Sunday, March 10, 2019

Lent 1


Readings: Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Roman 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13

Doesn’t it seem like Jesus
makes resisting demonic temptations look easy—
maybe a little too easy?
First, Jesus doesn’t seem at all frightened by the devil.
Luke doesn’t tell us what the devil looked like,
but Jesus seems completely unruffled
by whatever form it is in which the devil appears.
Second, Jesus never seems to be seriously tempted
by the devil’s offers of food, fortune, and fame.
He acts as if he is completely unmoved
by these undeniably desirable things.
Third, Jesus seems to know exactly what to say
in response to the devil’s temptations.
Rejecting the devil’s attempt to engage him,
the appropriate verses of Scripture
come effortlessly to Jesus’ lips
and effectively silence the devil.

To be honest,
were I in that situation,
I can’t imagine it turning out quite the same.
First, I would be terrified
by the sight of the devil,
who I’m pretty sure looks something
like a cross between Godzilla and a giant housefly.
Second, while I might be able to resist
temptations to fortune and fame
(but who am I kidding?),
after forty days in the dessert I’d be hungry
and I’m pretty sure I would turn the rocks
not just into bread
but maybe into a nice juicy cheeseburger.
Third, despite my fear,
I would undoubtedly chat with the devil
at great length,
flattered that such an important entity
saw fit to tempt me.
And if I thought to quote scripture to him
I am pretty sure that it would be
some wildly inappropriate verse
that would occur to me,
like, “You must also make linen pants for them,
to cover their naked flesh
from their loins to their thighs”
or, maybe, “As dogs return to their vomit,
so fools repeat their folly.”
In other words,
I have a hard time relating to Jesus
when it comes to his temptations in the desert.
I don’t think I would find resisting those temptations
as easy as Jesus seems to.
The letter to the Hebrews says that Jesus was
“tempted in every way that we are, yet without sin.”
It’s that “without sin” part that sends me scurrying for excuses.

The easiest excuse, of course,
is that I, unlike Jesus, am not the incarnate Son of God;
I am not the Word who was with God in the beginning;
my human nature is not hypostatically united
to the divine nature.
Clearly Jesus has superpowers that give him
an unfair advantage.
Who could blame me if I,
lacking such powers,
were to succumb to demonic temptation?

But, at least in this case,
the relevant difference between Jesus and me
is not that he is God and I am not.
The difference between Jesus and me
is that he is unafraid to be fully human and I am.
He is unafraid to be hungry,
to be powerless,
to be unknown and unacknowledged by the world,
while I hide from my humanity
and the neediness and fragility that comes with it.
I want to be able to turn stones to bread
to always supply my physical wants.
I want to have power and wealth
to always control the people and things around me.
I want acknowledgement and notoriety from the world
to validate my shaky sense of self-worth.
In facing the devil’s temptations
it is not the divine power that Jesus possesses
that separates me from him,
but rather his embrace of human weakness,
his lack of illusion about what being human entails.

In our first reading, from the book of Deuteronomy,
Moses instructs the people of Israel
to embrace their identity as God’s people
as they present the firstfruits of their harvest at the Temple,
an identity grounded in their need for God.
At the very moment when they might be tempted to think
that they are doing something great for God,
supplying some divine need,
Moses tells them to recite and recall their story:
the story of how God rescued their ancestor from slavery
and gave them the very land that has produced their offering.
He tells them to remember that anything they do for God
is but a pale echo of what God has always already done for them.
He tells them to embrace their humanity in its neediness
even as they offer their gifts to God, saying:
“I have now brought you the firstfruits
of the products of the soil
which you, O LORD, have given me.”

In his letter to the Romans,
Paul too reminds his readers
that their salvation is not something
that they have procured for themselves
but is what God has wrought for them
in raising Jesus from the dead.
He reminds us that it is not
in our possessions or power or popular acclaim
that we find our salvation,
but in calling upon the Lord in our neediness,
in confessing with our lips and believing in our heart
what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.

And we too should remember and recite
all that God has done to bring us through
in our moments of weakness and need,
which, let’s face it, is every moment of our lives.
Lent gives us a season to turn
from our illusions of self-sufficiency,
with which the tempter entices us,
back to the God who supplies our need.
It is a second chance to embrace and love
in all its fragility and poverty
the humanity that God has given us.
It is a second chance to remain hungry,
so that we may be filled by God,
to remain powerless,
so that we may be lifted up by God,
to remain unknown and unacknowledged by the world,
so that we may be known and loved by God.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

4th Sunday of Ordinary Time


Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19; 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13; Luke 4:21-30

I have preached a lot of sermons
on the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
This is, of course, because it is a favorite choice for weddings.
After all, it uses the word “love” eight times.
But how we hear texts can change
depending on the contexts in which we hear them.
Paul’s hymn to love sound different
when sandwiched between our first reading and our Gospel for today,
which deal with the prophetic missions of Jeremiah and Jesus.
What does love look like when we put it in the context
of Jeremiah’s mission to speak a word of judgment against his own people,
or of Jesus’ saying, “no prophet is accepted in his own native place”?
And what does the prophetic call to speak God’s truth look like
when read through the lens of Paul’s hymn to love?

The first thing we might note
is that if we take Jesus and Jeremiah as our models,
there should be no conflict
between words of prophecy and words of love.
Even difficult truths can be spoken out of great love.
Of course, sometimes people claim that they are being prophetic
when actually they are just being jerks.
As Paul writes, “if I have the gift of prophecy,
and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge;
if I have all faith so as to move mountains,
but do not have love, I am nothing.”
Elsewhere Paul writes of “speaking the truth in love.”
You can be right without speaking righteously,
that is, with love.
When we must speak a hard truth
we can wield it as a weapon
with which to wound those
with whom we are in conflict.
Or our words can convey a love
that, as Paul says, “rejoices with the truth.”

Second, when we have spoken the truth in love,
when we have said the hard but necessary
things that need to be said,
we might even so meet opposition
and find our words are rejected.
Do we turn our backs and walk away,
retreating to nurse our bruised egos?
If we have been motivated by love in our speaking,
we will have the persistence of a Jeremiah or a Jesus
in proclaiming the truth, no matter what the cost.
If truth is joined to love in our words,
then God will say to us what God said to Jeremiah:
“They will fight against you but not prevail over you,
for I am with you to deliver you.”
If we look to Jesus
as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,
then we can embrace the cross of rejection
in sure and certain hope of truth’s resurrection.
If our words of truth are spoken in love
we can endure rejection
because, as Paul says, love
“bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.”

Third, even as we speak the truth
with love and persistence,
we should take to heart Paul’s words:
“we know partially and we prophesy partially…
At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror.”
Jesus was God’s Word incarnate;
he saw truth not indistinctly, but face to face;
he knew his Father even as he was known.
His words were perfect in love
and, therefore, perfect in truth.
But, not to put too fine a point on it,
last time I checked, none of you is Jesus.
And, just to be clear, neither am I.
Neither you nor I have a pure intuition of the truth;
neither you nor I can peer into the human heart.
Because we know in part and prophesy in part
we must speak the truth we know
with a certain humility,
a certain willingness to listen,
seeking to hear in the words of others
that part of the truth that our words lack.
So while holding fast to the truth we have seen,
to the wisdom we have been given,
we must speak that truth with a love that
is not pompous,
is not inflated,
is not rude.
In this life, even for a saint,
it will be through our love,
not through our knowledge,
that we will be most like Christ.

So we must proclaim the truth
with love,
with persistence,
and with a measure of humility.
Paul’s hymn to love should guide us
when we need to speak a difficult truth
to a family member or a friend.
We must walk a narrow path
in speaking with both love and firmness,
in being persistent while acknowledging
that we do not speak with full knowledge,
in being open to revising our estimate of the situation
without being a pushover or letting ourselves be manipulated.
Likewise, in our public discourse,
these days there is not a lot of truth being spoken in love.
In some cases, of course, the issue is a failure to be truthful.
But even when truth is spoken,
we should ask: is it being spoken in love
or is it being spoken in a way that is dismissive and destructive;
is it spoken with contempt for the stupidity of our opponents?
Both in our personal and in our public lives
we need to examine our consciences and ask,
“am I speaking the truth in love”?

Even once we have examined our consciences
the challenges of speaking the truth with love remain.
How do you speak with love when confronting someone
about an addiction or an unhealthy relationship?
How do you share the wisdom you have found
without being overbearing or coercive?
How do you denounce injustice or express righteous anger
without demonizing those who disagree?

In the face of these challenges,
we should take comfort in the words of Paul:
“love never fails.”
For the love that never fails
is not our faltering human love,
but God’s love,
the love that is God’s gift to us in Jesus,
poured into our hearts through God’s Spirit.
Let us allow that love that never fails
to grow ever stronger in us,
so that love’s truth may be proclaimed
in our words and in our deeds.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Baptism of the Lord


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

Today’s celebration
of the Baptism of Jesus as a young man,
just a much as last week’s celebration
of the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus,
is the celebration of an “epiphany,”
a “manifestation,”
an event that shows forth and reveals
the identity of Jesus as God’s anointed,
the beloved Son with whom God is well-pleased.
Indeed, the Baptism of Jesus is a manifestation
not only of the identity of Jesus as God’s beloved,
but also of the mystery of the Trinity:
Jesus the eternal Son, born now in time,
upon who the Father sends the Holy Spirit
as he begins his time of public ministry.
The infinite, timeless dance of love that is God
shows itself in this particular historical moment,
and from this moment flows forth all that would follow:
Jesus’ proclamation of God’s reign,
the saving sacrifice of his passion and death,
the new dawn of his life-giving resurrection and ascension.

In our own baptisms,
we become sharers in this epiphany.
The sacrament of baptism is an epiphany of grace;
it shows the reality of God’s love
in a way that makes that love present
in this historical moment,
making us a new creation in Christ.
We become by grace what Jesus is by nature:
to everyone who rises from the waters of baptism God says,
“This is my beloved son.”
“This is my beloved daughter.”
Through baptism we share in the identity of Jesus
and become a part of that infinite, timeless love that is God.

But what does this really mean?
What does it actually look like
to become by grace what Jesus is by nature,
to live as a son or daughter of God?
I would suggest that to be baptized into Christ
is to be invited to live out the drama of our lives
against the backdrop of an infinite horizon.
We humans can be tempted to constrain our lives
within the comfortable confines of the knowable,
to find meaning in what we at least think we have in our control:
a career or a family,
an ethnic identity or a political ideology,
accumulated honors or achievements.
But to be baptized into Christ is to be called
beyond a life that we can control
into the wild adventure of the reign of God,
into the dizzying world-turned-upside-down
that bursts into our ordinary lives through faith in Jesus.
To be baptized into Christ is
to live within the mystery of God,
the infinite, timeless dance of love
that is the source of all life.

To put it another way,
we who have been baptized into Christ have become,
as St. Paul puts it in our second reading,
“heirs in hope to eternal life.”
If we Christians fail as Christians,
it is in hoping for too little.
We might think of the baptism of Jesus
not just as the epiphany of his divine identity
but as the epiphany of hope,
for through it we are invited to an infinite hope,
a hope for nothing less than everything.
As St. Paul wrote to the Christians of Corinth,
“everything belongs to you… the world or life or death,
or the present or the future: all belong to you,
and you to Christ, and Christ to God” (1 Cor. 3:21-23).
This hope for everything
is planted in the hearts of all who surrender
the controllable hopes that they have for lesser things.
It is not a hope only for the strong or the wise,
for the rich or the powerful,
but for each and every life newborn in Christ,
no matter how young or how old,
how famous or how obscure,
how blessed with joys or how afflicted with sorrow.
Each is a life of infinite value,
the life of a son or daughter of God,
a life that counts in the eyes of God.

To we who have been baptized God says,
hope for everything.
Hope for the reign of God to be made real in you
and live a life that risks radical love;
hope to know the saving passion of Jesus in your own life
and grow in compassion for all who suffer;
hope to know the new creation that triumphs in Christ’s resurrection
and live fearlessly in the face of opposition and misunderstanding;
hope that the you may one day join your voice
to the hymn of all creation,
and praise without ceasing the eternal love
in which we live and move and have our being.
For everything is yours,
and you are Christ’s,
and Christ is God’s.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Advent 4


Readings: Micah 5:1-4a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45

Mary comes to Elizabeth
with a new world in her womb.
Of course, every child who is born
brings with it a new world,
for every person who enters our world changes it:
relationships are reconfigured,
a unique perspective is introduced,
history is set on a new trajectory.

But in the case of Mary,
the new world in her womb is something
even more radically new:
a world in which the mighty are cast from their thrones
and the lowly are lifted up,
a world in which the hungry are filled with good things
and the rich are sent away empty,
a world in which God and humanity are united
and heaven joined to earth.

Mary comes to Elizabeth with Jesus in her womb,
the new creation that God had wrought
in the midst of the old creation,
the new world of blessing
in the old world of curse,
the new world of mercy
in the old world of judgment,
the new world of peace
in the old world of violence.

Within the womb of his mother Elizabeth,
John the Baptist, the last prophet of the old covenant,
he who stands at its edge
and looks into the new world that is coming,
leaps with joy at the new thing God has wrought:
curse usurped by blessing,
judgment passing into mercy,
swords beaten into ploughshares,
heaven wed to earth in the person of Jesus.
For Mary does not bear blessing, mercy, and peace
in her womb as abstract concepts,
but as a person.
The new world that Mary carries in her womb
is not an idea, an ideal, or an ideology,
but Jesus himself.
Jesus is the new creation;
in him the reign of God takes flesh.
He comes not to give us new information about God
but to dwell among us as Emmanuel, God with us.
He comes not to give us a new set of moral rules
but to display in his living and dying and rising
the contours of new life in the reign of God.

Mary visits her kinswoman Elizabeth
with this new world in her womb.
And we are invited to share
in Mary’s ministry of visitation.
As St. Ambrose put it,
“Christ had only one mother in the flesh,
but we all bring forth Christ in faith.”
Just as Mary brought joy to Elizabeth and John
through the new creation that she bore within her,
we too are called to bring joy to a world that waits
for blessing, mercy, and peace.
Through the gift of faith, we too
bear glad tidings of the new creation:
the world of the mighty cast down
and the lowly lifted up,
the world of the hungry filled
and the rich left empty,
the world of heaven joined to earth
and God made flesh.
And this privilege that we share with Mary,
the privilege of bearing Christ to the world,
should be for us a cause of great joy.

But we have even greater cause for joy
for the mystery here is even greater.
We do not simply bring news of the new creation,
but we are that new creation.
St. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth,
“if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:
everything old has passed away;
see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17).
Through faith and Baptism
we have become members of Christ’s body,
members of that new creation
that Mary bore in her womb.
This means that we, like Jesus,
do not present the waiting world
with an idea or an ideal or an ideology;
we offer no new information or rules of conduct;
we present no comprehensive plan for peace.
Rather, we reveal through our being together in Christ,
in our living and dying and rising together in Christ,
the contours of the new world
waiting to be born in its fullness
but already present in mystery,
present when we gather as Christ’s body
to hear his word and celebrate his Eucharist,
to worship in Jesus’ name
and serve him in the stranger and the hungry one,
those who are sick and those imprisoned.

But until the return of Christ
the presence of the new creation
remains a hidden presence,
veiled in sacrament and mystery,
hidden within our imperfect worship
and our stumbling attempts at serving,
hidden like the child within Mary’s womb.
The new world born in Christ in Bethlehem
still awaits its birth in us
because Christ is not yet fully formed in us.
The old creation continues within us its life
of curse and judgment and violence,
but in Jesus the victory of the new world is certain.
We feel in ourselves still
the sorrows of the old creation,
but, with the eyes of faith,
we know these now
as the birth pangs of the new creation,
the pain of old things passing
and everything becoming new.

In these final days of Advent waiting,
let us not grow drowsy,
intoxicated by the anxieties of daily life,
mired in the sorrows of the old creation,
but let us yearn more eagerly
for Christ to be formed in us,
for the new world to be brought forth in joy,
for the full unveiling of the new creation.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Advent 1


Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2; Luke 21:25-28, 34-36

In our Gospel reading today,
Jesus warns his followers not to let their hearts
“become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness
and the anxieties of daily life,”
so that the day of judgment not
“catch you by surprise like a trap.”
Now this is an interesting trio:
carousing, drunkenness, and daily anxiety.
While the temptation posed
by carousing and drunkenness
might seem obvious,
it is at first glance hard to imagine
being tempted by the anxieties of daily life.
While someone might say to us,
“hey, let’s go out carousing tonight and get drunk”
(it is, after all, the season of office Christmas parties),
you rarely hear someone say,
“hey, let’s hangout this evening and fret over our lives.”
Jesus seems to suggest, however, that it is
not only late-night partying and drunken revelry
that can make us inattentive
to the dawning of God’s kingdom in our world,
but also our anxious concern over all the things
that seem to demand our immediate attention,
the things we think of as making up
the fabric of our lives.
Anxiety can be intoxicating.

Though we might acknowledge
carousing and drunkenness as vices,
we can be tempted to think
of the anxieties of daily life as a sign of virtue.
I don’t mean the anxiety that some people
suffer as a psychological affliction,
over which they have no control
and from which they pray to be freed.
I mean the kind of anxiety
that we cultivate as a sign
that we are serious people
who have serious obligations
and who take our obligations seriously,
that we are important people,
who have been entrusted with important tasks
that will simply not get done if we do not do them,
that we are complex people whose complex lives
require constant attention
if they are not to come crashing down.
To be consumed with anxiety about our lives
can be a way of signaling to others and to ourselves
just how virtuous we are.
Our daily anxieties can become as intoxicating
as carousing and drunkenness,
like a drug that dulls our awareness that,
at the end of our days,
there is only one thing that matters:
the reign of God that is made present to us
in Jesus Christ.

It is noteworthy that the Greek word
translated here as “anxieties” (merimnais)
also occurs in Luke’s Gospel
when Jesus visits the home
of Mary and Martha of Bethany.
Martha, bustling about tending
to the practical needs of their guests,
asks Jesus to scold her sister Mary,
who sits at Jesus’ feet, listening to his words.
Jesus says to her, “Martha, Martha,
you are anxious and worried about many things.
There is need of only one thing.
Mary has chosen the better part
and it will not be taken from her” (10:41-42).
Martha is clearly not someone prone
to carousing and drunkenness;
she is a serious and important person
with a complicated and busy life.
But her anxiety over many things
makes her blind to the one thing necessary:
to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to his words.

Just as Jesus gently chides Martha,
so too he warns us today
about being anxious and worried
over the myriad tasks and obligations
that we have taken on or that have befallen us
and missing the one thing necessary,
the one thing truly worthy of our concern:
to look constantly for the appearing of Christ our judge.
Just as Mary of Bethany made the presence of Jesus
the sole object of her concern,
so too we should “be vigilant at all times”
and pray that we will have the strength
“to stand before the Son of Man”
in the day of final judgment.
There is nothing like keeping
the end of the world before your eyes
to focus the mind on what is really essential,
on the one thing necessary.

But the Advent season is not just about
anticipating Jesus’s return at the end of history.
It is about looking for the appearance
of Jesus in our daily lives,
those lives that are the object of our anxiety.
We, like Martha, can let anxiety over many things
dull our awareness to the one thing necessary
that is right here among us,
in the midst of our daily tasks:
in the words of Scripture in our ears,
in the sacrament of the Eucharist in our mouths,
in the poor and the needy in our world.

Our culture’s way of celebrating the Winter holidays
not only increases carousing and drunkenness,
but it also increases the anxieties of daily life:
we shop for a long list of perfect gifts
as we worry about a dwindling bank account;
we prepare for a visit to family members
by anxiously comparing our achievements to theirs
and fondly revisiting old hurts and grudges;
we scramble to finish papers for school
or projects for work
so that we can spend an anxious holiday
fretting about upcoming tasks that await us.
In the midst of all of this
it is difficult to practice the Advent waiting
to which God calls us in these days.
But it is precisely in keeping Advent as a season
of attentive waiting for the appearance of Jesus in our lives,
that we can awaken from the drowsiness of daily anxieties.
To make time to reflect on God’s word in Scripture,
to be more intentional about our participation in the Eucharist,
to seek the face of Jesus in the poor and the outcast—
these might seem like just more tasks
added to our already anxious lives,
but they are the one thing necessary:
they are what will wake us
from anxiety’s intoxication,
they are what will give us life,
they are what, as St. Paul says,
will make us “increase and abound
in love for one another and for all.”

Sunday, November 18, 2018

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Daniel 12:1-3; Hebrews 10:1-14, 18; Mark 13:24-32

Every November, as we approach Advent,
our Scripture readings take an apocalyptic turn,
pointing us to a last day of terrifying judgment.
The prophet Daniel speaks of a coming time,
“unsurpassed in distress,”
when “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth
shall awaken” to divine judgment.
The letter to the Hebrews speaks of Christ,
our high priest seated at God’s right hand,
awaiting the day when
“his enemies are made his footstool.”
And Jesus in the Gospel speaks
of a time of tribulation and the days that follow,
when “the sun will be darkened
and the moon will not give its light
and the stars will be falling from the sky,
and the powers in the heaven will be shaken.”
On that day, people will be gathered,
from east and west, north and south,
to stand before the judgment seat of the Son of Man.

We hear these and similar warnings each year at this time,
foretelling a collapse of the world as we know it
and a judgment by which our lives shall be measured.
But we have perhaps heard these and similar words so often
that their sharp edge has grown dull,
worn down by endless repetition
of warnings of a day that seems never to come,
an apocalypse that seems never to arrive.
Despite the dire warnings issued each November
the world seems to go on its way as usual.

But perhaps these words should not simply
direct our attention to a future time of judgment—
about which, Jesus tells us,
no one knows the day or the hour—
but to our own lives now,
to what we might call the ordinary apocalypses
by which the fragility of our lives is unveiled.
Most of us, I would dare to say,
know the experience of having our world collapse
and of finding our lives measured by circumstances
and, seemingly, found wanting.
Perhaps I experience a professional disappointment
and the plans I had developed for my life
crumble in my hands.
Perhaps I lose a person whom I love,
through physical death or the death of a relationship,
and the one who served as a pillar of my world
is suddenly gone
and the ground trembles beneath my feet.
Perhaps I look at my efforts
to build a more just, kind, peaceful world
and see a world grown only ever more
unjust, cruel, and brutal
and my dreams of a better future
fall like the stars from the heavens.
This is the daily apocalypse of my life:
my world collapses
and my dreams and my desires,
my loves and my labors,
seem suddenly paltry and fragile and even foolish.

The 14th-century mystic Julian of Norwich
writes of a vision she received
in which she saw in the palm of her hand
a small object, about the size of a hazelnut,
and heard a voice that told her
that this was everything that God had made.
She saw the entire universe
as something tiny, something fragile,
when measured by the infinite power
and eternity of God,
and she wondered how it could ever last.
And the voice said to her,
“It lasts, and ever shall last, because God loves it.”
She writes, “we need to know the littleness of creatures
and to see the nothingness of everything that is created,
in order to love and have God, who is uncreated.”
If we pour ourselves into this fragile world—
investing our worldly dreams and desires,
our loves and labors,
with ultimate significance—
then we will be crushed when they inevitably collapse.
Julian writes, “this is reason why we are not at ease
in our heart and soul:
we seek rest here in those things that are so little,
where there is no rest,
and know not our God
who is all-powerful,
all-wise,
all-good.”
God allows Julian to see that creation is nothing,
apart from the love by which God sustains it.
But God also allows her to see
in the fragility of creation,
in the fragility of human hope,
the love of God shining through.
In the midst of a world that is perpetually passing away,
the power, wisdom, and goodness of God remains,
offering hope that everything in our life
that we love for the sake of God
will not be lost but will return to us
in Christ’s kingdom of love.
God gives Julian the insight that our world—
the world of our dreams and desires,
our loves and labors—
is both fragile and finite,
and yet sustained at every moment
by the infinite love of God.
And to live in this world
we must place our hope in that love.
As Martin Luther King Jr. put it,
the answer to a life of shattered dreams,
“lies in developing the capacity
to accept the finite disappointment
and yet cling to the infinite hope.”

In Scripture, apocalyptic warning
is ultimately a message of infinite hope.
Jesus promises us today,
“heaven and earth will pass away,
but my words will not pass away.”
In the midst of a world
where our dreams and our desires,
our loves and our labors,
crumble around us,
where the light of love is darkened
and the stars of hope fall from our skies
we are invited to rest in Jesus’ words:
in his promise of victory over death,
in his promise of a world of justice and peace,
in his promise of love that endures.
And resting in those words,
sustained by the power, wisdom, and goodness
that knows neither limit nor change,
we rise again from the death of disappointment,
to dream and desire and love and labor once again,
as we journey on toward the fullness of God’s kingdom.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Deuteronomy 6:2-6; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 12:28b-34

A little over a week after the murder
by an anti-Semitic white nationalist
of eleven worshippers
at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh,
our scriptures remind us
of how much we Christians owe
to the Jewish people,
whom Pope John Paul II called
our elder brothers and sisters
in the faith of Abraham.
In our first reading,
from the Book of Deuteronomy,
we hear the words of the Shema,
which has been described
as the closest thing Judaism has to a creed:
Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad
“Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God; the Lord is one!”
And if God is one,
then we must love this God not half-heartedly,
but with every fiber of our being:
“Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your strength.”
The one God demands of people
a single-hearted love.
Devout Jews recite the Shema each day
as part of their morning and evening prayers
to remind themselves of who God is
and who they are called to be.
The rabbis called the act of reciting the Shema
“receiving the yoke
of the kingdom of heaven.” (Berakhot Mishnah 2:5);
to say these words is to commit oneself
to the joyful task of bearing the burden
of faith in the one God.

In today’s Gospel reading,
the words of the Shema are quoted by Jesus
in response to the scribe’s question,
“Which is the first of all the commandments?”
We can presume that Jesus, as a devout Jew,
had these words on his lips twice daily,
so he probably did not have to ponder too long
as to what was the first and greatest commandment.
And he probably did have to ponder too long
before adding as the second commandment
words from the book of Leviticus:
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
For this too is fundamental to Judaism:
love of God and love of neighbor—
the first and second tables of the Law—
are inextricably linked.
Jesus bore within himself the faith of Israel,
and as members of his body
we too bear this faith,
we too receive the joyful yoke
of the kingdom of heaven.

I do not want to minimize the theological differences
between Christians and Jews.
Christians, for example, interpret the Oneness of God
that the Shema proclaims
in such a way as to include the divine Threeness
of Father, Son, and Spirit—
a notion that Jews generally find odd, to say the least.
And, as we hear today in the Letter to the Hebrews,
Christians ascribe to Jesus an eternal priesthood,
seeing in his death and resurrection
the source of the world’s salvation,
another notion that Jews find odd, to say the least.
But our honest acknowledgement of such differences
must not blind us to what we share:
faith in the one God, who is the God of all peoples,
the command to love this God with undivided love,
and the knowledge that love of God calls us
to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
We too must each day and night
take up the yoke of the kingdom of heaven.

The murders at the Tree of Life synagogue
were not only a human horror,
but did violence to our common faith.
This act assaulted the idea that God is one God,
caring and providing for everyone on earth.
It trampled on the idea of single-hearted love of God
by desecrating the sabbath worship of God’s people.
It slaughtered the command to love our neighbor
as we love ourselves.
It shattered the yoke of the kingdom of God.

How do we respond to such violence and hatred?
Not with our own retaliatory hatred,
but with the love that the Shema commands,
and with a renewed commitment to this common faith.
This violence can only be repaired by God,
but we remind ourselves day and night
of this God, to whom we owe single-hearted love,
and of the neighbor whom we love for the sake of this God.
We should recite these words
before reading the news or casting a vote;
we should teach these words to our children,
until they are written on their hearts;
we should constantly ask ourselves
what our lives ought to look like
if we truly love the one God with all our heart
and with all our soul
and with all our strength,
and if we truly love our neighbor as ourselves.
If we take upon our shoulders
the joyful yoke of this common faith,
perhaps Jesus will say to us
what he said to the scribe:
“You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Wisdom 7:7-11; Hebrews 4:12-13; Mark 10:17-30

If Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel
do not make most of us profoundly uncomfortable
then we are not really paying attention.
“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Maybe we are not paying attention to the words themselves
or maybe we are not paying attention to our own lives.
Even with our genuine struggles
trying to pay tuitions or credit card debt
or a mortgage or medical bills,
we citizens of the modern developed world
still live in a material abundance
that surpasses the richest person of Jesus’ day
and most people alive in our own day.
“How hard it is for those who have wealth
to enter the kingdom of God.”
As the Letter to the Hebrews says,
“the word of God…is sharper than any two-edged sword…
everything is naked and exposed to the eyes
of him to whom we must render an account.”
If we are not squirming,
if we are not feeling God’s word
penetrating to the deepest thoughts of our hearts,
then we are not paying attention.

But Jesus is not, I think, simply trying to make us feel guilty—
though exploiting the motivating power of guilt
is a fine Catholic tradition that I, as a parent, approve of.
Nor is he saying that our prosperity is somehow in itself evil.
Jesus’ concern for the rich man who asks him,
“what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
is not simply that he make himself poor.
The key to understanding Jesus’ words to the rich man is not
“Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor”
but what follows: “then come, follow me.”
Like Solomon in our first reading,
Jesus calls the rich man to give up what he has
in order to gain something far more valuable,
the heavenly treasure of wisdom.
Jesus, divine wisdom made flesh,
calls him to give up everything that holds him back
from being his disciple,
everything that holds him back
from following in the way of wisdom,
which is Jesus’ way of cross and resurrection.
The act of giving his wealth to the poor
is simply the prelude to following Jesus.

It is true that it is often our material possessions
that hold us back,
the things that we accumulate
and on which we stake our happiness,
which form a wall around us
to protect us from God and from other people.
But that protective wall
can be built of other, less tangible, things as well:
our self-image,
our reputation,
our ideologies,
our compulsions and our addictions.
These are all burdens that Jesus calls us to give up
in order to be free to follow him on the path of discipleship.
But can we answer this call?
Can we become free enough to follow Jesus' way?
We are, after all, just ordinary people.

Today in Rome, in the solemn rite of canonization,
the Church declared Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador,
who was killed by a government death squad
while celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980,
to be a saint.
When he became bishop of San Salvador in 1977
Romero was seen
by both the government and the Church
as an ordinary bishop, a “safe” bishop:
one who was traditional in his theology
and unwilling to interfere in politics,
one who would not cause trouble.
But when priests who worked among the poor
and advocated for their rights
began turning up dead,
killed by government-sponsored death squads,
Romero’s eyes were opened
to the plight of the poor in his country,
and he began speaking out against government repression.
The day before he was killed,
he made a direct appeal to the soldiers in the military:
“No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God.
No one has to obey an immoral law.
It is high time you recovered your consciences
and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order…
In the name of God,
in the name of this suffering people
whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day,
I implore you,
I beg you,
I order you in the name of God:
stop the repression.”

Like the rich man in today’s Gospel,
Oscar Romero heard the call of Jesus to give up everything—
the favor of Church and State,
his previous ideas of what it meant to be a bishop,
and ultimately even his life—
in order to learn true wisdom
by following Jesus on the way of the cross.
His example pleads with us,
just as he pleaded with the soldiers of El Salvador,
to value the wisdom of God above all else,
to let the two-edged sword of God’s word
probe our consciences,
to listen to the voice of God
and be willing to surrender everything for the sake of God.

Oscar Romero was an ordinary man,
someone who, like us, lived behind protective walls
of money and power,
of ideology and self-image,
of reputation and prestige.
But Jesus called him forth from that ordinary life
and stripped him of every worldly protection
and placed him amidst the demonic powers of hatred and greed
with nothing except the love of God to clothe him,
nothing but the cross of Christ to shelter him.
God made this ordinary man a saint
by teaching him the wisdom of the cross.
And God will make us saints as well,
if we are willing to practice the daily discipline
of paying attention to Jesus’ call
to come follow him,
of paying attention to our lives
and all that holds us back from answering that call,
of opening ourselves to the grace
that can transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.
Saint Oscar Romero,
pray for us.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

A Wedding Homily


Readings: Genesis 2:18-24; 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:8a; Matthew 5:13-16

I take it to be a fairly uncontroversial remark—
indeed, maybe one of the few uncontroversial remarks
one can make these days—
to say that we live in a divided world.
At this historical moment,
more than at any other point in my life that I can remember,
our world seems to be pulling apart
along the lines of different political ideologies,
different races,
different economic classes,
different worldviews.
And while some seem to revel in those divisions,
seemingly intent on making them deeper,
most of us, whatever side we find ourselves on,
feel the pain of those divisions
which often cut through families and friendships,
churches and neighborhoods.
The rhetoric gets louder
and the arguments get uglier,
and our ability to find good
in those with whom we disagree
diminishes daily.

And in the midst of this division
we have come here today to celebrate unity.
We have come to celebrate the uniting of S--- and R---
in the covenant of marriage.
We have come to celebrate as well
the uniting of the D--- and J--- families.
We have gathered people from different places
into this place, this house of God,
people who undoubtedly have different political philosophies
and conflicting worldviews,
who differ on question of economics and immigration
and constitutional interpretation,
in order to celebrate the union of S--- and R---
as they speak their vows to each other
and become for each other, as the book of Genesis says,
“flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone.”
And what has drawn all of us here together is love:
the love that each of you has for S--- and R---,
and the love that they have for each other,
love that they consecrate to God on this day.

This is the love that is God’s gift,
the love of which St. Paul speaks in our second reading,
love that does not seek its own interest,
that is not quick-tempered,
that rejoices in truth.
This is the love that in our divided world
seeks to heal the wounds of division
by bearing all thing, believing all things,
hoping all things, enduring all things.
This is the love that makes the followers of Jesus
a light for the world,
shining so that people can see the path
to God’s kingdom of peace and unity.
This is the same love that will unite R--- and S--- in marriage.

In the Catholic tradition we believe marriage to be a sacrament.
This means not only that it is a source of grace to those who share in it,
but also that it is a sacred sign,
something visible and tangible that shows forth God’s love.

S--- and R---, in entering into holy matrimony,
you not only receive God’s sacramental grace,
but you become yourselves a sacred sign.
Becoming one flesh through the love you vow to each other
you are a sign of unity in our divided world.
When you hold tightly to each other for better and for worse,
through celebrations and successes,
through disagreements and disasters,
you show forth the unifying power of God’s love.
For those wounded by the world’s divisions
you can become, with the help of God’s grace,
a light that makes visible
the love that bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, and endures all things.

Our prayer for you this day
is also our prayer for our world:
that God’s grace will bless you abundantly
with love that overflows
into the lives of all you meet,
bringing peace and healing and unity.
We pray that you become in your life together
a sacred sign of the power of God to heal all division.
May God bless you on this day
and on every day of your life together.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Isaiah 35:4-7a; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37

Though we might think of Jesus’s healing
of the deaf man with a speech impediment
as simply one more of his miracles,
Christian have traditionally found a deeper,
more universal significance to this story,
seeing in the man’s deafness
a symbol of our human resistance
to receiving the good news of Jesus,
seeing in the man’s muteness
a symbol of all that holds us back
from proclaiming that good news to others.
We are the ones who are deaf and mute:
our ears shut to the Gospel that promises life,
our lips sealed to the truth we are called to profess.
We are the ones to whom Jesus speaks the word,
Ephphatha—be opened.

This is true of each us in our individual lives.
Why are we so deaf to the voice of God,
particularly when God’s calls
from unexpected quarters,
asking of us unexpected things?
We might be deaf to the voice of God
because the ears of our hearts
have grown dull to the subtle tones
with which God often speaks to us,
the quite whisper that is the breath of the Spirit.
We might be deaf to the voice of God
because we fear that if we hear and answer
we may have to change,
we may have to turn our lives
around and upside down
in order to follow Jesus
on the path of cross and resurrection.
We might be deaf to the voice of God
because our ears are so full of other voices,
voices that tell us that our main job
is to “look out for number one,”
voices that tell us that we should curry favor
with the rich and the powerful,
voices that tell us to be realistic
and that it is not true
that God can make a way
out of no way.

Why are we so mute when it comes
to speaking the truth of God?
Even if our ears have been opened
to hear the good news,
and it has taken root in our hearts,
when it comes to sharing that good news
we often censor ourselves out of fear:
fear of offending others,
or perhaps fear of losing their approval.
Why are we so mute when it comes
to speaking the truth about ourselves,
admitting our fears and failings?
I feel this muteness in myself
when I find myself avoiding
the sacrament of reconciliation,
knowing that confessing my sins
before another human being
will not simply be embarrassing
(mainly because my sins
are so mediocre and petty),
but also that it will force me
to face my true self
and open me to the radical possibilities
of God’s love.

To our deafness and muteness
Jesus says, Ephphatha—be opened.
Open your heart to receive the Gospel,
even if it will turn your life upside down;
open your lips to proclaim the truth,
even if you find it embarrassing,
open the very depths of your being
to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

This deafness and muteness is found
not simply in our individual lives as Christians,
but in our life together as a Church.
As we have again been reminded,
the Church can be resistant
to hearing the good news,
to welcoming the truth when it appears
in unexpected quarters:
in newspapers and grand jury reports,
on the lips of the abused and their families.
We as a Church can close our ears,
make ourselves deaf,
fearfully refusing the truth,
as if Jesus had not told us
that he himself is truth,
and that truth is the path to life.

We as a Church can also make ourselves mute.
We can refuse to speak the truth about the past,
locking it away in secret archives
and non-disclosure agreements.
And in doing so, we make ourselves
incapable of speaking the truth of the Gospel,
because, while we might loudly proclaim “Lord, Lord,”
the words we speak are mute in their hypocrisy.
Even Pope Francis,
who has been such an eloquent witness to Jesus,
has now muzzled his proclamation of the Gospel
by his refusal to address the accusation
that he overlooked the past abuses of Cardinal McCarrick.
There are certainly times to be silent in the face of accusation.
This is not one of those times.
In these times, a refusal to speak
cannot help but arouse the suspicion
that something is being hidden.

And to the deafness and muteness
of bishops and cardinals and Popes,
to the deafness and muteness
of the whole People of God,
Jesus says Ephphatha—be opened.
To hearts closed
to the transforming grace of the Spirit,
Jesus says, be opened!
To ears closed
to the voices of victims,
Jesus says, be opened!
To minds closed
to new ways of envisioning our life together,
Jesus says, be opened!
To sealed archives
and hidden histories,
to buried stories
and secret sins,
Jesus says, be opened!
Be opened, and let the light of Christ
come streaming in.
Be opened, and let the word of God
go streaming forth.
Be opened, for your God,
comes with vindication;
with divine recompense
he comes to save you.