Reading the Leaves (Homily)
Thirty Third Sunday of Ordinary Time
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.