Sunday, August 13, 2017

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: 1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:22-33

We modern people have problems with miracles:
many of us simply do not believe in them,
and those who do believe
feel vaguely guilty about it,
as if we haven’t quite kept up
with the modern age.
They seem to be a relic
of the world before Science,
which we now believe
(with unwavering faith)
can explain everything
through material cause and effect,
and which definitely excludes
the miraculous.
Science (at least as popularly conceived)
offers us a world
that is regular and predictable,
and even those of us who believe in God
like our world regular and predictable.

Take the case of Jesus walking on the water.
We have become quite ingenious
at coming up with explanations
of what really happened.
Some 19th-century historians
suggested that Jesus was actually
walking on rocks just beneath the water’s surface;
more recently, an article that appeared
in The Journal of Paleolimnology claimed,
“A rare set of weather events
may have combined to create a slab of ice
about 4 to 6 inches thick on the lake,
able to support a person’s weight.”
These sorts of explanations,
appealing to things
like conveniently placed rocks
or extremely rare weather events,
may be implausible
(not to mention the fact
that they make Jesus
into something of a fraud),
but as implausible as they are
they still keep us firmly rooted
in a world within our control,
a world from which God is kept
at a safe distance.

But if we look
at our Gospel reading today
we see that this miracle
is no less of a problem
for Jesus’ disciples,
even though they lived
in the world before Science.
Matthew tells us that when they see
Jesus walking toward them across the water,
the disciples reach for what,
in their world,
is the more plausible explanation:
they are seeing a ghost,
not a flesh and blood human being.
Ghosts are odd and disturbing,
but not as odd and disturbing
as the flesh and blood Jesus
striding across the water;
not as odd and disturbing
as a God who joined himself
to the frailty of human nature;
not as odd and disturbing
as the power and presence
of God drawn so near.

It is not Science that makes the disciples
doubt that it is Jesus whom they see;
it is what it might mean for them,
that the flesh and blood Jesus
is lord of the wind and the waves.
They too want a world
that is comfortable and predictable
(even if populated by ghosts).

But let’s face it,
this world of comfort and predictability
that we believe Science can secure for us?
It’s an illusion.
We’re not safe.
Our boat is battered and buffeted
and nearly swamped:
saber-rattling threats
of nuclear war with North Korea,
white supremacist terrorism
in Charlottesville,
twenty-four people killed
in the wake of the election in Kenya,
thirty infants dying in an Indian hospital
because of a billing dispute
with the company that supplied oxygen.
The safety and comfort and predictability
are all an illusion.

But what if the presence of Jesus
dispels the illusion and unhinges the world
in such a way that I can no longer
hold God at a distance,
and I can no longer calculate outcomes,
and I must now think differently
about everything?
What if the drawing near of God in Jesus
means that the world
is not in the iron grip
of cause and effect,
but is ruled by the mystery
of cross and resurrection?
What if it means
that love is stronger than violence,
and that God is found not in fire and fury
but in the tiny whispering sound
heard by the prophet Elijah?
As the band The Violent Femmes put it
in their song “Jesus Walking on the Water,”
“Oh my, oh my, oh my, what if it was true?”

Would I, like Peter, get out of the boat,
out of the illusion of comfort and predictability,
to walk toward Jesus across the watery abyss,
the abyss of everything that I fear:
pain and poverty, dishonor and death?
Could my faith sustain me in such a walk,
or would I, like Peter, begin to sink?
Do I believe that,
even if my own faith should fail,
Jesus will stretch out his hand
and catch me
and hold me
up over that abyss?

At the end of the day,
the problem for us
with Jesus walking on the water
is not that it goes against Science.
The problem for us
with Jesus walking on the water
is that it challenges us to get out of boat,
to abandon our illusion of safety.
The flesh and blood Jesus,
suspended over the abyss,
invites us, people of flesh and blood,
to join him there;
he invites us to trust
that God truly has drawn near;
he invites us to believe
that he will hold us up.
“Oh my, oh my, oh my, what if it was true?”

Sunday, July 9, 2017

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Zechariah 9:9-10; Romans 8:9, 11-13; Matthew 11:25-30

What creature could be more miserable
than a dog on the Fourth of July?
If you’re a dog-owner,
or have been around a dog
on Independence Day,
you know that,
rather than celebrating freedom,
many of them spend the day
terrified by the fireworks:
they cower and hide, trying to squeeze
into the smallest place they can find—
which they then immediately leave
in order to search
for an even smaller place.
The animal behavior expert Temple Grandin
argues that for non-human animals
fear is more distressing than pain;
she writes,
“Even an animal who’s completely alone
and giving full expression to severe pain
acts less incapacitated than an animal
who’s scared half out of his wits”
(Animals in Translation, ch. 5).
She suggests that this is because
they lack the higher brain functions
to control fear.
We might say that
when we humans experience fear
we have the intellectual capacity
to put it in a context,
to identify and assess
the source of our fear,
to look to the future,
when fear might cease,
to recognize,
when startled by a sound,
that it’s only fireworks
and poses no real threat to us.
Our capacity for abstract thought
means that we are not slaves
to our instincts and reflexes.

Or so we would like to think.
But how many of us, this past July 4th,
upon hearing that North Korea
had successfully tested a missile
that could reach the United States
did not, if only for a moment,
feel a desire
to crawl into someplace very small,
knowing at the same time
that no place is small enough
to shelter us from such a threat?
We would like to think
that we are not slaves
to our instincts and reflexes,
that our behavior is not ruled by our fears,
but often we are not all that different
from our canine brothers and sisters:
when threatened, we cower or lash out;
when hit, we hit back ten-times harder;
when frightened,
we run restlessly from shelter to shelter,
never finding a place
that is safe enough to quell our fears.
Such behavior is understandable
and even appropriate for dogs.
We humans, however,
created in the image of God,
are endowed with a capacity
to move beyond fear through knowledge,
to raise ourselves above simple instinct.
But something has gone wrong;
somehow, we have fallen away
from that high calling.
As St. Augustine wrote:
“I am scattered in times
whose order I do not understand.
The storms of incoherent events
tear to pieces my thoughts,
the inmost entrails of my soul”
(Confessions 9.29.39).

We seek shelter from these storms
in countless ways.
We seek shelter
from threatening foreign powers
by building up arsenals that assure
that any destruction will be mutual;
we seek shelter from outsiders whom we fear
by building walls
and banning whole groups of people;
we seek shelter from having
our worldview challenged
by surrounding ourselves
with right-thinking,
like-minded people.
We would like to say
that we are different from other animals,
that we can master fear through thought,
but time after time we see that,
in our futile quest for shelter,
fear makes itself our master,
puts us under its yoke,
and makes us do its bidding.

This is what St. Paul is getting at
in our second reading
when he contrasts
“living according to the flesh”
and “living by the Spirit.”
He is not talking about
how the body is evil
and the soul is good;
rather, he is talking about
how we can either live our lives
on the level of animal instinct,
the level of fear
and of the futile quest for shelter,
or we can live our lives
according to the Spirit of God,
the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead,
putting to death our fear and futility.
If you live according to the flesh,
according to animal fear,
you will die—
in fact, you’ll die long before
your heart stops beating,
because a life of fear is a living death.
But if you live by God’s Spirit,
you put to death the deeds of fear,
the relentless futility of shelter-seeking,
and even now experience resurrection.

Jesus says in our Gospel,
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…
and you will find rest for yourselves.”
Jesus is inviting us
to lay down the yoke of fear,
the yoke that exhausts us
in our restless quest for shelter,
and to take up the yoke of the Spirit,
the yoke that Jesus himself bore.
It was the yoke of the Spirit
that filled the human heart of Jesus
with a love for God and for God’s people
that was more powerful than fear,
a love that left him
exposed to the forces of death,
a love that led him
to risk everything for the cause of God,
a love that lifted him
from death to God’s right hand.
This yoke that is easy,
this burden that is light,
is offered to us here, today,
through Jesus:
through faith in his person
and commitment to his cause.
If we open our hearts in faith,
the Spirit of life can lift
the yoke of fear from our necks;
we can cease our restless search for shelter;
we can find our rest in him.
Come to him,
all you who labor and are burdened,
you who restlessly seek shelter;
live by the Spirit, not by the flesh,
and let Jesus give you rest.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Trinity Sunday


Readings: Exodus 34:4b-6, 8-9; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; John 3:11-13

Suppose someone shows up at church
and hears me make reference to “Fr. Marty”
and, unfamiliar with the person to whom this refers,
asks who it is I’m talking about.
I can, if he’s standing nearby, point to him
and say “This is Fr. Marty.”
It is relatively easy to explain,
not least because there is nothing particularly mysterious
about how I and others use the name “Fr. Marty.”

But what if someone shows up at church
and hears me make reference to “God” or “the Lord”
and, being unfamiliar
with who or what these terms refer to,
asks what I’m talking about.
I might do something like pointing to the sky
and saying “That’s the Lord,”
but that would be misleading,
suggesting that I mean by the word “God”
something like “Zeus”—
a sky-god armed with lightning bolts.
It maybe would be better if I pointed
to a series of other things,
saying, “not this,” “not this,” “not this,”
until it suddenly struck the person who was asking
that words like “God” and “Lord”
must be a way of speaking about
something beyond our direct worldly experience,
something that is of crucial importance
to the existence of the universe,
without being any one of the things in the universe.
I dare say that, proceeding in this manner,
the whole matter would remain pretty mysterious.

We might think that the problem
causing this mystery
is simply that we do not have
enough information about God,
that God is behind some sort of veil
and that if that veil could be pulled back,
if only a little bit,
then who or what we are talking about
when we use words like “God” and “Lord”
would become a little bit less mysterious.
And indeed, as Christians we believe
that the veil has been pulled back.
We believe that in knowing God
we are not restricted
to what our human efforts
can discover about God.
We believe that, because God desires
to be known by us,
God has acted in history
to reveal to us who God is,
and that this history is recounted for us
in sacred Scripture.
But here’s the thing:
we discover, when we turn to Scripture,
that God grows more mysterious,
not less,
because the God who is revealed in Scripture
is an abiding mystery
that no human mind can grasp.

In the book of Exodus,
the Lord is revealed to be a God of justice,
who destroys the Egyptians
in liberating the Israelites
whom they have enslaved.
The Lord is revealed to be a God of law,
who gives commandments to the Israelites
so that they might live as his people.
The Lord is revealed as a God of righteous anger,
whose holiness will not tolerate sin,
but consumes it like a burning fire.
We might therefore think
we have a pretty good idea
of how such a God will react
when the Israelites break his law
by worshiping a golden calf.
But in our first reading today,
this God of justice and law and righteous anger
is revealed also to be a God
of forgiveness and compassion.
God proclaims his name once more to Moses:
“The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God,
slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.”
God’s name is revealed as kindness and grace,
a mercy that is somehow a deeper form of justice,
one whose depth our minds cannot plumb,
the mystery of divine compassion shown to a sinful people.
The veil is pulled back,
God shows himself more fully,
and the mystery grows deeper.

In our Gospel reading from John,
the identity of the one we call “God” and “Lord”
is revealed more fully still when Jesus says:
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.”
The Lord, who in the Exodus is revealed
as the mystery of merciful justice,
is here revealed as the one
who does not simply forgive sins,
but who gives his Son
to save those who are perishing,
to bring light and life
to those in a world of darkness and death,
to make them in Christ heirs to eternal life.
The veil is drawn back to reveal
Jesus as God’s Son,
dwelling in eternity
with the Father and the Spirit,
but now born in time
for us and for our salvation.
God is revealed not as a lofty deity
bestowing justice and mercy at a distance,
but as one who in Christ dwells among us,
sharing our life so that we may share God’s life,
suffering our injustice so that we may be justified,
dying our death so that we may be freed from death.

To be a Christian is to believe that in Jesus
the identity of God is fully unveiled.
In Jesus we now, at last,
have one we can point to and say,
“this…this is my Lord and my God.”
The veil is drawn back,
God is revealed,
but the mystery grows greater still:
the more you see, the less you comprehend.
For God is the mystery of a love
beyond any we can imagine:
a love that gives itself
without reserve to the other,
and receives itself back fully
in the bond of love returned.
And as if this were not mystery enough for us,
we see that in a world marked by sin,
a world in need of God’s justice and mercy,
the love that is God
shows itself under the form of the cross,
a scandal and a folly;
it shows itself as the invitation
to take up that cross and follow,
surrendering ourselves to the mystery of God’s love,
the mystery that we name “Trinity.”
May the merciful grace of the Lord Jesus Christ,
and the faithful love of God the Father,
and the eternal communion of the Holy Spirit
come to dwell with us this day.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Easter 7, Tuesday


Readings: Acts 19:1-8; John 16:29-33

In today’s Gospel, Jesus lays it all out there:
“this is eternal life,
that they should know you, the only true God,
and the one whom you sent, Jesus Christ.”
This knowledge,
and this knowledge alone,
is the pearl of great price,
for which we should gladly
cast aside all earthly
wisdom,
honors,
and attachments,
in order to obtain it;
not simply to know about God,
but to know God:
in this life by faith
and in our heavenly homeland
by the light of glory.

But this knowing of God
as the goal of our living
also suggests something
about the shape of our living.
St. Paul writes,
“I consider life of no importance to me,
if only I may finish my course
and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus,
to bear witness to the Gospel of God’s grace.”
We are not simply to contemplate God in faith
so as to one day contemplate him in glory;
no, we are to spend our lives profligately
in bearing witness
to the truth we have contemplated,
a truth that asks of us
nothing less than everything
if we are to live in gratitude for so great a gift.

I sometimes fear that our theology
is more concerned
with blunting the force
of the radical demands of gratitude
than it is with honing
the two-edged sword of God’s word,
so that it may divide
“soul from spirit, joints from marrow.”
We tell people to take the Gospel seriously
but not always literally,
to have an adequate hermeneutic
and avoid fundamentalism,
to recognize the presence of grace
in everyday life.

These things are of course true, in a certain sense.
But we theologians can forget that our patron,
St. Thomas Aquinas,
when asked by the crucified Christ
what he desired as reward, responded,
non nisi te, Domine—nothing but you, Lord.
We can forget that in his scholarly labors
Thomas poured himself out,
not in order to impress his peers
or to be recognized for his brilliance,
but in order, like Paul,
“to bear witness to the Gospel of God’s grace,”
to call others to lives of gratitude and generosity.
The genius and the holiness of Thomas
was to cling to Christ crucified and to him alone,
and yet to find in him
all that is good and true in creation,
to find in him the gift of eternal life
that calls us to gratitude.

We are called, as students and teachers,
to follow in the footsteps of Paul and Thomas,
not seeking to explain away
the radical call of the Gospel,
but to take with absolute seriousness
Jesus’ teaching
that eternal life is nothing else
than knowing God in Christ,
and to spend our lives in the ministry
of bearing witness to God’s grace.
May God’s Holy Spirit
make us grateful
for the burden of this ministry.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Easter 5


Readings: Acts 6:1-7; 1 Peter 2:4-9; John 14:1-12

In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about a place
and a way to that place.
The place is his Father house,
in which “there are many dwelling places”—
a place, we may presume, of joy and peace and rest
that Jesus goes to prepare.
The way to that place is Jesus himself:
“Where I am going you know the way…
[for] I am the way and the truth and the life.”
Moreover, the way is the place:
Jesus says to Phillip,
“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father…
Do you not believe that I am in the Father
and the Father is in me?”
If we journey with Jesus as our way,
we have in a real sense already arrived
at the place toward which we are journeying,
because in him we truly encounter
not only the way to our destination
but the truth and the life
that is the goal of our journey.
The way is the place
because the God whom we seek
has sought us out in Jesus Christ
and made himself our way.

But it is perhaps too easy simply to say
“the way is the place,”
too easy to mouth clich├ęs
about the journey being the destination,
because I think we all have a sense
that our journey is not yet complete,
that there is a difference between being on a journey
and having reached your destination,
that along the way we restlessly yearn
for that place of dwelling, that place of rest.
Our experience of the truth and the life of Jesus our way
is fragmented and incomplete:
we struggle to know the truth and are beset with doubts;
we live our lives in the midst of death and loss.
How can our place of dwelling be found in Jesus our way
when each day our experience tells us
that we have not yet arrived at a place of truth and life?

St. Augustine pondered this question
by asking why it was that Jesus said
that he was going to prepare a place for his followers.
If, Augustine asked,
there are already many dwelling places in his Father’s house,
why should Jesus have to go prepare a place for us?
What could it possibly mean
to make our heavenly dwelling ready?
Is Jesus like some (probably underpaid) hotel worker
who goes to turn down the beds and put mints on the pillows?
No, Augustine said, “He is preparing places of dwelling
by preparing those who will dwell in them” (Tract. in Io. 68.1).
The heavenly dwelling place is made ready
by making us ready to be the dwelling place of God.

Our second reading, from the First Letter of Peter,
exhorts us: “like living stones,
let yourselves be built into a spiritual house
to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices
acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
The imagery here is that of the Jerusalem Temple
where God dwelt, not as a place in which God was confined,
but as the special—we might even say sacramental—place
in which God could be encountered:
where God’s outreach to humanity
attained a particular intensity,
a notable pungency,
a special efficaciousness.
But now, St. Peter says, we who have faith in Jesus,
we who embrace him as our way, our truth, our life,
have become that holy temple,
that place of encounter;
we who gather to share the body of Christ
become what we receive:
the dwelling place of God.
The way is the place
because we who are on the way
have become by grace the place in which God dwells,
and the ones in whom God dwells
are those who dwell in God.

What does all of this mean for us?
If the way is the place of truth and life,
then we must have faith
that even when we experience doubt and loss along the way
these too are somehow, mysteriously, part of what it means
for God to dwell in us and us to dwell in God.
We hold stubbornly to the faith
that the struggles of the way are part of the process
by which God prepares that dwelling place
in which we offer spiritual sacrifices,
the dwelling place whose foundation
is Jesus Christ, crucified and risen,
the “living stone, rejected by human beings
but chosen and precious in the sight of God.”

This is true of us as individuals:
in ways that we may never be able to fully fathom,
our doubts and our confusions,
our losses and even our dying,
are God preparing us to be the place in which he dwells.
This is also true of us as a community.
We are at a point at which we might be wondering
what the future holds for us as a parish.
What will the restructuring of the diocese
and the institution of pastorates bring?
What will our joining with the parish of Thomas Aquinas
mean for us here at Corpus Christi?
Almost surely it will mean
the loss of old, familiar ways of doing things:
a different Mass time,
perhaps different leadership,
certainly different ways of thinking
about ourselves as a community.

It is only human to love the familiar
and to want to cling to it.
But Jesus today calls us by his grace
to let go of what has been,
to enter into his way of death and resurrection,
and to find there truth and life.
This does not mean that we will not experience
doubt or confusion,
the loss of old ways,
the death of the familiar.
But if we believe that Jesus the way
is our place of dwelling
then we believe that even loss of what has been
is part of God preparing that spiritual house
in which God will dwell in all his fullness.
We do not know what will happen to us on the way,
either as individuals or as a community,
and we very well may not understand the significance
of events as they unfold around us.
But we walk the way by faith,
not by sight,
and our faith is that even now
life springs forth from death,
for Jesus is risen
and his Spirit has been poured
into our hearts.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Easter Vigil


Readings: Genesis 1:1-2:2; Genesis 22:1-18; Exodus 14: 15-15:1; Isaiah 54-5-14; Isaiah 55:1-11; Ezekiel 36:16-17a, 18-28; Romans 6:3-11; Matthew 28:1-10

“The guards were shaken with fear…
and became like dead men.”

We humans spend a lot of time
trying to domesticate God,
trying to put God on a leash,
trying to bring God to heel
and train him not to make messes in the house.
We labor to contain God within the role
of a therapeutic remedy for our anxieties,
or a metaphysical principle for our pondering,
or a divine sanction for our political agenda,
whether of the right or of the left.
We entomb God in a manageable hour on Sunday
and place guards on him
to make sure that he doesn’t get out.
These guards bear many names:
we call them
“what is reasonable,”
“what is practical,”
“what is realistic,”
“what is traditional,”
“what is up-to-date and enlightened.”

But on this most holy of nights
these guards are shaken with fear
and become like dead men.
This night confronts us
with the God who cannot be contained
in our Sunday morning hour,
the God who refuses to be domesticated,
the God who is wild and free
and will not be harnessed to any of our agendas,
or brought to heel by what we consider
reasonable or practical.

This wild God takes my agenda and tears it to shreds:
commands Abraham to sacrifice his son,
destroys the army of the Egyptians in the sea,
pours out his fury on his chosen people,
scattering them among the nations.

This wild God freely acts in ways
beyond my capacity to imagine or hope:
takes chaos and makes a world,
takes slaves and makes them free,
takes death and makes it life.

The God of this night draws us into his wildness:
taking our flesh to enliven it
and embracing our death to defeat it,
becoming himself the sacrificed son
whose offering reconciles us to God,
drowning us in the waters of baptism
to raise us up to life again.
On this night of nights,
God has broken out of
the one-hour, Sunday-morning tomb
in which we have sought to enclose him,
and, frankly, he has made a mess of our house.

We may think that we want a God who respects our agendas,
who acts in predicable and reasonable ways,
who obeys the guards whom we have posted,
but such a God could never be the God of Easter,
the God of life and freedom.
Such a God could only remain
trapped within the tomb of our expectations—
expectations that are so narrow,
so paltry,
so tailored to our idea of who we are
and how the world must be
and how a proper God should behave.
But the wild God of Easter rocks the earth
and breaks open the tomb.
The guards we have posted,
shaken with fear,
become like dead men,
and it becomes possible to imagine the world anew,
to hope for things that our agenda had excluded,
to ask questions that we had not dared ask before.

It is this wild, free, untamed God
who has broken into the lives
of our catechumen and our candidates,
perhaps unasked and unexpected,
making a mess of things in ways
that they may just now be beginning to suspect.
During our RCIA retreat at the beginning of Lent,
several of them commented on how much
Jesus’ words to his apostles in John’s Gospel—
“It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you”—
resonated with their experience,
their sense of surprise that they, of all people,
should have been chosen by God,
should find themselves here, tonight,
teetering on the edge of something as crazy
as living life as a Catholic Christian,
that heritage of saints who are forgiven sinners,
that vast and unruly collection of characters,
that ancient family made ever new
by children born of water, oil, bread, and wine.

For us gathered here tonight,
our catechumen and candidates
are an icon of what can happen
if we let God off the leash,
if we let the fears
and excuses
and rationalizations
that we place as guards
at the entrance of the tomb
faint away before the wildness of the risen Christ.
They show us the power of the Spirit of Jesus,
that blows where it will
and blows away our therapeutic
and metaphysical
and political agendas.
For us, too, the Spirit of the one
who raised Christ from the dead
has sent forth tremors
that have shaken with fear
the guards we have placed on our lives,
setting us free to live for God,
no longer slaves to sin and death.
For Christ is risen from the dead—
unleashed, wild, and free—
trampling down death by death,
and on those in the tomb
bestowing new life.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Lent 5


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

Throughout the Sundays of Lent
we have listened in on conversations
that people have had with and about Jesus,
transformative conversations
that have opened eyes to the truth
of the good news that Jesus brings,
the truth of forgiveness and healing:
the disciples at the Mount of Transfiguration
witnessing his glory,
the woman at the well confronted
with the reality of her life,
the man born blind encountering
the light of the world.

But what of Lazarus, four-days-dead in the tomb?
What of the one with whom no conversation is possible,
cut off from the living by the veil of death?
Death would seem to be the final defeat of conversation,
putting us beyond the hope of transformation.
We may, for a while, continue a mental conversation,
an imagined dialogue,
with our loved ones who have died.
But do they ever say something that truly surprises us?
Do they ever change their mind in response to what we say?
Is there ever anything new
in our imagined conversations with the dead,
or do we simply hear the echo resounding in the halls of memory?
The truth is, death brings our conversations to an end.
Four days is a long time, his sister warns;
the body is likely to stink—
as if to drive home the finality of what has happened,
the impossibility of conversation.
The woman at the well and the man born blind
can be engaged in a conversation of conversion,
but for poor, dead Lazarus
there can be no transformative conversation with Jesus.

But Jesus does not come to converse with Lazarus
but to command him: “Lazarus, come out!”
His voice resounding at the entry to the tomb
is the Word that, in the beginning,
called all creation into being out of nothing,
the Word that is life and the light for the human race,
the Word that is with God and that is God.
This same Word now calls Lazarus forth
from the nothingness of death into the light of life.
Only this divine Word of command
can banish death, restore life,
and begin anew the conversation that death has cut short.
The truly great miracle here is not simply
that Lazarus is restored to life,
but rather that his dead ears can hear the voice of Jesus
calling him back into live-giving conversation
with the source of all life.

But this story of how the commanding voice of Jesus
can pierce the deafness of death,
and draw us back over the boundary of life,
is not simply a story of his victory over physical death.
For there is a spiritual death that is no less real,
that is no less destructive of our capacity
for engagement with God.
We can find ourselves entombed within the story of our life,
hemmed in by the choices we have made,
choices that have turned us from the God of life
and made us deaf to God’s voice,
choices that make us as unable to hear
as one who is dead and closed in a tomb.
The Church’s traditional term for this is “mortal sin”—
the sin that makes us dead to the life of grace God offers us.
This is best understood not as a really, really, really big sin—
the spiritual equivalent of a capital crime—
but rather as any action that takes us
out of the life-giving conversation with God,
that makes the ear of our heart dead to the voice of God.

Our readings this Lent have shown us
the transformative power
of entering into conversation with Jesus.
But our Gospel today shows us even more.
It shows us the power of Jesus,
the Word who brings light and life,
to call us back into communion with God
when sin and death have broken off the conversation.
The good news of today’s Gospel
is not simply that we have a hope beyond this life
(though that surely is good news),
nor simply that God can raise the dead to life
(though that surely is good news),
but that here, now, on this day,
when we feel cut off from God,
when we feel trapped by the choices we have made
and unable to move from where we are,
as Lazarus was to move from his tomb,
when we feel that God’s voice cannot reach us
because we are held bound in a kind of spiritual death,
when we feel that we cannot even utter a word of prayer
to ask God to give us life again,
the voice of Jesus,
the Word that in the beginning
commanded light and life,
can still call us forth from death.
No choice you have made,
no path you have taken,
no situation in which you are entombed
can silence the commanding voice of Jesus
calling you back into conversation with him,
no sin,
no sorrow,
no deafness or death
can keep that voice
from resounding in your ears.
Come out,
come out
from all that holds you bound,
Let the Spirit of the one.
who raised Jesus from the dead
dwell in you
and give you life.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Lent 1


Readings: Genesis 2:7-9, 3: 1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

This week’s news suggests
that you really should be careful
about who it is that you engage in conversation.
For example, if you are a highly-visible supporter
of a major political party’s presidential candidate—
particularly if you are someone
who could possibly get appointed as Attorney General—
you might not want to have private conversations
with the Russian ambassador.
At the very least, it just looks bad,
and little good can come from it.
This week’s Scriptures similarly suggest
the potential dangers
of conversation with the wrong person.
For example, if you are one of the first humans,
newly arrived on the scene
and not too experienced in the ways of the cosmos,
you might not want to engage in conversation
with that oh-so-helpful serpent
who suggests to you
that you have been deceived by God,
and that doing the one thing
that God has asked you not to do
might possibly turn out really well.

Notice, in contrast, that Jesus, in today’s Gospel,
does not engage the Devil in conversation;
apart from quoting the words of Scripture,
the only thing he says is, “Get away, Satan!”
He knows that the devil has nothing worthwhile to say.
Indeed, it is actually one of the directives
in the Church’s Rite of Exorcism
that one ought not engage
a demon in conversation:
no good can come of it.
Though John Milton made Satan
somewhat glamorous in Paradise Lost,
the truth is that the devil is a tedious liar and a destroyer
whose God-given intelligence has been reduced by sin
to an animal cunning focused entirely
on turning people away from God.

Perhaps one reason we human beings
can so easily be lured into conversations
from which no good can come
is that we are, by nature, conversational.
One of the glories of being human
is our ability to use language to engage others,
to communicate and so enter into communion
with another person.
We are, you might say, conversational animals,
who need communication with others
as much as we need food or sleep or shelter.
And like any good thing that we deeply need,
the good of conversation can be turned to an evil purpose,
as when we gossip or berate or tempt.

But conversation has other possibilities.
In addition to those conversations
from which no good can come,
there are those conversations
from which great good can come:
the casual chat that begins a profound friendship,
the frank airing of differences that leads to reconciliation,
the final conversation with a dying loved one
in which you say and hear those things
that had previously been left unsaid.
These conversations can be life-changing,
which is perhaps no surprise
since the words “conversation” and “conversion”
find a common source in the Latin word convertere,
meaning “to turn together.”
To have a conversation we must turn toward the one
with whom we wish to converse,
and in so doing our life is changed.

In the holy season of Lent
we turn again to the Lord who calls us to new life.
In our Lenten Gospel readings
we will hear Jesus engaged in many conversations:
with the Samaritan woman at the well,
with the man born blind at the Pool of Siloam,
with Mary and Martha at the tomb of their brother Lazarus.
All of these are conversations of conversion,
in which people turn
from shame and weakness and fear
and turn toward Jesus who is living water,
the light of the world,
and life itself.
As we eavesdrop on these conversations,
we also hear the voice of Jesus calling us
to turn toward him in conversation and communion.

One of the traditional disciplines of Lent,
along with fasting and acts of charity,
is a commitment to deepen our life of prayer.
This is for many of us a frightening prospect.
Giving up things for Lent is relatively easy,
being a bit more generous is a small sacrifice,
but prayer is hard.
It is hard because life is busy
and prayer can seem like wasting time.
It is hard because it involves opening ourselves up
to a love that might very well change us forever.
It is hard because, unlike the garrulous devil
who yammers away in our Scriptures today,
God’s response in the conversation of prayer
is most often experienced as silence.

But this silence speaks eloquently of God’s love.
For in the conversation of prayer
God does not seek to trick or persuade,
but rather lets our spoken and unspoken yearnings
echo in the vast space of his infinite compassion,
so that our desires return to us transformed
by our encounter with God:
reoriented, reinterpreted,
released from selfishness.
In that echoing silence
God creates a place of freedom
in which we can slake our thirst for living water,
in which our eyes can be opened to the light of the world,
in which we can find the new life that comes forth
from the empty tomb of Christ.
Let this season of Lent be for us
a time to turn away
from conversations from which
no good can come,
and to turn back again
to this frightening,
frustrating,
time-wasting,
life-changing conversation
that offers us nothing less
than the infinite love of God.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Sirach 15:15-20; 1 Corinthians 2:6-10; Matthew 5: 17-37

Sean Spicer, the president’s press secretary,
recently commented,
“Part of the reason the president got elected
is because he speaks his mind.
He doesn’t hold it back,
he’s authentic” (Press Briefing, 2/9/17).
I think we can all agree,
whatever we may think of our president and his mind,
that no one could ever accuse him of not speaking it.
And in our Gospel reading today
Jesus seems to commend this practice
of speaking one's mind,
telling his disciples not to swear oaths,
but to “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’
and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’”

But Jesus is not simply commending
being forthright for its own sake—
being, as they say, a “straight shooter”
(now there’s a metaphor for you),
who lets people know what is on his or her mind.
Jesus is calling his disciples and calling us
not simply to speak our minds,
but to speak the truth.
He is telling us who are his followers
that we are not to swear oaths,
but to let our “Yes” mean “Yes”
and our “No” mean “No,”
because our lives ought at all times to testify
to the truth of the words we speak.

Hilary of Poitier, writing in the 4th century,
said, “Those who are living
in the simplicity of faith
have no need for the ritual of an oath.
With such people, what is, always is,
and what is not, is not.
For this reason,
their every word and deed
are always truthful.” (On Matthew 4.23).
If you need to swear an oath
in order to get people to believe what you say,
to believe not simply that you believe it,
but that what you believe is true,
then, Jesus says, something has gone wrong
in your life as his disciple.
The practice of speaking some words under oath,
casts a shadow of doubt over the words
that we do not speak under oath.
It implies that we are bound to speak the truth
only at some times but not at others.
In a world pervaded by lies and falsehoods, however,
the followers of Jesus are called
to be people of the truth at all times:
not simply to speak their minds,
but to have in them the mind of Christ
and to speak the truth of Christ plainly
in all their words and in all their deeds.

In our second reading Paul says that we speak,
“not a wisdom of this age,
nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away.
Rather, we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden,
which… none of the rulers of this age knew.”
What is this wisdom, what is this truth,
that the powerful of the world have missed,
have overlooked,
have been blind to
and that we are called to speak?
When Paul says that “if they had known [this wisdom],
they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”
he suggests that what the Jewish and Roman leaders
did not know, could not see,
is that the one whom they crucified
is the Lord of glory.
What the mighty of Jesus’ day could not see,
the wisdom and truth to which they were blind,
is that the Lord of glory does not appear among us
clothed in the trappings of power,
but as one unjustly accused,
one tortured and humiliated,
one executed by the ruling imperial regime
as a threat to public order.
He appears among us as the truth crucified
by the powerful lies of our world.

This is the wisdom that Paul proclaims;
this is the truth that Jesus calls his disciples to speak plainly;
this is the mystery hidden from those who rule our world,
but made plain to those who have received the Spirit of God:
the Lord of glory is not to be found
among the powerful and the wealthy,
whose power and wealth are destined to pass away,
but among the poor, those on the margins,
the outcast, the refugee, the immigrant,
the homeless one in our streets,
the child in the womb.
God chose to come among us
in the form of lowliness,
and God chooses still to found
in those who have nothing,
in those who are defenseless and voiceless.
Jesus calls us to seek him there—
not in the halls of power,
where powerful people speak their minds
from positions of privilege,
but among the powerless.
We are to speak plainly
the truth of God’s presence there,
and witness boldly to the power of the Spirit
who has revealed this hidden wisdom to us,
by giving comfort to the sick,
food to the hungry,
clothing to the naked,
refuge to the stranger.
“Whatever you did
for one of these least ones,
you did for me.’

This is the truth we are called to speak.
The books of Sirach tells us that we have before us
life and death, good and evil,
and that whichever we choose shall be given to us.
We also have before us truth and lies:
the truth of the crucified Lord of glory
and the lies of those who killed him
in the name of public order;
whichever we choose will be given to us.
Let us choose to speak the truth of Christ
in the face of the world’s death-dealing lies;
let us choose to speak not our own minds
but the mind of Christ,
and let our “Yes” mean yes
to the God of life and compassion
and our “No” mean no
to the powers of death and fear,
which even now are passing away,
defeated by the truth
of the crucified Lord of glory.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Mary, Mother of God



Readings: Numbers 6:22-27; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:16-21

Once upon a time, long, long ago,
in a land far from this one,
the people of the city of Constantinople,
in their private prayer and public liturgy,
sang praises to the Virgin Mary as the Theotokos,
a Greek term that literally means “the God-bearer,”
and which Latin-speaking Christians translate as
Mater Dei, Mother of God.
Their logic was fairly simple:
if Jesus is God from God and light from light,
as was proclaimed in the Creed they professed,
and if Mary is the mother of Jesus,
then Mary must be the Mother of God.
As one of their bishops,
St. John Chrysostom, put it:
“she is the Mother of God inasmuch as of her
God was born in human flesh….
she gave birth and became the mother of him
who before all eternity was begotten of the Father.”
To praise Mary as the Mother of God
was to praise the God
who in the incarnation
had drawn so near the human race
as to have a human mother,
just like the rest of us.

One day (April 10, 428 AD, to be exact)
the people of Constantinople got a new bishop,
a man named Nestorius,
and he was a person
of considerable theological sophistication.
Like a lot of theological sophisticates
he cast a somewhat jaundiced eye
upon the popular devotion of the common people,
and he found the practice
of praising Mary as God’s mother
to be at best irrational exuberance
and at worst a kind of thinly veiled paganism,
reminiscent of the old Greek religion
in which deities gave birth and were born,
the way that Ares was born to Zeus and Hera.
Bishop Nestorius’s real worry, however,
was not with the birth of Jesus,
but with what all this might imply
about the rest of his life.
If God could have a mother,
if God could undergo birth,
just like the rest of us,
could God also undergo hunger,
undergo grief,
undergo pain,
even undergo death,
just like the rest of us?
If Mary could be spoken of
as the Mother of God,
could not the cross be spoken of
as the suffering and death of God?
Shouldn’t there be some line drawn
to delimit just how close God has drawn to us
in the incarnation,
lest God become too involved
in the sorrows and worries of the world?
Bishop Nestorius thought it much more fitting,
much more theologically correct,
to refer to Mary as the mother of Christ,
meaning that she was the mother of the man Jesus,
but not of the divine Word that dwelled within him.

As often happens
when a new bishop comes to town
and tells everyone
that they have been doing things wrong,
particularly with regard to prayer and liturgy,
the people of Constantinople would have none of this.
They had called Mary "Mother of God" for years
and were not about to change
because of some bishop's theological qualms.
Bishops from other cities were drawn into the controversy,
and even the Roman emperor (who favored Nestorius’s views),
and, to make short a very long
and not particularly inspiring story—
involving meetings of bishops,
excommunications, exiles,
a lot of fairly technical theology
using terms like “hypostatic union”
and “communicatio idiomatum,”
as well as, alas, a lot of mutual recrimination—
ultimately the Council of Chalcedon, held in the year 451,
refuted what it called “Nestorius’s mad folly,”
and affirmed that the eternal divine Son,
who was, as we say in the Creed,
“born of the Father before all ages,”
as regards his divinity,
was also truly born “for us and for our salvation
from Mary, the virgin Mother of God,
as regards his humanity:
one and the same Christ.”

But on this feast day of Mary the Mother of God,
we can set aside for the moment the tangled history
and technical theology
and focus on what first inspired people
to give this title to Mary.
We should treasure the title “Mother of God,”
not primarily for what it says about Mary,
but for what it says about God.
It says that in the mystery of the incarnation,
the great act of God drawing near to us
so as to become Emmanuel, God with us,
we can truly say that God has a mother,
just like the rest of us.
We can truly say that, in the incarnation,
God cries in the crib
and grieves at the grave,
just like the rest of us.
We can truly say that, in the incarnation,
God rejoices with friends
and is beset by enemies,
just like the rest of us.
We can truly say that, in the incarnation,
God suffers human pain and humiliation and death,
just like the rest of us.

But we must say more than this.
As we stand at the turning point of the calendar year,
looking back at a year that has had its joys
but has also had its pain and disappointment,
looking forward to a year that we hope will be better
but fear may be worse,
we seek a God who not only stands in solidarity
with our joys and hopes, our griefs and anxieties,
but a God who comes into our midst to save and heal.
In the incarnation, the great act of God drawing near to us,
we seek someone who will not just share our situation,
but who will change our situation.
We seek a savior.
The incarnation begins in the mystery
of the humility of God becoming just like us,
emptying himself and taking the form of a servant,
but it ends in the mystery
of our being lifted up to become like God,
what Paul in our second reading
calls our adoption as God’s children,
heirs with Christ to the glory of the eternal life of God,
a life beyond pain, beyond sorrow, beyond fear.

This mystery of salvation,
which ends in glory,
begins even now in grace.
It begins in the grace that transforms our lives,
the grace that consoles us in our grief
and calms us in our anxiety,
the grace that prompts and empowers us
to seek a more just and peaceful world,
the grace to resist all the forces
of injustice and dehumanization
that plague our world,
the grace that gives us signs of hope
and makes us signs of hope for others.

As we enter the ever-new season of God’s favor toward us,
may the God who in Christ became just like us,
and who by his grace makes us to become like him,
through the intercession of Mary, Mother of God,
make his face shine upon us and be gracious to us;
may God look kindly upon us
and give us peace in this new year.