This Old House (Homily)
April 24, 2005
Fifth Sunday of Easter
A few years ago Barb and I and the kids went to a big family wedding on the East Coast. And you know how it is when you’re traveling. You wait in airports and sit on planes and there are thousands and thousands of people and after a while you’re so tired and hungry you think there’s no place for you anywhere in the world. Nobody knows you. You’ll never rest.
But Barb’s parents had rented this wonderful old house for the week, near the ocean. It was three-story, white, with a big wooden porch, and inside there were all these light and airy rooms, enough for all of Barb’s brothers and sisters and their spouses and kids. And everyone came out to welcome us, and a big dinner was waiting on the table. We thought we’d died and gone to heaven, and in fact that house is one of my images of heaven, of the Father’s house, full of the people I love. Everyday we went swimming in the ocean--this was in Narragansett, Rhode Island--and every night we played cards, and I think that’s what people are doing in heaven. They’re playing cards, and laughing, and telling stories. Everybody wins.
But I don’t think the happiness I felt that week is reserved for the afterlife. I felt it then. I think we all feel it, in this life.
The eucharist is a “foretaste” of heaven in this way, as one of the Eucharistic prayers puts it. When we gather together in this house, as a family, and let the rhythm of the mass calm and quiet us, the kingdom starts to come right now. We are all welcome. A place is prepared for all of us. The meal is waiting. I heard a commentator this week saying that some people had wished for a different Pope than Benedict, a Pope who would take the Church in “a new direction.” But the Church is always moving in the direction of the eucharist, it’s always trying to enter more deeply into the mystery of God. Why would we want to go anywhere else?
And it’s not just in the Church that we taste heaven. The other day I was walking downtown and for several minutes I felt 18 again, fully alive, all my limbs light and loose. I think it helped that the sun was shining again--it was a gorgeous spring day--but there was something within me, too, something I was in touch with for just a moment. We’ve all felt this, however briefly, and it’s these moments, I think, that are our true dwelling places. “Look, you were within me,” Augustine says to God, “and I was outside.” Cardinal Newman says there is a “deep and hidden peace” within us, like “a well in a retired and shady place,” and that we can always draw from this well, especially in the tough times. “Many hard things may be said of the Christian and done against him,” he says, “but he has a secret preservative or charm, and minds them not.”
I know a family who had to throw out their oldest son, I know a man who is quitting his job after twenty years, I know a woman who is dying. We all have worries, and we have to endure them, but Jesus is saying to let not our hearts be troubled, to be at peace, because he has prepared a place for us. And that place is in the body, that place is in the moment, and no one can take it away from us, unless we let them. The big white house in Narragansett, the week on the beach: it’s inside of us, always.
And there’s a second part to this story. A second theme.
My sister-in-law Katie, who was raised Catholic, like Barb, married a very nice Jewish man that week in Rhode Island. The Church would have had no problem with that. It would have been glad for Katie to have a Catholic wedding, and without any pressure on Monte to become Catholic, then or ever. Katie and Monte, though, weren’t so sure--in fact, Katie has since started the process of converting to Judaism. Their compromise then was for a Presbyterian minister to perform the ceremony, but without any readings from the New Testament.
That morning Barb and I were driving down the highway to get flowers. The sun was shining, then, too, and the Atlantic was on our left, this enormous expanse of blue, and suddenly a longing rose up in me, out of nowhere, a longing for Jesus, for Christ. I don’t mean that I just thought of Jesus. This wasn’t an idea. It was something physical, like hunger or nausea. Suddenly I longed for Jesus like he was my best friend or my brother, like he was Barb, and I’d left her behind in
Corvallis--I missed him, viscerally--and I grieved for Katie, that she was giving him up, that she was letting him go.
And I have a deep respect for Judaism. And I love Katie and I love Monte. Their wedding was beautiful and I was so glad to be there. I love Aaron and Hannah, my new nephew and niece, and I was really moved at Hannah’s naming ceremony not long ago, when her rabbi welcomed her into the faith.
I don’t know how to explain the problem of religious pluralism, the problem of how to love the Church and to love the people outside the Church, except to say that it’s a paradox, that there are two things that are true and in tension. Jesus, after all, says that he is “the way and the truth and the life,” that no one comes to the Father except through him--just as Pope Benedict, when he was Cardinal Ratzinger, said that nonChristian religions, whatever their value in themselves, are finally “deficient.” This isn’t new. We shouldn’t be scandalized. The Church has always taught that other faiths have pieces of the truth but that the fullness of revelation rests in the Catholic faith. And yet at the same time, since Vatican II at least, the Church has also taught that we are to respect the faiths of others and leave the judging of souls to God--and it was our new Pope Benedict who in his first mass as Pope made this point again, just as clearly as he could: “I address myself to everyone, even to those who follow other religions or who are simply seeking an answer to the fundamental questions of life and have not yet found the answer. I address everyone with simplicity and affection, to assure them that the Church wants to continue to build an open and sincere dialog with them.”
Don’t let the media do your theology for you. They want to turn every Pope into a rock star and faith into a contest between conservatives and liberals. Don’t decide what you think of this Pope until you’ve actually read some of what he has written and see what he does. Because in the Father’s house there are many dwelling places, there is room for everyone somehow, there is room even for opposites to be true, for poles of a paradox to be equally valid, even if we don’t exactly understand how all that works. We don’t have to. We’re not God, and Pope Benedict would be the first to say that. He already has.
Sometimes we just have to live with things. Sometimes we just have to live with unresolved tensions. In fact, we always do, in the Church as in our own lives. We simply do the best we can-- we walk down the street, we drive to get flowers--and whatever happens, however hard things get, we know that deep within us there is a peace, there is a hope, there is a love much greater than our own.
Let not your hearts be troubled. In the Father’s house there are many dwelling places.