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

Monday, March 27, 2006

There Open the Gates of Hell (Homily)

March 26, 2006
Fourth Sunday of Lent
Second Chronicles 36:14-23; Psalm 137; Ephesians 2:4-10;
John 3:14-21

There’s this odd scene at the beginning of Dante’s Inferno, this poem from the Middle Ages about hell. All these people are pushing and shoving along the shores of the river Acheron, trying to get to the other side. They’re eager to get to the other side--they want to get into hell--and though that seems really counterintuitive at first, it’s what the Church teaches, too, and what the readings today are about.

God doesn’t put anyone in hell. We put ourselves there.

Or as the Catechism puts it, “God predestines no one to go to hell. For this, a willful turning away from God is necessary, and persistence in it until the end.” We don’t get eternally condemned because of some sort of slip up or loophole. We can relax about that. The pressure is on us in another way. What we have to think about are our own choices, our own subtle and persistent rejection of the light.

It’s true that in the Old Testament reading for today God is described as angry and vengeful, but of course, in cases like this, we have to remember that in scripture the inspiration of God is reflected through human culture and limitation, in this case, the war-like and primitive culture of the ancient Jews. Psalm 137, the Psalm for today, ends with the psalmist asking God to bash out the brains of the babies of the enemies of Israel (though the lectionary wisely leaves that out). It’s not just the Koran that can be read in a way that justifies violence. So of course, we discount for that.

It’s God’s initial goodness that really stands out in Chronicles, that he entered into covenant with the people and blessed them in the beginning. And it’s his persistent tenderness, how He keeps reaching out to the people, over and over again, even as they reject him. Their punishment isn’t the result of any meanness in God. It’s the inevitable result of their decision to turn away from the covenant and live as they want to. This is how all the prophets understood the Babylonian Exile, not as the result of an attack by a foreign enemy but as just punishment for their own crimes, crimes freely committed.

I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters that I have sinned through my own fault.

Ephesians celebrates not the anger of God but his infinite, immeasurable mercy. Again, this is the first premise. This is our natural condition, the one we always violate, and even then, we are saved, or can be. We don’t have to worry about being perfect and never doing anything wrong. Grace is a free gift constantly being given. It is never too late. The only way we end up in hell is by turning our back on this gift, by choosing the darkness, over and over again, which is what Jesus is saying, too, in this famous passage from John. He hasn’t come to condemn the world but to save it. He is the expression of the love of the Father.

And notice. Condemnation is our own choice. “Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Somehow, for some inexplicable reason, because of the mystery of free will, we have the capacity to prefer the darkness. Somehow, we have the capacity to hate the light.

But that’s just it. The light doesn’t hate us. The light has come into the world and we have closed our eyes to it.

In a letter to a friend--I think I’ve quoted this before--the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor explains it this way, that Hell “is what God’s love becomes to those who reject it.” We don’t have to reject it. God made us to love Him, and it takes two to love, and it takes liberty. It takes the right to reject. Therefore, she reasons--and she is reasoning here with the mind of the Church--“if there were no hell, we would be like the animals. No hell, no dignity.”

I can’t think of anything stupider than smoking. The evidence is in and there’s no question that it’s bad. And yet people choose to do it, lots of people. I can’t think of anything stupider than drug addiction, I can’t think of anything sadder than internet pornography, I can’t think of anything more destructive than adultery, and yet people choose to do these things every day. People in this room, right now. We know it’s wrong and we do it anyway, and the hell this creates--that we’ve created, for ourselves--isn’t just in the afterlife but here and now. The Israelites didn’t believe in an afterlife, in a heaven or a hell in that sense, but they understood hell well enough anyway, because they were in it, in their Exile. We are, too. Drug addicts aren’t happy. People having affairs aren’t happy. At least I’ve never known that to be true. They’re in hell, and there’ll keep being in hell as long as they keep choosing to do what they’re doing. When the afterlife arrives, there’ll recognize it. It will be perfectly familiar.

Of course, we understand the psychology of addiction now, far better than Dante or the human authors of scripture. We know that alcoholism, for instance, is a disease, and that mere willpower isn’t enough. You can’t just pull yourself up by your bootstraps. But you can start by admitting that. The great genius of the 12 step programs is that they recognize our need to take that first step. We can choose to seek help, and there is help available. We can turn away from our addictions.

And whenever we do, God is there. Whenever we make the slightest movement. There is grace pouring down around us every second. All we have to do is turn our heads, open our eyes.


There was once a young samurai who killed many people. He was a great hero. But he started worrying after a while that the Gods might be angry and that he might end up in hell, so he went to visit the Zen master.

Bowing deeply, he said: “Master, please tell me about heaven and hell.”

The Master just laughed. He laughed and laughed. “You idiot,” he said. “You’re too stupid to understand anything I might say to you.”

The samurai felt his anger rising. He would have killed anyone else who talked him this way. But the Master wasn’t finished. “It’s clear to me that not one of your family is wise enough to even stand in my presence,” and with that the young warrior grabbed his sword, leapt to his feet, and raised his arms to strike.

The Master just sat there. He calmly looked into the young man’s eyes, then pointed to the upraised sword. He said, “there open the gates of hell.”

The samurai stopped. A light dawned, and the tears came, and he dropped to his knees in gratitude. “Master, master,” he cried,” thank you, thank you. You have saved me!”

The Master smiled. He looked at him again and said, “there open the gates of heaven.”


Let’s live in the truth. Let’s come into the light.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

American Idol (Homily)

March 19, 2006
Third Sunday of Lent
Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Cor 1:22-25; John 2:13-25

We’re all addicted to approval. I am. I’m always worried what other people think, and this is the source of sin. It’s behind the Ten Commandments.

We’re supposed to love God above all things. That’s the main thing Moses is told on the mountain. We’re supposed to worship the Lord, not idols, and in the beginning we do. We are born into the world happy and at ease in the air and the sun, babbling and playing. God is all that matters, and because God loves us for who we are, because He cares for us regardless of what we can or cannot do--somehow as children we just know this, we feel it--we’re at peace. We’re always keeping the Sabbath, playfully and for its own sake.

It’s the culture that teaches us to worry. It’s the culture that addicts us to judgment, and that’s behind the 10 Commandments, too. It’s what coveting is about. It’s what bearing false witness is about. We covet because we’ve forgotten our birthright, our happiness in the sight of God, and we think groups and cliques and popularity are more important. We’ve become idolaters.

I’m often struck by the difference between the wonderful little babies I baptize and the teenagers I see at Fred Meyer on their lunch break, so clenched and distorted and unhappy.

It’s as if life has become one endless episode of American Idol. You know that show? The contest to see who will be next great pop star? I love it, I have to confess. My daughter got me hooked on it--I want Chris to win, the bald guy, the rocker. The problem is when our whole lives become a performance, when we’re not happy unless everyone is clapping and Simon doesn’t say anything terrible.

We can’t just sing for the joy of singing.

We take our soul--the temple of our self--and we market it, we sell it, we cheapen it with gimmicks and gestures and skimpy outfits. We all do this, and it makes Jesus really mad. It makes him absolutely furious. He wants to return us to the Sabbath world, to the mountain, to the secret garden. When we work, we should work, but with honesty and skill and the desire to get it right. And then we should rest, we should return to just being. People don’t notice this, in all the furor about the 10 Commandments, that the rule about the Sabbath is on the list, too, just as important as the others. We don’t fight about the Sabbath or pass ballot initiatives about it, but we should. Jesus is fighting about it. He makes a whip and turns the tables and throws the people out because they’re trying to turn the Sabbath into a competition, into Jerusalem Idol, and that distorts the first and most important fact of human nature: that we are who we are, apart from what anybody thinks, loved by God in the moment and every moment.

And if that’s true, what else matters? Your grace and your love are wealth enough for me, Saint Ignatius prays. Give me these, Lord Jesus, and I ask for nothing more.

We all have to do things we don’t want to do, unpleasant things, difficult things, for our family or our jobs. That’s just being a responsible adult. But I think that a lot of times we do have a choice. I think that a lot of times we are perfectly free, but instead of choosing what we know is right for us, we choose what we think will win us friends. We act out of fear. A very small example. This year I found myself on a university committee I just hated being on. Each meeting took forever and nothing got done and I wasn’t necessary anyway. Why was I there? I wouldn’t lose my job if I quit. I wouldn’t let anyone down. I wouldn’t even make anyone mad probably, or very mad. Most people don’t care. The more I thought about it the more I thought it really wasn’t that big a deal after all. So I resigned, with a friendly note, and though I’ve gotten a little static, a little resistance--and though that’s bothered me a little, I have to admit--I feel really free, too. What took me so long? What was I waiting for?

God is all that matters. To heck with the rest.

I’m not saying that you should resign from your committees. Maybe God is calling you to be on them. We each have our own gifts, we’re all different, so if we honor these gifts and follow our hearts, all the work will get done. We undermine community only when we lie about who we really are. As the great Sufi poet Rumi puts it, “If you are here unfaithfully with us / you are causing terrible damage.” But if you’ve opened yourself up to God, he says, “you’re helping people you don’t even know / and have never seen.”

I know a young man at the university, an undergraduate, who really hated hanging out with this particular group of guys. All they did was gossip and put each other down, and they pressured him to go places and do things he really didn’t want to do. Finally, after still another uncomfortable evening, he said enough, I’m done, and walked away. Now he’s living on his own, reading the books he wants to, seeing the movies he wants to, and in that solitude, in that time alone, he’s finding great energy and great solace. He’s finding God, who has always been there inside him, in his truest self, waiting.

That’s how we create community. When we are one with God in our inner self, we are one with each other, in God.

If you’ve been watching American Idol you might remember this young black man named Gideon, the one with the afro and the goofy grin. I thought he was a pretty good, but he didn’t get enough votes and had to leave.

But first he had a chance to say good bye and sing his final song again, and I was really struck by how he handled this. When Ryan Seacrest asked him how he felt about losing, he said, well, I’m sad to leave, but I know that the Lord loves me, I know that I am saved, so I’m a happy man. I’m a happy man and I hope that God blesses you all.

What a foolish thing to say. What a courageous thing to say.

We’re all supposed to say it.

And then we’re supposed to go back home and sing--sing anyway, sing for the sake of singing, for the joy of it, whether anybody ever hears us again. Because God is listening. God is always listening. And whenever we pour ourselves out to Him, whenever we are truly and wholly ourselves, even if we can’t carry a tune, even if we forget the words, whatever we are singing becomes a prayer.