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.

Furthermore,
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.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Ascension


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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Easter 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Easter Vigil


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday


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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Lent 5


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 9, 2014

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 31, 2014

Funeral Homily for Clayton A. Sweeney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then, Clayton, rest in peace.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Epiphany


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

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

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


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

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

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