
healing and transforming us
in great and small ways,
calling us to be a community
of ever greater trust and reconciliation,
making us an ever truer sign
of God’s love for the world.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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

In today’s Gospel we hear the surprising exchange
between Jesus and the Canaanite woman
who asks him to heal her daughter.
What surprises us is Jesus’ seeming reluctance to help the woman
because she is not among the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
At first he ignores her request,
and then he compares her to a dog
who is not worthy to eat the bread of the children of Israel.
The woman does not blink at this insult,
but cleverly turns the tables,
saying that even dogs
get to eat the scraps that fall to the floor.
Jesus then changes his tune—
saying, “O woman, great is your faith!”—
and heals her daughter.

Early Christian and Medieval interpreters of this story
generally thought that Jesus
intended to help the woman all along,
but initially resisted to her request
so that she could show to his disciples
the depth of the faith she possessed.
Writing in the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom said,
“Jesus did not want the great virtue in this woman to be hidden.
He did not speak these words to insult her, but to call her forth,
and to reveal the treasure contained in her”
(Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew 52).
It may come as no surprise to some of you
that I think that the early Christian and Medieval interpreters
are on to something in at least this regard:
Matthew does not offer this story as a learning moment for Jesus
but as a learning moment for his disciples and for us.

The disciples learn through this exchange
that even though Jesus has indeed been sent
“to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,”
God’s gift and call to faith are not restricted
to any one people, any one group.
Even those whom they considered outsiders
could possess great faith—
faith, indeed, greater than their own.
Isaiah prophesied that the foreigners
who love and serve the LORD
would be brought by God to the holy mount Zion,
to offer prayer and sacrifice in God’s Temple,
which “will be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
Jesus initially stresses the woman’s outsider status
only to make more striking the praise he lavishes on her faith:
as if to say that the time of universal reconciliation
foretold by Isaiah
was now arriving in the healing power
available to all through Jesus.

Jesus’ exchange with the woman also teaches us,
who are his disciples today,
that we are to be a community
in which racial, ethnic,
and other human divisions
are overcome and reconciled.
The Church is, as the Second Vatican Council taught,
to be a sacrament—a sign and cause—
of the unity of the human race;
it should be a house of prayer for all peoples.
The nations should be able to look at us and see
what a world reconciled and restored to God looks like.

We do not, unfortunately, need any help to see
what an unreconciled, unrestored world looks like.
We see the attacks on religious minorities in Iraq
by the forces of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS.
We see the other places that have been in the news this week,
in which religious, ethnic, and racial differences
have led to violence:
between Israeli and Palestinian in Gaza,
between black and white in Ferguson Missouri.
And then there are the places
that may have slipped from our sight in recent days:
Afghanistan, Egypt, Central America, Syria, Nigeria, Sudan, Ukraine.
We have seen what occurs when one group of people looks at another
and says, “you are dogs, unworthy of God’s love and healing”
and are blind to the possibility of great faith
in those who are other,
those who are different.
In the midst of this violence, we,
as individuals and as a community,
have been entrusted by Christ
with the ministry of reconciliation.

But what can we do
in the midst of such conflict and division?
How do we begin to exercise our ministry of reconciliation—
we who, ourselves, so often think
in terms of “us” and “them,”
we who, ourselves, often need
so desperately to be reconciled?
Perhaps at least a first step
would be to invite into our hearts through prayer
all those situations of conflict, hatred, and division;
asking God’s peace to descend
not only on those we see as innocent victims
but also on those we see as the sources of conflict and hatred.

Pope Francis has asked that we pray today
for Christians in Iraq
who have been driven from their homes
and in some cases killed.
As many of you have undoubtedly seen in news reports,
the homes of Christians in northern Iraq
have been marked by the ISIS militants
with the Arabic letter nūn,
which stands for Nasara,
which is the term in the Qur’an for Christians,
the followers of Jesus of Nazareth;
and these Christians have been faced
with the choice of converting to Islam
or abandoning their homes and belongings
and fleeing their cities.
Most have chosen to cling to their faith
and abandon everything else.
These people need our prayers,
as do the other persecuted religious minorities in Iraq
who have also been forced to flee their homes,
and face starvation and death.
But for the true seeds of reconciliation
to take root in our hearts,
we must also pray
for the enemies of our fellow Christians in Iraq:
those who seem to have no interest in reconciliation,
those who have committed acts of unspeakable brutality,
those who are most in need of the peace of Christ.
Our hearts must become houses of prayer for all peoples.

But this kind of prayer is hard;
to respond with love in the face of insult and injury
requires faith as great as that of the Canaanite woman.
But it is such faith, such prayer,
that will, by God’s grace, truly mark us as Nasara:
followers of Jesus of Nazareth.

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.