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

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Letter to a Believer Who Complained About My Last Homily (A Note)

Dear friend in Christ:

I wanted you to know that I did hear you today after the 9 o’clock mass and that I respect the depth and intensity of your emotion. You love God and you love the Church, and though the word “she” for God appeared only in a poem that I quoted, though it was only a tiny percentage of all the words that I preached this morning, though I myself only talked about God as “He”--still, for you, that brief use of the word “she” seemed to trivialize and belittle what you care about most deeply, your faith. I understand completely. All I know about God is His infinite mercy, all I know about God is His infinite love, and no image I use, no word, should ever claim to capture and restrict and limit Him.

In fact, the whole point of my homily was that God loves us in ways we can’t possibly imagine--that God forgives us, God saves us, that grace abounds--surely the most orthodox teaching of all, the central thing, the thing that none of us can ever disagree about. If a single word in any homily ever obscures that message, in any way, the homily failed.

As you’ll see, for the 11 o’clock mass, after listening to you and talking with Fr. John and Fr. Lucas, I added a few clarifications before I used the poem. I’ve put them in italics at the end of the homily itself, but here they are, too:

Now, the poet uses the word “she” to describe God, and at the last mass this really upset a few people. I understand. Though the Catechism tell us that God is beyond all gender and that both masculine and feminine images can be used to describe Him, it’s the image of “Father” that is at the center of our tradition. Jesus calls God Father, and he calls God Father, and invites us to call God Father, exactly to help us understand His great love for us, his abiding, unimaginable love. But that’s also the point of this little poem. I read it not to change God’s gender but to celebrate His great mercy, and his humor, and his playfulness. That’s all. But that’s everything!

It was your reaction, and the reaction of several others, that led me to this clarification.

But let me also try to clarify what the Catechism says--not as a way of defeating you intellectually, in argument. No. We’re Catholics. We obey the Church, and the Catechism is the way it communicates all its central teachings and traditions. If you can find a more authoritative source, let me know, because I take the Catechism as my guide, and I never try to preach anything that I think is in violation of what the Catechism teaches. Here’s what it says on this issue, and what I had in mind when I decided to use this little poem:

In no way is God in man’s image. He is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the difference between the sexes. But the respective “perfections” of man and woman reflect something of the infinite perfection of God: those of a mother and those of a father and husband. (370)


It then goes on to cite several scriptural passages to consider: Isa 49:14-15; 66:13; Ps 131:2-3; Hos 11:1-4; Jer 3:4-19. There are many others, including in the Wisdom literature, where Wisdom--later understood as the Holy Spirit--is always addressed as “She.”

Here’s what I ask of you: that you will forgive my own personal limitations and biases, which always creep into my preaching, however hard I try to keep them out; that you not lose sight of the forest for the trees, that you remember my main message, which was about God’s love, not God’s gender; and, finally, that you not assume that your own personal experiences and values are universally true for everyone, or for God. I think this final point is the one you were trying to make to me, rightly. I always need to hear this. You wanted me not to make God over in my own image. With respect and with good intentions, I ask the same of you. God has spoken to you in a thousand, thousand ways, in your experience and in your prayer and in your reflections, and all those ways are valid. All those ways are full of God’s presence and meaning and hope. But they are not the only ways. God is bigger than you, as He is bigger than me.

That’s the advantage of the Catechism and the tradition and the scriptures, that they all keep calling us to transcend our own biases and limitations and to experience the mystery and the love beyond us all--that mystery that came in the form of the man, Jesus Christ, the man who died and rose and is with us now, in the Eucharist, through the Spirit.

Peace be with you, and anytime you’d like to talk, I’m glad to listen--not argue, not try to score points, not play some intellectual game. You’re absolutely right. I have no desire to do that. All I want is to love Him more deeply and enter more deeply into His life.

Again, God’s peace,


Deacon Chris

God Says Yes To Me (Homily)

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 43:18-19, 21-22, 24-25; 2 Corinthians 1:18-22; Mark 2:1-2



Paul Tillich says that the hardest thing about being Christian is accepting that we’re accepted. It’s the center of our faith: that we are loved, as the paralytic is loved in the gospel today, not because he’s free of sin, not because he’s earned it, but just for who he is, as he is, a paralytic, a wounded man, a man paralyzed as we all are by our faults and limitations. All he needs is faith. All he needs is his longing for Jesus.
*

The Jesuit Anthony de Mello takes this idea further in a little story that he tells about himself.

I was a neurotic [he says] for years. I was anxious and depressed and selfish. Everyone kept telling me to change. I resented them, and I agreed with them, and I wanted to change, but simply couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried. What hurt the most was that like the others, my best friend kept insisting that I change. So I felt powerless and trapped. Then one day, he said to me, “Don’t change. I love you just as you are.” Those words were music to my ears: “Don’t change. Don’t change. Don’t change. I love you as you are.” I relaxed. I came alive. And suddenly I changed! Now I know that I couldn’t really change until I found someone who would love me whether I changed or not. Is this how you love me, God?

Yes. DeMello is absolutely right. We don’t have to change to be forgiven. We have to be forgiven to change. Otherwise there’s no hope, we’re not good enough, which of course is what the sacrament of reconciliation is all about. We confess our sins and ask for forgiveness, and then, miraculously, we are forgiven, on the spot, before we ever do a thing towards our penance.

As Paul puts it to the Corinthians, the word God says to us is yes. Yes and yes and yes. Yes, we have sinned, yes we are loved. Loved anyway. Loved always.
*


Even in heaven, the Catechism insists, we retain our individuality. We are absorbed into the great communion and conversation that is the trinity, that is God, but without losing who we really are. You’ll recognize me (if I’m there). I’ll be the same person, with the same personality quirks--just as prone to get excited, to overdo it, to talk too much--but redeemed.
*

This is the idea, the idea of acceptance, of God’s radical love, that has led me in the last few years to try to establish what Parker Palmer calls “circles of trust,” in my teaching and in my ministry. Groups of us in different settings just come together and tell our stories. (I’ve talked about this before.) The only rules are: no fixing, no judging, no arguing. We have to set those rules up, explicitly, or the hidden, implicit rules of the dominant culture will take over and we’ll start fighting and competing and faking it as we usually do. We really have to resist that. We really have to be intentional. But it’s amazing what happens, over time, when we are, when people are listened to, really listened to and accepted. Sometimes they start to heal. Sometimes their paralysis starts to melt away.

The greatest circle of trust, of course, is the Eucharist, it’s what we’re doing now, everyone welcome, everyone forgiven and fed, as Jesus fed the 5000, as Jesus talked with anyone who would talk with him, healed anyone who asked.
*

This is what the Pharisees are resisting in the Gospel today. This is when they start plotting to kill Jesus, as he heals paralytics and eats with tax collectors and invites the prostitutes to join him. They can’t accept that they’re accepted, or that anyone else is, just for being in the world, just for breathing. They think that salvation is a contest and that only they have won it.
*

The funny thing, for me, is that sometimes I get so intense about these circles of trust that I overwhelm them, so judgmental about judgmentalism that I silence some of my students. I hate the doubting game, hate that arrogant way of arguing, and so I overreact and get mad in return. No, you jerks! Be nice to each other! I did this the other day in fact, in one of my classes, as I always do at least once a term, and I was really frustrated with myself afterwards. Darn it. When am I ever going to change?

“Remember not the events of the past,” Isaiah reassures me, “the things of long ago consider not. See? I am doing something new!” This is good advice for people who get caught up in thinking about the historical contexts for the Bible and what happened way back then and so forget that the real meaning of the stories is here and now, that history is taking place even in Corvallis, even in an English class, in Moreland Hall.

But there’s also a psychological truth here. I think that I overreacted in that class and came on too strong because for a moment I had forgotten who I was. For a moment I felt worthless. So I struck back. But I’m not worthless, and neither are my students. The new thing that God will do and is doing, Isaiah says, is what he has always done, wiping out our offenses, forgetting our sins. God loves me even when I overreact, even when I talk too much, and as soon as I remembered that, with the help of these readings, as I soon as I called this to mind again, I found in myself the strength to change. I’m not stuck in my own past. Christ can make things new.
*

Even when my students are saying no, even when the world is saying no, even when I’m saying no to myself, God is always saying yes. Not no, but yes. Not judgment, but love. God says yes to me, God says yes to all of us, as the poet Kaylin Haught puts it in a wonderful little poem.

[**I added what follows in italics at the 11 o’clock mass. See my next post, "Letter to a Believer Who Complained.]

Now, the poet uses the word “she” to describe God, and at the last mass this really upset a few people. I understand. Though the Catechism tell us that God is beyond all gender and that both masculine and feminine images can be used to describe Him, it’s the image of “Father” that is at the center of our tradition. Jesus calls God Father, and he calls God Father, and invites us to call God Father, exactly to help us understand His great love for us, his abiding, unimaginable love. But that’s also the point of this little poem. I read it not to change God’s gender but to celebrate His great mercy, and his humor, and his playfulness. That’s all. But that’s everything!

Here’s the poem:



I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph
My letters
Sweetcakes God said
Who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

This, my friends, is what God is saying to us today, to everyone here, in the gospel and in the other readings, in the Eucharist, in all the grace that floods our daily lives. Honey, he’s saying, sweetcakes, yes and yes and yes.