Welcome to CatholicPreacher! I use this page as a type of archive of my thoughts for my Sunday homily.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany


“So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”


Perfection.  The word is so infused with strong, positive idealism that Jesus’ call to be perfect seems rhetorical; no one can become perfect…..especially perfect the way God is perfect! The point is driven home in today’s gospel with the impossibility of the Jesus’ injunctions:

“You have heard that it was said,
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.

When someone strikes you on your right cheek,
turn the other one as well.
If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic,
hand over your cloak as well.
Should anyone press you into service for one mile,
go for two miles.
Give to the one who asks of you,
and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.

“You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.


Couple this with last week’s gospel where Jesus said it was enough to feel lust and anger in order to commit sin under the Law. Indeed, the point is clear: no one stands justified by the Law before God. How, then, could Jesus follow this up with an injunction to be perfect “as your heavenly Father is perfect”? Is this just another layer of impossibility heaped upon his earlier pronouncement?


This gospel is situated in a section full of Jesus’ ethical teaching that extends from the Beatitudes in chapter five to capping off the Sermon on the Mount in chapter seven.  Interwoven with Jesus’ ethical exhortations, is the admonition to focus on seeking God, to seek the righteousness of the Kingdom first in your need and what is truly needed will be provided.  It is Jesus pleading with his disciples to focus away from the Law and on the Giver of the Law: God.

The true Law is the law of love. Jesus proclaims that “in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”  A compelling corollary to Jesus’ reply to the Scribes as to what the greatest commandment of the Law: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" Fulfillment of the Law is only possible if it originates in the heart, not from a book. In the readings for today’s baptism, Ezekiel the prophet recounts the promise of God in relation to the Law:


“I am going to take you from among the nations and gather you together from all the foreign countries and bring you home to your own land. I shall pour clean water over you and you will be cleansed; I shall cleanse you of all your defilement and all your idols. I shall give

you a new heart, and put a new spirit in you; I shall remove the heart of stone from

your bodies and give you a heart of flesh instead. I shall put my spirit in you, and

make you keep my laws….”


The ethical demands of Christianity do not come from a book as a source of fulfillment; the Bible is essential for foundational training and inspiration, but it cannot simply be followed without the gift of discernment given as a gift at baptism. We must learn by practicing all of our lives to submit to the Law of Love, of the compassion God showed for his creation by entering into our suffering and resurrecting it to new life. We then, freely enter into the world of those who suffer around us and enter our own suffering, with the sure hope of the resurrection.  Our fleshy hearts were remade from stone because we need to feel the world’s joy and the world’s suffering as part of our spiritual journey seeking God, together, as a people living in the Promised Land of the heart.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany


“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill."  --Jesus



There is a popular refrain among some Christians: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!” No doubt the fatigue of believing that uncertainty is opposed to maturing in the spiritual life can lead one to wish such simple slogans are true. Biblical fundamentalism, though, is borne from a lack of trust—the antithesis of life in the Spirit. Our relationship with God is primarily one of prayer and communal discernment, not textual fidelity; such errors are not unique to Christianity.  The Jewish people of Jesus’ time also struggled to live a righteous life through God’s revelation in the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament). Genesis is the story of origins. Most important, though,  isn’t the scientific details of origin, but of the origin of our relationship with God and one another, and the origin of our breaking communion with our Creator. It is also a story of the origin of our reunion with God through the faithfulness of Abraham, in whom God counted faith as righteousness. Exodus outlines the struggle of God’s people in exile and the fight to regain Abraham’s promise and again respond to a promise.  
          A text didn’t lead the Jews into the Promised Land, the presence of God did. Then God organizes them and gives Moses the Law to order the people’s worship and life. Leviticus reveals the detail of God’s Law, and tellingly, the book that follows, Numbers, is about God punishing the people’s failure to keep the Law; so begins the wandering. Deuteronomy is all about reaching the Promised Land and learning to obey God. This begins the messiness of relationship with The Divine---exile, and return; promises made, broken and reworked again and again by a God hopelessly in love with humanity. The struggle of God’s people is mirrored by our struggle to be faithful to a Word, a living Word, not a text; but there is a catch.
            To say we live by faithfulness to a relationship with God, not with a text can also lead to complete disdain for the Bible.  What is needed is a greater understanding of the role of the Bible in our lives as Christians. We need to avoid the trap of textual fundamentalism and the other extreme of living disconnected from tradition and the wisdom of those who came before us. The Bible, when used wisely and within a broader community of interpretation, helps us to discern our life in Christ from a life moving away from Christ. The Bible isn’t a book of answers as much as it is a book of questions, questions of how to live the radical demands of Christ’s gospel.  John Parsons, a great missionary, famously wrote that “In the end, it's not an act of interpretation that is called for but a life of commitment to the truth. Interpretation must reach an endpoint, a decision. We cannot indefinitely suspend our judgment without risking self-deception and the loss of the message of love...”
            In today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus confronts the stark reality that living by the letter of the Law, as text, isn’t enough to fulfill the Law; a change of heart is needed.  It is not enough to simply refrain from murder; one must treat anger with equal disdain. It is not enough to refrain from adultery, but cultivating lust by treating one as an object of desire should likewise be avoided. Making elaborate promises that lead to intrigue and misunderstandings is the error, but so is dithering to make commitments and honest communication.  When Jesus declared that “ I have come not to abolish but to fulfill [the Law] he indicated that fulfillment was only possible in a relationship of faith through him, not textual scholarship.  Scholarship only helps us understand the text; Christ penetrates the text to the heart of God.  We live in and through Christ, not in and through the Bible.
            What sustained the early Christians, who had no common scripture for three hundred years after Jesus, sustains us today—The Holy Spirit.  Living God’s word, in a sense, allowing each of our lives to write a gospel message to the world, is the natural extension of both an educated reading of Holy Scripture and the give and take of our life in the Spirit. 

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany



Your Mission: Blandness, Lowliness, and Darkness


Today’s gospel is kind of a pep-talk from Jesus to his disciples (as well as a cautionary tale for those who waste this potential).  He uses three metaphors to get his point across, comparing his disciples to salt, a city on a hill and a light. He doesn’t insist that they will become salt, city and a light, but that they are and must allow the world to see them so that the world “…may glorify the heavenly Father.” 
            One aspect these images all share in common is that by themselves they are useless. Have you ever had a teaspoon of salt, or stared into a source of light only to be blinded when turning away, or heard of a thriving city cut off from commerce from other cities?  All of these metaphors suggest use in the context of need. Salt is used to season bland food, light to provide a way in the darkness and the visibility of a great city on a hill to attract people to its location.
            The nature of the gift always suggests the mission.  Salt brings life and sustains the freshness of food that otherwise would be bland and soon rotten. Our mission is to the bland. The routine of daily life where often people simply “go through the motions” is a dead-end ritual that often lacks meaning.  “Working for the weekend” suggests the only proper end of work is recreation rather than the value of work itself. Being the “salt”, Christians can bring tastiness, the hope of meaning, in living lives that celebrate all aspects of life itself. Animated by the Spirit, we have the power to live such a daily life others find meaningless, create community and flavor to the bland fare of modern work. We don’t have to be celebrated to find meaning; we can live a life of gratitude and allow our care and mindfulness to shape our work into something sacramental.
            Our mission is to darkness. There are places where fear imprisons its residents, but where people who are light chart a pathway out of the darkness.  Father Gregory Boyle in Los Angeles is a good example of one who has brought out the many lights hidden in youth gang violence by allowing his single light to illuminate hope and promise in a part of the city where hope and promise are too often well out of sight.  Today’s saint, St. Jerome Emiliani, in the darkness of a military prison found the light of Christ while captive, learned to pray and eventually lighted the way for thousands of orphans, the sick and the poor in establishing the Clerks Regular of Somasca. Our Christian heritage is rich with such lights, and the darkness is a time-honored mission.
            Our mission is to the hidden, the outcast and forgotten by entering into obscurity fearlessly to allow people to find dignity, love, and purpose in a world that tells them they are worthless is also a great calling.  The Alcoholics Anonymous parable of a man in a well will serve us here.  There was a man trapped in a well with no hope of getting out.  One man passes overhead and hears the cry for help, looks at the depth of the well and says he will go for help as soon as he can find someone with a long enough ladder to reach the bottom. A religious guy writes a prayer and drops it down.  Finally, a third man approaches and jumps down into the well.  The man in the well asks incredulously “Why in the world did you do that.  Now we are both stuck!” The man who jumped down replies “Yes. But I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.” 
            Our own darkness, blandness and hidden wounds are, through Christ, light, meaning, and purpose for the world, because God bestowed these gifts to us through the Holy Spirit, as the famous hymn declares “When we first believed.” Such amazing grace is only realized though when it is accompanied by the fearless response of our graced calling to the bland, lowly and dark places in our world, and also in ourselves.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Third Sunday after Epiphany


Where is the light in this darkness?

I would like you to picture a scene.  It is dark.  I mean hand-isn’t-visible-in-front-of-your-face darkness.  The darkness is profoundly isolating.  Everyone assumes they are alone because they cannot see one another. Then, in the distance, is a single, fragile flame coming from a lit candle. It dips to one side, then to another, and seems to multiply, and then the number of flames increases revealing hands, then arms, then faces and finally entire bodies.  A deep sense of relief comes at not being alone, people immediately begin speaking, and finally, your candle is lit.  The person with the first candle comes among us, and that brings us closer together.  Our light intensifies as a group and attracts the notice of those farther away and they join.  Some in the group decide to leave and search for others; sometimes they return, and sometimes they are never seen again. The original bearer of the candle leaves us but leaves behind his candle; this candle can never go out. He tells us he will return someday, and we have been lighting more candles each day and re-lighting the ones that get blown out.

Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death, light has
arisen. 
From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say,
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew’s gospel quoting Isaiah)

Jesus was the Light John preached. Jesus is the “light in the darkness” and the “light of the nations” that gathers those in darkness together.  The Holy Spirit is an eternal flame left for us as a source of comfort, illumination, and power.

As Church, each of us with our individual flame has the power of the collective---the nature of “church”, from the Greek ecclesia meaning “a gathering”—suggests a unified body.  What we have realized, though, is far from the unified idea.  Divisions abound among Christian communities and among members within each community. Divisions don’t simply follow denominational lines. The lines of division occur within each faith community much as they did at the time of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. And if you look deeply into the hearts of those set apart from one another, the fault-line is a divided heart.

This divided heart was most evident in the Corinthian community when Paul writes

For it has been reported to me about you, my brothers and sisters,
by Chloe’s people, that there are rivalries among you.
I mean that each of you is saying,
“I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,”
or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”
Is Christ divided?
Was Paul crucified for you?
Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

Did you notice among the list of “belonging” statements the correct answer: “I belong to Christ”? So why did Paul lump that replies in with the rest?  He did it to make an important point. Simply claiming to belong to Christ while refusing communion with one’s neighbor is disingenuous.  From the third chapter of Mark’s gospel Jesus broadens the concept of family:

Many people were sitting around Jesus. They said to him, "Your mother and brothers are waiting for you outside." Jesus asked, "Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?" Then Jesus looked at those people sitting around him. He said, "These people are my mother and my brothers! My true brother and sister and mother are those people that do the things God wants."

One can’t love Christ and despise one’s brother(or sister!). Communities that are lights don’t define themselves based upon propositions but upon devotion.  If we claim to worship Christ, we accept the differences among us not as challenges but as a sign the Holy Spirit is stirring things up. Of course, not all that manifests itself in a community is the working of the Holy Spirit; that is why it is so important that everyone looks to him or herself and humbly submit to the discernment of the larger community. It isn’t perfect, and sin and imperfections will always exist, but there is “light” if each of us recognizes a higher power other than simply strong opinions that must be defended at the expense of unity. How do we reverse division?

We break down barriers by moving away from our well-defined groups to seek communion with those who claim our ideals and devotion but with whom there is disagreement. We also break down barriers by listening more attentively to one another within our denominational community.  Most fundamental of all, though, is the devotion of each member to prayer, listening to the voice of God and seeking out that voice in one another.

The kingdom of heaven isn’t built by asking others to give up their lights to one among you who claims will “light the way”, but by drawing closer to one another, and sharing the lights that were given to each of you at baptism and continue to burn brightly this very day.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Second Sunday after Epiphany

Unity without Uniformity--Diversity without Division
           
This week begins Christian Unity Week, which raises awareness of what we as Christians share in common rather than what divides us. According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, there are approximately 41,000 Christian denominations and organizations in the world. Each of these groups defines themselves in some manner that distinguishes them from the other 40,999.  At first, this may seem rather disheartening, but Christianity since its proliferation in the first century has been diverse; in fact, it is probably more accurate to discuss first century “Christianities” to accurately represent the depth of the early divisions.  Early on, some believed Jesus was not divine, but a person “inspired” by God.  Some believed that one must first become a Jew to be a Christian.  Some believed in a Christian God of Jesus and an Old Testament God. Such issues, for the most part, resolved themselves by the early fourth century at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea. However, from this unity (and some would argue uniformity) came the Great Schism of 1054 where East and West divided, and later in the sixteenth century when there was a split within the Roman Church that began the Protestant movement and ensuing multiplicities. Did I mention the Popes and anti-Popes between the third and fifteenth centuries? What are we to make of all this?  What is the difference between division and diversity?
            Today, we begin reading St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church.  Like Christianity at large, Paul’s large Church at Corinth was on the verge of splintering into several different communities.  In his letter, he addresses three key issues: Division—no one could decide on whom to follow; Sexual Immorality---one member of the church was sleeping with his stepmother; and Lawsuits—on top of all this turmoil, it seems there was a rash of lawsuits among the community. Paul’s wise counsel is still valid today. Regarding division, Paul remarks “It is not important who does the planting [of the seed of faith] or the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow”(3:6-7). Regarding sexual sin, Paul counsels confrontation and the opportunity to repent. For lawsuits, he counsels handling disputes internally. The point is that the community must place Christ at its center and the love of Christ must animate the community in all it does. There is no “rule book”, but rather the Spirit of discernment. Paul famously declares “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible…. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.   I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.  Paul’s understanding of freedom wasn’t to go one’s own way but to use freedom to enter into the world in an intimate and meaningful way, to use one’s freedom to establish relationships rather than abandon them. In short, Paul speaks of the freedom to love as God’s love reaches through and beyond Israel to the “nations of the world”. Devotion, not doctrine gives Christians unity.
            Jesuit father John Whitney, in a recent NY Times article, is addressing the issue of the protest of the firing of a gay vice principal and the reaction to the students “making a mess” in their opposition to the firing.  He responds in the article by putting “making a mess” as being consistent with church tradition. More importantly, he discusses the dynamics of controversy without division over the issue as to whether or not Gentiles could become Christians.
           
            “What is most amazing about this moment in the Church [the Gentile controversy] is how the community comes to decide, together, what is to be done. There are debate and disruption, but it is not seen as division; rather, it is the way the Holy Spirit is working within the community. Further, this debate is grounded in human experience, and not on tradition or on the power of office. Rather than beginning with Scripture—with the Torah or the Prophets—the community begins with the experience of the faithful: with the testimony of Peter, Paul, and Barnabas—none of whom claim special authority in the face of the communal discernment, but all of whom, instead, simply testify to the way in which they have seen the Gentiles touched and filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit…. Here is diversity without division, complexity with separation, debate, and dissent without the need for punishment or condemnation. In listening for the living Spirit of Christ Jesus, the Church begins by listening to the sinners and seekers who are his body in the world.”

            This is true diversity and unity rather than division spawned from insistence on uniformity. When we orient ourselves to listen to the other and honor the experience of faith, we don’t abandon unity because this listening is done as our worship. The Spirit is alive when there are people speaking from the heart and confronting the community out of love.  Because some of our practices and doctrines differ, we worship God insofar as we love one another, listen to one another, and honor the Spirit present in all our communities.  Very often, as in the case of Israel, God speaks through a community as well as to a community. What is your neighbor saying?  Are you listening?

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Baptism of the Lord

"This is my beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased"

            It is easy to treat today’s Baptism of the Lord as an historical feast.  Indeed, there are good historical reasons to believe Jesus was baptized by John, since there has always been a controversy between the Christians and “Baptists”(those who continued to follow John the Baptist) over this event; however, what is at work in today’s readings is connected with epiphany, God’s healing presence in the world shown in Jesus. God acts through Jesus and is therefore made manifest to the world.
            In the scripture reading from Isaiah, we learn of the servant-messiah.  Jesus, as this servant-messiah, will extend God’s covenant between his chosen as “a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.”  Jesus’ baptism is a mandate of healing and a drawing together of the nations. In Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, which was originally a second part of the Gospel of Luke, it is God acting through Jesus, not Jesus simply obeying orders from on high; Jesus is in perfect relationship with the Father, and his life among us brings God’s blessings. This gives us a crucial insight as to what it means to be a follower of Christ.
            To follow Christ is more than an imitation of Jesus’ actions; it is a call to a deepening relationship with God the Father.  As Christians, we must become animated with God’s love for humanity, and that animation is only possible through God’s Holy Spirit.  As apprentices in our spiritual journey, we begin like all good apprentices by imitation. We learn to love, to heal and represent ourselves as ethical and moral people with a high calling, but this is not our end.  Our end is perfect communion with God.  What we imitate in Christ goes beyond his actions on earth and focuses on his relationship with the Father.  It is only from this fuller communion with God the Father that our true vocation as Christians is being fulfilled.  While living a life based on high moral and ethical standards is important, the much more enduring significance of Jesus’ baptism resides in coming into full communion with God the Father from whom we have been estranged since Eden.
            This need for a deeper, fuller communion is achieved only through prayer and God’s grace received in the Spirit.  That is why baptism is so essential; it invites the Holy Spirit to enable this essential communion.  To put it a different way, Thomas Merton, a monk, and mystic, wrote that the Christian must do more than simply do the will of God.  He or she must will the will of God.  We cannot have this deeper communion without the Holy Spirit and the baptism that bestows upon us the calling to move beyond imitation and to manifest God to the world as Jesus made God known to the world.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Epiphany


Epiphany means "manifestation", that is, a revealing, an illumination, which is precisely how we experience the jubilation of Israel experiencing the fulfillment of Isaiah 40.  This passage is the joyful song of those who have returned from exile and whose reinvigorated relationship with God will serve as a beacon for "the nations" which signifies the non-Jewish peoples.  The God who has delivered Israel in an act of great salvation becomes, for Christians, the sign of God's supreme act of salvation that saves not only the people of Israel but the world.  Paul's epistle picks up this theme in "the mystery made manifest" and the notion of the Gentiles being "coheirs, members of the same body".  In the Gospel, we have the ultimate revelation of God's salvation in the form of Jesus' birth, being announced to Gentiles, who then come to worship the Christ child; again mirroring the idea expressed in Isaiah that "Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance."  This king has qualities of the Davidic kingship of justice and concern for the poor contrasted with the megalomaniac paranoia of King Herod.  There are a few important ideas developed in today's readings, I think.

It strikes me that God's revelation over time with the Jewish people, and then to the Gentiles, has been expansive.  Rather than simply lavishing all His attention on his "chosen", we come to see that the choice is for a role in salvation history.  It is the God who is incredibly lavish with his love and attention, which is a key element in understanding God's manifestation to the world.  It is a God of great inclusion rather than exclusion, yet so much of what we see in Christianity today seeks to privatize God, limits access to communion, sets up laws of access, decides who's "in communion" and who isn't, goes against God's essential movement to embrace humanity, all of humanity, in all the messiness and chaos that this momentum encounters.  

We promulgate doctrines that attempt to put a legal tabernacle around God and deny anyone access except through priests who have the stamp of approval from the corporate office; perhaps chaos isn't so much a sign of evil in the world as the facade of unity that is really uniformity.  When we put "Christian" in front of nouns to transform them, like "Christian writer," we mistake God's act of salvation.  The transformation of Christ in the world came from the center of lowliness, vulnerability, and exile as a child in a manger, and expanded through acts of healing and resurrection rather than from the outside in.  A "Christian writer" becomes in this new world a "writer of Christ," one whose work brings Christ to the world, helps manifest Christ.  Now we can ask if the writing brings Christ's healing and resurrection rather than concentrate as to whether or not the writer is a Christian.  "The writer who is Christian" is the focus on Christ's presence through the boundless and expansive energy of the Holy Spirit, "the Christian writer" is an investigation as to the legitimacy of affiliation with the Christian community.

When we make decisions as a faith community that defines ourselves over and against those who are not-like-us, we make feeble attempts to limit the Spirit.  When we reach across denominational and even religious boundaries to recognize the dwelling of the Holy Spirit, and of Christ, in those not-like-us, we act most in concert with God whose saving act in Christ is for "the nations", not "the nation." It is shameful that those who most need God's love and salvation are often handed literature rather than a hug, a dismissive tone rather than a place at the table.  In a modification of St. Francis's admonition, we need to go out and preach the Good News, and if we must, use words.