Sunday, December 22, 2013

Advent 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Advent 2

Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12

“On that day, a shoot shall sprout
from the stump of Jesse…”
On that day.
On what day?
Even leaving aside the question of who Jesse is
(he’s King David’s father, by the way),
it would certainly be helpful to know when it is
that this mysterious descendant of Jesse will appear:
this one upon whom the Spirit of God will rest,
this one who will judge the poor with justice
and decide aright for the land’s afflicted,
this one who will be girded with justice and faithfulness,
who with his words will strike those without mercy.
When is “that day” when the wolf shall be the guest of the lamb
and the lion shall eat hay like the ox
and the knowledge of God will flood the world?
The prophet Isaiah doesn’t tell us;
he simply says that “on that day”
the root of Jesse will be set up as a sign for the nations,
so as to draw all people into God’s kingdom.

Matthew, the author of our Gospel reading,
believes he knows when “that day” occurs.
He tells us that “in those days”
John the Baptist appeared
preaching that God’s kingdom was at hand.

“In those days.”
The phrase in Matthew’s Greek is almost identical
to the ancient Greek translation of the book of Isaiah
that Matthew would have known.
That day that the world has been waiting for?
That day of justice and mercy and peace
when the wolf will be the guest of the lamb?
That day when the earth shall be filled
with the knowledge of the Lord?
John the Baptist appeared two thousand years ago
saying that this is that day.
John arrived to tell us to prepare the way of the Lord
by producing good fruit as evidence of our change of heart,
because the one sprung from the stump of Jesse
was about to appear with his winnowing fan in his hand,
to gather the wheat and to burn the chaff,
to judge the poor with justice
and to strike the ruthless with his words.
With the appearance of Jesus we can truly say
that this is that day.

So, was John wrong?
As far as I can tell,
the poor are still often unjustly judged
and the ruthless seem often to go unrebuked.
Knowledge of the Lord does not seem
to be in particularly abundant supply
and I don’t see wolves and lambs
spending much quality time together.

Indeed, Jesus, the Lamb of God,
himself fell prey to the human wolves
who tore his flesh and hung him on a cross.
The shoot who sprang from the root of Jesse,
the one upon whom God’s Sprit rested
with the fullness of her gifts,
was himself cut down and cast into the fire of death.

So perhaps we still await that day of which Isaiah spoke.

Yet our faith tells us that John the Baptist was right.
The Lamb who was slain has been raised
and reigns gloriously,
not simply at God’s right hand in heaven,
but even now within the hearts of his disciples.
That day is truly this day
when, as Paul says in our second reading,
Christ’s followers think in harmony with one another
and with one voice glorify God;
when they welcome one another
even as they have been welcomed by Christ.

But on this day, the transformed world spoken of by Isaiah
is present to us primarily in sign and mystery.
We sense it when we welcome a child
through the waters of baptism,
or when we gather at the altar to glorify God
and to be fed by Christ the Lamb.
We feel it when people respond to tragedy with generosity
or when a leader acts, not in his or her own interest,
but in the interest of justice and mercy.
But these are only signs, only glimpses,
and it takes faith to read these signs,
to know that this day really is
that day of God’s great triumph.

So in Advent we wait.
We wait for the feast of Christmas
when we celebrate that day
when Jesus Christ was born,
the great sign to the world
of the mysterious real presence
of God’s kingdom of love among us.
But we also wait for that day,
the day when God’s kingdom
will be present to us
no longer in sign and mystery,
no longer dimly perceived,
but in the clear and certain light
that flows from the Christ the Lamb,
filling with earth with the knowledge of the Lord
as water covers the sea.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14; 2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5; Luke 20:27-38

I have a confession to make:
When it comes to life after death
I am something of a Sadducee.
The idea that death is not simply the end
sometimes strikes me as just a bit too good to be true.
God has blessed me with a family that loves me,
meaningful work to do,
a Church community that challenges and supports me,
and I sometimes think that that would be enough,
that eternal life is sort of gilding the lily,
and that if my death were definitively the end of me
I would still believe that God is good;
I would still thank God
for all the blessings of this life.
So I am, at least by disposition if not belief,
not unlike the Sadducees in today’s Gospel
who look for their rewards
in the blessings of this life.

Of course, when you find yourself
identifying with Jesus’s opponents
it is usually a sign
that you have gotten into theological trouble,
so we should reflect a bit more
on the Sadducees and their disbelief.
The ancient historian Josephus notes
that the Sadducees were a group within Judaism
who had their support primarily among the rich.
I suppose this makes a kind of sense:
enjoying in this life what they take to be
their just deserts from the God whom they serve,
they hold to the ancient Israelite belief
that God justly rewards people
for the good they have done in this life
with blessings bestowed in this life.

But what about those
who do not receive blessings in this life?
What about those who faithfully serve God
and, like the seven brothers in our first reading,
receive as their recompense torment and torture
at the hands of a tyrant?
What about those who seek to do God’s will
and end up abandoned and alone?
What about those who, through no fault of their own,
lead lives filled, not with blessing,
but with disappointed dreams?
If our hope is only in this life
then it becomes difficult to believe
in a God who is either just or good;
if we allow ourselves to remember
all of the kindnesses that have gone unrewarded,
all of the injustices that have gone uncorrected,
all of the sufferings that have gone unrelieved,
it becomes difficult to believe that,
as Martin Luther King put it,
“The arc of the moral universe is long,
but it bends towards justice.”
To believe this we must believe not only
that justice in this world
will one day be achieved;
we must also believe that all those
who have suffered unjustly
or had their goodness unrewarded,
will one day find vindication,
will one day receive the reward that they deserve,
will one day have the wounds of injustice healed.
And to believe this is to believe in resurrection,
to believe that there will be justice
for all those whose lives
have been ground beneath the injustices of history.

A few years ago, Pope Benedict XVI wrote,
“I am convinced that the question of justice
constitutes the essential argument,
or in any case the strongest argument,
in favor of faith in eternal life. . .
only in connection with the impossibility
that the injustice of history should be the final word
does the necessity for Christ's return and for new life
become fully convincing” (Spe Salvi n. 43).

If agreeing with Jesus’ opponents is a sign
that your theology has gone wrong,
the perhaps agreeing with a Pope
is an indication that you’re on the right track.
For me, the most compelling argument for eternal life
is not my own desire to avoid death,
but rather my conviction
that the God we know in Jesus Christ
is a God of justice,
who will heal the injustices of history.
I still find it difficult to imagine
what eternal life would be like.
Of course, in this I am not all that different
from the Sadducees in today’s Gospel,
who think eternal life would be simply
an extension of life in this world.
But perhaps my difficulty in imagining eternal life
is simply the difficulty of imagining true justice.
We cannot imagine how God could set right
the injustices of the past,
could restore wholeness of body and soul to the tortured,
could heal the indignities already suffered by the disabled,
could assuage the hungers of those who have starved to death.
But we do know that our God
is a God of the living, not the dead,
and the promised eternal life that we cannot imagine,
we can still believe to be true,
we can still hope one day to see,
we can still love as our true homeland.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

In our first reading we hear,
“Though not unduly partial toward the weak,
yet [God] hears the cry of the oppressed.
The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan,
nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint.”
In the Hebrew scriptures, those who are weak and oppressed
are referred to as the anawim or “little ones,”
and they, as our scripture says,
are the special object of God’s concern.
It is from scriptural passages such as this
that the Church today draws her teachings concerning
the need for what Pope John Paul II called
a “preferential but not exclusive love for the poor”;
we, both as individuals and as a Church,
are called to give the poor,
the oppressed,
and the marginalized
a privileged place in our hearts and our concerns.
Concern for the poor is not, for Christians,
simply one concern among others;
concern for God’s little ones is integral
to our identity as God’s people.

This is not a matter of romanticizing the poor,
imagining that every poor person is good and noble;
indeed, poverty is very unromantic,
and often makes those who are poor
less good, less noble, than they might otherwise be.
The Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez
writes, “the poor are human beings;
they include very good people,
but there are also some among them who are not good.
We should prefer them not because they are good…
but because first of all God is good
and prefers the forgotten, the oppressed,
the poor, the abandoned.”
Our concern for the poor is not simply a matter of philanthropy
but grows from our convictions concerning who God is
and how God has acted in human history.
Indeed, we believe that when God came to dwell among us in Jesus
he took his stand with the poor and the powerless,
to the point of saying that
what we do for one of God’s little ones, we do for him.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it,
“Jesus identifies himself with the poor of every kind
and makes active love toward them
the condition for entering his kingdom” (CCC 544).

This is all relevant as we reflect this weekend
on our relationship with
our sister parish in Sepalau Guatemala,
an isolated village, high in the mountains.
Guatemala is an extremely poor country,
with a GDP that is roughly one-half
of the average for Latin America.
Among the indigenous people,
who make up most of the villagers in Sepalau,
73% live below Guatemala’s poverty line –
which, as you might imagine,
is considerably lower than ours.
Guatemala has one of the highest rates
of malnutrition in the world,
with almost half of the children
under the age of five
being malnourished.
Truly, the people of Sepalau
are among the “little ones” of God.

If our relationship with our sister parish
is to be an authentic one
we need to recognize the realities of the poverty
in which the people of Sepalau live.
But I’m not here to give a sociology or economics lecture,
but to preach the word of God.
And today the word of God tells us
that God hears the cries of the poor,
and will answer them
and establish for them justice on earth;
the little ones of this world will be lifted up
and the powerful will be cast down.

This is surely good news to the poor,
but what about the rest of us?
Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel that
“whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Our love for the poor must manifest itself
in a kind of humbling of ourselves,
so that the concerns of the poor become our concerns,
so that their cause becomes our cause,
not because they are good, but because God is good,
because God has heard their cries and will answer them;
God has made their cause his cause
by emptying himself and accepting
the death of a slave,
death on a cross.
You cannot be on the side of God
if you are not on the side of the poor –
this is not politics; it’s simply the gospel.

And this is really what our sister parish relationship is about;
it is about coming to know and entering into friendship
with the people of Sepalau
so that their concerns can become our concerns,
so that is some small way
their struggles can become our struggles.
And we do this because by entering more deeply
into relationship with them
we enter more deeply into relationship with Christ,
who for our sake became poor,
so that we might have spiritual riches.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Habakuk 1:2-3 2:2-4;  2 Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14; Luke 17:5-10

I don’t know about you,
but there is something about our Gospel reading
that has always bothered me.
After all that we have heard from Jesus in the past few weeks
about those who exalt themselves being humbled,
there seems something a bit off when we hear in today’s Gospel
about the master who expects his servants,
who have been humbling themselves all day long,
to serve him his dinner and only eat later,
and then proclaim themselves to be “unprofitable servants.”
While servants abasing themselves before their masters
and the masters hardly giving it a thought
might conform to the expectations of Jesus’s time and place,
we have come to expect something different from Jesus:
a radical overturning of those sorts of expectations.
It all seems a bit too conventional, a bit too Downton Abbey,
to be coming from the lips of the radical Jesus.

But perhaps Jesus is getting at something here
that is even more radical.
Though Jesus draws an analogy between service to God
and service to a human master,
perhaps we ought to focus on how service to God
is different from service to a human master.
Part of what makes a TV show like Downton Abbey fascinating,
even for us Americans,
is the way in which the “masters” of the manor
are so thoroughly dependent upon the servants:
Lord and Lady Grantham seem to be incapable
of even dressing and feeding themselves.
Their servants are hardly “unprofitable”;
indeed, it is the labor of the servants that makes possible
the manor’s elegant dinners
and hunting expeditions
and garden parties
and it would be simply a polite fiction
for them to declare themselves unprofitable,
when in fact their work is highly profitable
for the lord and lady of the manor.
The servants themselves, however, profit little,
except occasionally to bask in the reflected glory
of the glittering, though fragile, splendor of life in the manor.

This seems often, maybe always, to be the case
in the relationship between human masters and servants.
Things are different, however, with the servants of God.
Whatever service we offer to God truly is unprofitable,
inasmuch as we do not gain for God any benefit
that God does not already possess.
Indeed, our service of God does not produce anything
that God has not already bestowed on us;
everything we have that we might give to God in service
is itself already God’s gift to us,
and in giving it back to God
we truly are only doing what we are obligated by justice to do.
Unlike Lord and Lady Grantham,
God doesn’t need our – or anybody’s – service.

Of course, we want our service to matter to God.
And it does matter to God, because we matter to God.
It does not matter because God needs our service,
but because we need to serve God in order to be happy,
and God’s deepest desire is for us to be happy.
If we look around the world today,
whether the squabbling in Washington,
or the murderous violence in Syria,
or even the turmoil within our own hearts,
it can be pretty hard to believe that true happiness is possible;
it certainly seems to be something
that is beyond our power to achieve.
And this is why it is in fact good news
that we are unprofitable servants.
The vision of our world and ourselves transformed
is not something that depends on our unprofitable efforts,
but upon the promise of the God
who desires our eternal happiness.
As our first reading exhorts us,
if fulfillment of this vision is delayed,
we should wait for it,
because our salvation is not
something we earn by our service
but simply a gift from the God whom we serve.

To have faith, even faith the size of a mustard seed,
is to believe that the world of strife and clamorous discord
will be transformed into a world of love and harmonious peace.
To have faith, even faith the size of a mustard seed,
is to believe that this vision of a world transformed,
of ourselves transformed,
is a vision that still has its time,
a vision that presses on to fulfillment and will not disappoint.
To have faith, even faith the size of a mustard seed,
is to believe that we, unprofitable servants, will one day shine,
not with the fragile and passing glory
of the earthly city of human lords and ladies,
but with the eternal glory of the heavenly city
of the Lord our God.
It will come as a gift, and it will not be late.
If it delays, wait for it,
for it will surely come.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Wisdom 9:13-18b; Philemon 9-10, 12-17; Luke 14:24-33

As the leaders of our nation continue their deliberations
concerning military intervention in Syria,
we are presented in today’s Gospel with a parable
about counting the costs of our commitments:
“What king marching into battle would not first sit down
and decide whether with ten thousand troops
he can successfully oppose another king
advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops?”
Jesus’s point in telling this parable is not, of course,
about the art of war,
but about what it means to be his disciple.
Yet it reminds us of what we would sometimes forget:
war is a costly business.
It is not something into which one dips one’s toe,
while hoping to avoid paying
the price of human suffering that war exacts.
If you choose to wage war, you must bear the burden
of homes destroyed and lives lost,
of unforeseen repercussions,
and the risk of unleashing even greater evil
than the evil that you wish to restrain.
War is not something one ought to enter into lightly.

In his parable, Jesus uses the cost of war
to prod us think about the cost of being his disciple.
Just as the ruler who contemplates going to war
must consider what it would cost to win the war,
so too one who wants to be a follower of Jesus
must consider the cost of such discipleship.
Jesus puts the cost of discipleship
in the starkest terms possible:
“If anyone comes to me
without hating his father and mother,
wife and children, brothers and sisters,
and even his own life,
he cannot be my disciple.”

Biblical scholars are quick to point out
that the word we here translate as “hating”
refers not so much to an emotion one feels
as to a fundamental choice one makes:
it is a matter of giving preference
to one thing over another.
So Jesus is saying that our relationship
to parents, spouse, children, siblings, and even oneself
must be seen as less important than our relationship to him.
Of course in Jesus’ culture,
when ties of family were so strong,
this is still pretty shocking –
you would prefer this stranger to your family?
“Hating” probably pretty effectively conveys the force
that his words would have had on his hearers:
Jesus is telling them that the cost of being his disciple
is to be willing to put nothing ahead of him,
to prefer nothing to the life of following him,
to be separated from your loved ones
if that is what it takes to be his disciple.
As if to drive the point home, Jesus adds:
“Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me
cannot be my disciple.”
Just as a ruler
must face up to the cost of waging war,
so too the disciple of Jesus
must face up to the cost of following him,
and that cost is nothing less
than sharing in the cross of Jesus himself.

Each one of us has been called to be a disciple of Jesus.
Indeed, that simply is what it means to be a Christian.
Jesus’s call to take up one’s own cross and follow after him
is not addressed only to the apostles
or to the ordained or to the vowed religious.
It is the call of each and every one of us
who dare to claim the name Christian,
who in baptism have been marked with Christ’s cross
and called to walk as children of the light.
We are the one’s who must count the cost of following Jesus
and who must be willing to give up everything for his sake.

Of course, this makes no sense if Jesus is just some guy
who had some good ideas
about ways to make the world a better place
or ways to attain a more happy life.
It only makes sense if being Jesus’ disciple
is something worth more that everything else put together;
it only makes sense if Jesus is the one
in whom all that we have given up
will be restored to us in God’s kingdom;
it only makes sense if Jesus
is who we profess him to be in the creed:
“God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God.”
But if Jesus is who we profess him to be,
then the cost of following him
is balanced by the joy flowing from his saving power.

Even more than war,
the struggle to follow Jesus is a costly business,
demanding absolute commitment.
And in a time of wars and rumors of war
we must ask ourselves anew
whether we truly wish to be his followers.
In a world torn by violence, death, and destruction
we are called to count the cost
of being disciples of the prince of peace.
But in counting that cost, let us never forget
that the one who calls us to follow
is the very source of life itself: Jesus Christ.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

“Do not be afraid any longer, little flock,
for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.”
With these words of comfort and assurance,
Jesus bids us to have a faith that is truly radical.
Many people think that a little bit of religion is a good thing.
It gives us a moral code to follow
and perhaps makes us a bit nicer than we would be otherwise;
it provides us with consolation in times of trouble,
particularly when we are faced with the great calamity of death.
But one doesn’t want to take religion too far,
to act in crazy or irresponsible ways
by ignoring the realities of life in this world.

But that is precisely what Jesus seems to want us to do.
In today’s Gospel, after commanding his followers to not be afraid,
he commands them to sell what they have and give alms
and by doing so to provide for themselves a treasure in heaven.
To our sensible attitude that a little bit of religion is a good thing
this seems like…well, like madness.
Being charitable – giving alms – that’s fine.
But selling what you have in order to do so?
Worrying more about heaven than earth?
It seems to ignore the legitimate responsibilities
that we have in this life –
caring for our bodily needs,
providing for our families,
planning for our retirement;
it seems to ask us to live our lives 
as if we were already in heaven,
as if earth did not matter.
But Jesus’s words press us to ask ourselves
whether our appeal to our responsibilities in this life
is not simply a manifestation of our fears
that hold us back from the risk of faith.

At his recent press conference on the plane 
after World Youth Day,
Pope Francis was asked about the security risks
created by his desire to be in the midst of the crowds.
He responded: “It’s true that there is always the danger
that there is a madman… who does something;
but there is also the Lord!
To make an armored space
between the Bishop and the people is [also] madness,
and I prefer the madness of being exposed
and running the risk of the other madness.”

I suppose for the Pope the danger of assassination
is more real than it is for most of us.
But we too have our very real fears:
will I find a job?
will I be able to pay my bills?
what will become of my children?
Who could blame us 
for being fearful concerning these things?
The words of Pope Francis remind us, however,
that while there are real dangers in the world,
real things to be feared,
there is also the Lord:
the God who is pleased to make us heirs of his kingdom,
the God whose love embraces us at every moment,
the God from whose hands we can never be taken.

Faith in this God is not the timid faith that thinks
that a little bit of religion is a good thing.
It is the radical faith of Abraham 
spoken of in our second reading,
from the letter to the Hebrews:
the faith that led Abraham to become a homeless wanderer,
the faith that allowed him to believe God’s promises,
the faith that led him even to be willing to give up his child
trusting in God’s power over death.
It is the faith that does not use a little bit of religion
to build for itself a place of security 
where fear can be held at bay,
but plunges into the world of danger 
for the sake of God’s kingdom.

“Do not be afraid any longer, little flock,
for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.”
In that kingdom, the perfect love,
perfect goodness,
perfect beauty 
that God is by nature,
we become by the gift of God’s grace.
But Jesus says, “Much will be required 
of the person entrusted with much,
and still more will be demanded 
of the person entrusted with more.”
The immense love shown to us by God
calls for immense faith in response.
Of course our response always falls short 
of the perfection of God,
but this is no excuse 
for not always seeking a more radical faith,
a faith that lives fearlessly
for the sake of the kingdom of God
that has been so generously given to us.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Last week we heard the parable of the Good Samaritan,
which Jesus tells in connection with the commandment
to love God and to love our neighbor 
in the same way that we love ourselves.
The parable of the Good Samaritan cuts to something
that lies at the heart of Christianity:
love of God and love of neighbor are closely bound up together
and in service to our neighbor we are showing love to God.

The story of Mary and Martha in today’s Gospel
is recounted by Luke immediately after
the parable of the good Samaritan.
And if the parable emphasizes the importance of love’s active service,
today’s story points us toward a still higher form of love.
While Martha has got herself in an uproar
in her concern to provide fitting food and drink for her guest Jesus,
Mary sits at his feet and listens to his word.
When Martha complains about Mary’s indolence,
Jesus says that she has chosen “the better part.”
He says this even though the conventions of the day
said that a woman’s place was not at the teacher’s feet,
but in the kitchen, like Martha,
doing all the things necessary
to provide a fitting welcome for their guest.
But only one thing, Jesus says, is truly necessary.
While Martha is anxious to welcome Jesus,
Mary lets herself be welcomed by Jesus –
welcomed into the circle of his disciples.

This is not to say that the kind of service Martha offers is unimportant.
The very fact that Jesus says that Mary’s choice is better
implies that Martha’s is still good, 
and even in some sense necessary.
She herself is something of a “good samaritan”:
the active love that Martha shows to Jesus,
like the love that the Samaritan shows to the man attacked by thieves,
is in this life the ordinary form of love that we show to God.
But there is also an extraordinary form of love 
that occurs every so often:
those moments when one knows oneself 
to be fully present to God,
welcomed into God’s presence 
in the way that Mary was welcomed by Christ,
welcomed to be attentive and receptive 
to the truth that is revealed.

In the tradition of the Church we sometimes speak of this
as a “contemplative” or “mystical” form of love.
Most of us, I suspect, have some experience 
of being with someone we love,
whether this is romantic love or the love of friendship,
and feeling no need to do or even say anything,
feeling that we have been welcomed to share 
in the life of our beloved,
welcomed to drink in 
what the beloved shares about himself or herself,
welcomed in to discover in the one we love 
something deeply true about life.

When that lover or friend is God
this is what we call contemplation or mystical union.
For most of us, of course, such experience of God is not common;
we count ourselves lucky to catch even a glimpse of it in our prayer.
But when we do catch a glimpse,
when we feel ourselves truly welcomed into God’s presence,
we gain an inkling of what eternal life with God might be like:
being welcomed into a perfect love,
when time itself is frozen 
in a moment we wish would never end.

Commenting on today’s Gospel story,
St. Augustine said, 
“In Martha was the image of things present,
in Mary of things to come.
What Martha was doing, that we are now;
what Mary was doing, that we hope for.
Let us do the first well, 
that we may have the second fully” (Sermon 104).
Like Martha, we as individuals and we as a Church
seek to welcome the Lord and our neighbor 
through our active service,
and this is only right and just,
because God knows we have many needy neighbors
who hunger and thirst 
for both physical and spiritual food and drink.
But also like Martha, 
we as individuals and we as a Church
are anxious and worried about many things,
trying to read the signs of the times
so as to know how to welcome God most fittingly 
into our life in this place and time.
We need, like Mary, to let ourselves we welcomed by Jesus
to sit at his feet and drink in his wisdom,
a foretaste of the welcome we will receive in heaven.

As important as our service to God and neighbor is,
to know ourselves welcomed by Jesus,
to sit, like Mary, in intimate closeness with him,
to drink in his wisdom –
this, Jesus says, is the one thing necessary.
Because this is our destiny;
this is what gives meaning to all our labors;
this is the one thing in this world that shall remain for eternity.

St. Augustine wrote, 
“At present alleluia is for us a traveler’s song,
but this wearying journey brings us closer to home and rest
where, all our busy activities over and done with,
the only thing that will remain will be alleluia” (Sermon 255).

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Corpus Christi

On Friday I read a report that, 
due to a combination
of a mismanaged national economy
and externally imposed import restrictions,
the Catholic Church in Venezuela
is facing a shortage of bread and wine 
for the celebration of Mass
(the nation is also facing a toilet paper shortage,
but that’s another matter).
It reminded me of how much what we do 
within the walls of the church
is connected to the world outside the Church,
the network of economic and political relations 
that shape our lives.
This shortage of bread and wine in Venezuela
is an example of what people sometimes refer to 
as the “law of scarcity.”
The basic idea is that the less of something there is
the more its value increases:
if supply goes down and demand remains steady,
value – or at least prices – go up.
The presumptions of the law of scarcity
is so woven into the fabric of our daily lives
that they come to seem unquestionable to us:
of course something that is rare
is more valuable than something that is abundant;
of course we are in competition, 
even conflict, 
with each other
for these valuable, limited goods.
It seems unquestionable.

In our reading today from Luke’s Gospel, however,
we are invited to question this law of scarcity.
The story of the feeding of the multitudes begins in scarcity
but, rather than ending in conflict 
and competition for those scarce goods,
it ends in an abundant feast for all who are there:
“they all ate and were satisfied.”
In fact, more was left over than they began with.

In addition to being a sign of the divine power incarnate in Jesus,
this story of the feeding of the multitudes tells us something
about the kingdom of God that Jesus comes to proclaim.
The economy of this kingdom
does not run according to the law of scarcity
but according to a law of abundance:
God provides us with more than enough
of God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s grace.
And these things do not become any less valuable
on account of being supplied in abundance
or any less abundant 
on account of being shared among many people.
St. Augustine noted that the citizens of earthly kingdoms
fight with each other for things that are in short supply:
glory, power, wealth, honor.
But in the case of divine goodness:
“Anyone who refuses to share this possession cannot have it;
and one who is most willing to let others share it in love
will have the greatest abundance” (Civ. Dei 15.5).

We should reflect on this story of scarcity and abundance
in the context of our celebration of the feast of Corpus Christi.
And as in today’s Gospel reading,
bread will be taken, 
and blessed, 
and broken, 
and shared.
We will receive Christ’s body and blood, 
his soul and divinity,
under the sacramental signs 
of bread and wine;
we will feed upon him spiritually
and, as in today’s Gospel, 
we will be satisfied.
Indeed, not only will we be satisfied,
but the grace that is bestowed on us
is so abundant that there will be
twelve baskets left over: grace upon grace,
which we will take with us into a world
that is starving for both material food 
and the food of God’s mercy.

While the bread and wine shortages in Venezuela show
that the Church is not removed 
from the economic forces at work in the world,
in the end the Eucharist is not ruled by the law of scarcity.
The value of the Eucharist is determined
not by what market forces do 
to the price of bread and wine
but by what the Holy Spirit does with them:
transforming them into 
the body and blood of God incarnate,
the food of immortality, 
the cup of eternal salvation.
And the grace we receive in this sacrament
only increases as we leave this building
to share the love that we have received with others.

On this our feast of Corpus Christ,
it is right and just that we reflect 
on the great gift of the body and blood of Christ
through with which we as a community 
have been abundantly blessed
for over a century and a quarter.
It is right and just to give thanks 
for the thousands of Masses
that have been celebrated on our altars:
the bread of life that has been shared,
the hungry souls that have been satisfied.
It is right and just that we pause to adore 
the God who bestows on us a gift so great 
and in such abundance.
And it is right and just that we leave here
to share with others 
the goodness that has filled our hearts.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Easter 6

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples,
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”
St. Augustine wrote, “Peace is so great a good that. . .
no word falls more gratefully upon the ear,
nothing is desired with greater longing,
in fact, nothing better can be found. . . .
just as there is no one 
who does not wish for joy,
so there is no one 
who does not wish for peace” 
(Civ. Dei 19.11-12).
Peace is something that we seek 
both as individuals and as societies.
When this promise of peace 
fell upon the ears of Jesus’ disciples
they must have heard it with great longing.
They, like us, longed for peace within themselves;
their hearts, like our hearts, were filled
with conflicting emotions and ideas and commitments
pulling them in a hundred different directions.
They, like, us, longed for peace in their society;
their world, like our world, 
was a dangerous, violent place,
scarred by war and injustice, hatred and oppression.
The promise of peace –
peace within themselves and peace among peoples –
must have fallen upon their ears
as something too good to be true,
yet also as a promise 
that they desperately wanted to believe.

Jesus’s promise of peace 
is something that we accept on faith,
on our belief that he will, as it says in our Gospel,
come to us and make his dwelling in us;
it is his presence within us 
that brings peace to our warring hearts.
Likewise, in our second reading, 
from the book of Revelation,
we hear the apostle John’s vision 
of the heavenly Jerusalem.
According to some interpretations, 
the name “Jerusalem” means “abode of peace.”
The vision of the heavenly Jerusalem 
is a vision of a world at peace.
And we are told that what makes that city 
to be truly an abode of peace
is not the beauty of its walls or gates or foundations,
but that fact that the Lamb of God 
dwells there with God’s people,
in their midst, as their light and their temple.
The promise of peace within us and peace around us
must grow from the promise of God’s presence with us.
Jesus’ promise of peace 
involves accepting the gift of God’s presence,
which allows us to heed Jesus’ command:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.”

But the peace of Christ involves 
not only accepting God’s gift;
it also involves giving something up;
it requires us to give up our desire 
to secure our own peace
by controlling people and situations.
To return to St. Augustine:
he says that peace is so desired by human beings
that even those who wage wars hope that, in the end,
their wars will bring peace.
He notes, however, that those who start wars 
do not simply want peace;
they want peace on their own terms, 
a peace “that suits their wishes,”
a peace in which they can impose upon others
“their own conditions of peace” (Civ. Dei 19.12).
We want peace, 
but the peace that comes from absolute control.

This desire for control shows itself
both in our social relations and in our inner lives;
we not only want to bend others to our will,
but we also want to master ourselves
by making ourselves fit into some ideal image
that we have dreamed up
rather than simply being 
the person God has called us to be.
We not only wage war against others,
we wage war also against ourselves
in the hope that we can defeat and subjugate 
our own internal conflicts.
True peace, however, is never simply 
the suppression of conflict,
whether this is a matter of imposing our will on others
or trying to deny the conflict within ourselves.
True peace involves emptying ourselves 
of our own agenda,
because unless we do so
there is precious little room for Christ to dwell with us
and our hearts remain troubled and afraid.

“We will come to him and make our dwelling with him.”
This happens in many different ways.
Christ dwells among us 
in the form of the poor and the needy,
or those who show us love, 
or those who try our patience.
Christ dwells within us 
when we find our hearts moved by love
or by the miracle of healing and forgiveness.

Perhaps most of all, 
Christ dwells among us and within us
is the sacrament of the Eucharist.
To return one last time to St. Augustine,
he wrote of the Eucharist: “at [Christ’s] own table,
the sacrament of our unity and peace
is solemnly consecrated” (Sermon 272).
In the Eucharist we gather around the altar of the Lamb,
leaving our agendas and desire for control behind,
and receive the living Christ into our hearts.
We eat and drink the peace that the world cannot give,
the peace given by the Lamb who bears our sins away.