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, October 22, 2006

Mountains Beyond Mountains (homily)

Twenty-Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Mark 10:35-45

I’ve been reading a really interesting and challenging book lately, Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder. It’s a nonfiction story about the work of a doctor, Paul Farmer, who has devoted his life to serving the poor in the third world. This is a man who’s on the faculty at Harvard—he could be making a lot of money—but instead he’s living in a hut in Haiti treating tuberculosis and AIDS. Sometimes he walks for hours just to see a single patient, and he does this out of faith.

Farmer wasn’t raised Catholic, but the faith of the poor converted him, and the gospel converted him. For him it’s radically simple: serving the poor is all that matters to Farmer, and it’s all that matters to Jesus, too. The first must be last, Jesus says, and Farmer takes this absolutely literally. “You want crucifixion,” he asks. “I’ll show you crucifixion,” and he’s talking about the world, our own world, where a baby dies every three seconds, where three billion people go to bed hungry every night.

Paul Farmer is a servant in just the way Jesus means it in this passage from Mark, and that’s especially challenging to me as a deacon, especially daunting. That’s the word for servant, in Greek: deacon, diakonia.

Wow. How can anyone measure up to someone like Farmer?

And we’re all supposed to. We’re all supposed to be deacons.


Now, Farmer does what he does because he loves it. He loves being a doctor, loves being with patients, and we, too, are called through our love. We are called through our joy. We are called through our own particular gifts.

And I don’t think that we have to leave the country to be of service. It was the flow of his life that brought Farmer to Haiti, as it’s the flow of our lives that has brought us here.

And I don’t think that to serve means to do nothing but serve, 24 hours a day. We have to make time for ourselves, too, we have to make room for prayer and renewal, or we’ll never have the energy and faith for others.

Farmer uses a phrase I really like, “the hermeneutics of generosity”—hermeneutics just means a way of thinking and seeing—and the key, I think, is to apply this way of thinking to every ordinary situation in our lives. Yes, we should volunteer and yes, we should help in the obvious, corporeal ways, but service is more than that, too. It’s an attitude, an orientation. Every moment presents us with an opportunity to serve, and not just those who are physically, economically poor. There’s emotional poverty, too. Intellectual poverty. Pope Benedict has recently written about spiritual poverty.


Maybe someone doesn’t show up for an appointment and you think, she doesn’t care, she’s blowing me off. To apply the hermeneutics of generosity is to stop and think, no, maybe she’s got a problem, maybe it’s not her fault. Maybe someone you know has a big success and you feel the usual stab of jealousy when you hear about it. To apply the hermeneutics of generosity is to stop and think and very consciously, very deliberately say no, this is good. It’s to actively desire the best for others.

Not that even this is easy, of course. It’s terrifically hard, it’s always hard.


Maybe you have to stand up to someone, maybe you have to speak the truth to power, maybe you have to say something that’s really difficult to say, and it makes people mad and gets you in trouble. But that can be a form of service, too--service to the truth, service to others. The hermeneutics of generosity often leads to tension and conflict and in fact it always does. “We’re not called to be successful,” Mother Teresa said, “we’re called to be faithful,” and we have to be faithful even in the face of the enormity of our problems and the depth of our sins. In this sense any form of service can be a very daunting, a very trying thing. There are mountains beyond mountains. There’s no end to the work that needs to be done, no one can ever really succeed at it, ever really conquer it, and to serve means to accept that and to learn to live with that. To serve is to live with what Farmer calls “the long defeat,” as Jesus did in his suffering, on the cross.


But however hard it is, however trying, however sad, that’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to serve. Whatever our particular call, whatever our particular situation, Farmer is our model as Mother Teresa is our model as Jesus is our model, and there’s no getting out of it, no explaining it away.

Farmer has another phrase I really like, “Areas of Moral Clarity,” or AMC’s, and this is the main one. Jesus doesn’t say a thing about gay marriage. Jesus doesn’t say a thing about women’s ordination. What he says is: feed my sheep. He says it over and over again, it’s the center of the gospels, it couldn’t be clearer, and Farmer’s life is a direct and unambiguous call to get this straight ourselves and to stop being self righteous and contentious about all the other things we’re self righteous and contentious about.

Or let me put it another way. Let me be more positive. There are lots of deacons in this parish, lots of people who serve the shut-ins and the children and the migrants and the widows, and I really tired of other people attacking the church, of continually criticizing it and complaining about it. What are they talking about? The rhetoric or the soup kitchens? The headlines or the homeless shelters? The pedophiles or the many, many selfless volunteers, all around the world?

But that’s the point: I’m deeply proud to be Catholic, and humbled, but it’s not because of what we say, on television or some website. It’s because of what we do, at our best.


The other day I was talking with a friend outside the Newman Center when this student came up and asked if I’d help settle an argument. Sure, I said. What about? Papal Infallibility. What? Papal Infallibility.

Every three seconds a child dies from hunger and you’re arguing about this? I can imagine a context in which a discussion of Papal Infallibility would be useful and good, and maybe this discussion had one. I don’t know. But often I think we argue about Papal Infallibility because we’re afraid to face our own fallible natures. Often I think we argue about the Pope because we’re afraid of the real work we’re supposed to be doing. We don’t want to admit there are mountains beyond mountains. We want to have climbed them, once and for all.

But we can’t—we can’t—and that’s what Papal Infallibility itself is all about in the end, the infallible intuition that the Gospels concern a mystery we can never understand but only serve, in humility and joy.

What does the Eucharistic prayer call the Pope? Your servant. Your servant, Pope Benedict.

Yes, there are Areas of Moral Clarity, and this is one of them. We don’t hold God, He holds us. Yes, there are Areas of Moral Clarity. A child dies every three seconds.

Yes, there are areas of Moral Clarity. Feed my sheep.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Clinging and Cleaving

27th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Genesis chapter 2

The other day this really nice couple came to see me about getting married. I liked them a lot. But at one point the young woman stopped and said, you know, it’s hard for me to get married in the Church, because I’m a scientist, and I believe in evolution. I just can’t accept the Genesis story as true.

And I was stunned. No, no, no!

The Church teaches us to read the creation story as myth--an inspired myth, a holy myth, but a myth. Not science, not history. It’s about God, not about dinosaurs. It’s trying to teach us about life, not the planets, and our own lives here and now, and it does that using symbols and images. That’s a good working definition of myth for us as believers: an imaginative story that uses symbols to describe a reality beyond all language--a reality, a truth, but a Truth far beyond anything that can be measured, anything merely physical.

We just have to get over all that other stuff, for Pete’s sake. We have to read for the great themes, because these are what matter in our lives.

And I’m not making this up. I’m really not. This is the official teaching of the Church, in the Catechism and in the documents, right from the Pope, and it’s really too bad that so many good people don’t seem to know about it.


The beauty of creation, for example. Our intimate relationship with all living creatures, with the animals and the plants. The wild is everywhere in scripture, from the first chapter of Genesis all the way through. These stories come from a culture closer to the land and closer to the creatures of the land, closer to instinct and to the glory of the wild than we are, and that’s here in this story, in Adam’s friendship with the animals he names, the companionship they give him in the beauty of the garden. They help assuage his loneliness and they help assuage ours. We are not alone.

Which is why the bishops of the Northwest issued their great pastoral letter on the Columbia River, calling us to an ecological conscience; why Pope John Paul and now all the Church considers environmental issues a central part of its whole ethic of life--why it focuses not just on the poor and unborn but on the plants and animals--why the archdiocese is showing the documentary about global warming, “An Inconvenient Truth,” and asking us all to watch it and pray over it.

Then Adam falls asleep, as we must all fall asleep. It’s good to be awake, it’s good to use our reason and our minds, but reason can only take us so far and finally, to get deeper, to get closer to the mystery, we have to let go of our ability to shape and control and analyze and just surrender, just fall, deep into the realm of the unconscious, deep into our own inner garden where we can be one again with creation and with ourselves. We have to move from the head to the heart. Faith isn’t a matter of concepts or numbers. It’s a matter of love.


And the first words out of Adam’s mouth? The first recorded words of the first man? Poetry. They have line breaks. At last! Flesh of my flesh and bones of my bones! It’s poetry that gets us closest to the mystery, not science, because in poetry there’s something that can’t be translated out, in poetry the imagination and the feeling speak., which is why Genesis itself should be read as poetry, not as science, as music, not as measurement. Scripture is poetry. Liturgy is poetry.


Gender, too, of course. This great myth is about the great mystery of gender, and note: there’s no warrant here for the ruling of the man over the woman. For one thing, there are two creation stories, from two historical periods, the first in the first chapter and the second here, in the second chapter--two different strands of material woven together--and in the first one, in Genesis 1:27, male and female are created equally in the image and likeness of God-- the woman is not created from the rib of man--which clearly suggests what the Church teaches and proclaims, that men and women are equal, are one, the man not to dominate as no one is to dominate anyone else or anything else. Besides, to be built from the rib of man is to suggest intimacy and union. In fact, maybe we could see the man as the first draft, the woman as the second. Maybe in woman, God finally got it right.

Which is to say: let’s not only avoid the mistake of reading something as science that was never intended to be read that way; let’s avoid the mistake of reading our own patriarchal and sexist attitudes into a story that isn’t about that in any event.


And so the man and the women cling to each other, and that clinging is good and that clinging is holy and that clinging counters the whole stereotype about Christianity and the Church and sex. Because what is the clinging and the cleaving if not sexual intercourse, and what is this story saying if not that this is a really good thing, filled with the presence of God? The Church isn’t against sex and it isn’t against the body but radically for both. It’s for good sex, really good sex, sex that is mutual and intimate and profound. What it opposes is bad sex: casual sex, sex that doesn’t involve genuine cleaving and clinging, sex that depends on domination and control, sex that is a matter of power not mutuality, lust not fidelity.


I don’t know. Maybe the world was created in six days exactly, 5,345 years ago. Who cares? What does it matter? God can do anything he wants to, of course, and does, and is, and in fact, creating the world in six days seems like a pretty small thing for Him to do, given all his greatness and generosity, a pretty bland thing really. But more important, to focus on that and to argue about that is not only to be, if you will excuse me, intellectually immature, it’s to evade the central religious and moral questions, which have to do with astonishment and joy and praise, on the one hand, and pride and lust and all the other sins on the other. Creation is going on right now. The first man and the first woman are right here and right now, in our DNA, in our spinal cords. The question is whether our lives are creative. The question is whether we have let go of our small and manipulative minds. The question is what we are clinging to and cleaving to and why.

Of course that couple can get married in the Church. Of course!

Why? Because they love each other, they really love each other, and so God is present in them and to them, God is creating them all over again, in the garden, in the forest, in this miraculous world so full of love and life and abundant, abundant joy.