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, November 19, 2006

Reading the Leaves (Homily)

Thirty Third Sunday of Ordinary Time
Mark 13:24-32

A couple of years ago I got this deep pain in my leg, then spasms, then loss of strength. The fig tree of my body was giving me signs, and I had to read them, all the way to the doctor and surgery and the end of one world and the beginning of another. Many people have experienced something like this, far worse.

About ten years ago I started experiencing these strange longings and dissatisfactions within me, and they were signs, signs--I slowly realized--that I was being called to ministry, to the diaconate. And that was a painful process, too, in some ways, though it also involved a great deal of joy and fulfillment, as it still does. But at the time there was this big upheaval in my life, a huge amount of uncertainty and a number of painful, difficult decisions to be made. The old world had to be destroyed for the new one to rise.

A year ago today my friend Andy Dufner died, and that, too, was the end of a world, of a time, though our relationship continues and deepens still, through faith. But when Andy died something in me died, too, and there was a call that came in the aftermath of that, a sometimes difficult and intimidating call: to grow up, to step forward. It’s my turn now, whether I like it not.

Jesus seems to have preached a literal second coming, and the disciples were expecting it. It’s why Paul recommends against marrying, for example. Why bother? But then, when the second coming didn’t happen in the way they expected it, when 30 or 40 years had gone by without any fallen stars or darkened moons, the people had a crisis of faith. Was Jesus crazy? Was he lying? No, they seemed to have realized, we got it wrong. The Lord is coming and has come, but internally, not externally, he’s returning within each one of us, if we let him, and it was this intuition, this insight, possibly, that led to the writing of the gospels, the intuition that dying-to-self is something that we always have to be doing, that change is always happening and that change is always difficult and that we can’t run away from it.

In fact, as Christians we have to be especially alert in times of trouble, because it’s during times of trouble that we are most often called. Trouble is an invitation to discernment. What’s going wrong in your life? Where do you feel the most anger, the most fear, the deepest depression? Where is the violence in your life, emotionally and physically? These feelings, these struggles: this is God calling you, away from something or towards something.

In a way, with death or illness, the key is simply to accept, to surrender our own will and to trust in God. But in another way, tribulations demand conversion. They require us to discern the truth and then to do something about it. God will destroy the old and the false. We have to build the new, through his grace.

When you see these things, know that he is near, at the gates.

Maybe the signs are the problems you’re having with drinking. You can’t remember in the morning what happened that night. You’re letting your friends down. You’re doing badly at work or at school. Maybe the signs are problems in a relationship, so much heartache, so much strain you know something has to change. Maybe you have to leave your job. Maybe you have to move to a different town.

There are signs of trouble and change in the country, in the world, in the planet: the problems in the Middle East, global warming, hunger and violence everywhere. We have to know how to interpret the evidence, and we have to be paying attention to begin with, and like Jesus we have to understand that discernment requires effort, that the truth is never obvious, never spelled out with complete clarity. That’s part of Jesus’s point here: we have to read the signs and interpret the leaves because there’s more than meets the eye. Many people miss the warnings. Many people are surprised when the other shoe drops. But that’s because they were lazy and literal and didn’t look past the surface. We can’t be that way. We have to look harder. We have to think.

Did you read in the paper the other day that there are 13,000 homeless kids in our schools in Oregon, K-12? Nearly 200 in Corvallis. In Corvallis. Kids who don’t have a stable place to live. Kids who don’t have a safe place to live. Kids who don’t have any place to live. Here.

That’s a sign of the times, that’s a sign of the end of the world--certainly of a world that should end. And it leads to a question, or should: what are we going to do about that? What caused this problem and how can we fix it?

Many scholars think that the early Christians never meant a sort of science fiction end of the world when they talked about the second coming, not the end of life on earth. No, what they may have had in mind was the end of injustice and the beginning of a new kingdom, here and now, a kingdom of right relation and the just distribution of goods.
So hard times. Hard things. The demand for realism.

But also reassurance. Also the sense that whatever happens, however difficult life is, the Lord is always with us. Be not afraid. He is near, he is near, and if that’s true, as it is, if the Lord is with us, nothing, finally, can take away our joy and our peace.

The other day I heard a lovely story. A woman about my age was taking care of her mother, who was dying. This was several months ago. They were sitting in the living room looking at the leaves falling from the trees in the backyard. It was very beautiful. Very quiet. They just sat there together, saying nothing.

Then the woman turned and asked, “Mom, what are you thinking about right now?”

“I’m thinking how lucky I am,” she said. “I’m thinking how blessed.”

The other night, at this woman’s vigil service, at the funeral home, one of her neighbors got up to speak and he said, “you know, when she died, I felt wonderful. I don’t know why. I’ll miss her very much, but I felt this sense of joy. I thought, what a wonderful life.”

We need to be willing to face the future and to build the future. But we can’t let that distract us from the other second coming, the other revelation, which is taking place every single moment we really look at the world, every single moment we really forget about our own petty concerns and empty ourselves out, open ourselves up. We have to look at the leaves on that fig tree, we have to look at the leaves falling out the window, because when we see these things happening, we know that he is near.

The Lord is near. He is with us. He is standing at the gates.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Other People (homily)

Thirty First Sunday of Ordinary Time
Mark 12:2-34

There are moments in my life when it seems the whole universe is bending towards me. God loves me and is calling me, me out of all others. I am the hero. I am the beloved.

Then I go out into the world and I hear other people saying the same thing. They feel beloved, they feel chosen, and I think wait, that can’t be true. God’s my special friend. I’m Frodo, I’m Odysseus. OK, maybe God can love a few other people, a few of the really attractive and intelligent ones. We can be a club. But not all these others, not all the dumpy ones and the ugly ones and the dumb ones.

I can’t love my neighbors as myself. They’re not worthy. Or if they are, I’m not.

Because it’s not just jealousy I feel. It’s the sense of being overwhelmed by sheer number, sheer volume. It’s an intellectual problem. I think about the six and a half billion people alive today and the 85 billion people who have ever lived, on this planet alone, and I think about all the other planets and all the other stars and all the other galaxies--nine galaxies in the universe for every one of us. That’s what the astronomers estimate. Nine galaxies. Per person. How could I possibly think I matter?

But I do.

I am the center of the universe. And so are you. I am the beloved, and so are you, and our very inability to grasp how this can be true is itself an indication of the unimaginable greatness and compassion of the Lord our God.

That’s what the Gospel is saying today.


The moment we feel like nothing we are in solidarity with the poor. We are poor. We are the least of these. And yet at just the same moment we are in union with Christ, we are one with Him, because it is to the poor He most belongs. He tells us this again and again. Whatever you do for the least of these, He says, you do for me. Because Christ most identifies with the poor, because it’s only there we can find him, it’s only when we are poor, only when we know in our hearts that we are no better than any other speck of matter, any other fleeting life, that we are fulfilled, that we are exalted.

It’s the feeling we get beneath a starry sky or by the ocean or in a forest. “And then I feel the sun itself,” Mary Oliver says, in a gorgeous poem:

I feel the sun itself /
as it blazes over the hills, /
like a million flowers on fire-- /
clearly I’m not needed, /
yet I feel myself turning /
into something of inexplicable value.

We are each of us part of an intricate ecology, like the Willamette daisy and the Kincaid’s lupine, like the Fender’s blue butterfly. Did you read about this? All three of these can be found only in the Willamette Valley and all three have just been listed as endangered species, to be cared for and protected. These are our neighbors, too, and their value is the value they have in themselves exactly because of how rare they are, and vulnerable, and fleeting.

Like us.

Or think of the Butterfly Effect--the idea, from Chaos Theory, that the beating of the wings of a butterfly can create a hurricane halfway around the world--that everything matters in relation to everything else, infinitely, intricately matters, right down to our very cells, to every one of the trillion cells in every one of our bodies.


The other day one of my students came to see me and I knew he was coming and I was sweating bullets about it. He’s one of those really smart science majors, the kind who always rattle me, and I knew he was coming to complain. So I was ready. Boy was I ready. I’d planned out all the sarcastic things I was going to say, all the subtle put downs.

But I’d forgotten. I’m supposed to love my neighbor as myself. I’m required to belief that other people are loved by God every bit as much as I am. Namaste, they say in yoga, a Sanskrit word that means “the divine in me blesses and honors the divine in you.”

Because of course it turns out that this guy was a pretty nice guy. We had a pretty good conversation. He was no one to fear, and neither am I, and why do I always forget that? Why am I so anxious and protective? We need boundaries. We need to be careful and smart. But why is the assumption of danger our default assumption? Why do we go into every situation so suspicious and fearful?

Namaste. The divine in me blesses and honors the divine in you. What if we kept that idea in mind before every difficult conversation? Love your neighbor as yourself.


The great Jesuit scientist and theologian Teilhard de Chardin believed that human beings are the universe come to consciousness of itself. We are in solidarity with the rocks and birds and trees and things, we come from them, impelled by the creative love of God, and now we have evolved into beings with eyes that can see and brains that can think and voices that can speak, and we are speaking for them, for the Fender’s Blue, for the abandoned child, for the earth. We are one with the universe and we are its voice.

The next time we’re walking down the street, let’s call that to mind. Let’s look into the faces of the people we see: the student on her cell phone, the homeless man, the lawyer in his SUV. Everyone. And then let’s remember: everyone we see is the universe come to consciousness of itself. Everyone we see is loved by God. Everyone.

How would that change the ways we behave? How would that change the ways we feel?

I think it would free us. I think it would bring us closer to the Kingdom.

You know the famous line, hell is other people? I don’t think so. Heaven is.