Holy Land Homilies
from the St. Mary’s Holy Land Pilgrimage, March 19-30,
March 23, 2014
outside, on the Mount
of Beatitudes, overlooking the Sea of Galilee
Barb and I want to thank you all for
coming on this pilgrimage—for your patience and openness and stamina. You are
the pilgrimage, you are the
Church, and we are very grateful for your faithfulness and your generosity of
Last week at the Timberhill Starbucks in
Corvallis, I was having coffee with a friend, a scientist, who has just learned
that he is dying. He has been given a
few months to live. And he said something
very striking to me. He said, “there are
73 trillion cells in my body, and all but the hydrogen comes from the stars.”
He said this with a kind of wonder in his
voice. A kind of excitement.
A few days ago at breakfast, here on the
Mount of Beatitudes, I was having coffee with Jaga, and she said something
really striking, too, about her research on the aging process in fruit flies. We share 13,000 genes with fruit flies, she
said. We have more. We have 23,000, but we share those first
13,000, exactly. Fruit flies are our
brothers and sisters. They age like we
do, only faster. They get stiff. They decline.
And I think of these two conversations
here, in this beautiful place, where tradition says Jesus gave the Sermon on
the Mount, the Sermon on the Mountain, because it’s clear from the language of
the sermon, and of everything Jesus says and teaches, that he loved the
mountains and the waters and the trees, the birds of the air and the flowers of
the field. His language is everywhere
full of the earth and the sky. Look at
these, he tells us. They are made by God
and so they are holy, they are beautiful, and they have lessons for you—be like
them—be like the birds—be like the flowers.
And this is why we come here, on
pilgrimage, to be reminded that the earth, too, is a temple, a church, and
nature a great book like the Bible, the other great book, just as holy and
sacramental as the scriptures.
God could have made the Incarnation happen
in any place and time, but he made it happen here, at the Sea of Galilee, in
these little villages, and in the first century, 2000 years ago, long before
all the technology that speeds up our lives and drives us to distraction, and
there’s content in this, there’s revelation.
We are called to be like Jesus, to imitate
him, and he moved through his life and his landscape so much more slowly than
we move through ours—7-9 miles on an ordinary day, on his own two feet, one
step at a time, slow enough to see the flowering mustard and hear the mourning
doves and stop and talk to the people who sought him out--and we should, too,
as much as we can. “There’s no smallness
anymore,” Joe Cantor said to me yesterday, in the Valley of Doves, and he’s
completely right, no smallness and no slowness, and as Christians we have to
That’s why we’ve come here to the Holy
Land, even though it’s been so hectic and hurried sometimes, for the same
reason we go on retreat, the same reason we come to mass: to slow down, to quiet down, and to take
inventory of all that keeps us from this quiet and peace.
Blessed are the peacemakers, Jesus says in
the Beatitudes, the heart of the Sermon on the Mount, and being here together,
on this grassy hill, above this broad, shining lake, we can feel for ourselves
how directly this peace flows out from the peace and beauty of this particular
landscape. Blessed are the poor in the
spirit, are the humble, the small and the slow, and being here together in the
freshness of the morning we can better understand how humility and gentleness
are the only way to be in right relation with nature and with the people around
It’s not that God is more present here
than anywhere else. It’s that we
are. It’s we who change, or can, we who
can learn to see again. By coming into
this small world, here in Galilee, Jesus came into all our worlds. By coming into that particular time he came
into all time—and transcended it, gathering it all into himself—and the call
for us is always to be aware of this, always to be amazed, as Fr. Matt said,
always to walk in this light.
What Fr. Steve called “the liturgical East”
is everywhere. It is made up of
atoms. It is made up of stars. It is made up of fruit flies and the cells of
our bodies and the joy we feel and even our sorrow.
Here’s how my friend put it, my friend who
is dying, the scientist, in the prayer he wrote and asked me to read here on
the Mount of Beatitudes. Death has
called him on pilgrimage—has slowed him and opened him the way we are slowed
and opened now through our travelling—and in this prayer he uses the language
of science to invoke in a new way the peace which Jesus proclaimed 2000 years
Our Father, who art
Creator of the Universe,
God of Evolution and
I praise you and I
thank you for Your Word
and for the knowledge you
have deigned to be revealed about Your Creation
through the human
pursuit of science.
The evolving flow of
creation throughout the universe
is majestic and clothed
in your mysterious ways.
In the dynamic exchange
between energy and matter, visible and invisible,
in the relativity of
space and time,
a collection of atoms
forged in the nuclear hearts of ancient stars.
Now, as my death
I know there is so much
more about life, and death, and existence
than I can ever
I trust in your
unfathomable love and mercy.
I trust that you will
give me patience and strength during the weeks and months ahead.
I trust that what comes
next for me will be alight.
I trust that in your
love for them, you will hold and comfort my wife and children and
In these and all
things, not as I will, but Thy will be done.
This I pray through
Christ, Your Son, Our Lord.
Dominus Flevit Church,
Judy Reed’s moment came at mass on Mount Tabor
as we were singing a hymn.
Jan’s at the River Jordan, when she looked
up and saw a white dove descending—a real dove, over the waters.
The tears came then, to both of them, what
our tradition calls “the gift of tears.”
For Tom it happened at Magdala, on the
shores of the Sea of Galilee, when he opened the door to the new church and
felt the wind blowing and saw it bending the palm trees and he thought of the
storm that rose over the sea in the Gospel, the storm that Jesus calmed.
He thought: everyone can feel the wind.
And sometimes we don’t feel anything, we’re
not moved at all, and that’s OK, too, that’s just as spiritual, because it
gives us a chance to be in the wilderness, to be bewildered, to be barren. At times like this we are reminded that all
is grace, out of our control.
Whenever we are moved, that’s what God
wants us to feel. It’s our turn. It’s our job to feel what other people can’t
feel in that moment.
Whatever we feel is what God wants us to
feel, including our negative emotions.
The gospels several times describe the irritation and the anger Jesus
felt on his pilgrimage to the
Jerusalem, and, we assume, his boredom and distractedness and fatigue. He was fully human, after all, and if he was,
so can we be, too.
If Jesus embraced his own humanity, we can
embrace ours—especially our sorrow, our grief.
It’s not “blessed are the happy, for they
shall always be happy.” It’s “blessed
are they who mourn”; “blessed are those who persecuted.” Jesus wept over Jerusalem on just this spot,
on this hill overlooking the stones of the city, and he had reason to, as we
have reason to weep over Portland or Corvallis or Eugene, over all the sorrows
and the losses in our lives and in the world, all the violence and ugliness, in
us and outside of us.
There’s no use repressing it, it’s real,
and we can’t heal it if we can’t feel it.
As Judy Rubert says, the key to travel is
this: when you get tired, stop. And this is the key to our psychological and
spiritual health, too. When you feel
grief, grieve. It won’t overwhelm us, it
won’t carry us away, God will hold us up, as He always holds us up. Feelings are just feelings, they come and
they go, and if we can just admit to them—if we can acknowledge them without
letting them define us—they will eventually pass.
To admit to our most negative feelings is to enter through the Door of
Humility. It’s to stoop down. To die to ourselves.
In a way the most striking thing of all in
this gospel is that Jesus doesn’t force the people of Jerusalem to conform to
his will, as the Pharisees demand. “Teacher,
rebuke your disciples,” they say, and he could, of course. He could call down his armies of angels. But he doesn’t. In another, paradoxical sense, God himself is
powerless here, because he wants to respect the freedom of others, as he must,
being God, being Love. He allows the
Kentucky Fried Chicken on the way to the Church of the Nativity, and the “Star-Bucks,”
and the tawdry music videos, out of love.
He allows the garbage and the poverty and the sheer human waste and
stupidity because he wants to leave a gap, a space, in which we can move
towards him ourselves, we can choose him.
I wonder if we can ever fully grasp who
the God of our faith really is—not the dictator, not the granter or denier of
wishes—but the one who surrendered himself completely, who entirely emptied
I wonder if we can ever really understand
that the most important thing about Jesus isn’t what he did but what he didn’t
do: he didn’t come down from the cross.
if God himself can refrain from imposing his will on us, can’t we
refrain from imposing ours—on our children, our co-workers, our friends?
If God himself is willing to live with all
these imperfections and unresolved contradictions, can’t we?
It’s not just our humanity we have to
accept. It’s the humanity of others.
I saw something out the window in Nazareth
as we were waiting for people to board the bus.
A middle-aged man was walking with his son. The son was 15 or 16, with wild eyes and a
wild smile, his head at a crooked angle, bouncing and weaving down the
sidewalk. He was obviously disabled,
mentally and physically, and it really shocked me. I looked away. I didn’t want to see it—not there, at
But later I remembered. I remembered how patiently the father managed
to get the boy into a car. I remembered
how heroic the father seemed, and how terribly burdened.
Just how sad life is, and how beautiful.
I don’t know what to do with this. I don’t know what this means. It just makes me want to weep.
But I believe in the dove, too, descending
from the sky. I believe in the wind
blowing against the door. I believe that
the man who wept over this city entered into it, and let it enter into him, and
that we must, too, and that when we do, when we feel what must feel, we will
rise with him and we will live with him and that somehow, in the midst of all
this sadness and loss, there is joy, too, always joy, joy that we can’t explain
either and don’t have to because it’s real, it exists, it’s true. All of it.
All at once.
St. Peter in Gallicantu
Peter denied Jesus three times, in the
courtyard here, around a coal fire. He
denies his master, his beloved friend, his very life.
And we deny Jesus, again and again, in
our kitchen, in our offices, in our parishes.
Our master, our beloved friend, our very life.
We deny Jesus when we laugh at a joke we
shouldn’t laugh at.
When we turn on a screen rather than face
our own emptiness.
When we assume the worst about someone
We deny Jesus when we fail to speak up for
When we don’t say what we really mean.
When we let other people tell us who we
We deny Jesus when we are too embarrassed
to talk about our faith.
We deny Jesus when we do talk about our faith, but for our own ends, or without
gentleness or respect.
We deny Jesus when we don’t really know
what the Church teaches.
When we make assumptions.
When we simplify what is really nuanced
and complicated and open-ended.
When we drink too much, eat too much, talk
When we don’t make an honest effort.
When we read the Bible literally, reducing
its mysteries to mere fact.
When we dismiss the truths of the Bible
as mere myth and symbol.
When we get obsessed with remodeling or
cars or the way we look.
When we measure our worth by how much
money we make.
When we expect our parents to be better
than we are.
When we expect our children to be better
than we are.
When we expect our friends to be better
than we are.
When we expect our priests to better than
When we fail to prayerfully listen to the
teachings of the Church—
prayerfully question the teachings of the
prayerfully think for ourselves, with the
When we fear growing older.
When we fear death.
When we give up hope—when we give up joy.
But Jesus forgives us, as he forgives
Peter. He is always forgiving us, he
will never stop forgiving us. He is
never shocked or put off or discouraged with us. He makes us, too, the rocks on which the
Church is built, even after being on pilgrimage with us for more than week,
seeing us tired and cranky and not always at our best.
We are made in the image and likeness of
God, and deep down underneath all the layers isn’t something ugly and unlovable
and vile but something beautiful and precious and beyond all price.
The sin in the garden wasn’t that we were
naked but that we were ashamed to be—that we couldn’t accept who we really are—that
we had to cover up our true natures.
“If God loves me,” someone told me
yesterday, “he can love anybody.”
No. I know she was joking and I know
what she means, but there’s an assumption underneath this all the same, an
assumption I think most of us make, and it’s completely wrong. Jesus loves us not in spite of who are but
because of it—because we are lovely, and ordinary, and precious, and good.
In a profound way Jesus isn’t really
calling us to change. He is calling us
just to be ourselves, truly ourselves—to let go of all the masks and disguises.
It’s not just that Jesus is our beloved
friend, it’s that we are his, and we deny him when we deny this.