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

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Buried Life (II)

July 26, 2008
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Kings 3:5-12; Romans 8:28-30; Matthew 13:44-52

Last week Barb and I went on vacation. One night at the hotel where we were staying we watched a group of people getting drunk and making fools out of themselves. People about our age, trying to act like they were still teenagers: bragging and joking and hitting on each other. It was sad and depressing.

Yet what the Old Testament tells us today is what the gospel is always telling us, too. We are not to judge. Like Solomon we are to ask for “an understanding heart,” we are to ask for compassion, because underneath the coarseness and the stupidity we might see in others are human beings just like us, vulnerable human beings, loved by God. Only the angels can judge the good from the bad, and only at the end, long from now. The dragnet is huge--it takes everyone in, you and me and the people at the hotel--everyone--and it’s not our job to sort it out. It’s God’s job, and only His.

Besides, it’s not as if I’m in possession of the truth. It’s not as if I know for sure the way things are. The kingdom of God is a treasure buried in a field, and it’s buried deep down. It’s small. It’s hidden. The kingdom of God is a tiny pearl, not a neon sign, not a bumpersticker.


We were traveling last week through the John Day highlands, to see the Fossil Beds. I love that high, clean desert landscape. At the Clarno Unit, near the town of Fossil, we walked down a path where every step we took represented 37,000 years of geologic time. We were walking back into history and prehistory, to when the volcanoes erupted and the desert was a rain forest and there were saber tooth tigers in Oregon. On the bare face of the rocks you could see the clear imprints of sycamore leaves and maple leaves 44 million years old. It was breathtaking.

And it made us feel so small, before the grandeur of life and of change, the grandeur of God. Thomas Condon was a Methodist minister who first discovered the fossil beds, in the 1860s, and for him the evidence there, of vastness and of change, of evolution, was in no way at odds with his faith but deepened and confirmed it. “The hills from which these evidences were taken,” he said, “were made by the same God who made the hills of Judea, and the evidences are as authoritative. The Church has nothing to fear from the uncovering of truth.” The opposition between evolution and faith that we think is necessary is really pretty recent, and it comes from our own smallness, our own lack of humility.

All things work together for the good, the whole creation is moving and groaning, in ways so great and unimaginably vast the effect should be to silence us completely. We come from somewhere, and that somewhere is beyond us.


On another path, in the Blue Basin, we’d come upon exhibits, in the earth: an ancient tortoise, an ancient horse, a pelvis or a skull carefully dug away and exposed. Coming out of the ground. Millions of years old. Treasures, buried in ancient fields. Pearls beyond price.

Like us, too. Like the reality of who we are, buried beneath all the layers of our sin. Our real selves, which only God can expose.

“Our universe is constantly evolving,” Jean Vanier writes. “The old order gives way to a new order and this in its turn crumbles when the next order appears. It is no different in our lives in the movement from birth to death.” Vanier is the contemporary Catholic theologian who founded the L’Arche movement, communities where ordinarily abled and developmentally disabled adults live and pray together. I think that he is a saint.

“Change of one sort [he says] is the essence of life, so there will always be the loneliness and insecurity that come with change. When we refuse to accept that loneliness and insecurity are part of life, when we refuse to accept that they are the price of change, we close the door on many possibilities for ourselves, our lives become lessened, we are less than fully human. If we try to prevent, or ignore, the movement of life, we run the risk of falling into the inevitable depression that we must accompany an impossible goal.”

I think that this is what’s behind the behavior of the people at the hotel, their efforts to look younger and act younger than they really are, their gambling and their drunknessness. The fear of loneliness. The fear of reality. And I know this because it’s true for me. It’s true for all of us. Sin is the refusal to accept the reality of change--the reality of loss--of loss that can give way to gain, to great freedom and joy, if first we surrender our arrogance and our pride.

All things work together for good, all the cycles of geologic time, all the violent changes. There’s an order to all this, a logic and a beauty, and in that order every little thing matters, every little thing counts. The leaves imprinted on the rocks. The bones emerging from the earth.

The thing that’s impossible to believe but that is true is that the God who created this great and unimaginable universe cares for each of us with infinite regard. Each of us individually. We are the treasure, each one of us. We are the pearl. And the lost coin, and the lost sheep. The scriptures are full of this paradox, of vastness and of tenderness somehow connected and combined. We are tiny. We are of infinite value. Both somehow.

“Oh Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. / Before the mountains were brought forth, / or ever you had formed the earth and the world, / you are God.”
This is Psalm 90. “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, /
or like a watch in the night. / You sweep us away, we are like a dream, / like grass that is renewed in the morning, / and in the evening withers and fades.” And yet how does this beautiful psalm end? With a nonsequitor, in a way. Illogically. But not illogically, from the perspective of faith. It ends by affirming God’s regard for each of us individually, even and especially in our smallness and our vulnerability. “Make us glad,” the Psalmist sings. “Let your work be manifest to your servants, and your glorious power to their children.” And “prosper the work of our hands.” And again, repeated, “O prosper the work of our hands.” As if our hands matter, as if our work matters to the God who made all the universe. But it does. Somehow it does.

Loneliness is a part of life. It comes when we move from one stage to another, and we are always moving from one stage to another. But we don’t have to fear it. We don’t have to try to escape it. We don’t have to hide. Because on the other side of this loneliness is a great and unshakeable joy. On the other side of this is the conviction that all things work together for good. Because they do. They do.

Seed (homily)

July 12, 2008
Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Matthew 13:1-23

This summer one of my students came to see me, a young woman who is fighting with her boyfriend about religion. I’ve talked about students like this before and now here’s another one. It’s an epidemic.

The student and the boyfriend are of different faiths and the boyfriend doesn’t think they should be. He thinks they should be of one faith. His. He thinks that everything has to be nailed down before they get married and that he’s got the one right answer. He’s always hammering away at this young woman. Sometimes he makes fun of her.

I just don’t think that love is like this. I just don’t think that faith is like this.

The Word of God isn’t an instruction manual and it’s not a computer program and it’s not a box you can cram everything into. The Word of God is a seed, Jesus says. A tiny seed. And the thing about a seed is that it’s hidden, in the earth. It’s buried. It takes a long time to grow and at any one point in the life cycle of that seed you might be standing there looking and not see a thing.

To say that faith is like a seed is to say that it is a process, a journey, a way of life, not an idea you can grasp once and for all. To say that faith is like a seed is to say that there are seasons of faith. It comes and it goes, it ebbs and it flows, and you don’t really understand it or have control over it, anymore than a farmer can control the sun and the rain, however hard he works. To plant a seed is to surrender. You can’t make it grow.

I got a birthday card the other day from our friends Dan and Karen Sundseth with one of my favorite quotes on it, from the German poet Rilke, a quote that makes this same point. Let me read it to you. It’s from a letter to a younger poet:

“I beg you to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. “

This is the way faith is. It’s a living into the answers. It’s a locked and beautiful room.

And marriage is like this, too, as Dan and Karen know and as Barb and I know and as all of you who are married know. My ordination as a deacon is a great grace, but so is my marriage, and it came first. When I sit in the pew with my wife, I am every bit as sacramental as when I stand on the altar. As are all of you. Your presence in the pews Sunday after Sunday, all of you who are married, your being here together, in faith, is a tremendous sacramental sign.

And I talk about this now because in a few minutes I will have the honor of blessing the marriage of Erik and Maura Sundseth--Erik, who I’ve known since he was four, when he was just a seed.

Something small and precious is always there in marriage. Love. Selfless regard. Just being together. And the anxieties and pressures of the world are always threatening to choke it and overwhelm it and cover it up. It takes a lot of work to keep love clear. It takes a lot of patience to watch love grow.

There are seasons of love. Highs and lows.

In marriage you’re always interpreting, reading past the surface to the depth--a depth you can never know completely because the one you are married to is a person, and so a mystery.

This is the great gift of making a life long commitment, of pledging to grow old together--time is the real sacramental element in marriage--because it’s only over time that we grow into all the paradoxes and mysteries. Only time softens all our dualisms. Only time opens our closed minds. Barb and I have been married thirty two years, and sometimes I look at her and think, who is this woman anyway? I hardly know her. I mean this in a good way. Moments like this move me. And yet I do know her, too, after all this time. I know her in ways I can never explain, and through her, and because of her, in the give and take of daily life, in the sacrifices marriage demands, in the aging of our bodies and the aches and pains of our bodies, in going to the store and cleaning the bathroom and playing cards and walking in the woods, day after day, in all these ways, through my living with Barb, I know Christ and the true nature of Christ.

I know this sounds a little fuzzy and uncertain and hard to get a hold of, but I can’t help it. That’s just the way it is. That’s reality. And that’s what Jesus is calling us to today and everyday, to life, to reality. I just don’t see how you can interpret it any other way.

But not uncertainty really. Deep certainty in the end. It’s just that this certainty can’t come all at once or through the intellect or through any achievement of our own, and when it does come, it can’t be put into words. As Jean Vanier puts it, in all of us, the Word becomes flesh, and it’s the flesh that speaks, the life.

That’s the gift of marriage, as Dan and Karen know, as Barb and I know, as all of us who are married know--a gift not just to us but to the whole church--that over time it moves us from the head to heart, to the vulnerable heart, the searching heart, which is where God is, and where joy is, too.

Not certainty, then. Joy.

Erik and Maura, I know that you’re not like my poor student and her bullet-headed boyfriend. You’re too generous and loving, and I’m glad for that, and I pray for you that this continues. I praise you for your commitment, this breathtaking commitment you make, in all innocence and hope.

I pray that more and more and over time you learn to live with the questions and to love the questions, to have patience with everything that is unresolved. Because everything is.

And when you do this, I pray, as happens now and then in my life, and in all our lives, that at just this moment, just this moment of surrender, you will feel the grace and love of our Lord Jesus Christ come rushing in. Just the moment you fall silent. Just the moment you stand there looking at each other and wonder, who is this?

And suddenly you know. You know. It’s the beloved. It’s the One. It’s Christ.

We Can Always Begin Again (homily)

2 Kings 22:8-13; 23:1-3
Matthew 7:15-20

There’s a strangeness in the stories we’ve been reading lately from First and Second Kings. A harshness. The Spirit shines through human history and human limitation and so we’re always having to read past certain distortions in the scripture, to get to the underlying message.

But the story of the King today, King Josiah, is really our story, or can be.

Every morning we wake up with our bodies, and there is air to breathe and the earth to see. We have our families and our friends and our lives. Everyday the Lord invites us into covenant. Into health and balance.

And everyday we turn our backs on this. We forget this. We lose the Book of the Law as Israel has lost the Book of the Law in the reading for today. We choose the superficial, the cheap, the easy, the temporary, and it’s not God who punishes us for this exactly. The sin is its own punishment. We eat too much, we drink too much, we get angry and shout, we look at pornography, we ignore someone who needs our help, we gossip, we lie, and all these things leave us bereft, empty, in exile. We put ourselves in hell.

As Jesus puts it, every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit.

The cliché about the God of the Old Testament is that He is a vengeful and violent God, but that’s not finally true. The whole point of the Old Testament histories is that we bring all this onto ourselves, through own choices--that it’s we who violate the
Covenant--and that God is infinitely patient and kind, always waiting for us to return.

Everyday we can find the law we have lost. Though our choices hide it. Though it’s buried in our waste. Though we’re usually going by it too fast to see it. But it’s there and we can find it, if like Josiah we show enough intelligence and presence of mind. We have a conscience, we have joy, we have an intuitive sense of what is good and what is not, and so when the Law is presented to us again, we know what it is deep down. We just have to act. We just have to choose. And we can.

Everyday we can begin again.

This is that moment, as every moment is that moment. Let us return from our Exile. Let us return to balance. Let us return to peace and to beauty and to health. Let us recognize our distortions, see them, admit to them, and then move deeper, to the Spirit that flows underneath and always flows underneath.