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.