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, August 31, 2008

Furniture (homily)

Twenty Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32

I really like all this renovation that’s going on. I really like how the Church looks now. Everything is being stripped away. We’re getting down to the foundations, to the actual ground.

And the Eucharist is still the Eucharist. The mass is still the mass.


Last year at this time, over in the Newman Chapel on Monroe, we had the chairs arranged in a circle around a new central altar. But after a while some of the students wanted the chapel to be arranged in what they called the “traditional” arrangement. So they put the chairs into straight rows again, facing the tabernacle.

And that’s OK. That’s fine. I think this longing for the past is really a longing for God, a deep and sincere longing, and that’s wonderful. We just have to sure that we know what we mean by “tradition.” 1950 or 150? We just have to be sure that we don’t lose sight of what’s underneath.

Fr. Lucas, I know, really stresses this. As he said to me this morning, if it’s stuck in 1950, or any year, it’s not really tradition. Because tradition is living. It’s alive.

Be of one mind, St. Paul tells us today in Philippians, have in you the single heart of Jesus, and that means getting down to the heart of things in the first place, getting down to the foundation, and not letting ourselves be distracted by anything else.
The Eucharist is the Eucharist, even if the chairs are on the ceiling.


There’s this beautiful scene in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ where he imagines Jesus the carpenter joking with his mother about this strange new thing he’s been asked to make. A table. With chairs. Gibson shows Jesus indicating with his hand the height of these new chairs--about waist high--and then he and Mary laughing. Because of course in the time of Jesus people reclined on cushions, around a central low-lying table. There weren’t any chairs like ours.

There weren’t any churches. People met in houses. In caves. In catacombs.

Or let me come at this from the opposite direction.

Most of the couples who ask me to marry them want to get married outside, by a river or in a garden. Almost all of them. And that’s always a problem, because the Church doesn’t approve of outdoor weddings and it takes a lot of time to write the Archbishop and get permission.

I understand why people want to get married on mountains. God is present in the natural world, and the natural world is beautiful, and why should it matter anyway, wherever the wedding takes place? But on the other hand, I understand the Church’s position. Why should it matter?

Recently I asked a couple I was working with, point blank: what’s most important, having a Catholic wedding or getting married outside? And they answered: getting married outside. And that’s OK. I like this couple a lot. I’m glad for their love and I’m glad for their commitment, and I assured them that the Church will be there for them, in the future, whenever they’re really ready.

The question is, in this and in everything, what’s the surface, what’s the depth?


The National Council of Catholic Bishops hasn’t told us who to vote for this election; it’s told us what issues to think about. It hasn’t given us the answers, it’s given us the questions. There are certain underlying principles, the bishops say, in their document on “Faithful Citizenship,” and it’s up to each Catholic to decide which candidates would best apply those principles in the real world. As Archbishop Vlazny wrote in the Catholic Sentinel last month, “it seems clear that no single candidate embraces all the social teachings of our Catholic community,” and so, “just as political leaders must act according to their consciences, so must we in casting our votes.”

This is our own bishop, in communion with the other bishops.

These are complicated issues, in other words, and people of faith can have different opinions about policy. The Eucharist is the Eucharist, the the mass is the mass, and it’s really important, for our country and our faith, that we not mix these things up, that we not mistake politics for religion or religion for politics, however much they inform each other.

One of the men in my class when I was studying to be a deacon was Ron Benz. He was the oldest and I was the youngest, and we were on opposite ends of the political spectrum, too, and of the theological spectrum. He’d make comments in class I didn’t like and I’d make comments he didn’t.

But one day Ron invited the deacons and their families to come out to his ranch, outside Scio. You can tell a lot about a person from the pictures on his walls, and you can tell a lot about a person from the way his children act, and his grandchildren, and as the day wore on I realized what a fine and generous man Ron was.

I’d thought Ron was the Pharisee, but he wasn’t. I was.

And this hit me again at Ron’s funeral, where I was one of the pall bearers. Ron died unexpectedly, of a heart attack, a few years later, and despite all my earlier efforts, we were brothers, in the diaconate, and all of us in his class helped to lay his body to rest. I’ll never forget that. I’ll never forget all the tributes people made that day, to Ron’s humanity, to his compassion.

Not long ago I found a picture of the two of us, processing out together after our ordination mass, at the Cathedral. We’re side by side, in our blue and white dalmatics. Ron seems to be saying something and I’m laughing.

We couldn’t have been more different, Ron and I, we were opposites, and yet the archdiocese ordained us anyway. It ordained us both.

And there we are together. Laughing.


When we walk out of mass tonight, let’s stop and look at the hole they’ve dug in the floor, down to the earth.

When we walk out of mass tonight, let’s all of us laugh and tell each other stories. When we go, let’s go in peace. Because that’s what the Lord always gives us, in the Eucharist and in our lives. He gives us peace.

He gives us the peace beyond all understanding. He gives us the joy beyond all politics, the joy beyond all religion, the joy that no one else can ever give us--the joy that can only be found in Our Lord, Jesus Christ, the savior of the world, the Word Made Flesh. Our heart. Our hope. Our one fou

Bargains (homily)

Twenty Second Sunday of Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 20:7-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27

I think we make bargains with God. And we don’t even know it.

We say sure, I’ll die to myself. I’ll be selfless and humble and accept the suffering that comes to me. For a while. But secretly we’re thinking: and when I do, God will reward me. Sure, I’ll carry my cross. For a while. I’ll go through all that. But deep down, unconsciously, we’re thinking: and God will give me what I want in the end.

Then we get into trouble. Everyone does, sooner or later. We have problems with our health or our family or our job. We’re out of work. Deep in debt. No one knows us. No one respects us. And suddenly we feel “duped,” as Jeremiah feels duped in the Old Testament today. We’ve been tricked.

But no. To “conform” to the cross, in the words of St. Paul, we really have to conform to the cross, and not just in the abstract, and not just for a while.

What do you mean you’re going to die? Peter asks Jesus in the gospel today. He’s feeling duped, too. He’s panicking. No! You’re the one. You’re the one with the power, and if I follow you, I’ll have power, too. Eventually. I’ll be important. I’ll be known.

But no. The cross is the cross, and we have to carry it.

Spiritual directors are taught to see the spiritual life in stages. In the beginning, in the stage of “Conversion,” there are piercing insights and frequent joy. Everything makes sense. We have changed our lives and consolation is raining down on us.

But then, sooner or later, we start to feel bereft and lonely and afraid. Everyone does. Our prayer life falls apart. Our old patterns of sinfulness return, and new ones, too, and we feel powerless to escape them. The Church doesn’t add up anymore. It’s full of hypocrites. It’s medieval. We’ve gone out on this limb by really trying to be Christian, and now all we have is the limb.

But this isn’t a regression, really. This isn’t a falling back or a failure, but the next stage, an even higher or more advanced stage. It’s the stage of what some spiritual directors call “Purification,” where we are purified of our spiritual pride and really opened up to the will of God.

Most of us go back and forth between this and the stage of conversion. We alternate between joy and sorrow, consolation and desolation. But the purification is necessary. We have to get there, because until we do it’s too easy to think that the graces are happening because of how good we are. In desolation or stagnation, as St. John of the Cross puts it, God is “leading us by the hand to the place we know not how to reach.” According to St. John, “it is God who in this stage is the agent: the soul is the receiver.” That’s all we can do when we’re really down like this. Receive.

There was a wise old man who went out into the desert.

I told this story a few months ago, at a daily mass. (It’s a Hindu story--I stole it from a book on yoga.)

There was a wise old man who went out into the desert. He fasted and prayed and fasted and prayed. He was a very holy man, or so he thought. He had given up everything for God. Everyone knew that. Everyone admired him for that.

But one morning he wasn’t looking where he was going and he fell off a cliff. He grabbed a branch on the way down and was just hanging there, for dear life, the river boiling beneath him, hundreds of feet below.

Oh Lord, he cried out. Help me! I trust in you. I believe in you. Help me.

Yes, my son, came the voice of God. I am here.

Oh thank you, said the man. Thank you! Tell me, what should I do?

Let go, God said. Just let go of the branch and fall.

Silence. A few seconds went by. A few more.

Hello? cried the old man. Hello? Is there anybody else out there?


But no. We really have to let go. Because the truth is at the bottom. The truth is in the air.

Or here’s another way to think about this. I got this from a very wise friend of mine. It’s a quote from the ancient Church Father, Irenaeus: It is not you who shaped God. It is God who shapes you. Yes! We keep forgetting this. We get into trouble and we keep thinking that it’s all our fault and all our doing and that every decision is ours. But it isn’t. It’s not you who shaped God, it is God who shapes you. So:

“If then, you are the work of God [Ireneaus says], await the hand of the artist who does all things in due season. Offer him your heart, soft and tractable, and keep the form in which the artist has fashioned you. Let the clay be moist, lest you grow hard and lose the imprint of his fingers.”

So here’s the question that my wise friend asked: what is God shaping in you right now?

I don’t know where you are in your journey. I don’t know what problems you face, what sadness, what fear. What hope. What joy. But I want to offer all of you this same question. I want to ask you all the same thing. Everything that you’ve been feeling and thinking, everything that has happened to you recently, is in some way part of God’s effort to shape you. Into what? Towards what?

Because there’s another stage in this process, after the stage of purification, a final stage, a still higher stage: the stage of “Transformation.” That’s what the spiritual directors call it, and it’s where we’re all headed. It’s like the stage of Conversion, but better, fuller, higher. It’s the stage of an abiding sense of the presence of God, of ecstatic joy, of the gifts and the fruits of the Spirit, and even if most of us never reach that stage in our lifetimes, even if we only glimpse it, in the end, on this much higher level, the bargain that we think we’re making, we are--just not in the way we imagined it, just not in our own petty terms.

After the cross, there is resurrection. After the darkness, there is light.

What is God shaping us for? You and me and all of us?

What unimaginable task? What impossible joy? What unbearable fullness?