Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Advent Penance Service

Readings: Colossians 1:9-14; John 1:1-9

Against the growing darkness
we kindle our Advent lights.
As the days grow shorter,
as night encroaches more and more,
we kindle lights in the darkness
as signs of our hope,
signs of our faith in the victory of light.

Yet these signs can seem so small
in the face of the darkness.
We look for some pale glimmer
of light on the horizon,
but our eyes see nothing
but the vast encroaching darkness
that sweeps over us like a tidal wave—
a torrent of wars and human suffering,
of dysfunctional politics,
of injustice and prejudice,
of exploitation of the earth and her people.
All around us, the news seems very bad.

But the news is even worse than we thought.
For our inability to see the light
is not simply a result
of darkness around us.
No, our blindness is a darkness
lodged within our very hearts.
Without denying the reality
of the darkness that surrounds us
we must own the reality
of our own complicity
in the sin of the world.

The violence of the wars around me
finds an echo
in the hatreds and resentments of my heart;
the dysfunction of our politics
is simply my own self-seeking writ large;
the exploitation of the earth that threatens all life
is inseparable from my own inability
to distinguish my wants from my needs.
When I own up to the fact
that the darkness around me
flows not only into me but also out of me,
the signs of hope that I can kindle
seem vanishingly small,
and the news seems bad indeed.

But we celebrate Advent amidst the encroaching night
because we believe that the bad news of darkness
does not get the last word.
We celebrate Advent because even in the darkness
we have heard, above the roar of the world’s pain,
the good news that we do not stand alone.
Even in the darkness we have heard news of a light,
the light that shines in the darkness,
a light that the darkness cannot overcome.
Even in the darkness we hear tales of light
that could not be defeated
by Herod or the Sanhedrin or Pilate,
the light could not be defeated
even by the power of death itself.
In Jesus Christ, the light
has already triumphed over the darkness,
if we can but see with the eyes of faith.
“[God] delivered us from the power of darkness
and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son,
in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

The good news is that it is not our task
to defeat the darkness;
Jesus has already done that.
Our task is to live in the light that has come into the world,
to live as free citizens of the kingdom of God’s beloved Son,
to make manifest the victory that he has won.
We manifest the victory of Christ our light
when we confess our own sins
and let God’s grace fill out hearts with light,
when we let the gracious light of Jesus
flow into us and out of us.
We manifest the victory of Christ our light
when we reflect that light in the dark places of our world,
places shrouded by violence and greed and injustice.
Against the growing darkness
we kindle our Advent lights;
but the good news today
is not the lights that we kindle,
but the truth that,
through the coming of Christ into the world,
through the sanctifying fire of the Spirit,
we have been kindled as lights,
lights that herald the day that shall know no night,
when death and sorrow shall be no more
and God will be all in all.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Advent 3

Readings: Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

Every election cycle the promise of change
is peddled to us like a healing remedy,
but it often proves to be more an opiate
to dull the pain of injustice and oppression
as we look for the better days that are sure to come
once the right people are in charge.
Or it is a stimulant to excite and enrage us,
to agitate us with false energy
growing from the resentments
and disappointments of life,
making us lash out at perceived enemies
who, we are told, must be put in their place
or even eliminated
in order for the promised change to occur.
And when, as so often happens,
the change that is promised does not arrive,
or—perhaps worse—does arrive
but with consequences
that we did not foresee or desire,
then our hope turns to bitterness,
until the next political season,
when new promises of change will made.

It is also what is promised to us each Advent.
Do we not hear that a day is coming
when, “the eyes of the blind [will] be opened,
the ears of the deaf [will] be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing”?
Do we not hear of Jesus,
at whose appearance among us,
“the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news
proclaimed to them”?
Do we not hear of a change that is coming,
the change to end all changes,
when suffering will be banished
and death will be no more?
What is Advent about if it is not about change?

But how do we know
that the change promised each Advent
is not the same sort of opiate or stimulant
that is peddled to us in each election cycle?
How do we know that the change
proclaimed to us in this season
does not also dull our passion for justice
with the promise of a better day to come?
How do we know the change
proclaimed to us in this season
does not also feed our resentment of those
who have things better than we do,
those whose lives have worked out
where ours have not,
making us want to put them in their place?
How do we know that the hope of change
promised to us in Advent
is a healing remedy and not a dangerous drug?

But Advent does not only promise change;
it also counsels patience.
The letter of James tells us today,
“Be patient, brothers and sisters,
until the coming of the Lord.”
Of course, the counsel to patience
might sound like another version
of promised change
as an opiate that dulls our pain,
an encouragement to sit on our hands
as we await our rescue.
But we misunderstand what patience is
if we think it is just waiting around
for something to change.
The letter of James,
perhaps more than any other writing
in the New Testament
stresses the need to put our faith into action;
it is, after all, the letter that says,
“just as a body without a spirit is dead,
so also faith without works is dead.”
This is hardly a counsel to just wait around for change.

What then do we make of patience?
The root of our word “patience”
is the Latin word patientia,
meaning to suffer.
It is the same source from which
we derive the term “passion,”
which is the name we give
to the suffering of Jesus on the cross,
the great labor that he undertook
for our salvation.
As the passion of Jesus shows us,
patience is not a matter of sitting idle;
but neither is it a matter of agitated energy
breeding anger and resentment
of those we see opposing the change we desire.
Patience is the revolutionary act of being willing
to actively suffer for the cause of God,
even as events unfold around us
in ways that we do not—cannot—control.
Patience is the virtue that allows us
not to be seduced by the empty rhetoric of change
into either a gentle haze of vague hope,
or the angry agitation of resentment.
Patience is the willingness to let God determine
when change will come,
the willingness to suffer
the slow revealing of God’s kingdom,
even as we continue to actively labor
as disciples of Jesus
for that day when the desert
“will bloom with abundant flowers,
and rejoice with joyful song.”

Each of us, when we were baptized,
was marked with the sign of the cross.
We begin and end each liturgy with that sign.
We make that sign at those key moments in our lives
when we need strength to act or patiently to wait.
In this Advent season, we mark ourselves
with the sign of Christ's suffering,
the sign of his revolutionary patience,
as a witness to our willingness
to fight for change
without succumbing to false hopes
or bitter resentments;
we mark ourselves
as a witness to our willingness
to follow the path of Jesus
through the cross
to new life in the Spirit;
we mark ourselves
as a witness to our willingness
to seek first the kingdom of God,
the kingdom that even now
is appearing among us.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 2 Maccabees7:1-2, 9-14; 2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5; Luke 20:27-38

The hypothetical situation posed to Jesus by the Sadducees
presumes the practice, based in the Old Testament Law,
of what was called “levirate marriage.”
It is prescribed in the book of Deuteronomy
that when a man dies without a son
his widow is not to marry anyone outside of the clan
but rather the dead man’s brother is to marry her,
so that, “the firstborn son she bears
shall continue the name of the deceased brother,
that his name may not
be blotted out from Israel” (Deut. 25:5-6).
Notice that the purpose is to secure offspring
in whom the name of the dead man might live on,
so that he will not be forgotten.
For the Sadducees,
who rejected belief in the resurrection of the dead,
this was the only sort of immortality on offer.
They believed that the situation that they posed to Jesus
regarding the woman who was married
successively to seven brothers,
and the question of whose wife she would be
when they were raised from the dead,
pointed out the absurdity
of believing in such a resurrection.
Much more sensible, much more realistic, they thought,
was to focus on this life and on this world
and on finding our hope of immortality
in securing offspring to carry on the memory of our name,
so that it “may not be blotted out from Israel.”

Whether it is a matter of having offspring
who will carry on our name,
or of having a life whose achievements
will merit monuments and memory,
we humans often live our lives
as if our only hope of immortality
was in leaving our mark on history,
so that our memory will endure.

But Jesus knows how fragile such hope is.
Jesus knows that even if we have children
who carry the memory of our names,
and even if our children’s children,
and their children in turn,
carry that memory,
the day will come when human memory will fail.
The day will come—
for some sooner,
for others later,
but for all eventually—
when our names will be forgotten,
when our tombstone and monuments will crumble,
when all record of our too-brief life
will be obliterated.
The idea of living on in human memory,
rather than being more realistic
than belief in resurrection,
is in fact a fantasy.

But Jesus offers us a better hope.
In responding to the Sadducees,
he brushes aside their hypothetical scenario,
because it misses the point
of belief in resurrection from the dead.
To be raised by God is not simply
to resume the life that you lived before,
but is to live in a new way.
It is not a matter of taking up again this life,
with its fears and anxieties
and its desperate attempts to keep death at bay
by making our mark on history;
rather, it is a matter of entering into
the undying life of God.

But even if we abandon the fantasy of immortality
gained though the memory of our achievements,
we can still be tempted to think
that our faith in resurrection
is based on there being some immortal “spark” in us
that is incapable of dying.
Of course it is true that we possess an immortal soul,
but faith in the resurrection of the dead
is not based on a belief about who we are—
possessors of immortal souls—
but on our faith in who God is.
For our God is the one who knows and remembers us,
even though all others should forget.
As St. Paul says in our second reading,
“The Lord is faithful.”
To be held in the memory of our children
or of those who admire our achievements
is simply a temporary respite from death’s obliteration
and a shadowy imitation of life.
But to be held in the memory of the eternal God,
is to live more truly than we have ever lived before,
for our God “is not a God of the dead,
but of the living,
for to him all are alive.”

During the month of November
we remember our beloved dead:
we remember the multitude of unknown saints
whom we celebrate on All Saints Day,
and we remember those still awaiting
the full vision of God
for whom we pray on All Souls Day.
But we do not remember them
because they live only in our memory,
as if their last remnants would vanish from life
if we were to forget them.
No, our hope for them is that they are now
more alive than we are,
because they look upon God with unveiled faces
and know the God of life even as they are known.
We remember them because in our remembering
we are sharing in God’s act of remembering,
and we touch and taste
a tiny share of their immortality,
the immortality that is promised to us
in Jesus Christ.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 2 Kings 5:14-17; 2 Timothy 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19

At the outset of his ministry,
Jesus announces in the synagogue in Nazareth
that he has come to proclaim liberty to captives.
Our scriptures today invite us to reflect
on different forms of captivity
as we are presented with examples
of people held bound
who find freedom in Christ.

The first, and maybe more obvious, case
is Paul in our second reading.
Writing from prison,
where he is in chains for preaching
the good news of Jesus Christ,
Paul says that he is willing
to suffer for the sake of the Gospel
because he knows that,
while he may be in chains,
“the word of God is not chained.”
He knows that even as he suffers in prison
he continues to bear witness to Jesus;
indeed, his suffering itself
is by God’s grace an image or icon
of the crucified Christ for us and for our salvation.
He knows that even if his captivity
should end in his death—
as indeed it did—
he does not need to fear,
for, “If we have died with him
we shall also live with him.”
The unchained word of God
has the power to free us
even from the prison of death.

Perhaps less obvious is the captivity
of the ten lepers in our Gospel reading.
Certainly their illness had chained them
to extreme physical suffering.
But it had also imprisoned them in a social isolation
no less extreme than Paul’s isolation in prison.
The Gospel tells us that,
as they called out to Jesus
to have pity on them,
“they stood at a distance from him.”
The do this because of the belief
that those with skin diseases
were ritually impure,
and therefore excluded from participation
in the religious life of Israel.
The book of Leviticus in the Old Testament
prescribes not only that they must tear their clothing
and call out “unclean! unclean!” to warn people away,
but also that, “being unclean,
[they] shall dwell apart,
taking up residence outside the camp.”
So the lepers stand at a distance from Jesus,
not simply because of fear of infection
but because, in their ritual impurity,
they were condemned to live isolated
from all that is holy,
as if chained by the Law and by their own fear.

But the unchained word of God
present in the healing power of Jesus
overcomes that distance.
Jesus’s healing of the lepers
not only frees them from their physical pain,
but releases them from the social isolation
in which they were imprisoned.
And the one who returns to give thanks
draws near to Jesus, falling at his feet,
bearing witness to the healing power of God.

Our modern world tends be dismissive
of concepts like “ritual purity,”
seeing them as primitive and superstitious;
but we too impose our own forms of social isolation
upon the sick and the aged.
Indeed, given the way in which our culture
worships youth and health
and a certain ideal of physical perfection,
I am not convinced that we are all that different
from the Jews of Jesus’ day
in our desire to place at a distance
those whose age or illness
would defile our dream of physical perfection
and perpetual youth.
In addition to their physical suffering,
the sick in our society often suffer
being ignored by a culture
that does not want to be reminded
of the fragility of the robust youthfulness
that we worship.

Part of the power
of the sacrament of the anointing of the sick,
and the reason we celebrate it publicly in this parish,
is that it brings those who are ill
into the center of our worshipping community;
it proclaims their inclusion in God’s love and in our love.
Not only are those who suffer illness not excluded,
not made to stand at a distance,
but by this sacrament
their illness is consecrated to God,
it is made something holy
by being put at the service of the Gospel,
so that they, like Paul bound in his chains,
become images or icons
of the redemptive suffering of Jesus.

Whether or not it leads to physical healing,
the sacrament of anointing
helps those who are sick
to bear with grace their illness,
just as Jesus bore their suffering
out of love for us all;
it makes them signs of Christ’s grace among us,
proclaiming to us to and our world
the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.
This sacrament makes visible
the truth of the words of St. Paul:
“If we have died with him
we shall also live with him;
if we persevere
we shall also reign with him.”

Let our celebration of this sacrament
inspire all of us
to enter into solidarity
with the sick and suffering of the world
and to draw close to Jesus,
like the Samaritan in today’s Gospel,
to give him thanks
for the healing and freedom
that he so richly bestows
on us and our world.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

A Wedding Homily

Readings: Genesis 2: 18-24; 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:8a; John 17:20-26

Ishmael, the narrator of Melville’s Moby Dick,
after commenting on the dizzying effects
of trying to write about a creature like the whale, says:
“Such, and so magnifying,
is the virtue of a large and liberal theme!
We expand to its bulk.
To produce a mighty book,
you must choose a mighty theme.
No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea,
though many there be who have tried it.” (Moby Dick Ch. 104).
What Ishmael says of books might also be said of marriages:
no less than a book, a marriage must have a theme,
something that gives it a direction and a meaning;
and a great and enduring marriage,
no less than a great and enduring volume,
must have a mighty theme,

Because marriage involves the most private, intimate love
of a man and a woman,
it is tempting to think that this should be its theme.
To quote the immortal Sonny Bono:
“They say we’re young and we don’t know,
We won’t find out until we grow.
Well I don't know if all that’s true,
‘Cause you got me, and baby I got you.
I got you babe.”
But as important as the intimate love of a man and a woman is
(and who am I to doubt Sonny Bono?),
I would suggest that for Christians
this is an insufficiently mighty theme
upon which to base a great and enduring marriage,
though many there be who have tried it.

In our first reading, from the book of Genesis,
marriage is given a cosmic significance:
God created human beings for companionship
and the mutual love of the man and the woman
are part of the perfection of God’s creation.
When Adam says, “This one, at last,
is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”
we can feel his joy, not simply in finding a companion,
but of discovering a possibility newly born within the cosmos,
the possibility opened up by one with whom he can enter
into a free and equal exchange of love:
in which love is given to another
and then received back, transformed, increased,
ready to be given and received
again and again, day by day,
growing and overflowing into love for all that God has made,
reflecting God’s own free love for the world God has made.

But for Christians this cosmic dimension of marriage
is perhaps not yet a mighty enough theme.
In our reading from John’s Gospel
Jesus prays to his Father for his disciples,
that, “the love with which you loved me
may be in them and I in them.”
This is a love that goes beyond human love,
because it is the love with which the Father loved Christ
“before the foundation of the world.”
But it is also a love that Jesus desires to share with his disciples
so that “they may be brought to perfection as one,”
and so become for the world a sign of the God who is love.
In the Catholic tradition, we teach that marriage is a sacrament,
which means that it is a human reality
by which God shares his love with us.
If marriage is taken up as a form of discipleship,
if it takes as its theme
the love revealed in the cross and resurrection of Jesus,
then the joining together of husband and wife is not simply
a part of the perfection of creation,
but becomes a means of grace,
a way in which divine love comes to dwell in our world,
to heal and to save and to bring joy.
Compared to the immensity of this theme,
this event of divine love invading our world,
the theme of “I got you babe”
seems small and flea-like,
unworthy of the great and enduring love
that we pray will pervade and sustain
the marriage of Trent and Sammy.

Trent and Sammy, I am uncharacteristically hopeful
that you will not rest content
with a small and flea-like theme for your marriage.
Face it: you have a tendency to go overboard.
Knowing as I do your tendencies to excess—
excessive books and wine,
excessive theological and literary conversations,
excessive scholarly conscientiousness,
excessive worrying over wedding preparations—
I feel confident that you will settle for nothing less
as the theme for your marriage
than that “still more excellent way”
of which St. Paul writes
in his letter to the Corinthians,
the mighty love that “bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.”
And I feel confident that God’s grace
will be there to expand your love for each other
to fill the bulk of this great and whale-like theme,
to help you endure together
through the daily crosses of suffering you will face,
to help you rejoice together
in the daily resurrections of joy that God will give you,
until that day when the perfect comes
and the partial passes away,
that day when we will see no longer dimly,
as in a mirror,
but face to face,
knowing fully,
even as we are known,
that day of which
the joy of this day,
great as it is,
is but a sign,
the day of the great wedding feast of the Lamb.
May God’s grace bring the two of you,
through the love you vow this day,
to that feast.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

Jesus begins his parable with a question:
“What man among you
having a hundred sheep and losing one of them
would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert
and go after the lost one until he finds it?”
Jesus is being his usual tricky self here,
making it sound as if what he is proposing
is obviously reasonable,
when in fact nobody with an ounce of shepherding sense
would leave ninety-nine sheep alone in the desert
in order to look for a single missing one.
Even the most basic form of risk assessment
would tell you that this is a very, very, very bad idea.

We find a version of this parable
in the second-century document
known as the Gospel of Thomas,
which tries to make this very, very, very bad idea
sound a bit more reasonable
by noting that the lost sheep is the largest of the flock,
and also by having the shepherd tell the sheep when he finds it,
“I love you more than the ninety-nine” (logion 107),
suggesting that this is somehow a very special sheep.
But the parable as we find it in Sacred Scripture
gives no such indication, makes no such excuse
for the shepherd’s professional irresponsibility.
The only thing special about the sheep is that it is lost
and the other ninety-nine are not.

We might forgive the author of the Gospel of Thomas
for trying to make Jesus’ parable
a little less offensive to common sense,
a little less foolish.
But honesty requires that we recognize
that if we measure the shepherd’s behavior
by our ordinary human standards
it really doesn’t make much sense.
This is why the fifth century bishop Peter Chrysologus,
who perhaps knew something about actual shepherding,
noted, “This story…speaks of no earthly shepherd
but of a heavenly one,
and far from being a portrayal of human activity,
this whole parable conceals divine mysteries” (Sermon 168).
It is not a lesson in animal husbandry
but in the mystery of divine love:
a love that might seem foolish by human standards,
a love that squanders security on a risky venture,
a love that favors the lost one,
no matter how seemingly unimportant that lost one is.
This is the God revealed in Jesus Christ,
the God who, our second reading tells us,
“came into the world to save sinners.”
Jesus presents the shepherd’s foolish action
as if it were completely reasonable
because, as St. Paul says,
the foolishness of God
is wiser than human wisdom,
and the weakness of God
is stronger than human strength (1 Cor. 1:25).

For most of us today, parables about shepherds
might not seem to have much in the way
of immediate relevance.
Perhaps if we want to grasp the reckless foolishness
of divine love seeking the lost one
we need new parables.
On this anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 2001,
I cannot help but think
of those first responders in New York,
police and firefighters,
who ran back into the burning, collapsing towers
to try to bring out those who were lost
within an inferno that fear and hatred had created.
Over four hundred of them lost their lives that day
in what some might call an act of heroism,
but which others might see
as a foolish and reckless mission
with little or no hope of success.

But we who seek to be followers of Jesus
ought to see in their actions
neither pointless sacrifice
nor even mere heroic bravery
but a parable of God made flesh in Jesus,
the divine lover who comes to seek the lost one,
even at the cost of his own life.
For we believe that in Jesus Christ
God ran headlong into the inferno of our world,
an inferno kindled by sin’s fear and hatred
and within which we were lost.
He took upon himself the suffering of the cross
in order to find us
in the midst of the world’s pain and chaos
and to bring us forth
into the dawning light of his resurrection.
And through the grace of his Sprit Jesus continues
to enter into the disasters of our lives—
the disasters we make by our choices
or which fortune forces upon us—
to find us and bring us home to God.
Into the pain and chaos and tragedy of my life
Jesus comes to rescue me:
not because I am the best,
not because I am special,
but simply because I am lost.

Both the reckless shepherd of whom Jesus speaks
and the heroic first responders of September 11th
should be parables to us
of the relentless, foolish, risky,
but ultimately triumphant love
that God has for the lost one,
the love that led Jesus
through the cross to the resurrection.
But the shepherd,
the heroes of 9/11,
and the cross of Christ
should also stand as a challenge to us:
in coming to seek us in our lostness,
in bringing us out
into the light of his resurrection,
Jesus calls and empowers us with his Spirit
to become sharers in his ministry of reconciliation.
He calls us to seek the lost one,
even if our efforts seem unlikely
to yield success as the world sees it.
He calls us to enter into
the inferno of fear and hatred
that sin has made of our world,
with faith that the grace of God
will find a way to use us
to speak a word of hope,
to perform an act of love,
to risk opening up our lives
so that we become parables
of the relentless, foolish, risky,
but ultimately triumphant love of God.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

A Wedding Homily

Readings: Genesis 2:18-24; Romans 12:1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5:13-16

We tend to think of weddings,
at least the churchy part of them,
in somewhat ethereal, disembodied term:
the Church is here to inject a “spiritual” element
into the proceedings.
Eating and drinking at the reception afterward
you may choose to indulge the body,
but at this moment we should focus on the soul, right?
But Christianity does not really divide the world up
into what is spiritual and what is bodily;
because we believe
that God took on flesh in Jesus Christ,
we believe that spirit and flesh—
the holy and the everyday—
always go together.
And the readings from Scripture
that J______ and J______ have chosen for their wedding
underscore this belief:
marriage is not simply about the uniting of two souls,
but rather is very much about the joining
of two flesh and blood human beings
who will undertake the challenging adventure of marriage
by living out their commitment to each other
in their day-to-day life together.

We hear in our very first reading,
which tells the beginning of the tale
of the first human couple,
that the man’s first reaction upon seeing the woman
is not, “this one, at last, is my true soulmate,”
but “this one, at last, is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh.”
Adam recognized in Eve
not simply one with whom he was to join
in elevated spiritual conversation,
but also the one with whom we would become one body
in living out the most ordinary tasks of daily life.

We hear in our second reading,
from Paul’s letter to the early Christian community at Rome,
a call “to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,
holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.”
Paul is saying that we should not set apart
some area of our life that we designate as “spiritual”
and think that this is the part of life
that is concerned with God
and with which God is concerned.
Paul speaks of the offering of our bodies
as a “spiritual sacrifice.”
What we do together with our bodies
in the everyday stuff of life—
washing dishes and putting gas in the car,
paying bills and showing love,
giving donations to charities and volunteering our time,
raising children and growing old—
are the things by which we are to give honor to God.

In the Catholic tradition,
we speak of marriage as a sacrament,
by which we mean an outward sign that gives us grace.
While we typically think of sacraments
as something we “receive”—
you get baptized,
you receive your first Holy Communion—
marriage is a little different:
you don’t simply receive the sacrament;
you are the sacrament.
Just as in baptism
water is the physical sign
of sin being washed away
and in Holy Communion
bread and wine are the physical sign
of Jesus’s body and blood,
so to in holy matrimony
you, J_______ and J_______,
are the physical sign
of God’s love for the world.

The sacrament of matrimony
is not what happens here this evening—
that is only the beginning.
The sacrament of matrimony
extends throughout your entire lives.
It is the sign to the world of God’s love
lived out in the ordinary daily life
that the two of you will share.
If you let the grace of this sacrament
transform you by the renewal of your minds,
as Paul puts it;
if in your life together
down through the years and decades to come
you seek together to
“discern what is the will of God,
what is good and pleasing and perfect”;
if you let your love be sincere
and “love one another with mutual affection”;
if you “rejoice in hope,
endure in affliction,
persevere in prayer;"
if you truly become bone or each other’s bone
and flesh of each other’s flesh,
then you will truly be the salt that brings savor
to the lives of those around you,
then you will truly be light for the world,
a world that seems all too often
shrouded in darkness.
On this extraordinary day Jesus is calling you
to let your light shine
in all the ordinary days to come,
to become in your love for each other
the living presence
of faith, hope, and love in our world.
May God bless you with this gift.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isaiah 66:18-21; Luke 13:22-30

Preached a Grace United Methodist Church, Baltimore Maryland

This seems to happen all the time in the Gospels:
someone comes to Jesus with a clear-cut, yes-or-no question—
“Lord, will only a few be saved?”—
and rather than simply answering the question
Jesus launches into a lengthy discourse
(or even, God forbid, a parable)
that occasions more confusion than clarification.
All the person wants is some information—
salvation: many or few?—
and suddenly Jesus is talking about narrow doors
and homeowners who won’t answer when you knock;
then, inexplicably, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob put in an appearance,
and along with them (just for good measure) all the prophets
and then there is weeping and gnashing of teeth
and a geographically diverse crowd at a banquet,
and finally, just to drive home the point
that he really isn’t going to answer the question
he says cryptically, “some are last who will be first,
and some are first who will be last.”
Writing in the 5th century, St. Cyril of Alexandria
noted, with a bit of understatement,
“This reply may seem perhaps to wander
from the scope of the question” (Homily 99 on Luke).

But maybe Jesus has his reasons
for answering simple and direct questions
with such complexity and indirectness.
In this particular case,
perhaps he wants to show us
that asking about the salvation of others
may simply be a way of avoiding the question
of what my standing is before God.
We turn our gaze to the fate of others
so we do not have to look at ourselves.

This was certainly the view of St. Cyril,
who goes on to say:
“The man wanted to know
whether there would be few who are saved,
but [Jesus] explained to him the way
whereby he might be saved himself….
It was a necessary and valuable thing
to know how one may obtain salvation.
[Jesus] is purposely silent
to the [man’s] useless question.” (Homily 99 on Luke).
In other words,
the question of few or many
is of no use to anyone;
it is a question motivated by mere curiosity.
What is of use is the knowledge of
whether I am aiming for a door that is narrow,
whether I must strive at all times to enter that door,
whether I can let my salvation rest
on simply having been in the proximity of Jesus,
of having heard his teaching,
or whether I must seek to be his disciple
in a deeper and truer sense.

Now to Catholics and Methodists like us
this might sound pretty OK:
our traditions place a premium on holy living.
We think that justification
must be completed by sanctification
and that this sanctification must be lived out
in a concrete and visible way,
whether this is Benedictine monasticism
or the Wesley Class Meeting.
John Wesley’s views on grace
were close enough to the teachings
of the Council of Trent
that he was accused by some
of secretly being a Jesuit.
From the early Christian reform of Roman morals,
to St. Francis’s embrace of Lady Poverty,
to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union,
to participation in the Civil Rights Movement,
the Catholic and Methodist traditions
have embodied the conviction
that being a disciple of Jesus involves more
than simply being in the near proximity of Jesus,
more than simply having shared a meal with him
or having heard him teach.
One might say that, theologically speaking,
Catholicism and Methodism
are “strenuous” forms of Christianity.
If I am to be a disciple of Jesus,
then I must strive with every muscle, nerve, and bone
to enter the narrow door by living a Christ-like life,
a life of integrity and justice and peace-making.

But we should beware of thinking
that, by hearing in it a call
to a life of strenuous discipleship,
we have fully grasped the meaning of
Jesus’ lengthy, baffling, complex, indirect non-answer
to the man’s useless and idle question.
We should beware of thinking
that Jesus is telling us
that our strenuous discipleship
somehow ensures our salvation.
Just when we think
that we have got the thing wrapped up—
that we know what Jesus’ requirements are,
that we know what it means to strive,
that we know where that narrow door is located—
Jesus unravels it.
For he tells us that the door may be narrow,
but it is widely accessible:
in the wideness of God’s mercy
it welcomes those coming from the east or the west,
from the north or the south.
He tells us that we must strive to enter,
but striving is no guarantee of preferred treatment:
many who have through their striving
arrived at the door first
will suddenly find themselves at the back of the line,
while the slacker disciples who didn’t strive very hard
and arrived at the last minute
will suddenly find themselves at the front of the line.
“Some are last who will be first,
and some are first who will be last.”

Imagine the scene:
you have spent your life in strenuous discipleship,
faithfully attending church on Sundays
and a prayer group during the week,
volunteering at a homeless shelter
and taking in foster children,
passing up the higher-paying job
to spend more time with your family and volunteering,
scrupulously voting for candidates who best embody
what you think is the Gospel message,
treating everyone fairly and equally,
striving to enter that narrow door.
And on the day of judgment
you discover that, despite all your striving,
you have somehow ended up at the back of the line.
Not only that, but as you look ahead of you in line
you are shocked to see those you recognize as
liars and adulterers,
murderers and thieves,
gangbangers and whores,
bullies and racists,
terrorists and tyrants,
all those who clearly did not strive,
as you did,
to enter the narrow door.
These sinners are entering into the kingdom
ahead of you,
sitting down to join in the banquet,
while you stand outside
like some D-list celebrity
waiting and hoping
to get into the hottest club in town
before it fills up.

Does your heart fall
as you see the unfairness of it all?
Do you cry out in the name of justice
and recount all you did
in your strenuous life of discipleship,
all the striving that surely must have won you
a higher place in line?

Or does your heart leap for joy
because all of those wretched sinners ahead of you
were somehow touched by God’s grace,
somehow transformed by God’s Spirit,
so as to now share in the joy of the kingdom?
Do you cry out in praise of grace,
thankful for God’s mercy shown to those sinners
and thankful for the mercy shown to you
despite your confidence in your own striving,
despite your arrogance in thinking
that even the most strenuous discipleship
could ever make you deserving
of a place in God’s kingdom.

As we ponder Jesus’ lengthy, baffling,
complex, indirect non-answer
to the man’s useless and idle question
we might come to see
that we should strive to enter the narrow door,
to live a life of strenuous discipleship,
to practice our faith in Jesus Christ
to the greatest depth and breadth of our ability.
If you love Jesus, of course you will want to do this,
for what lover would not do everything possible
to be with his or her beloved,
to do and love what the beloved does and loves.
But, as Bernard of Clairvaux asked,
“when the soul has poured out her whole being in love,
what is that in comparison with the unceasing torrent”
that is the source of our love,
the God who loved us first (Sermon 83)?

If you wish truly to know the joy of the kingdom,
if you wish truly to feast
with patriarchs and prophets,
with people of all nations and tongues,
at the banquet of life,
never forget that in all your striving
God’s grace goes before you;
never forget that you too are saved
not by your own efforts
but by the same mercy that saves
the worst of sinners;
never forget that our hope is grounded
not in our strenuous discipleship
but in the mystery of divine love.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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

Promise and fulfillment,
warning and judgment,
hope and vigilance:
these are themes that we might more typically expect
to hear at the end of November
and the beginning of December
with the close of the Church year
and the start of Advent.
But God in his providence has decided
that we need to reflect on these themes
a bit early this year;
perhaps because, with our national elections
coming on November 8th,
we need urgently to hear God’s word
calling us to serve the common good of all people,
reminding us that we stand before the judgment of God,
and renewing our awareness of where our hope truly lies.

There are at least two temptations that can beset us
as we enter the frenzied final months
of the election season.
One temptation is over-investment:
to let ourselves be caught up in that frenzy;
to be filled with unrealistic hope,
should our candidate win,
and fearful despair,
should our candidate lose;
to so invest in a particular outcome
that we come to see those who disagree with us—
even our friends and family members—as enemies:
at best unwitting dupes of political manipulation
and at worst hateful, selfish, and morally corrupt.
The other temptation is under-investment:
to denounce all politics as corrupt,
to say that none of this
has anything to do with me,
and to walk away from the frenzy,
shaking the dust from our feet.
To combat these temptations,
to find our way through the frenzied months ahead,
our scriptures today call us as followers of Jesus
to recall and hold fast to some basic principles.

Our Gospel reading recounts a parable
about servants waiting for the return of their master—
servants who are rewarded
for being prepared when he arrives.
Jesus concludes: “You also must be prepared,
for at an hour you do not expect,
the Son of Man will come.”
When Peter asks “is this parable meant for us
or for everyone?”—
meaning, does this have some special relevance
to us whom you have chosen as leaders?—
Jesus resumes the parable,
this time focusing on the “steward” of the household.
The word we translate as “steward” (oikonomos) means
the servant who was placed in authority over the other servants
and was charged with making sure that things ran smoothly:
that the other servants were fed and well treated,
that the master’s resources were not squandered,
that the well-being of the entire household was guarded.
Jesus considers the case of a steward who decides
that the master is not showing up any time soon,
and so neglects and abuses the servants
who have been put in his care
and runs the master’s household
as if it were there for his own personal well-being.
Needless to say,
things do not turn out well for such a steward
when the master returns unexpectedly.

This parable,
while likely intended as a warning to leaders in the Church,
also speaks to anyone placed in a position of leadership.
A key principle of Catholic social thought
is that governments exist to serve
what we call “the common good”—
that is, all that leads to the flourishing
both of individuals and of a society as a whole;
The common good is,
as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says,
“what is needed to lead a truly human life:
food, clothing, health, work, education and culture,
suitable information,
the right to establish a family, and so on” (n. 1908).
The steward in the parable is charged
with the common good of the household;
but, forgetting that he himself is a servant,
presuming that the master is not returning,
he does not provide for the other servants,
does not see to it that they have
what they need to lead a truly human life,
but rather treats the household as a vehicle
for satisfying his own ambitions,
for fulfilling his own desires.
And he is judged harshly upon his master’s return.

This notion of the common good
is fundamental to how we as Catholics
are called to think about politics.
Political leaders are entrusted with the task
not of winning power glory for themselves,
or even of making our nation rich and powerful,
but of fostering a society that is truly human and humane,
in which the weakest and most vulnerable
are protected and cared for.
And because we live in a democracy,
there is a sense in which all of us,
and not only our leaders,
are stewards of the common good,
called to care for the household of God’s creation.
With national elections approaching,
we need to reflect now
on that Advent theme of final judgment:
when God will reveal our deeds,
when we will have to bear witness to our lives
and to whether we chose our leaders
according to our own private interests—
what benefits us
or according to what will make a truly human life
possible for all people.
So we cannot under-invest in our nation’s politics;
we cannot retreat from the task entrusted to us
of seeking a more just and humane world.

But there is another theme sounded in our readings:
while the common good that we can secure in this world
is a genuine good,
it is not the highest good.
The Letter to the Hebrews says
that even when Abraham was in the land
God had promised him,
“he sojourned [there] as in a foreign country...
for he was looking forward to the city...
whose architect and maker is God.”
We are called to seek the common good
that makes for a truly human life,
but also never forget that we ultimately
“desire a better homeland, a heavenly one.”
We desire a peace and a justice that only God can provide,
a peace and a justice that our best earthly efforts
can only feebly prepare for and dimly approximate.
At the end of the day our hope lies
not in any party or candidate,
but in Jesus Christ and his kingdom of love.
And if we keep this in mind,
then we can give ourselves whole-heartedly
to the pursuit of the common good
and still resist the temptation to over-invest
in our earthly political struggles,
an over-investment that leads
not to peace or justice,
but to strife and partisanship,
to bitterness and disappointment;
an over-investment by which we gain the world
at the cost of our souls.
"For where your treasure is,
there also will your heart be."

The frenzy of our political seasons
are challenging to everyone,
but they are even more challenging
if you are a follower of Jesus.
Our two temptations
of over-investment and under-investment
stand as warning markers
on opposite sides of the path of Christian discipleship.
Today’s readings call us to walk the razor’s edge of prudence
during the coming days of political frenzy:
we must recognize that we all
bear a responsibility for the common good
and will be judged by God accordingly,
while we must also remember
that we are citizens of a kingdom that is yet to come,
a kingdom for which we wait in vigilance,
a kingdom of peace that calls to us beyond partisan battles,
a kingdom that can quiet our fearful frenzy and give us hope.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isaiah 66:10-14c; Galatians 6:14-18; Luke 10:1-12, 17-20

Our first reading, from the prophet Isaiah,
speaks of the city of Jerusalem as a mother
at whose breast—from whose very body—
her children find abundant and unfailing food and comfort.
Then, in a subtle turn at the end of the reading,
the image of Jerusalem as mother
is transformed into the image of God as mother:
“as a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.”
God is the mother who abundantly feeds us from her own body,
a reality we experience each week as we gather
to receive the body and blood of Jesus at his altar.
The fourteenth-century mystic Julian of Norwich wrote:
“The mother may give her child suck of her milk,
but our precious mother, Jesus,
he may feed us with himself, and does it,
full courteously and full tenderly,
with the Blessed Sacrament
that is the precious food of my life” (Revelations of Love, ch. 60).
This idea of God as an unfailing source of abundance
is reflected not only in our first reading’s imagery
of God as a loving mother,
but also in the words of Jesus in our Gospel reading:
“The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few.”
Our readings call us to reflect on God’s abundance
and our call to be workers in God’s field,
missionary disciples gathering in God’s harvest.

As many of you know,
the Archdiocese is engaged in a process of planning,
to discern how best to use our resources
as we seek to be a community of missionary disciples.
As part of this, you were all invited last winter to take a survey
to help us determine our parish’s readiness to take up that mission
and for the past several weeks
the parish staff and a group of parishioners
have been meeting to review the results of that survey,
to assess the opportunities and challenges that we have as a parish,
and to produce a document that will be shared with the Archdiocese
as part of the planning process.
In the coming weeks there will be opportunities
for parishioners to offer feedback on that document
so that the widest range of viewpoints can be represented.

As we participate in this planning process
there is a temptation to think that all of this
is really about managing parish closings or mergers
in an age of ecclesiastical scarcity.
But we should resist that temptation,
for while it is undoubtedly true that there will be
some restructuring of parishes and how they are staffed,
the Archbishop says, and I believe him,
that first and foremost this is about reflecting on how we can best
present the Gospel of Jesus Christ in our time and our place,
by identifying and facing the challenges and opportunities
that God’s abundant providence has given us.

Jesus sends out seventy-two missionary disciples,
telling them, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few.”
Notice that the image that Jesus uses
is not one of sowing and planting, but of harvesting.
Jesus is, I think, quite deliberate in his choice of imagery.
The seventy-two are not being asked
to plant the seed of God’s word where it has not been
but to harvest the fruits that have burst forth from those seeds.
The implication is that through the words of Jesus
and the hidden working of the Holy Spirit
God’s word has been planted and already now is ripening.
The work of the seventy-two missionary disciples
is not to bring God into a situation
from which God has up to that point been absent,
but to recognize the abundant fruits of the Spirit
growing in the field of the world
and to gather them in.

On our parish survey, 48% of those who responded
said that the greatest obstacle they had to sharing their faith
was a desire not to push their beliefs on others.
But what if we think of our task as missionary disciples
not so much as sowing and planting—
pushing seeds into the soil where they have not been before—
but rather as giving those within whom the Spirit is moving
the life-giving and challenging opportunity
to be gathered into a community of faith?
Just as the many grains of wheat from the field
are ground and kneaded and baked into one loaf,
so too those in whom the Spirit is at work
can through their unity be transformed
into the living body of Christ,
given as food for the life of the world,
becoming part of how God’s abundance feeds and comforts.
In inviting others to reflect with us
on God’s work in their lives
we are not planting the seeds of our own opinions
but harvesting the work of the Spirit
by sharing with them how God has worked
and continues to work in our lives.
Not to share your faith,
not to share the love you have for Jesus,
is to let those fruits go unharvested.

Of course, perhaps our hesitation comes not simply
from a desire not to offend others
but from a fear of being met with hostility or indifference.
Our Gospel today seems to presume that the seventy-two
are being sent out into a world that is often hostile toward them.
The harvest may be plentiful,
but the harvesters are sent out like lambs among wolves
and the prospect of a positive response seems dubious.
If the seventy-two felt that they faced hostility,
many of us today may feel that we face indifference.
In our parish survey, 39% of parents
said that the greatest challenge they faced
in passing on the faith to their children
was “swimming against the tide
in a society that does not value faith,”
and 31% of respondents said that lack of interest in others
was the greatest obstacle they faced in sharing their faith.
The indifference to faith that we perceive in our society
might lead us to think that,
whatever may have been the case in the time of Jesus,
the harvest today is certainly not abundant.

But I suspect that the disciples in today’s Gospel
were just as dubious
when Jesus told them the harvest was plentiful.
The plenty of the harvest can hidden from our eyes,
masked by our presumptions
about the the hostility or indifference of others.
Saint Augustine noted how Jesus instructed the seventy-two
that they were to offer the greeting
“peace to this household”
in whatever house they entered.
Augustine wrote:
“Since we do not know who is a son of peace,
it is our part to leave no one out, to set no one aside,
but to desire that all to whom we preach this peace
be saved” (Admonition and Grace 15.46).
We should not presume indifference or hostility;
indeed, we should presume
as we step into the field of the world
that Jesus has already been there,
planting the seed,
that the Spirit of God has already been there,
giving growth to the fruit
that we are being asked to gather in.

If we are to be missionary disciples,
we must cling to faith in a God of abundance and generosity.
It is an act of faith to offer the peace of Christ
to a seemingly indifferent or hostile world:
it is an act of faith in the efficacy of the Spirit’s sowing,
an act of faith in the boundless power of God’s generosity.
The field of our modern world may look barren to us
but Jesus assures us that the harvest is abundant,
because, like a loving mother
who holds her child at her breast,
God is providing for her children.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

10th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Kings 17:17-24; Galatians 1:11-14a, 15ac, 16a, 17, 19; Luke 7: 11-17

What hopes did the widow of Nain have on that day,
as she accompanied the funeral procession
on the journey to her son’s place of burial?
They certainly did not include what actually happened.
She may have had, as many Jews in her day did,
a hope that someday God’s kingdom would come
and the dead would be raised to new life,
but she surely was not hoping
that her son would be returned to her that very day;
she surely was not hoping
that death would be pushed back into its lair,
even for a moment;
she surely was not hoping
that the Rabbi from Nazareth would become,
as the fourth-century poet Ephrem the Syrian put it,
“like a sponge for her tears
and as life for the death of her son.”
But Jesus says to her, “Do not weep.”
He says to the lifeless corpse,
“Young man, I tell you, arise!”
And the crowd exclaims in response,
“God has visited his people.”

What expectations did Paul have on that day,
as he traveled the road to Damascus
on the journey to continue his campaign of persecution
against the followers of Jesus,
a campaign, he tells us in our second reading,
that was “beyond measure” and sought nothing less
than the destruction of this heretical faction within Judaism?
He may have expected that God would reward him for his zeal,
that the good work he was undertaking
of purifying God’s people of the contagion of this blasphemy
would make him righteous in the eyes of God.
But he surely did not expect
that Jesus would be revealed to him as God’s Son;
he surely did not expect
that God had called him from his mother’s womb
to bring the Good News of Jesus to the Gentile outsiders;
he surely did not expect that Christ, by his grace,
would raise his soul from the death of sin
just as surely as he had raised the body
of the son of the widow of Nain.
But God, through Jesus, in the power of the Spirit,
steps into Paul’s life
in a personal and immediate way
and things would never be the same again.
Paul, his eyes opened by grace, suddenly sees,
no less than the crowd who had witnessed
the raising of the widow’s son,
that in Jesus Christ,
“God has visited his people.”

What hopes and expectations do we have on this day,
as we find ourselves in the midst our life’s journey?
We may expect that Mass will once again
run a bit longer than we wish it would,
though we hope it will at least be worth it.
We may hope that the Oriels
will continue to have a triumphant season,
though we expect that they
will fall apart as usual
after the All Star break.
We may even hope that today
we will catch a glimpse of something
that will deepen our lives of faith, hope, and love,
though we probably expect
that our everyday lives will go on as usual.
But what if we take seriously the possibility
that our Scriptures this morning
hold before our eyes?
What if we take seriously the message
that in Jesus God has visited his people
with the power to push back death’s kingdom,
that in Jesus God has stepped into our lives
in a powerful and personal way,
calling out to each of us,
and waiting for us
to hear and to answer?

In the story of widow of Nain and in the life of Paul
we see that God not only goes beyond
what we might hope or expect,
but even upsets and overturns
the so-called normal pattern of how life goes,
that way of getting by
in which we pretend we have made our peace
with the forces of sin and death.
We may think that death wins in the end,
and even now rules our lives,
holding us back in our aversion to risk
and our fear of loss.
We may think that we are left on our own
to deal with our regrets,
to put behind us the pain
that we have suffered or inflicted.
We may think that God is a lofty concept,
something distant and uninterested,
to which we can relate only as an abstract ideal.
But the good news this day—
the good news every day—
is that God has visited his people
in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The good news this day—
the good news every day—
is that God continues to visit his people
through the Holy Spirit,
who prays within us with signs to deep for words,
who makes us call out to the God
who is no distant and bloodless abstraction
but the endlessly fascinating mystery
who is at work in our world and in our lives.
The good news this day—
the good news every day—
is that this mysterious God draws near to us,
enters into our world and our lives
with a disturbing intimacy,
and calls us to leave behind our ordinary
(and, frankly, pretty boring)
hopes and expectations of what life can offer
and holds out to us the adventure of eternity.

Each and every one of you, this day,
is the widow of Nain mourning beside her son,
is Paul embarking on his mission of destruction.
Each and every one of you has before you
Jesus’ offer of life and forgiveness and transformation.
Each and every one of you
has been called by God from your mother’s womb
to take up that offer,
to become agents of life and forgiveness
as members of Christ’s body.
For here, in this place,
now, in this moment
God has visited his people.

Sunday, May 8, 2016


Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Hebrews 9: 24-28, 10:19-23; Luke 24:46-53

Before he ascends into heaven,
Jesus recalls to his followers what they have seen—
his life, his death, his resurrection—
and says, “You are witnesses of these things.”
“You are witnesses.”
On the one hand, it is a statement
that they have been present
and have seen these wondrous things take place.
But it is also a call
to not simply be witnesses,
but also to bear witness.

To be a witness
you don’t have to do anything
but be there and have your eyes open,
but to bear witness
you must be willing
to get on the stand
and give public testimony
to what you have seen.
The difference between being a witness
and bearing witness
becomes particularly clear in cases
of what we call “witness intimidation.”
Often—all too often in our own city—
people might be witnesses to a crime,
but are not willing to bear witness
because they fear for their safety
or the safety of their family,
because they do not believe
that the police can protect them from reprisal.

Jesus says to his disciples, however,
that no matter how intimidating it may be,
no matter what threats they may face,
because they have been witnesses,
they must now bear witness.
Throughout his earthly ministry,
Jesus has been God’s faithful witness,
speaking God’s truth whatever the consequences,
showing God’s love to the unlovable,
manifesting in his words and actions
the reality of God’s kingdom.
At his Ascension, Jesus bestows on his disciples
a share in this ministry of witness.
But he does not leave them
to do this on their own;
rather, he says to them,
“you will receive power
when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem,
throughout Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth.”
The Spirit will be given to them
so they can both be witnesses
and bear witness.

In the book of Acts,
the Holy Spirit gives the apostles
eyes to see the work of God
that is ongoing in their midst,
enabling them to discern the new reality
that the Spirit is creating.
It is the Spirit who enables them to see
that the Gentiles, whom they had formerly viewed
as “outsiders” and “unclean,”
have now been brought
into the community of God’s people
and made clean through the blood of Christ.
Likewise, it is the Spirit who enables them to see
that the power of Imperial Rome,
which claims to dominate the known world
is something they did not need to fear,
and before which they do not need to bow,
because it is nothing compared to the power of God,
which has raised Jesus from the dead.
The Spirit gives them eyes to see,
to be witnesses to God’s work,
and the same Spirit empowers them to bear witness,
despite the “witness intimidation” that they face
from the religious and political authorities of their day.

We might say that the Spirit
is God’s “witness protection program.”
But, unlike what we see in the movies and on television,
God’s witness protection program is not a matter
of hiding people away and giving them fake identities.
Rather, God’s witness protection program
puts them on the streets and in the public square,
prodding them to proclaim
their identities at disciples of and witnesses to Jesus,
giving them confidence to walk along
what the letter to the Hebrews calls
“the new and living way”
that Jesus has opened up for us.
It is not a promise that they will not suffer,
but rather that the meaning of their suffering
has already been transformed
in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

And this work of the Spirit
goes on in our day as well.
Last week saw the passing
of Fr. Daniel Berrigan,
the controversial Jesuit priest
who for 94 years
was a consistent apostle of Christ’s peace,
protesting war and the arms race,
speaking out for the rights of the defenseless,
from children in the womb to people with AIDS.
When threatened, he was not intimidated,
but doubled-down on his life of witness;
whether in the pulpit,
on the streets,
or in a jail cell,
he was a constantly irritating presence
to people of all sorts of political perspectives—
not unlike Jesus,
in whose ministry of witness he shared.
Dan Berrigan walked the new and living way of Jesus,
knowing that through Baptism
he had already died
and was risen with Christ;
he believed that through the Spirit,
God’s promise from on high,
he was in God’s witness protection program,
and that nothing could separate him
from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

As for the apostles,
as for Dan Berrigan,
so too for us.
In ascending to his Father,
Christ has promised us his Spirit,
who makes us witnesses,
giving us eyes to see the signs and wonders
that God works in our midst,
and the courage to give testimony,
to bear witness to what we have seen.
We too, through our Baptism
and the Spirit’s gift in Confirmation,
are in God’s witness protection program,
not hiding away from the intimidating task
of proclaiming Jesus crucified and risen,
not disguising our identity as Christians—
embarrassed by our belief
or fearful of giving offense—
but being willing to speak
of the transformative presence in our lives
of Jesus Christ through the Spirit,
not in order to imposed our beliefs on others,
but so that those whom we meet
may themselves be witnesses and bear witness
to the reality of God’s presence in the world.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Easter 2

Readings: Acts 5:12-16; Revelation 1:9-11a, 12-13, 17-19; John 20:19-31

Here we are a week after Easter
and our Scriptures today paint for us
a picture of the post-Easter world.
What do we see?
In the Gospel of John we see
the risen Jesus walking through a locked door,
breathing on the apostles,
and thereby giving them the power
to bind and loose people’s sins.
In the Book of Acts we see
those same apostles beginning to enjoy
such a reputation for “signs and wonders”
that people are dragging the sick out onto the streets
so that Peter’s shadow can fall upon them
and heal them as he passes by.
In the Revelation of John we see the author,
living in exile on an island,
having a vision of the risen Jesus
as a robed divine figure
surrounded by seven golden lamps
and proclaiming that though he was dead
now he lives forever.
Today we also celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday,
a new feast, inaugurated by the Church in the year 2000,
prompted by a vision had in 1931
by a young Polish nun, Faustina Kowalska,
in which Jesus appeared robed in white
with red beams emanating from his heart,
telling her that on this day especially
the depths of his tender mercy are open
to all who would receive it.

In other words,
the post-Easter world is a pretty weird place.
It is as if the resurrection of Jesus from the dead
has seriously unhinged things
and caused people to act in all sorts of strange ways
and experience all sorts of strange things.
Who can blame doubting Thomas
for trying to inject a little sanity into the situation
by asking for some concrete evidence of this resurrection?

But isn’t the point of Easter
that the world has become unhinged by the resurrection.
Or it might be more accurate to say
that the raising of Jesus from the dead
has put the world back on its hinges;
that this is the way things are meant to be,
but many of us don’t realize it.
Karl Marx once responded to his critics
who said that he had taken the philosophy of Hegel
and turned it on its head
by saying that, on the contrary,
he came along and found Hegel standing on his head
and turned him right side up again.
Likewise, we might say that Jesus
found a world standing on its head
and put it back on its feet;
the resurrection of Jesus has restored the world
to how God intended it to be:
a world of life rather than a world of death,
a world of mercy rather than a world of condemnation,
a world in which God once more has drawn near.

In trying to appreciate the way in which
Easter radically transforms things,
some people can get hung up
on the extraordinary and miraculous things,
the “signs and wonders,” that we are presented with today.
Some might think that they are the main point,
while others might think that in their weirdness
they make the message of Easter
somewhat unbelievable.
In both cases we should remind ourselves
that the extraordinary and the miraculous
are not God’s primary way of working in the world,
but rather God’s way of getting our attention.
John’s Gospel and the Book of Acts
both speak of miracles as “signs”—
events that make visible
the normally hidden power of God
that is always at work in the world.
Most of us, in fact, believe without direct experience
of extraordinary signs and wonders.
And as Jesus says to Thomas in our Gospel,
“Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”

And yet, even if most of us don’t have Jesus appear to us
as he did to the apostles in the upper room
or John in exile on Patmos,
or Sister Faustina in her convent in Poland,
we no less than they live in that strange post-Easter world.
We no less than they live in the world
that Jesus found standing on its head
and set back on its feet.
Indeed, we no less than they are called to live out our faith
in the extraordinary and miraculous good news of Easter.

Think of what Jesus says to John
when he appears to him on Patmos:
“Do not be afraid….
I hold the keys to death and the netherworld.”
What should our lives look like
if we really believe this is true?
What should our lives look like
if we really believe that we do not need to be afraid?
What should our lives look like
if we really believe that death
is not the worst thing that can happen to us?
What should our lives look like
if we really believe that there is nothing
from which the power of the risen Christ cannot save,
no loss that he cannot redeem,
no sin he cannot heal,
no shame that he cannot turn into glory?
What should our lives look like
if we truly know the truth of Easter,
the truth that the crucified Christ is alive forever
and holds in his hands—
the hands that were pierced by human sin—
the keys to death and the netherworld?

The writer Flannery O’Connor is reputed to have said,
“you will know the truth
and the truth shall make you odd.”
The promise of Easter
is that you too can look pretty weird
if you live our faith in the risen Jesus
in a world that keeps trying to turn itself back onto its head.
This is the world that wonders why you spend so little time
trying to protect yourself
from the loss of your reputation or your security.
This is the world that wonders why you do not treat refugees
as threats to be managed
rather than brothers and sisters to be welcomed.
This is the world that wonders why you forgive—
not just once, or seven times,
but seventy-times-seven times.
This is the world that might wonder
why you willingly lay down your life
in service, in sacrifice,
and perhaps even in death.

The grace of Easter faith can transform us
so that we become the signs and wonders,
the extraordinary and miraculous occurrences,
that bear witness in the world
to the resurrection of Jesus, the one who lives,
to the the message of divine mercy and forgiveness,
to the weird world of Easter
and the truth that makes us odd.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter Sunday

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

Earlier this year
I spent several weeks at a Trappist monastery,
which is one of those things you can do
when you’re a university professor on sabbatical
and your youngest child has left the nest for college.
Over the course of weeks I discovered
that not a lot happens at a Trappist monastery,
and every day is pretty much like the one before it
and the one after it.
You rise early at 3:00 AM and spend several hours
in communal and private prayer
before going off to work, praying some more,
then more work, and more prayers.
Throw in a few meals, eaten in silence,
and that’s about your day.
The prayer itself is pretty much always the same:
chanting the 150 psalms over the course of two weeks,
along with a few hymns and Mass each day.
The work is also pretty much the same:
at this monastery it is growing mushrooms,
which is about as exciting as watching paint dry,
though more physically demanding.

Shortly before I left for the monastery
my mother was hospitalized.
She had been failing for several months
and it was clear to all of us
that the end was not too far off.
But my family insisted I not cancel my plans.
I arrived at the monastery knowing that I might well
have to cut short my time there,
as indeed proved to be the case
when my mother died three weeks later.

In the midst of those these seemingly uneventful days,
prior to my mother's death,
I found myself thinking about and praying over
the impermanence of life,
the way in which, despite our best efforts,
we cannot hold on to the things we love,
to the people we love:
how we hold our lives like water cupped in our hands
that ever so slowly leaks through our fingers.
Our days slip past us,
each one marked by some degree of loss.
We experience this most sharply
when we lose to death someone we love.
We experience it perhaps less sharply, but no less really,
as we drift away from friends over time,
or lose the enthusiasm we once felt
for our work
or for a cause we cared about,
or even for our faith.

Of course, there are gains in life as well as losses,
but we experience a kind of loss even in life’s gains.
As I prayed about the coming death of my mother
I recalled my last conversation with her,
in which she spoke of when I was a toddler
and she would come into my room every morning
and I would be standing in my crib,
so excited to see her.
While I have no doubt that she loved the man I became,
it was also clear that she missed that little toddler
and his unambiguous love and enthusiasm.
I thought too about my own children
and their transition from childhood to young adulthood,
and how even in the process of becoming
the increasingly accomplished, interesting,
complex people that they are
there is the loss of innocent childlike wonder and simplicity.
Even the great gains of life are not unmarked by loss.
The advent of the child who walks on her own
marks the end of the child whom you carried in your arms.
The emergence of the child who can read for himself
marks the end of the child to whom you read
The Very Hungry Caterpillar
over and over and over and over.
As tired as our arms may grow,
and as tedious as the adventures of that caterpillar may be,
we still miss the feel of that child against our chest,
the time spent together
discovering the wonder of language and image.
We want to hold on to those moments of grace,
but they pass away and even memory fades.

Is this simply the fate of us human beings,
who live within the unceasing stream of time?
Will the water of life inevitably trickle through our fingers?
Does every tick of the clock
mark the winding down of life?
Is it the case, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it,
that “all is in an enormous dark/Drowned,”
that “vastness blurs and time beats level”?
Or can we find, in the midst of the ceaseless flow of time,
a still point, a place of eternity
in which every moment that flies past us
is held safe and kept close,
a point that gathers in all that time takes from us,
a point in which we can find that lost loved one,
that friendship that faded out over the years,
that childlike innocence that was exchanged for adulthood?

On this Easter morning, St. Paul exhorts us,
“Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.”
In the midst of this life that at every moment
is being pulled by time from our grasp,
Paul tells us to open our hands,
to let go of the things we love in this life.
But he tells us this not because this life is unimportant,
not because the things we love are not worthy of our love,
but because the only way we can keep them
is by releasing them
into the eternity of love that is God,
the eternity of love that explodes into our world
in the resurrection of Jesus.
This is what Easter hope is all about.
The empty tomb of Christ is the doorway
into the still point of eternity
in which all time is gathered and redeemed.
It is the doorway that we enter
through faith and baptism,
the faith that is expressed in the baptismal promises
that we will renew in a few moments.
And passing through that doorway, St. Paul tells us,
we have died—
died to the merciless passage of time—
and our life is now hidden with Christ in God,
hidden in the risen one
who holds within himself all that we love.

What I found in the seemingly uneventful life
of prayer and work of the Trappist monks
was not a tedious cycle of pointless repetition
but the presence within time of eternity,
an eternity of returning again and again to the beginning,
to find that everything I thought time had taken
is being kept for me in the risen Jesus.
And it can be like this for all of us,
as we gather week by week
in the repetitive rhythm of the liturgy,
we return to our beginning,
we receive Jesus,
the eternal one,
into ourselves,
and find again in him
all that is true,
all that is good,
all that is beautiful.
We creatures of time,
who seem made for death,
whose best achievements
are shadowed by loss,
are given the gift of sharing in God’s eternity
through Jesus Christ, who came to share our life
in the turbulent torrent of time,
so that we might share his life
in the still point of God’s eternity.
To quote again the poet Hopkins:
“In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
           Is immortal diamond.”

Saturday, March 26, 2016

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; Luke 24:1-12

The story of salvation
that is rehearsed in the scriptures
of our Easter Vigil
might seem like tales
of the “glory days” of God’s people.
So much of our faith,
and of this Vigil celebration in particular,
is tied up with memory,
and memory can give us a sense of grounding
in our collective and individual histories,
but it might also bring with it
a sense of regret and even resentment
over the loss of past glories.

Perhaps there is something wrong with me,
but sometimes when I hear
the story of salvation rehearsed
I find myself saying,
“if only… if only…”
If only I could have been there to witness
the kinds of miracle that God used to perform:
calling the universe into being with a word,
parting seas and slaying attacking armies.
If only I could have heard the voice of God
speaking directly through the prophets,
offering words of warning and of comfort
that could pierce the hardest of hearts.
If only I could have been there, like the women, 
to see angels proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus
or even, like Peter,
just the empty tomb
and burial cloths.
If only…

Sometimes I hear these stories from the past
of the great and mighty deeds of God
and feel an odd sort of regret—
the sense that the best days of our faith are in the past.
God’s activity in the world used to be so clear:
those were literally “glory days,”
when the light of God seemed to burst forth
with undeniable clarity,
and those who saw and heard and experienced these things
were so bathed in that light
that I imagine that they
could not help but be moved to faith.
But all we today have are reports from the past,
of what God once did
but seems to do no more.
Where have the glory days of our faith gone?

This sense of loss,
this sense of passing glory,
can haunt not only the story
of God’s people as a whole,
but also each of our individual stories:
if only I could return to the kind of simple faith
that I had as a small child.
If only I could recover the fervor of faith
that I had when I first entered the church.
If only…
And not just we as individuals,
but even as a parish community:
I think, if only Mary Jane O’Brien or Tom Ward
could be here at this Vigil with us,
or Mary Alma Lears could be sitting with her daughters,
or Henry Tom could making himself busy
with many, many, many details…
but we look around us and we see them no longer,
and our celebration seems that much less glorious,
and we are beset by a sense of loss and regret
and maybe even resentment at their absence:
If only…

But the God of Easter is not a God
of regrets and resentments.
The God of Easter is not a God
who promises to “make Christianity great again,”
as if some new savior must come
to return the church and us to some past glory.
No, the God of Easter says,
“This is the night.”
Not some dimly recalled days of glory in the past,
nor hoped for days of glory yet to come,
but this is the night.
This is the night when the waters part
and slaves are freed,
this is the night when prophets speak
and hearts are changed,
this is the night,
when Christ breaks the prison-bars of death
and rises victorious.”
It is the night that redeems all our losses,
the night when waning embers of faith
are stirred into new light,
the night that “dispels wickedness,
washes faults away,
restores innocence to the fallen,
and joy to mourners,
drives out hatred,
fosters concord,
and brings down the mighty.”
This is the night when all those whom we have lost—
Mary Jane, Tom, Mary Alma, Henry,
parents and children and spouses and friends—
stand with us in the light of eternal glory.
For this is the night of Christ,
whose empty tomb stands as an outpost of eternity
in this world of passing glory.
This is the night in which we die and rise with Christ,
so that we live with him now in newness of life,
and living that new life, that eternal life,
we witness to the reality of a glory
that carries us through days of loss and regret
to the day when God will be all in all.
This is the night when we leave behind “if only,”
the night when all the glory of the past,
and all the glory that is to come,
and all the glory that now lies hidden in our midst,
shines forth in Jesus risen among us:
“Christ yesterday and today,
the beginning and the end,
the Alpha and the Omega,
all time belongs to him,
and all the ages;
to him be glory and power,
through every age and for ever.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Lent 4

Readings: Joshua 5:9a, 10-12; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Though we call it “the parable of the prodigal son”
it is really a parable about two sons.
It’s a familiar dynamic.
The younger son is the “baby” of the family
(no matter what his chronological age),
the free spirit who gets to do everything at a younger age,
who pays little attention to rules or social norms,
who presumes that the world is his oyster.
The older son is a typical older sibling:
the dutiful child who colors inside the lines,
who saves his allowance,
who does what is expected
and expects his hard work to be repaid
as a matter of justice.

The younger son displays
no particular malice toward his father,
but simply a kind of self-centered disregard
and a slavery to his own immediate desires.
His alienation from his father grows
not from any ill will toward him,
but from the fact that he can barely be bothered
to think about him at all.
It is only when the money runs out
and times get tough,
that he “comes to his senses”
and returns to his father’s ready embrace.
The older brother seems to be the dutiful son,
but he shows himself on his brother’s return
to be no less—
and possibly even more—
alienated from his father.

As the story unfolds we see
that his rule-following responsibility is rooted
not so much in love and concern for his father
as in resentment toward his brother
and a desire to be recognized—
and rewarded—
by his father as “the good one.”
His actions seem exemplary,
but they grow from a bitter soil;
he keeps such careful count of each and every slight,
calculating the rewards and penalties each is due,
that he blinds himself to his father’s generosity
and the possibility of mercy.

The parable invites us to reflect
on our own lives in relation to God.
Am I, like the younger son,
neglectful of my relationship with God?
Do I focus on my immediate desires in life
and forget the God who is the source of that life?
Do I reflect on my duties toward God?
And if I do fulfill those duties,
is this out of love for the one
who has given me my life
or is it, as with the older son,
out of a desire to set myself up
as one of “the good ones”
by casting others as “the bad ones”?
Do I treat God’s love as a zero-sum game
in which the goal is to win
as many point of divine favor as possible
and in which there are a limited number
of points to be won?
Do I think that in order to have more of God’s love
others must have less?
Do I, in my resentment
toward the mercy shown to others,
make myself unable to see the mercy
I am being freely offered,
and that I need no less than they do?

But this story is not simply a vehicle
for examining our own consciences
so that we may receive
God’s forgiveness and mercy;
it also provides an occasion for us
to reflect on our call to be,
as our second reading today puts it,
“ambassadors for Christ”:
those who have been reconciled with God
through the cross of Jesus
and who have been entrusted
with that message of reconciliation.
The official theme of the Jubilee Year of Mercy
that began in December
is Misericorde sicut Pater
“merciful like the Father.”
It is a phrase not only that reminds us
that God is to us like a merciful father
but is also a call to us to be embodiments
of the mercy we have received.
How do I respond to those who, like the younger son,
treat my love thoughtlessly,
carelessly trampling on my feelings
as they pursue their own lives,
casting me aside as they pursue their dreams?
Do I, merciful like the father in the story,
welcome any tiny act of thoughtfulness,
any small gesture indicating a desire
for a restored relationship,
and run to greet them when they return?

Perhaps more challengingly, how do I respond
when I discover that someone who, like the older son,
had always done his duty in relation to me,
had been in fact been seething with resentment for years?
How do I respond to those who see
any favor, any love, any mercy
that I show to others
as something that they have been deprived of.
How do I show mercy to those who see the world
entirely in terms of who owes what to whom?

The parable does not answer
all of these questions for us,
in part because it leaves the story incomplete.
We hear of the joyful return of the younger son,
of his reconciliation with his father,
of his passage from death to new life,
but we don’t know what happens with the older son.
The father assures him of his love
and invites him to rejoice in the good news
of life’s triumph over death,
but we do not hear of the son’s response.
The younger son,
true to his passionate if thoughtless nature,
willingly enters into his father’s welcome,
while the response of the older son,
locked into calculations of justice,
remains uncertain, unresolved.
Will he be able to hear the good news
of his father’s mercy and compassion
as good news for him as well?

This story offers us a dual challenge.
Are we willing to examine our own lives
and be open to hearing the good news
of mercy and forgiveness,
even if it means that we must give up
what we imagine is due to us in justice?
And if we do hear that good news,
are we willing to share it with others,
to be ambassadors of God’s compassion
shown to us in Christ,
to be merciful like the Father,
to proclaim mercy in word and deed
even to those whose hearts
seem most closed off to it,
to trust in the power of the Gospel of mercy
to overcome even the hardest of hearts.