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, April 30, 2006

It Takes a Worried Man (Homily)

Third Sunday of Easter
Psalm 4, 1 John 2:1-5, Luke 24:35-48

Jesus comes into the room and asks, “Why are you troubled?”

Why am I troubled? Are you kidding me?


I ‘m worried about my back, my leg, the bare spots in my lawn.

I’m worried about my kids and their boyfriends and girlfriends and how they’re going to make a living and whether they’ll be happy.

I’m worried about my relationship with my colleagues. I’m worried about the budget crisis at the university and how it’s going to affect my students.

I’m worried about my students: Justin and Sara and Ashley, all of them.

I’m worried about the price of gas and the health of the planet: the Greenhouse Effect, the loss of species. Just how we live, the waste and the junk.

I’m worried about the war and the possibility of more war and about all the injustice and oppression and poverty and suffering in the world.

I’m worried about what people think of me. I’m worried about how I’m doing. I’m worried that I can’t get over worrying what people think of me and just can’t get over worrying.


It takes a worried man to sing a worried song. But aren’t we all worried? If we could look into each other’s brains right now, wouldn’t we find more worry than joy? Lots of worry. Nothing but worry.

And Jesus comes into this room right now and says, why? Why do questions arise in your hearts? Peace be with you. Peace.

It’s not that we don’t have to deal with our problems. They’re real and important. It’s not that we just have to have a positive attitude and everything get magically better. No. Life doesn’t work that way most of the time. It’s just that there’s something more important than all that, deeper than life, deeper than death, and that something, that someone, is a cause for joy. When the disciples come into contact with it today, when they can really feel and touch Jesus in that fearful room, their fear turns to “incredulous joy.”

We must “fast from our fears,” Sr. Edith Prendergrast says. This is from her keynote address to the 2006 Religious Education Congress in Los Angeles. “In letting go,” she says, “we see more clearly and gain positive energy to deal with our challenging realities. It is our choice. We must bid farewell to the tomb and everything that binds, and climb toward the light.” Yes. What I like about this is the implication that joy is a discipline, a practice, an effort. The discipline of Good Friday is to embrace the cross. We can’t go around ignoring the suffering and pain of the world. But the discipline of Easter is just as important and just as difficult. We can’t go around ignoring the reality of the Risen Christ. We can’t go around without hope, without an underlying attitude of joy, because if we do, if day to day we’re always tired and sad and depressed, deep down we must not really believe, we must not really think this is all true.

If it is true, if the stone is really rolled away, if the Lord is really standing in our midst, none of the rest of this finally matters. Or it does. But it’s not the truth. It’s not the end.

The other day a student was telling me about her life: she left home early, got jobs and lost jobs, everything went wrong, and finally she fell to her knees, crying. She fell to her knees and prayed. She let Jesus into her heart, is how she put it--she’s an evangelical Christian--and though things have been hard since, really hard, things also seem to be falling into place. When something goes wrong, something else opens up.

Or I was talking to another student, a soldier, who has wanted nothing more the last six years than to become an officer. And he’s worked very hard at this. But now, just a few months away from achieving this goal, he’s developed some medical problems and can’t continue. The marines won’t let him. And he’s very sad about this. It’s a great loss. But he was smiling as we talked. He was trusting. I could tell. The Lord will provide. The Lord is leading me somewhere, and I could tell he meant it--without silliness, without sentimentality.

He’s an evangelical, too. You know, maybe we should all be a little more evangelical in that sense. I should be.

Or this last weekend I was on the coast again and I met this guy. Gerry. He was pretty scary at first. A little like a ghost, in fact. We turn out to be about the same age--we even went to the same high school, in Spokane, though we didn’t know it. But he looks twenty years older. Thirty. His teeth are bad. He’s got deep lines on his face and scars on his hands and tattoos underneath his Harley Davidson sweatshirt. It’s pretty clear that he’s been through a lot. He didn’t say but I’m sure it was alcohol or drugs, though I’m sure he’s past that now. He’s worked all this life, too, as a welder, and it’s been tough to make ends meet. He’s got children and grandchildren and I think several ex-wives.

But he made me pancakes the morning I left, and they were good. They were very good. (That’s what we were eating, not baked fish.) At mass and afterwards there was a quiet joy in him, a gentleness, a peace. In 2000 he went through RCIA and became a Catholic, and now he works on the RCIA team in his parish, and though he’s not an educated man in some ways, he has a deep understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Faith isn’t something we can express in words anyway or understand finally with our minds. The disciples have to touch Jesus and be with him. They have to live with him. They have to walk the road. They have to keep the commandments, John says in his first letter, not just because that’s the right thing to do but because it’s the only form of knowledge that works, “the way we can be sure that we know him”: not through theological books or doctrinal formulations, but through a life lived in faith, with others.

When Jerry took off Sunday morning on that great black Harley Davidson, with his beard and his sunglasses and that look on his face, I felt really glad to have met him. He fed me in more ways than one.

He knows what St. Theresa of Lisieux knew. He reminded me of her. “Everything is the direct effect of Our Father’s Love, difficulties, contradictions, humiliations, all the soul’s miseries, her burdens, her needs. Everything. Because through them, she learns humility, realizes her weakness.” That’s what Gerry knows and what he reminded me of, that, as St. Theresa puts it, “everything is grace, everything is God’s gift. Whatever be the character of life or its unexpected events, to the heart that loves, all is well.”

That last phrase is the key. It’s what drives all the rest. What the resurrection shows us is that there is a love deep down everything else that makes everything else finally OK. Gerry was going back to poverty. Gerry was going back to family problems. Gerry was going back to a hard life. But he was smiling, and he meant it. “There was gladness in his heart,” as our Psalm today says. As he soon as he lies down at night, he told me, he falls peacefully asleep, and I think it’s because he knows, he really knows, that “you alone, O Lord, bring security to his dwelling.”

I want to more like him. I think we should all be more like him. He’s one of the disciples, and so, through grace, are we.

Not in the Wisdom of the Word (Good Friday Homily)

April 14, 2006
Good Friday

Some of us at OSU have been getting together on Mondays to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, and the other day we all seemed to be despondent. I thought it was just me. But then someone talked about feeling brokenhearted lately, reading the headlines or facing her classes. There’s just something in the air. Someone else is acting in a play about the Holocaust and she can’t help being depressed at thought of that incredible suffering, millions and millions of people dying.

And the only thing I could say was yes. We were praying Psalm 31, the Psalm we read today, too, one of the great Psalms of Lament. “I am forgotten like the unremembered dead. / I am like a dish that has been broken.” Jesus quotes a verse of it on the cross in Luke, as he quotes Psalm 22 in Matthew and Mark: my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? And all I could say was yes. Two thirds of the Psalms are Psalms of Lament, of sadness, of despair. Sadness is OK. Sadness is an available feeling for prayer. Despair is not contrary to faith, not for the Jews, not for Jesus. Christianity doesn’t mean denying the reality of the world and the reality of our own emotions, not for a minute, but plunging into them.

Lament in your own prayer, too. Be honest with God. There is a whole range of emotion, of truth. There are all these paradoxes, and here, in this moment, on Good Friday, we are asked to face them. Don’t turn away.

Some of you know that I’ve been very critical of Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ. I worry that people will think it accurately portrays the gospels when in fact Gibson is making things up and adding things in all over the place, even though he denies it. I also worry that the violence is too extreme. But on the other hand, maybe it’s not. Gibson has at least performed the service of reminding us that the crucifixion is not an idea but a fact, not a theological nicety but a lived experience. We follow a person, not an abstraction, and that person had a body, and that body suffered horribly, and it’s well past time that we stopped turning this into a nice little doily or a reason for smugness. Gibson helps us get out of our heads and into our hearts. To wince. To cry. To grieve.

When Pilate writes that Jesus is “the King of Jews,” and then the people in the crowd start disputing that, I couldn’t help but think of my own life. Boy, did I recognize that! Welcome to my world, where we argue about language all the time, where we try to make everything complicated and relative and vague. No, say he said he was the King of the Jews. Here we are arguing about words and phrases when behind us a man is hanging on a cross. Here we are arguing about politics or sports or what we should wear and behind us there is a man, a body, and it’s suffering. Here we are arguing about the music at mass, or about this or that doctrine, or about this or that gesture or look, and here is the body, here is the suffering, not just of Christ but of the millions who have died in the world the last few years, the millions of orphans, the billions who go to bed hungry every night. Famine. War. The sins against the earth. The children. Every night.

Jesus doesn’t talk very much in the story of the Passion. Hardly at all. He lays his body down, because the time for words is past, and he wants us to know this and understand this and feel this. “His existence is his word,” Pope Benedict says. “He didn’t just do and say something,” he was something. Someone.

We have to move from our heads to our hearts, from thinking to feeling, from argument to adoration. Because that’s what Jesus shows us. That’s what he does.

Don’t argue about this cross, Jesus says. Embrace it. Embrace me. Don’t interpret this cross. Don’t take other people and nail them up on it, too. Touch it, feel it, kneel before it. Don’t be afraid of your sadness and grief. Don’t turn away from reality. It’s right here. And it’s horrible beyond imagining, and it’s impossible to take, and finally, in the end, it’s the source of all joy. Because of my love for you. Because of what I have given away, my life, my self.

I can’t explain it. Can you? How can God be hanging on a cross? How can God Himself be dying? How can this terrible moment of desolation and despair turn into the impossible joy of the empty tomb? Did this really happen? What’s happening now?

I don’t know. I don’t know.

In fact, maybe that’s the part of the point. Maybe one of the purposes of Good Friday is to so shock us and so numb us that we finally stop thinking, we finally stop talking. That’s not a bad start. “For, since in the wisdom of God the world did not come to know God through wisdom, it was the will of God through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who have faith.” “The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.” That’s Paul, in Corinthians.

I don’t know.

All I know is that we have to face this today. All I know is that we have to plunge into this today. All I know is that we have to go to the heart of this. Because there, deep down, in the heart of reality, in the heart of our Lord Jesus Christ, is where we will find our only happiness, our only life. Our dearest, dearest love.