Homilies and Poems

I am a Catholic Deacon and a Professor of English at Oregon State University. I've created this BLOG as a way of sharing my Sunday homilies, for anyone who would like copies, as well as some of my poetry. I'm also very glad to continue the conversation, over email or in person. Just click on "profile" and then onto my email address. Peace be with you and the Lord be with you. Also visit me at my website.

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Location: Corvallis, Oregon

Friday, November 26, 2004

The Rapture and the Eucharist

First Sunday of Advent
Matthew 24:37-44

A friend called me the other day, really upset about the election. He’s not a Christian and he’s really afraid that there’s some sort of Christian conspiracy to take over the country. And what that means to him is black and white thinking, some people seen as good and some as bad, some people taken and some people left.

But I assured him that everything is OK. For one thing, in my experience organized religion isn’t all that organized. For another thing, Christianity is about mercy and love, not hell, fire, and brimstone. Christians are people who laugh, not smirk.

This is true even in the reading from Matthew today, which seems so scary and harsh at first. But it’s scary and harsh only if you read it literally and only if you read it out of context, which is exactly what Catholics and other mainstream Christians do not do. We know that this is just Matthew’s particular style, this wailing-and-gnashing and sheep-and-goat language, and that he’s using it to scare the hell out of the Jewish Christians in his community who are starting to change their minds and leaving. He doesn’t want them to. He wants everybody to stay, and in that sense there is no rapture, no gathering up of the good guys. Everyone is a good guy, Matthew believes, at least potentially, and the end of the world is, whatever else it is, a personal thing, something that happens to each of us when we give up our selfishness and enter into the freedom and kindness of God.

As Catholics we know, too, as other mainstream Christians know, that only God can do the judging when the time for judging comes. It’s not up to us. It’s never up to us.

As Catholics we know, as other mainstream Christians know, that the Bible can’t be read on its own, that it doesn’t explain itself. It’s the inspired word of God but it’s not an inspired instruction manual. It’s literature, full of different kinds of writing gathered from different times and places, redacted or edited together, and though this redaction is brilliant, it requires us to develop a theology, a framework for reading, guided by the Holy Spirit as it works through tradition.

St. Augustine, for example, came up with a good rule for reading. Look, he says. Some parts of scripture are unclear. Some are clear. Let’s read the unclear parts in light of the clear parts. And the clearest parts of all have to do with love, Augustine says. The clearest parts of all, crystal clear, are like the passage earlier in Matthew when Jesus is asked about the most important commandment. What’s most important? And Jesus answers in the right way and the way we should, too: to love our God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves--to love God and neighbor, the two pillars of Jewish faith, too (22:34-40). That’s not hard to understand, just hard to do. And structurally it’s located right at the center of Matthew’s gospel, and of the others. It’s featured by the writers. We’re supposed to see the rest of the Gospel in relation to this.

So here’s the rule Augustine comes up with: any interpretation of the Bible that is contrary to love is false and in error.

In other words, there are two sources of revelation for us as Catholics, scripture and tradition. And sometimes we need tradition to help us understand scripture. And the heart of tradition is the faith that God’s mercy has no limit. Apply this rule to the scary passage from Matthew and what do you get? Be not afraid.

Or, don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. We can pull a passage out of, say, Leviticus, and decide, say, that it’s OK to stone adulterers. But even if that’s right, which of course it isn’t, but even if that’s right, is it the most important thing and the thing we should spend all our time on and the thing we should think about first, that we begin every discussion with? Catholic theology says no. All mainstream Christian theology says no. We all choose things out of the Bible. We all take this passage rather than that and make it the basis of some claim. But why? Are we choosing the right passage? On what basis? By whose authority?

Take a look sometime at the index to the Catechism. Under “Satan” there is one citation. One. Under “Jesus” there are four hundred and thirty six.

And in some ways the best method for interpreting scripture is the liturgy itself. People like to say that Catholics never read the Bible, but that’s not true. We read the Bible every time we go to mass. That’s what the mass is, among other things, a form of interpretation. In the mass what we do is take the readings for that Sunday and frame them. We frame them, for example, with the opening and closing prayers, as in the opening prayer for today, the introit: “All powerful God, increase our strength of will for doing good that Christ may find an eager welcome at his coming and call us to his side in the kingdom of heaven.” Beautiful. Nothing here about people being left behind or people needing to be afraid, and that’s right and that’s good and that’s a reading of the Gospel of Matthew. It’s our key to understanding what Matthew is trying to say today. Or here’s the closing prayer that Father Angel will pray with us in a few minutes: “Father, may our communion teach us to love heaven. May its promise and hope guide our way on earth”. Hmm. Not, “Father may our communion teach us who’s right and who’s wrong. May its promise and hope guide us in kicking out the people we don’t like. May some people get left behind, but not me.”

My worried friend, the one who called the other day, should stop listening to the talk shows and reading the letters to the editor. He should come to mass. He should see how we act, the movement and flow of it, all of us coming together and kneeling together and standing together and singing together. It’s not a debate in here. When we come up for communion we don’t first get asked who we voted for or what we think about the usual list of issues. No. “The Body of Christ,” we are told--this astonishing claim! This miracle! This incredible gift!--and we say, “amen, amen, thanks be to God,” and then we are silent. We go back to our pews and do what we should do more often, which is stop talking and start praying. We put our faith not in our words or in words at all but in the silent, overflowing mercy of God.

The Pope has declared this the year of the eucharist, and here on the first Sunday of Advent, as we begin our preparation for the Christ child, let us give thanks for the eucharist. Let us give thanks for the child who is already born, already in our midst. Let us give thanks for this profoundly nonviolent and creative and inclusive act, this sacrifice of the mass, this giving away of God and of ourselves, and how it pulls us all together and pulls us deeper and deeper into the love that is always making and unmaking the universe. It takes us all up, or should. Let us give thanks for the transformation of the bread and the wine, for the word that we eat, and let us ask that we be transformed, too, into Christ, into not just the word but the Word made Flesh, the Word made Love, the Word made Mercy, here and now, in our darkness.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

All That We Are Supposed to See, Hear (poem)

Deep down I’ve always believed the universe
ticks like a clock. That all light can do
is travel. Then I visit an old woman
in her filthy apartment, and she looks up at me
from her paper-strewn bed and smiles at me
with her ninety-year-old eyes, her ribbly cat
rubbing up beneath her chin. Driving home
I crest the hill and there, across the valley,
against the dark trees of the further mountain,
a great rainbow, bright and solid and real
as you could imagine, every color clear.
Who am I to say what happens? I don’t usually
go to campus Tuesdays, but one Tuesday
I’m walking across the quad, and Jim rides up
on his bike to tell me, sad as a boy, that his wife
has died. His wife is dead. Rain again. Dark sky.
Just clouds. Jim’s sad, wrinkled face. His eyes.
The plain story that he told of her, in the end.
All that we are supposed to see, hear.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

But My, Don't the Trees Seem Full (poem)

Opie accidentally killed a mother bird with his slingshot
and Andy made him take care of the baby birds, feeding
them worms with tweezers. At the end the chicks
were all grown up and Andy was standing on the porch
in his crisp, khaki uniform looking masculine and wise
the way he always did, sort of stern and compassionate
at the same time, and Opie realized he had to free the birds
from the cage he was keeping them in. He had to let them go.

You could see little Ron Howard’s blonde eye lashes
as he bravely lowered his head. He must have been five,
with those little boy shoulders all you want to do is squeeze.

All day that day these big spaces had been opening up
before me. The halls were empty, nobody was around,
and this void kept yawning beneath my feet,
these long hours of silence when I felt like the speakers
in the Psalms when they talk about their spirits fainting
and the enemy crushing them to the ground. I didn’t know
what to do except just sit there until it was time to go home.

So I was ready for the way the show ended, though
I knew of course that this wasn’t really Mayberry and Andy
wasn’t really Opie’s father. But I was ready and grateful.

The cage sure seems empty, Opie said, when the birds had flown.
Yes, it does, Andy said. But my, don’t the trees seem full.

Then the camera pulled up and away and we were in
the tree tops, and though there weren’t any birds there really,
there was a soundtrack of some birds chirping and bubbling
and singing, and even after Andy put his arm around Opie
and they walked back into the house, I kept loving them
and thinking of my own sons when they were that age
and of my father, how sometimes I imagined him
in Andy’s uniform, with that crease in the trousers--
how Andy never wore a gun, even when he should have.


Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Morning with the Dying Man (poem)

Morning with the Dying Man

I broke bread with the dying man
and slept in the dying man’s house
and in the morning before the sun rose
sat with him at table and drank the coffee
he had made, chatting about ordinary things.
At first we were surrounded by darkness.
The breakfast lights shone and the window
looking out to the sea and the storms
became a mirror in which all we could see
was ourselves, our cups, our faces.
But the surf was booming in the distance.
We could hear it. And gradually the light
seeped back and we could see the edges
of trees and the waves cresting beyond
the mouth of the river, just as we knew
we would. The wide sea. The sky.
It was always there, the dying man said.
It’s the world, the enormous world.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Minding Our Business (Homily)

November 14, 2004
Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Malachi 3:19-20, 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12, Luke 21:5-19

Minding Our Business


"We hear that some are conducting themselves among you in a disorderly way by not keeping busy but minding the business of others. Such people we instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and eat their own food."
This is the first thing that jumped out at me from today’s readings, this passage from Paul.
I worry a lot about what I should be doing, in my ministry and in my teaching. I keep thinking that I should be doing more, that the people around me have all these problems and that I’m supposed to solve them. I’m the one. But Paul is saying no. Settle down. Just do your own work day to day and eat your own food, be nourished by the good things in your own life and don’t worry about the rest, and that’s both very liberating and very challenging. Liberating: because I can let go. Challenging: because I have to accept my own insignificance. Most of the time I mind other peoples’ business just to be seen and be known, for reasons of ego, not service, and Paul says: no. Stop doing that.

And this is connected, I think, to the opening lines in the gospel today.
"While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, Jesus said, 'All that you see here--the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.'”
This passage jumped out at me, too.
The complainers in this gospel are like Paul’s busybodies, inserting themselves where they don’t belong, but the other problem is that they’re sweating the small stuff, as I always do. I’m always obsessing about the votive candles, or the equivalent--my reputation, my appearance--and that’s stupid. It’s like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. What’s important isn’t how often my name appears in the paper but my kindness and compassion. It’s not my resume they’ll put on my tombstone. It’s “beloved husband and father” (I hope).
And there’s a further implication here, for all of us, I think, as a church and a country. That sometimes we worry too much about other people’s salvation and not enough about our own. That sometimes we get so caught up in particular issues that we lose sight of the larger issues of hunger and poverty and war. Mind your own business, Jesus is saying, and mind the right business, the important business.

"All that you see here—the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down. "
Maybe another way to put this is: be prepared. Be prepared for enormous and frightening changes in your lives, for violence and destruction, because these things are going to happen to each of us.
I won’t live in my house forever. One day someone else will walk those floors, if those floors even exist. One day the temple of my body will fall apart. We’re all only temporarily abled, as I’ve come to understand a little better recently. And in the meantime our worlds will end over and over in other ways: when a child struggles and fails, when a life is destroyed by alcohol or drugs, when a marriage breaks up. I don’t see how anyone can accuse Christianity of being mere wish fulfillment, the opiate of the masses, when Jesus is always telling us how bad life can be.
Thus the need to mind our own business and get our priorities straight: we have to be ready for the things to come. Forget the deck chairs, we’re sunk.

And yet. And yet. "Do not be terrified," Jesus says. "Not a hair on your head will be destroyed. "
Do not be terrified, and this is what moves me the most finally, just these brief words, these words of reassurance, because they take us to the next level. They bring all this together.
Christianity is both the most depressing religion there ever was and the most wildly exulting, both at the same time. However bad things are, our true and essential selves will never be destroyed, are always loved beyond all love, even in death and even after death. What’s so wildly hopeful here is the faith that there are forces entirely beyond our control, that something will enter into our lives that we can’t produce or understand, and that this force is finally a force for good, for deep and lasting goodness. It’s not just destruction that will interrupt our routines. It’s salvation. Some larger and loving power is always present and intervening, and it will save us and is saving us. That’s why it’s arrogant to think we can solve our problems. Only God can, and God will. All we have to do is wait--wait and work and eat our own food.
I’m such an atheist really, day to day, a functional atheist, in Parker Palmer’s words. I keep acting in my own mind as if I’m the one who has to pull myself out of the depression and the hopelessness and the deadness I sometimes feel. No, thank God. No. Just wait. And in fact, the depression and the hopelessness, the destruction of our various temples and worlds: this is absolutely necessary to make way for joy. No resurrection without crucifixion, no breaking through without first breaking down. That’s the logic of Christianity, the glorious logic, that all suffering is redeemed, that we must be made empty, yes, but only to be filled.

"Yes, the day is coming," the prophet Malachi says, "when the sun of justice will rise with all its healing rays."
I’m such an instinctive pessimist. I really am. And the challenge and grace of our faith is to continually call people like me to the discipline and practice of hope. This is what the apocalypse is always about and all the apocalyptic discourses in the Old and New Testament. This is why Jesus preaches the end of the world, to call us to hope, to assure us that the future will be better, impossibly, wildly better, and that we should act in light of this hope, not just in light of the knowledge and proper fear of death but in light of our hope for it and our anticipation of it.
We should always act with confidence and joy. Because God exists! This is the enormous thing, the truly and unimaginably enormous thing that makes all the busybodies so laughably wrong. They’re like children playing at the beach. We all are. Beyond us is the ocean, beyond us are the waves, but we’re too busy building our little castles.
Look, Jesus says. Put down your plastic shovels and look. See how vast the ocean is. See how beautiful the ocean is. And the waves are coming in, they are always coming in. So prepare and rejoice. Stand up and face the sea. Hear the roar of it. Feel the spray of it. And rejoice. Rejoice.