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, April 22, 2005

This Old House (Homily)

April 24, 2005
Fifth Sunday of Easter
John 14:1-12

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.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Insult and Injury (Homily)

April 17, 2005
Fourth Sunday of Easter
First Peter 2:20-25 and John 10:1-10

I know a woman who was working out at the gym the other day when this other woman came up and insulted her, just walked up and said these nasty things, right to her face. I know a man who was at a coffee shop the other day and said hello to someone he knew. But this other man looked right at him, then turned away. He didn’t answer.

And these are parishioners, they’re all Catholics, and in fact both the insult and the snub had to do with being Catholic. The woman insulted my friend at the gym because she didn’t like her theology, the man snubbed my friend at the coffee shop because they disagree about doctrine, and that’s a sad, sad contradiction, of course, since Catholic doctrine and theology are all about kindness. We treat each other with contempt in the name of the God who is love?

But we do, I’m afraid, and we always have. There’s nothing new here. Peter wouldn’t have had to warn against insults if the insults hadn’t been flying, even in the first century. Jesus wouldn’t have had to warn against the thieves who steal and slaughter if there wasn’t some slaughtering going on. The work of the Spirit has always been fouled up in human prejudice and selfishness and blindness, and it still is.

I’ve learned as a teacher at OSU that if I don’t establish some guidelines in the beginning of the term, my students can get pretty nasty and rude. It’s the American Idol syndrome. We all want to be Simon, we all want to vote the others off the stage, and unless I spell out a different set of rules for class discussion, this other, competitive model takes over.

But the funny thing is that it’s worse in the Bible as Literature class that I teach, and even in the Bible Study that I lead at the Newman Center. It doesn’t make sense, it’s deeply contradictory, but students can really be vicious when the subject is scripture.

That’s why I’ve developed three rules for the Bible Study: no judging, no fixing, no converting. People get to share their stories in that circle every Tuesday night, without fear of criticism, and all of us have to listen, with courtesy and respect. This is the method the gospels require, this is a way of acting out their message. We should follow the example of Christ, Peter says, and Christ never insulted anyone, not in a gym or a coffee shop or anywhere else. He suffered wounds, he didn’t inflict them, and so should we.

When we get together to talk about the Bible or about faith we should take the eucharist as our model, not talk show radio. As Jesus gives himself away in the sacrifice of the mass, we should give ourselves away, surrendering our own needs and ideas. “Peace be with you,” we’re supposed to say, not “go to hell,” and we’re supposed to say it to everyone, not just to the people we agree with.

It makes no sense to reverence the bread and the wine and condemn those who receive it. We are the body of Christ, and that liberal standing next to you, that conservative, is no less holy than the host.

We’ve all been thinking about Pope John Paul and his legacy the last few weeks, and part of that legacy has to be his clarity and coherence about doctrine, not to mention his courage in proclaiming it. The Pope was blunt in his conversations with President Bush, for example. You can’t be against abortion and for capital punishment, he kept insisting. You can’t be against abortion and for the war in Iraq or the weakening of environmental protections, and there’s a challenge here for all of us. Liberals have to listen to the conservative end of John Paul’s message, and conservatives have to listen to the liberal end, and we all have to recognize how Catholic teaching transcends these labels altogether, how it goes beyond politics.

But what grounds all the Pope’s views and makes them so consistent is a bedrock faith in the dignity of the human person, of all human persons. What John Paul understood deep down and what he wrote about with such precision is the sanctity of life, all life, and he didn’t just write about it. He lived it, he acted it out, because he knew that doctrine isn’t a matter of ideas but of action in the world. He knew that the splendor of the truth he proclaimed was its tenderness and its kindness--the tenderness and the kindness of Christ himself--and that to treat others with contempt is to deny that truth at its core.

I don’t think that the millions who mourn the Pope today are mourning because of his theological method. There have been other Popes who were clear about doctrine. I think the millions are mourning because he was a man of prayer. I think the millions are mourning because he loved God deeply and humbled himself completely and because in his love and humility he reached out to Jews and Muslims and everyone. My most vivid memory of the Pope is of him praying in silence with leaders of mosques and synagogues and monasteries from all over the world, and it’s images like this, I think, that really moved us, if only a little.

Look, I’m no different than anyone else. I wasn’t sure I should preach about this at all, because the idea of Christians hitting each other over the head with the Bible or the Catechism makes me so mad I want to pick up a Catechism and start hitting back.

In fact, the real challenge here isn’t to the people who do the insulting and the snubbing, but to the insulted and snubbed. The insulters will always be with us. The question is what we’re going to do about it, those of us in the middle, living our lives, and the answer is: nothing. I don’t think the scripture could be clearer about this: Christ has left us “an example” so that we can “follow his footsteps,” and “when he was insulted, he returned no insult.” We shouldn’t swing back, not in public and not behind closed doors. We shouldn’t vent. We shouldn’t gossip. We shouldn’t keep fighting in our minds, going over and over what’s making us mad. We have to let it all go. Because when we fight back, we dignify the insulters, we empower them. But we when we bear the wounds ourselves, when we surrender, all that energy is diffused. It’s released.

That’s what happened at the end, at the crucifixion, when everyone stopped talking and looked up at the cross. Suddenly there was a silence so profound it changed all of history. That’s what happened three days later, at the tomb, when the women came and saw the stone rolled away. At that moment of astonishment and joy, that moment of utter speechlessness, all the arguments in the world were ended, or should have been. At that moment all the insults stopped for good, or should have.

The splendid truth is that Christ is always surrendering himself to us, always giving himself away.

Let us do the same. Let us give ourselves away. Let us become what we receive.