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

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Who Are You? Where Are You? What Have You Done? (Homily)

February 27, 2005
Third Sunday of Lent
Exodus 17:3-7 and John 4:5-42

We usually read the Bible looking for answers, and that’s right and good. There are lots of answers in it. But what if we read the Bible looking for questions? What if we shifted our attention and listed all the questions we find?

Where are you? That’s what God asks Adam and Eve in the garden, after they’ve sinned. What have you done? Pretty good questions. Am I my brother’s keeper? That’s Cain’s question after he murders Abel, and it’s a good one, too. Am I responsible for others, and how? Who am I? That’s what Moses asks before the burning bush, in the wilderness. Who am I to do such an enormous thing? What powers do I have? But also, more simply: What is my nature? What is my identity?

There are questions all over the place in the Bible, they’re everywhere, and what if we focused on them for a while, in our prayer and devotion? What if that’s really the point of the Bible, not to settle things but to open them up? What if that’s what the church really is: people living together with the questions? What if that’s what dogma and doctrine really are, not fixed pronouncements but deep and searching questions, questions about the right things and the important things?

Who are you? Where are you? What have you done?

Questions are certainly key to the reading from Exodus today, from the whining and complaining of the Israelites--“Why did you ever make us leave Egypt?”--to the whining and complaining of Moses--“What shall I do with these people?” But on the other hand these questions are pretty justified, I think, given all that’s happened to the Israelites, their centuries of slavery and their poverty and hunger in the wilderness. Sure, there were a few miracles, but they’re explainable as natural phenomena--the hand of the Lord isn’t entirely clear here, as it never is entirely clear--and anyway, the miracles didn’t last very long. Now the people are in the desert, now they feel abandoned, as we so often do, in our lives and our prayer. So often there doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence to justify faith. What about the Tsunami? What about all the disease and injustice in the world? What about the unimaginable number of children who die every day, every hour, not just the unborn but the born, too, in their poverty and their emptiness? Where is God when the bombs fall? Where is God when a good man gets cancer, when a good mother dies? When a job is lost, or a marriage?

“Religion has never made me happy,” Von Hugel says in a letter to his niece. “Religion has never made me comfy. I have been in the deserts ten years.” And this is the realism of the Bible, too. It doesn’t deny suffering. It doesn’t promise no-brains-no-headaches forevermore. “Is the Lord in our midst or not?” That’s the final question in this passage from Exodus, and it’s a good one and a necessary one, even though of course God really is in our midst and present in our lives, in the end, after all. To embrace such questions is to admit that life isn’t easy. To embrace such questions is to admit that life is too complicated for formula and judgment. “All deepened life is deepened suffering, deepened dreariness, deepened joy,” Von Hugel says--joy as the last note, the highest note, but something we can’t experience without the suffering, too.

To say we have all the answers is to presume to be God. To say we have all the answers is arrogant and blasphemous and entirely misses the point of what religious experience really is: not a receiving of laws but a living of love, an entering into greater and greater depth and significance and consequence. “Remember these things are mysteries,” the great Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor says, “and that if they were such that we could understand them, they wouldn’t be worth understanding. A god you understood would be less than yourself.”

Certainly Jesus is more a teller of stories and an asker of questions than he is anything else. “Why are you grumbling?” “Which man did the right thing?” “Who do you say that I am?” The gospels are a tissue of questions, and not just the questions of Jesus but the questions about him, including the wrong questions, the stupid ones, as here in the gospel of John for today. When Jesus says that he brings a living water, the Samaritan woman takes him literally. Where? Does that mean that I don’t have to keep using the well? When Jesus tells the disciples that he has spiritual food, they turn to one another: did someone get him a sandwich? Has he eaten already? This is how it always is. People are always living on the surface, asking the wrong questions. How I can impress my boss? How long will it take me to firm up my abs? How can I afford that sexy new car? Or, who is breaking what commandment? Who shouldn’t be allowed in our church? What can I do to force this person out or make this person look bad?

No, Jesus says. No. His whole ministry is one long, difficult effort to get people to change the questions they are asking, to learn the compassion and humility they need to live without the black and white rules of the Pharisees and others. He doesn’t often succeed, really--look at what happens to him in the end--but in the case of the Samaritan woman, he does, through patient listening, through this long, sustained conversation. Finally she gets beyond the literal and the flat and the closed. Finally she knows who Jesus is, and she knows because she’s experienced him, in the flesh, in his person, as we do, too, in our lives and in the eucharist. She’s not converted because Jesus dumps a lot of abstract dogma on her. She’s not converted because Jesus lays a lot of moral teaching on her--he doesn’t judge her at all, directly, doesn’t explicitly condemn her when she admits to living with a man who is not her husband. No. He just listens, standing there in the sun, in a dusty robe. In fact, there’s hardly any moral teaching anywhere in the Gospel of John. There’s nothing about abortion or capital punishment or the war in Iraq, nothing about sexual identity. Not a thing. To know eternal life, Jesus keeps saying, all we have to do is follow him.

In this sense the woman’s first question is more profound than she realizes. “Where can you get this living water?” Yes. That’s the only question worth asking after all, not who’s in and who’s out, who’s right and who’s wrong. The water we are thirsting for is living water, it’s running water, it’s always rushing and flowing and moving, and the only question worth asking is how we can get to it, how we can plunge into it.

And in that sense, too, we have the answer--but a profound answer, a living answer.

“I am he, the one speaking with you,” Jesus says. I am a person, not a debate topic--I am a man, not an idea--and what I ask for is friendship. What I ask for is relationship. And as in any friendship, any marriage, there is always growth and change. As in any love, we never come to the end of the other, never stopping asking questions.

As O’Connor puts it, dogma is “the gateway to mystery.” What if that’s true? What if this is really what dogma is? What if this is really who Jesus is? The gate? The way? The answer who is always asking questions, leading us further and further in?

I am he. I am speaking to you now.

Who are you? Where are you? What have you done?

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Who's Afraid of the Transfiguration? (homily)

February 20, 2005
Second Sunday of Lent
Matthew 17:1-9


In all three of the gospel accounts of the Transfiguration the disciples are described as afraid. They see that bright light, they see Jesus standing with Moses and Elijah, and they start to cower. They prostrate themselves. But Matthew is the only one to describe Jesus actually walking over to Peter and the others and saying “rise, do not be afraid.” Matthew emphasizes the fear of the disciples, and I’ve been wondering about that.

Jesus has just been revealed as the Christ. God himself has just spoken. Everything is all at once blindingly clear. Isn’t that what we’ve always wanted, this intensity, this closeness? Why should we be afraid?

*

Last weekend I led a silent retreat for the Newman Center over on the coast and I was struck by how some of us struggled with the silence. It’s hard not to talk for three days, or listen to music, or be on the computer.

I think it’s partly because without our chatter and our small talk we can’t show other people how smart and cool we are. I think it’s partly because we’re afraid we’ll be bored, without a cell phone to our ear or a video game in our hand. We’re always distracting ourselves, drugging ourselves, and maybe we’re afraid, too, that when the noise dies down we won’t like what we find inside. We’ll have to face our demons and our temptations and our plain old ordinary sinfulness, and we don’t want to do that.

Maybe we’re afraid that God doesn’t exist, that there’s nothing underneath all the noise and distractions. Or maybe we’re afraid he does. Maybe we’re afraid that God really is in the world and in ourselves and that if we turn and face him we’ll have to change our lives, and maybe that’s why the disciples are cowering before the blinding light. They don’t really want to change. They’re too lazy and selfish.

Sure, they were following Christ, but they didn’t really mean it.

*

None of us like it when someone we love suddenly turns into a different person, and it happens all the time. Everything’s going along fine, we’re in our routine, we know what to expect, and then all at once our little boy is a man. His voice has changed. He’s shaving. He’s leaving for college. Everything is going along fine, we’re in our routine, and all at once our elderly mother breaks her hip or starts to lose her memory, and we have to stop and rethink and decide what to do.

The other night I heard a powerful story at the Newman Bible study. A woman told us how her husband developed an aneurism and needed emergency brain surgery. Boom, just like that. Out of the blue. And that wasn’t the end of it. There were emergencies and surgeries for months, and then a long and uncertain recovery, and what it felt like, this woman said, was transfiguration. Her husband had been transfigured, by his illness, and she had been transfigured, too, as she struggled to cope with it. And though I really admire the faith and courage of this woman--she’s been a wonderful wife and support--it was obvious how hard this has been, and unexpected.

No wonder we’re afraid. No wonder the disciples are that night. They’re in the emergency room, stunned, waiting for the doctor.


*
Or just think how inconvenient the transfiguration was. Just think how put out those three disciples must have felt. It had been a long day. They were tired. They were looking forward to eating a little dinner and watching a little TV, then going to bed early. They didn’t want to be climbing any mountains, or running around in the dark, or listening to voices coming from clouds.

*

In fact, I wonder how any of us would really feel if the transfiguration were to happen again, right here and right now. What if a great light suddenly shot through the roof, above this very altar?

I don’t think we’d like it.

We’ve got the church pretty much figured out, thank you very much. We know what’s what, and the light shooting through the roof would ruin all of that. We’d have to stop judging the people we judge and arguing about the things we argue about. We’d be too busy prostrating ourselves. We’d be silenced, as the disciples are silenced when the light hits and the voice speaks, because that’s always one of the effects of true religious experience. The root meaning of the word “mystery” is that which makes us mute, that which takes our breath away and our words away, and none of us like that very much really.

As I say, we need our words. That’s how we establish prestige. That’s how we establish dominance. That’s how we cover up the real challenges.

*

In that sense, maybe being a little afraid isn’t all that bad a thing. Maybe we’re all a little too cozy with God sometimes, too certain and convinced, and maybe it doesn’t hurt to be reminded that we’re dealing with the creator of the cosmos, not our own little personal verifier, our own little personal validator.

*

But just for a little while. Just long enough to shake us up a bit.

Then Jesus walks over to us, shaking in our pews, and he puts his hand on us, and he says, OK, enough, be not afraid. I was just trying to get your attention. I was just trying to make a point.

Rise.

And we get up and look around and there’s a bald eagle in the sky, like the bald eagle I saw on the retreat. There are seven nesting pairs at this sanctuary, and huge flocks of geese, and song birds starting to sing, and daffodils coming out. Things are a couple of weeks ahead on the coast and you can see the earth being transfigured again, as it is every spring, and in the silence, in this time of forced attention, on a retreat, you realize how miraculous this is, and beautiful. And then you look up and there’s the bald eagle, right over your head. And you look around at one of the sessions, at the other people sitting in the circle, around the fire, and you realize how beautiful they are, too, how suddenly each face seems to glow a little. And you have this feeling of love and connection you can’t quite describe, you can’t quite put into words.

But that’s OK. It’s a silent retreat. You don’t have to.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

You Are Here (poem)

I believe in God when it’s only me
and Lucy in our own green wood.
The white tip of her tail. A kingfisher
skimming the pond. OK, and Barb
and the kids and a few of our friends.
Say a village. But not all the faces blurring by
on the freeway and the endless mothers

jostling at the mall in their bulky parkas
and the farmers coming in from the centuries
to drink a cup of buttermilk, all their widows
keeping lilacs on all their grassy graves,

or the land and the birds and the beasts
on the land, forest after forest primeval
seething with snakes and bacteria for eons
too glacial and cataclysmically slow
even to contemplate, this one small planet
whirling in the great mass of stars
and the other galaxies blurring in that poster
with the arrow pointing at this one tiny dot
of light because that’s the only place you are
and ever can be: You are here.

Where the kingfisher is gliding
over the pond, and the mist is lifting,
and Lucy is trotting along the shore
on her four proud white paws.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The Only Way I'd Make it Home (poem)

Maggie sits in the cockpit of a kiddy plane
at the Benton County Fair, smiling
the shy little smile I was always afraid
really concealed her disappointment.
It was just a bucket, bolted to a boom.

A few years later we split,
she and her friends to the Zipper and Whip,
me to the Arts and Crafts Barn.
I remember frantically searching for her
one small face in all the surging crowd,
enormous levers rocking above us.

The last year, on a dare,
I rode the Zipper with them.
Who knew how dizzy a dad can get?
That’s what I said to the deputy sheriff,
over my shoulder, when he found me
in the grass by the bike trail.

It was getting dark by then,
and the trail led off into the woods,
and I was crouching by the edge of it,
staring down as if that hard, black path
were the only way I’d make it home.