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

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Take a Leap
"I know God will not give me anything I can't handle.  I just wish he didn't trust me so much."
--Mother Treasa of Calcutta

Faith is a tricky thing it seems.  Sometimes one who claims to be acting on faith is simply avoiding the responsibility to apply any rational effort to see the truth; other times, Christians feel that acknowledging mystery is a throwback to the Middle Ages and superstition.  Like most extremes, the wisdom of faith and reason is more like a dance than a recipe.  It is helpful, I think, to see the foundation of our belief in God, in the mission of Jesus as the Christ, our salvation and resurrection, and other essentials of Christianity as matters of faith rather than logical constructs that have a beautiful internal consistency; Christianity makes, I think, a rather shabby philosophy with all its demands on passionate belief based on an encounter with a  person rather than theory.

We have two such personal encounters in today's gospel reading: one with a "synagogue official named Jairus" and the other with a woman afflicted with "hemorrhages".  Jarius wants Jesus to heal his daughter; the woman also seeks Jesus' healing while he was en route to his first appointment.  What both these stories have in common is the linking of faith to healing, and of healing to salvation.
Jesus' life on earth was one of preaching and healing, full of passionate encounters and the revealing of the kingdom as a kingdom of restoration and grace.  In the first century, disease and death were all "unclean" and associated with sin.  Jesus' announcing the Good News brings an end to sin and death through healing and grace; these were lived experiences, not propositional arguments made by Jesus.  The woman, pushing through the crowd, touched Jesus' cloak and became "aware at once that power had gone out from him".  Jesus did not willingly give his "power" of healing to the woman, but she received it because of her faith, her bold determination to associate her healing with touching Jesus, or failing that, at least his cloak.  Jesus declares "Daughter, your faith has saved you. Go in peace and be cured of your affliction." 

Faith is also associated with the healing/salvation of Jairus' daughter.  Jesus doesn't anoint her or say prayers, he simply told her to get up after declaring to her anguished father "Do not be afraid; just have faith".  Jarius' faith, like that of the hemorrhaging woman, was faith in desperation.  They had nowhere else to turn.  Jesus was their last hope.  They knew they did not merit the healing, but sought it anyway because they had nowhere else to turn.  If logic were applied here, we would question Jesus' declaration of adequate faith.  Faith borne of desperation for many is not faith at all; it's simply the last chance.

Faith doesn't sprout from a certainty; it springs from profound, experienced uncertainty.  Like the woman plowing through the crowd of Jesus' entourage, we have to plow very often through the "faithful" who surround Jesus.  Sometimes, it is not enough to follow those who follow Jesus; we must somehow make it up to the master's robes and touch them ourselves if what we desire is salvation.  But even if we trip and fall, the Master knows our effort and our direction; we never need to make it to the cloak to receive healing.  Our faith drives us because at the root of our faith is passion.  It could be passion born of profound gratitude, or of desperation and fear, but what is important is that our faith drives our will to trust.  To trust not in the all too fallible institutions, not even in those who are pointing the way, but to the destination of our yearning: the person of Christ, himself. 

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Navitity of John the Baptist

Are you he, or should we look for another?

The birth of St. John the Baptist set against the birth of Jesus, though not quite as remarkable as a virgin birth, is nonetheless miraculous.  John's father, Zacharias, is from the priestly class and is well-known for his piety.  He has been stuck with muteness during John's gestation because of his inability to accept the likelihood of his wife, Elizabeth, giving birth at such an advanced age.  All of the biblical markers for the birth of someone great.

John's ministry focused on repentance and the use of the Jewish mikvah or ritual cleansing before worship. John's messianic message was that the Messianic age arrives in response to the change of heart; conversion and repentance bring salvation, not the other way around.  It was, in its own way, very much a set including especially the drama before his birth as God working to bring life from the barrenness of Elizabeth's womb. Ironically, John does not take up his father's priestly line of work but instead goes into the literal barrenness of the desert to announce the imminent arrival of the Messiah.

Many flocked to John's side during his ministry, and it is likely that Jesus, John's cousin, was one of his early disciples. Jesus "graduates" from John's group, it seems, shortly after being baptized, and then began his public ministry apart from John. The contrast between John's expectation for Jesus and what Jesus does is highlighted in John's message from jail asking Jesus to make an account of his ministry; John has heard that Jesus' ministry involves inviting the "unclean" into the Kingdom. In frustration, John writes (rather sarcastically): “... Are you the one to come, or should we look for another?" (Matthew 11).art of Jesus' message of repentance, of metanoia, or turning around 180 degrees to enter the Kingdom.  John's kingdom, though, was not Jesus' Kingdom.  John envisioned the radical moral reform of the Jewish people and Jesus as the warrior King of Isaiah, not the Suffering Servant of Isaiah; thus, the confusion and disappointment.

We find in John, too, a brother in our disappointment when we set up Jesus as the head of a church that defines the limits of God's love and compassion, and tries to reduce God's supreme revelation to "hidden knowledge" for a few "insiders"---the rest of humanity burning in an eternal lake of fires for their sins.  What John heralds in his birth is a savior that is the one who comes to suffer for people, who invites the outcast into communion and heals. The change of heart of Jesus' disciples comes not only from his preaching but also in many profound instances from his healing.  Unlike John, Jesus was an intensely social person who came "eating and drinking" not only among the Jewish people but among those despised for their "outsider" status and non-believers and the Jewish unclean, such as lepers.  John longed for all his heart for the coming of the Messiah, convinced Jesus was the prime candidate, but also bitterly disappointed that Jesus wasn't acting in a way that was very messianic, according to John's understanding.

The celebration of John's nativity, some six months before Christmas and the celebration of Jesus' birth, is a good time to take stock in what we expect of Jesus, and through association, of ourselves--what we long for, and what has arrived.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Losing Control and Finding the Kingdom

We have a lot of baggage associated with the word "kingdom".  On the positive side, King Arthur comes to mind with all of the associated virtues of chivalry and knighthood; on the negative, we see feudal oppression, paranoid brutality, and hedonism.  For the Jews, kingdom meant one thing:  God's reign on earth in the line of David. The reading from Ezekiel is a prophetic utterance in exile.  As a priest in exile, Ezekiel cannot offer sacrifice at the Temple, which is over a thousand miles to the west, but Ezekiel does become God's voice to his people promising them a return and a vision of the future in which a messianic ruler will unite God's people again and usher in a new age of prosperity. The image of Israel's new life from a cedar branch becomes "a majestic cedar.  Birds of every kind shall dwell beneath it, every winged thing in the shade of its boughs."  In Mark's gospel, Jesus picks up on this imagery in describing the mustard "tree"(it is more of a bush) that "'becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade'".  For Ezekiel, cedar grew from a single branch; for Jesus, a tiny seed. 

Jesus' kingdom, though, wasn't to be realized through the establishment of a theocracy (this was a constant source of tension among his disciples).  Jesus' kingdom is a people who are directly animated by God's Spirit and called to a high ethical standard (love your enemies, justice for the poor, etc..).  The branches in Jesus' kingdom go out rather than up, and it would be a mistake to associate (as many have and do) the Church with God's kingdom.  While the institutional Church is part of the kingdom, we still pray "Thy kingdom come".  In John's gospel (unlike Mark, Matthew, and Luke), Jesus announces "My kingdom is not of (from) this world" when questioned by an anxious Pilate about the nature of Jesus' "kingdom".  This is echoed in Luke's gospel when Jesus replies to the Pharisees "the kingdom of heaven is in the midst(among) of you".  Jesus' presence defines kingdom while he walked the earth, and we have inherited this presence at Pentecost with the sending of the Holy Spirit.  The "branches" that have sprung are not royal lineages, but the profound ethic of sacrificial love.  The sacrifice of Christ made real and present at each Mass, becomes the "mustard seed" of our faith that finds roots among ourselves initially, but then branches out to the world.  We also find seeds of faith in prayer and reading of sacred scripture, each seed sprouting and growing in many different and splendid ways.

This image of the sprawling tree/bush can be complemented with what we usually do in response to wild, vegetative growth; we want to manage it.  In a world that has fallen in love with control, this bush breaks out of its fences, defies pruning, knocks down walls and seeks to embrace the world.  I think of women religious who are struggling against Rome's heavy-handed treatment, and the response of a particular sister who was referred to in an essay quoting a lay worker: "The Eucharist will live only if we find a way for it to live outside the Mass."  Spot on. Jesus' parable is one of distributive, expansive justice, of inclusion set prophetically against the "kingdom" of royal lineage, palaces and "trickle down" justice.  Ezekiel's prophetic vision of a greater, supreme kingdom arrived with the birth of Jesus and continues in its many "royal" lines at every baptism when the candidate is given the powers of priest, prophet, and king by the Holy Spirit.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

The Body and Blood of Christ

"Behold what you are; become what you eat"--St. Augustine

Today's scriptures make an arc between the understanding of the Jewish people's use of blood in Moses' covenant with God on Mount Sinai and Jesus' using this imagery to position himself in a new covenant between God and his people. Of all that distinguishes Christianity from other religions, the body and blood of Christ is the greatest.

Blood sacrifices have a finality that no other kind of sacrifice can offer.  The sprinkling of blood over the people in Exodus united them with the finality of the sacrificed bull, and the use of blood on the altar gave back to God the life that animates us all.  In a sense, blood was the life-essence that was uniquely God's.  Jewish law prohibited the eating of animal flesh unless all of the blood was drained so as not to appropriate that essence.

In Hebrews, Jesus becomes the new lamb of sacrifice.  This isn't Jesus sacrificing himself to an angry God for appeasement, but rather God's complete and final offering of himself in an act of mind-boggling love for his creation.  As Jesus declares in today's gospel reading "This is my blood of the covenant".  This new covenant ushers in the new and eternal relationship between humanity and God.  It is an agreement that can never be topped or superseded by something more profound or lasting.  God opens the most sacred of places in the Temple at Christ's death on the cross by tearing the curtain that separated this holiest space from the rest of the Temple.  God's submission to Christ as the Lamb of God now embraces all of humanity in the story of Exodus.  We are all now inheritors of the liberation the Jewish people have made real in the celebration of Passover.  The New Passover is the passing over of our unworthiness and the invitation to the liberation Christ offers.

Eucharista is Greek for Thanksgiving and where we get the name of the part of Mass where we unite ourselves to Christ's one, perfect sacrifice.  Our "thanksgiving" is both a response to Christ's perfect offering and participation in the ratification of the covenant God made eternal at Calvary.  Saint Augustine declared "So you are beginning to receive what you have also begun to be."  The body and blood of Christ are transformative, not only in the once-and-for-all historical act two thousand years ago, but continue to transform the faithful at each Mass; the sacrament makes that single act real again every time you receive the body and blood of Christ.  It isn't a "spiritual" communion in which the elements are simply reminders of God's act, they are a participation in Christ's sacrifice the way the Jewish people at Sinai participated in the covenant of Moses and relive that experience at Passover each year. Christ's blood as the Lamb of the New Covenant does more than redefine our relationship with God, we become God's bloodline children (God has no grandchildren).  It is more than checking off the sins we've committed (and continue to commit). We might fail miserably as God's children, but as God's children, we are never outside the home looking in.  Our bloodline is divine, our redemption eternal.