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.

My Photo
Name:
Location: Corvallis, Oregon

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Jump (Homily)

June 20, 2008
Matthew 6

This is the first time I’ve preached since March. I’ve been recovering from surgery the last three months, and it’s very good to be back.

But you know, once I started feeling better and could reflect a little, I realized that my illness was a grace. I had gotten too attached again. I was storing up my treasure on earth and so that was where my heart was: with my career, with my possessions. It happens gradually and subtly, but it always happens.

But after the surgery I was able to appreciate just sitting in a chair. Just taking a walk. Just playing cribbage with Barb. I had this built in excuse now for not doing a lot of things. I was able to leave a lot of things out of my life for a while. I could just live in the moment.

The trick for me now is not to add everything back in.

The wisdom of the gospels isn’t just in the gospels. It’s in the body, too. It’s deep in our organs and our bones. It’s saying let go. It’s saying you’re not in charge. It’s saying move on to the next stage. It’s saying be not afraid.

The gift of getting older is that it forces us to accept what Jesus is saying. The changing of our bodies leads us to the truth.

There was this very old and wise man who went out into the desert to get closer to God. He fasted and prayed and walked over stones. One day he fell off a cliff and was hanging from a branch high above a river.

Oh Lord, he cried out. All my life I have tried to follow you and do the right thing. All my life I have been your disciple. Come to me now. Help me now.

Suddenly there was a voice in the air around him.

Let go, my son. Just let go. I will save you. Let go.

A few minutes went by. The old man was still hanging there, above the river.

Hello? he cried again. Is there anybody else out there who can help me?

We’ve got to let go of the branch. We’ve got to fall off that cliff. Because that’s where the truth is. It’s at the bottom.

In fact, we should jump off. We just fling ourselves off.

Understand: I don’t have the courage or faith to do this yet, but I think I see that this is the call. I think that this is what my body is telling me and what your body is telling you, too. It’s what the gospel is telling us all.

We have to jump.

Because when we do, we are jumping into freedom. We are jumping into joy. We are jumping into love.

Burn Pile (poem)

I wanted to burn my burn pile.
Branches and leaves. Parts of a fence.
But the recycling had already come
and there wasn’t any newspaper.
So I used old drafts of poems.
I toss them in a drawer until the drawer
is full, weeks of them, and as I stuffed
the pages in the cracks and hollows
of the tangled pile, I’d glance
at a stanza or a line and remember
the problem I was trying to solve.
But this isn’t a poem about poetry.
It’s a poem about an occasion for sin.
Because the fire wouldn’t build.
It would flare and die, first one corner,
then another, the twigs catching,
and the leaves, but not the branches,
until I’d fed it every poem I had
and all there were were ashes.
Not even a hundred abandoned poems
could produce the necessary heat.
Only smoke.
The sweet, leafy smoke of spring.
A soft gray plume, rising
above the cherry trees. A wreathe.
Oh let my prayer arise, oh Lord,
like incense before you.
Like the evening sacrifice
be the raising of my hands.

The Duty of Joy (homily)

Second Sunday of Easter
Acts 2:42-47, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31

Recently I read a fine book by the religious historian Huston Smith called World Religions. There are very readable chapters on Hinduism and Buddhism and all the
world religions, focusing on their central beliefs, and the effect for me, by the time I got to the chapter on Christianity, was to strengthen my faith. As I read what Smith has to say about our own tradition, it seemed to me to be this wonderful and beautiful thing, involved in this fundamental human enterprise.

And one of Smith’s most striking comments is about the effect that the death and the alleged resurrection of Jesus seemed to have on his followers--the effect as witnessed by ancient historians--the Roman ones, the neutral observers.

Because the resurrection itself was more than an historical event, there’s no way to prove that it happened. Even if we could go back in a time machine with special equipment, we couldn’t capture it. It wasn’t just a physical resuscitation. Jesus wasn’t Lazarus. It wasn’t just a single event, but the releasing of a deep, transforming energy.

But there is an historical record of how the first Christians suddenly started to behave. How they acted. What they did. The Romans could see this with their own eyes, and they wrote down what they saw, and they were astonished.

What shocked them first, according to Smith, is that the early Christians treated each other as equals, regardless of race or gender or social status, and that they lived in communities where everything was mutually shared. The Romans had never seen anything like this before, this generosity, this leveling of the age-old class system. “See how these Christians love one another,” one of the ancient sources says, and of course, that corroborates the reading from Acts for today, how “all who believed were together and had all things in common.”

The second thing that surprised the Roman observers is how happy the early Christians were. They weren’t stupid. They weren’t foolish. They just seemed to have a deep and abiding joy, even in the face of persecution, when there was no apparent reason to feel anything but fear. “In the midst of their trials,” Smith says, “they had laid hold of an inner peace that found expression in a joy that seemed exuberant,” even “radiant.” As another theologian once put it, “being sad in Jesus’ presence was an existential impossibility,” and this seemed to be true for his followers even after he was gone.

Amazing. No other religion had had this effect before. Somehow the early Christians had been freed of the fear of death. Somehow they had been freed of their own egos. Somehow they had been freed of the burden of their guilt. And so, Acts says in the reading for today, “they ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart.” And so, Peter says, “they rejoiced with indescribable and glorious joy.”

No one can prove that Jesus really walked through those walls and breathed peace onto poor doubting Thomas. But wherever it came from, the peace and the courage of the early Christians was widely known and frequently recorded. However mysterious the cause, the effect is an historical fact. And that means something, it seems to me.

We don’t call ourselves Christians because of the wonderful things that Jesus said. Many of them had been said before, in the Torah and in other traditions. We don’t call ourselves Christians because of the miracles that Jesus performed and the healings he accomplished. There’d been lots of miracles before, by lots of miracle workers, inside and outside of Judaism. We call ourselves Christian because of the resurrection. We call ourselves Christians because Jesus rose from the dead. No one had ever done that before, not like that. No one had ever infected the spirit of his followers so thoroughly and completely after death as to entirely transform them, entirely change their lives. It’s the resurrection, and the effects of the resurrection, that made the early Christians Christian and that make us all Christians still, here and now.


So let’s be historical about this. Let’s use this objective, historical standard that Smith opens up for us.

Where is our sense of equality and of community, all of us here, the week after Easter?

If we are a boss, do we treat our employees with respect and generosity? If we are an employee, do we stand up to injustice and inequality as much as we possibly can? If we are parents, do we treat our children with respect? Our spouses? If we are men, do we treat women as our equals? If we are white, do we treat people of color as our equals?

Do we gossip and compete among our friends? Do we even just inwardly assume the inferiority of any other person? Are we in right relation with the people in our lives?


And second, where is our sense of joy, of hope, this week after Easter?

I know how it is when there’s a financial crisis or a health crisis, how it lowers our IQ’s. Suddenly we’re operating on instinct. Suddenly we don’t have the spiritual energy to pray or to “offer it up.” It’s all we can do just to get through the day, and later, when the crisis is over and we’re looking back on it, I think we need to be forgiving of ourselves for this, and so forgiving of others, too.

But also, as we’re looking back, I think we need to inquire into the grounds of our despair. Why were we afraid? Why were we anxious? What the resurrection means is that the whole universe is moving from love and toward love and in love, both on some vast and unimaginable scale and also on the scale of the lives of even the tiniest things. Including us. In the light of this glory and this movement, money shouldn’t matter, success shouldn’t matter, not even life and death should matter. Because there is only life. Life forever.

“Radiance is hardly the word used to characterize the average religious life,” Smith admits, “but none other fits as well the life of these early Christians.” So what on earth has happened to us? Why so glum? Why so narrow and pinched and ornery and sad? He has Risen! He is not here! Thanks be to God who giveth us the victory. Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift. Joy unspeakable and full of glory!

Look. I know. I’m one of the saddest and orneriest and most skeptical people you’d ever want to meet. Joy is hard for me. But that’s exactly why I’m qualified to talk about this. I know the challenge. It’s the challenge of joy and the duty of joy and it’s realizing that for us as Christians it’s not just the cross that is our standard and our lens and our way of interpreting the world. It’s the resurrection. It’s not just death that we must always keep before us. It’s life.

Our work for the world is not to demonstrate that the resurrection happened. Our work is to demonstrate through our actions that we really believe it did.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Faith in Practice (Good Friday homily)

March 21, 2008
Good Friday

My wife, Barb, is just back from a week in Guatemala with the “Faith and Practice” group, a group of doctors and dentists and nurses who go down to Antigua every year. Barb went as the chaplain. A number of people in the parish have been a part of this over the years and I’m just so amazed by it and so admiring and so intimidated, really: by the tremendous poverty and need of the people, and by the tremendous work that the doctors and nurses do--70, 80 operations in that week.

It’s overwhelming, the thought of it.


The ancient world wasn’t scandalized by the idea that Jesus was divine. Lots of people had been before. The Emperor was. What scandalized them was the idea that he was human, too, fully human, as weak and vulnerable as we are, and I think that’s what scandalizes us still.

We’re scandalized by Good Friday. We don’t want to think about it.


It’s calling us to radical change and we don’t like change. It’s calling us to absolutes and we don’t like absolutes. It strips everything away, and we don’t want everything stripped away.


Barb tells the story of a little girl on a blanket on the floor in a hallway, terribly scaling and mottled because of a protein deficiency caused by severe malnutrition.

A little girl, about five months old, starving, abandoned by her parents, being cared for now by the sisters at the orphanage at Casa de Angeles. By those saints.

A little girl, sloughing off her own skin.

A little girl, smiling, finally, when Barb spoke to her and touched her and tickled her.

A little girl, laughing, finally. Like any other little girl.

***

What do we do with this? It’s magnificent and it’s frightening.

Christ is present there, in that child.
Christ was a child, and today he is again. He submits himself to us. He makes himself helpless before us.

What do we do with this?

***

We have to change our lives, and we don’t want to.

***

Our God is not an all powerful God who ignores the suffering of others. Our God is an all powerful God who by his very nature gives all his power away. He is Absolute, and He chooses to empty Himself out for us, absolutely.

This is the great paradox that we keep forgetting and that we can’t get our minds around in the first place. It’s the greatest theological truth in history. It solves every theological problem.

It’s only we who act like God, or try to.


It’s only our narrow, human understanding that makes us think of Him in terms of power and domination and control.

He isn’t dead. He makes himself most present in death.

He joins us.

He calls us.

***

The cross is a lens.

It is a standard.

It is a way of measuring things.

It is our formula for interpreting every situation we find ourselves in.

What should we do? Whatever conforms us the most closely to the logic of the cross. Whatever turns the situation upside down. Whatever reverses all our values and assumptions.

The opposite of what we think. The opposite of what we want.

Whatever puts others first. Whatever empties us out.

***

Did you read about the man who picked up the bobcat? He’d found it unconscious by the side of the road, injured, so he picked it up, put in on the backseat of his car, and drove to a vet for treatment.

And at the end, before he got there, the bobcat started coming to. On the backseat. It started waking up.

The man had to talk to it very softly.

But this is what it’s like. We have to stop. We have to see and then act and that can be very dangerous.

There’s something wild in the backseat. Something we can’t control.

***

No wonder we’re uneasy. No wonder we turn away.

And yet we’re supposed to come forward. In just a minute we’re supposed to come forward and embrace all this. We’re supposed to embrace it and kiss it and venerate it.
This cross.

This obscenity. This horror. This symbol of exactly the opposite of the way we want to live.

We have to change our lives.

***

The phone rings and we can see from our Caller ID who it is and we don’t answer. We don’t want to talk to that bore, that nuisance, that nobody.

But we’re supposed to.

Being God is easy. Being human is hard.


There’s a situation out there we don’t want to be in.

We’re supposed to be in it.

It doesn’t have to be in another country.

It doesn’t have to be something exotic and heroic.

It can be small and ordinary and probably is.

It’s different for each of us.

But it’s there and we know it and we have to submit ourselves to it. And when we do in our own small way we are entering into the way of the cross. We are entering into the mystery.


It’s easy to be God, or to think we can. To hold ourselves back, in reserve. But that’s not what God Himself does. He pours Himself out, He gives Himself away completely, and that’s what He calls us to do, too.

To dive in.


What are we supposed to do? This.

Whatever empties us.

Whatever silences us.

Whatever puts us in solidarity with others.

Whatever makes us poor.

Whatever gives us the chance to die.

Windfall (poem)

for Franz, on his 80th Birthday

After the storm the forest is still the forest.
The scars are openings. Light shines
through them, above the tangle of fallen trees.

Dazed at first, the old man and old woman
resume their puttering, in the house
by the pond. They wake in the morning

and move among their books, then go out
to study the windfall. The puzzle of it.
The pattern. They know they still have time.

Every stand is different: matchsticks
on the hillside, riprap by the stream;
above the chaos, the great spruce and the fir.

In youth we think that youth is ours.
We think that it defines us. But it doesn’t.
It passes away, and who we really are remains.

For a moment I don’t even fear
the coming of age. The sagging of faces,
the gnarling of hands. After the storm,

in the house by the pond, I think, no.
Maybe everything that was promised is true.
Maybe we are all being transformed.

A Summer Day (poem)

A ukulele band strums by the grave
of an old woman I never knew.
I lead the prayers, alb flapping,
helping to lay the body to rest,
and as the family lingers,
quietly walk away,
down the hill to another grave
I remember from before.
It was winter then, and the oak was bare,
and the one we buried was a boy.
I keep thinking he’ll be cold, the father said.
He’ll need his coat.
But it’s summer now, and the farmers
are haying in the yellow fields.
The dust of the harvest is softening the air.
And as I stand at the marker, looking out,
a feeling starts to come over me,
a kind of peace, almost like the peace
I prayed for up the hill,
the peace of God,
which surpasses all understanding
.
It spreads through my body like warmth.
I know.
I’m just saying what happened.
I’m just saying that it surprised me, too.
The farmers, and the yellow fields,
and the warm, summer wind.
The ukulele band, strumming still.

All in the Family (parish mission)

February 20, 2008
Parish Mission
Genesis

My brother Tim is only 11 months younger than I am. We’re almost twins, like Jacob and Esau, and like them we were always fighting. I used to walk around with my finger on Tim’s shoulder. I’d follow him everywhere, touching him, and he’d scream and scream. Mom, Chris keeps touching me!

Finally Dad bought us two pairs of boxing gloves, real boxing gloves, only smaller, and whenever we started fighting he’d say, OK, boys, time for the gloves! Then we’d knock each other senseless.


Jacob and Esau start fighting each other in their mother’s womb. They “struggled together within her,” Genesis tells us, using the Hebrew verb for “wrestle” or fight, and when they’re born--Esau first, then Jacob--Jacob is still holding on to his brother’s heel. In fact, that’s what the name Jacob means, the one who supplants, or tries to, and Jacob keeps on trying to supplant his brother, all through their growing up, tricking him out of birthrights and blessings and anything else he can trick him out of--with his mother’s guidance and help.

A typical family, in other words. Like all of ours. Dysfunctional. Full of inequities and power struggles. And that’s the first encouraging thing in this story, the first lesson, because God loves this family anyway. He doesn’t come into the lives of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Rebecca and Jacob and Rachel and Leah because they’re any holier or nicer or more deserving than we are. He loves them because he loves them, because He is love, and all these egotistical and boneheaded people have to do is stand back and receive it. And even when they don’t, even when they keep wrestling for power, God continues to love and bless them, as he continues to love and bless us, despite our own selfishness and urge towards domination.


The second lesson in the story of Jacob has to do with a second moment of wrestling. Whoever these writers were, they were really good writers, and wrestling is one of the images they keep building into their narrative.

This wrestling match happens, of course, on the banks of the river Jabbok, twenty one years later. Everything has changed. Jacob has had to leave home and live with his uncle, who cheats him and uses him as he cheated and used his brother. He’s married now--has two wives--and many children, and many possessions. He’s a middle-aged man, beaten down by life and longing for home, and on the way back, in the middle of the night, he wrestles with a man who could be an angel or could be even God himself. He wrestles until dawn, the scriptures say, and wins, in a way, though he is also wounded in the hip and from that point on forever limps.

This is a very different moment. It’s not about power, it’s about powerlessness. It’s about accepting limitations. It’s about being humbled, as we are all humbled, or should be, and what it leads to finally, is honesty. All his life Jacob has been unable to say or accept who he really is. He’s always pretending to be his older brother. He’s always hiding. But here, in the darkness, at the end of their long fight, when the mysterious figure asks who he is, he answers truthfully. I am Jacob.

I am not who I want to be. I am not who I think I should be. I am not who anybody else wants to be. I am who I am.

And that’s the second lesson: that living in a family involves pain and sacrifice and the experience of being wounded--we can’t avoid it, we can’t run from it. But more, that living with others involves being honest. It involves speaking the truth, whatever the consequences. It involves saying who we really are.

And still more. Because when Jacob finally dies to his pride and his ambition, he is transformed. He rises. His name now is Israel, he is now the father of the nations--only now, in his woundedness--and that name, too, means wrestling. It means, he who wrestles with God.


Which is our name, or can be. It’s who we can become--if, like Jacob, we stop running away. If like him, we stop trying to deceive others and ourselves.


And then there’s a third example of wrestling in this finely woven story, at the very end, and it involves Esau. Big, galumphing, not too bright Esau. Esau the hairy one. Esau the one Jacob is so afraid of he hides his children and his wives behind his servants and approaches on all fours, bowing and scraping. He assumes what any of us would assume, that Esau is angry and vengeful, as who wouldn’t be, tricked and abused the way he was?

But here’s the miracle, here’s the best part of the story, because Esau, too, has been transformed, and in his transformation he brings his brother unexpected grace and unexpected compassion.

Seeing Jacob from afar, he runs to meet him, embraces him, and “falls on his neck,” the Genesis writers say, and this is a pun, a wonderful and moving pun, because in the Hebrew “to fall on his neck” involves the same verb as the verb for wrestle. Look, the Genesis writers are saying: how what begins as conflict can end in embracing, how when we least expect it the grace of God can enter in and everything can change again, for the better, for the unimaginably better.


In our families, too, this can happen, and does. We give up our illusions, we accept reality, we admit our own limitations. And suddenly, out of the blue, there comes a hope, a new truth. Somebody moves towards us, in a way we never thought possible. There’s a shift. A gift.

And it’s not from us. The best things never are, and the joy comes when we not only realize that but come to expect it. Whatever is broken in our families, the Lord can mend. Whatever burden is too great, the Lord can bear, however much we may need to suffer first, however wounded we may be.

Buried Life (homily)

February 9, 2008
Lent

Recently, four college kids in Canada had a good idea. They were drifting, unsure about college and career. But they knew there was something in them, something “buried.” So they decided to make a list of the “100 Things They Most Wanted to Do Before They Died”--sky diving, bull riding, growing a mustache--and then they spent a summer driving around and doing as many of these things as they could.

Then MTV heard about the project, and they gave the boys a bus and a camera crew, and they had them drive all around North America asking other people: what are the 100 things you most want to do? Now there’s a website. A documentary is about to be released. The list has become a movement, what they call “The Buried Life” movement.

The Buried Life.

Now, I think there are some problems with this idea from a spiritual point of view. It’s a little naïve. It’s a little escapist. But I think there’s something really touching and insightful about it, too. Whether they know or not, these four young men are acting out the theme of the gospels.


In an editorial in Brass magazine, where I read about the project, Bryan Sims talks about all the pressures college kids feel from what he calls “society.” Bryan is the young man from Corvallis who founded the magazine. There’s the pressure to get a degree, the pressure to make money, the pressure to be successful. “But here’s the thing,” Bryan says. “Society isn’t right.” He cites a recent survey in which teenagers ranked as their number one ambition simply “being happy.” “If that’s the American Dream,” he asks, “isn’t all the pressure to live up to other people’s standards a waste of time?”

Pretty good question.

Bryan isn’t talking about God here. Brass is a secular magazine, focused on money issues. But I think he’s got a real point, and I think it’s finally a spiritual point. I think he’s really talking about the Raising of Lazarus.


Christ is in us. But we have buried him. The Spirit of the One Who Raised Jesus from the Dead is in us, as St. Paul says. But we have buried this Spirit under social expectations and the drive for money and the struggle for success and the constant, meaningless messages of all the multimedia.

We are buried in what Paul calls “the flesh.” Not in our healthy, vital, disciplined bodies, but “flesh” in the sense of the commercial culture and all the cravings it arouses and feeds, until finally our real bodies and our real selves are bloated beyond recognition.

We come into the world with joy as our birthright. With innocence and the spirit of play and a natural curiosity about other people and things, a spirit directed outward, in pleasure and in confidence. But that birthright gets trampled. It gets sold, and we sell it ourselves. Who now among us doesn’t carry around his own secret store of sorrow and anxiety and dread? Who doesn’t live with fear or disappointment underneath, as the tape that’s always playing, the background noise?

And so we turn even more to the diversions and all the false, temporary pleasures we are offered, to drug and delude ourselves. Who wants to face that bleakness?

There’s a deep goodness underneath. Buried. But it’s hard to believe in it after a while. It’s hard to find the courage to dig down to it. To cross the desert.


So we do all this, to ourselves, this burying, through our own choices. But it’s also something that’s done to us. Sin is objective, too, built into oppressive social structures that perpetuate hunger and violence and injustice all over the world to the point that a child dies every three seconds from causes related to a poverty we have created and we can eliminate. We are buried in the garbage of this. Bent and distorted by this.

Bound by it, by all of it, wrapped up like a mummy. Like Lazarus, in the tomb.


And today, as everyday, the Lord cries out in his strong, clear voice: Lazarus! Come out!

Patty, come out! Catherine, come out! Jim, come out!


It’s the great mystery, isn’t it, that we would bury ourselves? More, that we would choose to stay buried. Because we do. We hear the voice of Jesus through all the rock and rubble, through the thick walls of our false selves. And we say no. We’d rather stay here, in the tomb. On the couch. Before the screen.

We do. I do. Everyday I do.

Chris, come out!


Nothing that frightens us is finally real. Only love is real, and goodness. None of the false images that surround us have any power unless we give them power. We are good, we are beloved, we are made in the image and likeness of God, and all we have to do is believe that.


Let us commend Bryan Sims for his insight, because it’s also the Christian insight: society isn’t right. Looks don’t matter. Money doesn’t matter. Power doesn’t matter.

Let us commend the four young men from Canada, for their sweetness and their courage. Let’s try to be like them. Let’s try to find and then live out who we really are.


But we don’t have to jump out of a plane. We don’t have to ride a bull. We don’t have to do anything finally, and we can’t, because finally it’s grace that rushes in and transforms us, and only grace. We can’t do it on our own, however many adventures we have and challenges we meet. Only grace can unwind the strips of cloth that bind us. Only grace can return us to our true self, the self we really were, in the garden, before the serpent convinced us to cover up.

We don’t have to make any lists. We just have to be who we already are, because that’s enough and more than enough. And we can be, if only we listen to his voice. If only we get up. We rise.


Lazarus, come out! All of you, every one of you: come out!