Monday, December 25, 2017


Readings: Isaiah 9:1-6; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14

The Christmas story begins with an empire.
It begins with Caesar Augustus—
which is not a name, but a quasi-religious title
that was taken by Octavian,
the dictator who defeated two former allies
to become the sole ruler of Rome’s empire,
while maintaining a veneer of the old democracy.
It begins with an empire that secures peace—
the famed pax Romana—
through the conquest and control of peoples.
It begins with that empire’s power over “all the world,”
exercised by bureaucratic functionaries
like Quirinius, the governor of Syria,
and manifested in the tax census,
carried out to catalogue and extract
the wealth latent in the empire’s conquered lands.

The outward contours of empire
have changed since the ancient world,
but the reality should be familiar to us all.
It is the aspiration to world-dominance
through bluff and bluster
and sheer, raw power.
We see it today in the superpowers
that jockey with each other
for military and economic hegemony.
We see it in corporations that seek to play the tune
to which the governments of the world dance.
We see it in our own nation’s recently released
National Security Strategy, which assures us that,
“America’s values and influence,
underwritten by American power,
make the world more free, secure, and prosperous.”
In fact, from the time of Octavian-called-Augustus
to that of Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Donald Trump,
the promise of peace through dominance
has so pervaded our world,
that many have come to assume
that empire simply is the human story.
The long history of imperial power
is a perhaps-regrettable-but-nevertheless-inevitable tale
with which we must make our peace
if we wish to be free, secure, and prosperous.

But on this night the story of empire
is interrupted by a child.
In the middle of the tale of Octavian’s power
the voice of God sounds forth
in the cries of a newborn child.
In a world ruled by wealth and power
an angel appears to poor shepherds
with good news of great joy.
In a land conquered and subjugated
by the armies of Caesar Augustus
an army of angels sings out,
“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace.”

Just as a child might interrupt
a boring story told by adults
about the latest political scandal
or a long-term workplace rivalry
or a long-held family grudge
with its own fantastic tale
of dragons and magic and adventure,
so too the Christ child comes to interrupt
the tedious-yet-deadly story of worldly power
with a fantastic tale of glory and peace and joy.
Only this tale is no fantasy;
it is the very truth of God.
It is the eruption into the story of empire
of the truth that can lift the yoke of oppression
and smash the rod of the taskmaster,
the truth that consumes
every boot that tramped in battle
and every cloak rolled in blood.
In the cry of the Christ child
we hear the voice of every person
crushed beneath the yoke of power,
but we hear also the cry of the one called
Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero,
Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.
We hear the cry of one whose dominion
is vast and forever peaceful.

And yet, the story of empire goes on.
Burdens are still laid
on the shoulders of the poor
and boots still tramp in battle.
The coming of Christ
has not brought that story to an end.
But even as the story of empire
continues its predictable narrative arc,
the voice of God in the cry of the Christ child,
in the proclamation of the angel,
in the song of the heavenly army,
interrupts that story
and begins to tell a new tale
in which we who are followers of Jesus
all play a part.

For the saving grace of God
has appeared among us in the person of Jesus:
in his humble birth,
in his faithful ministry,
in his willingness to die for the truth,
in his defeat of death and rising to new life.
This grace has appeared, not rescuing us out of this world,
but “training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires
and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age.”
In Jesus, the interruptive grace of God
creates a new people who live a new story
as they await the final coming of Jesus,
when the story of empire will end,
and the world will know
the freedom of God’s servants,
the security of God’s love,
and the prosperity of God’s generosity.

But until that day, we wait in hope,
and tell with our lives the new story
begun by Christ in the days of Caesar Augustus,
when Quirinius was governor of Syria
and Mary and Joseph made the long journey
to the city of David.
Through God’s grace,
that story continues to be written in us,
when we remember those who suffer
and make their sorrows our own,
when we speak out to defend the defenseless
and to hold those in power accountable,
when we gather week by week
to tell the story of Jesus,
and eat and drink his body and blood:
he who was peace in the midst of conflict,
who was hope in the midst of despair,
who was light in the midst of darkness,
who was undying life in the midst of death.
Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace, hope, light and life
to those on whom God’s favor rest.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Malachi 1:14B-2:2B, 8-10; 1 Thessalonians 2:7B-9, 13; Matthew 23:1-12

In the 1930’s a theater critic is purported to have said:
“Theaters are the new Church of the Masses—
where people sit huddled in the dark
listening to people in the light
tell them what it is to be human.”
To be in a position to tell people what it is to be human
is to be invested with immense—
indeed, almost god-like—power,
power that can be easily abused.
And in recent weeks, we have been confronted
with an unending stream of news stories
of cases of sexual abuse and harassment
by powerful men in the entertainment industry.
Each day seems to bring new allegations,
showing that such behavior is not rare but pervasive.

We Catholics have lived for at least the past fifteen years
with the depressingly frequent experience
of being smacked in the face by the failures of our clergy,
particularly the repeated revelations
of sexual abuse of children and young people
by priests, deacons, and religious.
Most recently, the Netflix documentary series The Keepers
has chronicled in horrifying detail
the widespread abuse of girls by a priest
who work as a counselor in the late 60s and early 70s
at Keough High School here in Baltimore.
Even if, as the Archdiocese claims,
The Keepers is somewhat misleading
in its portrayal of the Archdiocese’s response
to the allegations of abuse,
nobody seriously questions the truth
of the allegations themselves
or the way in which
the religious authority of the priesthood
was used to enable horrific acts of abuse.

It is a powerful thing to be in the position
of telling people what it means to be human,
whether it is done in a church or in a theater,
and the exercise of such power is seductive and intoxicating.
And make no mistake: these cases of abuse,
whether by priests or producers or political pundits,
are about power, not sexual desire.
They are about the thrill of having someone totally in your control,
the titillation found in bending someone’s will to your own,
the ancient human delusion
that one exercises God-like power over others
because one has the authority
to declare the meaning of human existence.
And the fact that the meaning of human existence
proclaimed by the Church is true
doesn’t make the abuse of power by the clergy better;
in fact, it makes it worse.
It becomes not only a violation of human dignity,
but a perversion of the truth of God.

The seduction of religious or quasi-religious power
is not, of course, anything new.
Jesus identifies it in the religious leaders of his own day:
“They preach, but they do not practice….
They love places of honor at banquets,
seats of honor in synagogues,
greetings in the marketplace.”
These things might seem comparatively minor
compared to violent acts of abuse,
but they grow from the same poisoned root.
In Jesus’ day, as in ours,
the power to proclaim the meaning of human existence
is quickly and easily twisted
into a tool for domination.

But what does Jesus say?
“The greatest among you must be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled;
but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
And Jesus doesn’t just speak this truth, he lives it;
he lives it to the point of death, death on a cross.
And in that life, in that death,
not only the meaning of human existence,
but the true power of God is revealed.
In our quest for god-like power,
we not only mistake ourselves for God
but we also mistake the nature of God’s power.
God’s power, as revealed in the cross,
is not a power over others
that allows God to control and manipulate
in order to enhance and increase his own sense of power.
Rather God’s power is one that constantly pours itself out
in creating, in healing, in forgiving,
in giving itself to be shared in.
We truthfully proclaim the meaning of human existence
when we exercise power in this way,
the way that Jesus reveals
in his life, death, and resurrection.

Writing to the Thessalonians,
Paul gives us a picture of such a proclamation:
“We were gentle among you,
as a nursing mother cares for her children….
Working night and day in order not to burden any of you,
we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.”
Paul uses the image of the nursing mother
who shares her own bodily substance with her child
to speak of the nature of true religious authority.
How different this is from those exercises
of religious or quasi-religious power
that find their end in self-gratification
through control and manipulation.

Those of us who are clergy ought to look to Jesus and Paul
to teach us how to proclaim the good news.
We cannot let the abuses of power
by those who are called to proclaim
the meaning of human existence
cause us to cease our proclamation.
Because the world still needs the good news of God,
and there are plenty of peddlers of other gospels
waiting to step into the breech should we fall silent.
We must find a way to proclaim that good news
as Jesus did, as Paul did,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
so that those who receive it may find, as Paul says,
“not a human word but… the word of God,
which is now at work in you who believe.”

When I was ordained a deacon,
Archbishop Keeler
placed the book of Gospels in my hands,
saying, “Receive the Gospel of Christ
whose herald you have become.
Believe what you read,
teach what you believe,
and practice what you teach.”
This is an awesome charge.
To fulfill it, I need you to hold me accountable
to exercising the kind of authority
that does not exalt itself,
that does not seek its own advantage,
but seeks only to build up the body of Christ
here in this place.
I also need you to pray for me,
to pray for all bishops, priests, and deacons,
that we may have the power to be gentle,
the power to proclaim what it means to be human
by seeking no glory except the glory of the cross.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Ezekiel 18:25-28; Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32

It is hard to be entirely unsympathetic
to the second son in today’s Gospel—
the one who,
when asked by his Father
to go out into the vineyard,
responded “Yes, sir,”
and then did not do it.
We should not presume
that he was lying when he said, “Yes, sir.”
I can easily imagine that he meant what he said,
but then began to think of what
a long, hot day laboring in the sun would be like,
and decided he did not want to help his father after all.
Or maybe he would have gone,
but other things got in the way:
some unexpected guest showed up
who need to be entertained,
the kids needed to be driven to soccer practice
and his wife had to be somewhere else,
the cable guy didn’t show up when he said he would
and so he spent the entire day waiting for him.
Or maybe, having said “yes” with the best of intentions,
he simply forgot,
procrastinated a bit,
got caught up on Facebook or Instagram,
let it slip his mind until the end of the day
when he thought, “Oh shoot,
I forgot to help Dad in his vineyard.
I hope he isn’t mad.”

But perhaps the point of the parable
is that in responding to the call of God
the right words and a passing good intention
are not really what’s called for.
The Gospel calls us to something more.
Perhaps this is why the first son
initially said “I will not.”
Perhaps he knew that a day in the vineyard
would be long and hot.
Perhaps he knew that there were other things
that he had to do that day.
Perhaps he knew that if he said yes,
then making himself available to his father
would have to be his first—
indeed, his only—priority.
So initially he says “I will not,”
but then perhaps he thinks
of all that his father has given him,
of all the love his father has shown him,
of all the times his father
has made himself available to him,
and he has a change of heart,
because suddenly it seems
that the only proper response
to so great a love,
is to make himself available to his father,
to go out to labor in his vineyard,
even if the day will be long and hot.

I don’t think this parable
is primarily about obedience—
at least if we mean by “obedience”
merely submitting to the command of another,
perhaps in hope of winning their favor.
It is about making ourselves available to another,
in response to a love
that has always already been given to us.
In our second reading today,
St. Paul too calls us to such availability:
“humbly regard others
as more important than yourselves,
each looking out not for his own interests,
but also for those of others.”
And Paul tells us that our model for this
is Jesus himself,
who, though possessing the fullness of divinity,
emptied himself in carrying out his Father’s will,
dwelling among us as one of us
and even accepting the humiliation of the cross.
Having received all things from his Father,
Jesus empties himself of all things,
making himself available to the Father
by making himself available to us.

There is a mystery here.
Jesus possesses the fullness of divinity
precisely in emptying himself
for us and for our salvation.
And this mystery is our own mystery
as baptized members of Christ’s body.
In joining the command to love God
to the command to love our neighbor,
Jesus has given us a way of life
that he himself lived among us:
a life in which love of God
is lived out through love of neighbor
and our love of neighbor
is rooted and grounded
in the faith, hope, and love
by which we give ourselves
to the God who has always already
given us everything.
We make ourselves available to God
by making ourselves available to each other,
and we can only make ourselves
available to each other in a truly radical way
when we make ourselves available to God.
Because when we put ourselves at God’s disposal
the Spirit of God comes to dwell in us
and the infinite love of God bursts open
the narrow confines of our hearts,
emptying us of all that holds us back,
transforming our “I will not”
into Jesus’ “not what I will
but what you will.”

Of course, such availability is difficult and risky.
The vineyard of God is the entire world
and our labor there is long
because the need is so vast.
How can we answer “yes”
to every cry for help:
cries that come from distant lands
and from within our own families,
cries for material sustenance
and spiritual consolation,
cries that tear at our hearts
even as they deplete our resources?

But when our Father calls us to labor in his vineyard
we cannot let the vastness of the world’s need
make us say “I will not”;
we cannot let our inability to solve all problems
prevent us from doing what we can,
or tempt us to make ourselves unavailable.
Even we tax collectors and prostitutes,
reluctant children and unwilling disciples,
can, through the grace of God’s Spirit,
have our “I will not” transformed into “Yes, Lord,”
and take a step into the risk of availability,
trusting that same Spirit to keep us afloat
as we are swept along by the torrent of love
that Jesus has emptied into our world.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20

Many people,
of various political persuasions,
love participating in protests:
the exhilaration that comes
with marching in the streets
and speaking truth to power;
the deep sense of solidarity
of a people united
in standing up for what is right
and holding evil-doers accountable.

I am not one of those people.

While I have done my share of marching—
protesting wars and police brutality,
advocating for nuclear arms reduction
and a more just economic system—
I can’t say that I have ever enjoyed it all that much.
I am the type of person who can’t help wondering,
even as I march—especially as I march—
whether all this marching is really going anywhere,
if power listens when you speak truth to it,
if the people united will really never be defeated.
I look around at the signs that others carry
and say to myself,
“I’m not sure that I entirely agree
with the precise wording of that sentiment.”
I join in chanting slogans,
while at the same time thinking, “Well, you know,
the issue is really a bit more complicated than this.”

And yet our Scriptures today seem to say
that when you see wrong being done,
when you see people separating themselves
from God’s love by their evil actions,
you have a moral obligation to raise your voice,
to call them to repentance and conversion.
God tells the prophet Ezekiel in our first reading
that he must “speak out
to dissuade the wicked from his way,”
and Jesus in our Gospel reading confers on the Church
the power to “bind and loose,”
the obligation to exercise judgement
and to hold people morally accountable
for their actions.
Our Scriptures recognize
that speaking out
may or may not prove to be effective
in changing someone’s behavior,
but regardless of its effectiveness
we still have a moral obligation to speak,
we cannot keep the truth hidden
when it is under attack,
for if we do it is we who will be judged,
it is we who will be held accountable
for the evil we did not protest.

This past week the Catholic bishops of the United States,
fulfilling their role as successors to the apostles—
the role of binding and loosing,
of holding morally accountable—
issued a statement
in response to President Trump’s cancelation
of the policy of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
This Obama-era policy allowed people who were
brought illegally to the United States as children
to remain in the country and to obtain work permits,
rather than being deported back
to countries of which they often have no memory,
and whose language they might not even speak.
The bishops, in their statement,
call the cancellation of this policy “reprehensible”
and say that such action represents
“a heartbreaking moment in our history
that shows the absence of mercy and good will,
and a short-sighted vision for the future.”

Depending on the issue,
some people on both the political left
and the political right
get annoyed
when the bishops do this sort of thing,
saying that the bishops are meddling in politics—
that they should stick to religion and the Bible
and leave politics to the politicians.
But it is precisely our religion that compels us to speak up.
It is our sacred Scriptures that tells us that all people
are created in the image and likeness of God;
it is our sacred Scriptures that command us,
“You shall treat the alien who resides with you
no differently than the natives born among you” (Leviticus 19:34);
it is Jesus Christ himself who says to us,
“I was hungry and you gave me no food,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
a stranger and you gave me no welcome…
I say to you, what you did not do
for one of these least ones,
you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:42-43, 45).
In speaking out, the bishops
are simply obeying God’s command
to stand up for the weak and defend the defenseless,
to welcome Christ in welcoming the stranger,
to call the wandering to repentance.
Just as when they advocate for the unborn or the elderly,
just as when they denounce racism or exploitation of the poor,
they are continuing the apostolic tradition
of prophetic protest against evil,
of binding and loosing and holding accountable.

You may be one of those people who, like me,
find yourself in the midst of such protest
saying, “I’m not sure that I entirely agree
with the precise wording of that sentiment,”
or “well, you know, the issue
is really a bit more complicated than this.”
And it is true,
the details of immigration law and policy
are incredibly complicated.
But the heart of the Gospel is not complicated:
“Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another;
for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law…
Love does no evil to the neighbor;
hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.”

This law of love is simple, but it is not easy;
it demands that we come to see the world
through the eyes of Christ,
who fearlessly spoke the truth
and who laid down his life
out of love for us sinners;
it demands that we ourselves
love one another as he has loved us.
We love the oppressed
when we speak up
to denounce their oppression;
we love the oppressor
when we call them
to repentance and conversion;
we love the truth itself
when we refuse to let it be hidden
and give our lives to its service.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Jeremiah 20:7-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27

When we are baptized,
we come to share in Christ’s identity
as prophet, priest, and king.
Of course, for us today
the roles of prophet, priest, and king
might seem like relics of a culture long-passed,
but they embodied privileges that,
even today, one might desire for oneself.
In the world of the Bible, a prophet was one
who conveyed the wisdom and will of God
to the people;
and who of us would not like to be thought of
as a person of wisdom and insight?
A priest was one who offered sacrifices
that mediated between God and humanity,
bestowing God’s blessing and forgiveness;
and who of us would not like to be thought of
as a person of spiritual depth and power
(particularly if we can be
“spiritual but not religious”)?
A king was one with authority,
whose will was law,
and to whom people looked
to grant them life and livelihood;
and who of us would not like to be thought of
as a leader who is powerful and generous and in control?
Though we may not use the terms
“prophet,” “priest,” and “king,”
they name things that most of us still find desirable,
things that bestow a certain privilege.

But our scriptures today
take the privilege of prophet, priest, and king
and turn them on their heads.

From Jeremiah, we hear the true meaning
of being a prophet of the God of Israel:
“All the day I am an object of laughter;
everyone mocks me.”
Funny enough, it turns out
most people don’t really want
to hear God’s wisdom and word,
and they are not inclined to show respect
to those who relentlessly proclaim it.
Yet the true prophet cannot shut up,
no matter what the consequences:
God's word, “becomes like fire
burning in my heart,
imprisoned in my bones;
I grow weary holding it in,
I cannot endure it.”

From the apostle Paul we hear the true meaning
of sharing in the priesthood of Jesus:
not simply being a conduit of spiritual blessing,
but offering our own bodies,
as Jesus offered his body,
as a sacrifice to God;
and in this sacrifice to be transformed,
just as our gifts of bread and wine are transformed,
into the crucified body of Christ;
to share in Christ’s priesthood
is to give of our very substance
to those ravaged by spiritual and material hunger.

And from Jesus himself we hear the true meaning
of being God’s anointed king.
Recall: Peter has just responded to Jesus’ question,
“Who do you say that I am?”
with the answer
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Both of these terms—
“Christ,” or “anointed one,”
and “Son of God”—
are terms that were applied to King David,
and it seems that Peter is presuming
that they are journeying to Jerusalem
so that Jesus can assume the throne of David,
to take on the role of one whose will is law.
But Jesus knows that his kingship is different;
it is not about power and control;
rather, “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly
from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed and on the third day be raised.”
To rule is not to be in control,
but to surrender control to God.

It is a privilege to share through Baptism
in Jesus’ ministries of prophet, priest, and king,
but it is not privilege as the world counts privilege.
Jesus makes this clear in saying,
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Paul makes it equally clear when he exhorts us,
“Do not conform yourselves to this age
but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”

In Baptism, we surrender all human privilege
for the privilege of becoming by grace
what Jesus Christ is by nature;
we lose all human claim to status
in order to take on the status
of God’s adopted sons and daughters.
A life of privilege
based on race or social class or gender
must be left behind in the waters of Baptism;
we must lose that life in order to save our lives
on the day when Christ will return to judge the world.

Of course, this does not happen automatically.
Baptism sets us on a road:
a road of daily dying to our old self,
of daily rising again from sin,
of daily embracing the new identity
that is ours in Jesus.
It is not an easy road.
But we do not walk that road alone.
We walk it in the company
of our fellow members of Christ’s body,
and we walk it with Jesus Christ himself,
who goes before us
so that no obstacle,
whether within us or without us,
will ever to be too great for us to surmount.
For Baptism gives us not simply a call to follow,
but also the grace to follow:
it gives us the gift of the Spirit
who will never abandon us
but will make of us
prophets in whose bones God’s word burns,
priests who offer their very lives as spiritual sacrifices,
and leaders who will take up the cross of Jesus our king
in the struggle for justice and mercy.
This is the privilege we have as baptized Christians,
the privilege that we are called to live out
each day of our lives.

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 20:17-27; John 17:1-11a

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
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,
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.