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

Friday, August 27, 2010

Come on in, the Water's Fine (homily)

August 29, 2010
Twenty Second in Ordinary Time
Sirach 3:17-29; Luke 14:1-14

You know how the lanes are set up for lap swim at the Aquatic Center? There’s a sign that says “Slow,” a sign that says “Medium,” and a sign that says, “Fast.”

I’ve been swimming laps again this summer for the first time in a long time and I’m really enjoying it. But I have to admit that every time I get into the “Slow” lane I feel self-conscious. Self-critical. Isn’t that ridiculous?

I mean, that’s the lane I have to go in. I swim like an anchor. Old ladies are always lapping me. Michael Phelps may think that there are “no limits”—he’s the swimmer who won the eight gold medals at the last Olympics, and that’s the title of his book: No Limits. But he’s wrong. He’s six foot eight and has hands like flippers. I’m five foot eight and sink like a stone.

But what’s the big deal? “Into things beyond your strength search not,” Sirach says.

The water’s just as cool and sweet for me as for anybody else. The endorphins buzz for me—in fact, I get more exercise than most people. I’m trying not to drown.

To worry about how I look in the water or what other swimmers think of me is crazy. It’s the American sin. It’s the masculine sin. It’s original sin.

It’s exactly counter to what Jesus is always preaching.

Tap into any passage in the Gospels or any part of scripture, anywhere. They’re never saying: be number one. They’re never saying: you have to be the best. They’re always saying the opposite, exactly the opposite. Conduct yourself with humility. Do not recline yourself at places of honor.

This is the pattern of the Christian life. The calculus of the Christian life. The logic of it. It’s the pattern of the life of the Lord, our brother Jesus, the one we love more than anyone else and want to be like in all things.

We buy big houses and cars and lots of things we don’t need until we get into debt and have to work two jobs and all we’re doing is killing ourselves with work.

With our inner life, too. We’re wasting our spirit. We’re worrying about things that only exhaust us interiorly, instead of simply being where we’re at, enjoying who we are, living in the given moment.

Who cares where we’re sitting at the table? The food is just as rich and savory. The banquet is still laid out before us. In fact, I have trouble talking and eating at the same time, don’t you? It’s so much better to let other people do all the talking and the impressing. That way you can relax. Enjoy the dishes. Just be.

“An attentive ear is the joy of the wise,” Sirach says.

Think of all the tables you sit around during a week. The literal tables.

There’s a lovely scene in The Passion of the Christ where Jesus and his mother are joking about a table some rich people have asked him to make. It’s a table with chairs, Jesus says. You don’t recline, Jesus says. You have to sit up high, like this—and as he gestures with his hand he and his mother are laughing together, this is such an odd thing.

It’s always good to remember that the people who wrote the Bible aren’t from around here, that we can’t assume that we know what even the simplest words mean.

But the table is an image, too, it’s a symbol, and it’s calling us to think about our own lives here and now.

Think of all the tables you’ve sat around this summer, the dining room tables in the houses of friends, the tables at wedding receptions, the tables in restaurants, the picnic tables and the card tables, the table in your own kitchen. Conference tables at work. The table your computer sits on. Be aware of all the tables in your life this upcoming week and what happens around them and what you do around them. Are you trying to impress? Are you trying to dominate? Are you swimming in the wrong lane? And how is that working for you? How does that make you feel? What are you missing?

When you sit at the table where your computer is, what do you do? What are you trying to accomplish when you send out an email or get on a website?

And who’s sitting around those tables besides you? Because that’s the other part of the Gospel today. Jesus flips things around. He says, not only should you be humble when you’re invited, you should invite the humble when you’re the doing the inviting.

Who do you invite when you have the chance and why? Only the rich, the powerful, the popular?

What do you invite into your mind when you sit at that computer? What do you read? What do you look at on the screen, and why?

It’s the issue of hospitality, in a profound and challenging and finally really liberating sense. I’m a teacher, for example, and maybe what Jesus is saying to me is that I have to welcome and feed the students who struggle in my class, who don’t already know what it is I’m trying to teach them—not complain about them to my colleagues—not just focus on the good students. That I change the atmosphere that way, my own assumptions.

How would that work for you as an engineer, or a business person, or a doctor, or a clerk, or a plumber? A mother? A father? How would you treat people?

Do we do what we do because we want to be rewarded, paid attention to, celebrated, paid back?

Jesus says no: Blessed are you when you do something for someone who can’t repay you, who may not even thank you at all.

What would that be like, to live our lives not for gain, not based on what we think others think, not based on what the culture wants and pounds into us every second?

It would be blessed. Blessed are you, Jesus says. Because then you are free. Then you can just be. You can just be in the water, in the sweet and lovely water. The waters of life, the waters of baptism. You can just sit around the table, you can just eat and be filled, and everyone is gathered around with you—around this table, the table of the Eucharist, the table of life.

To humble ourselves isn’t to make ourselves miserable. It isn’t to walk away from the party. It’s to really come to it. It’s to really be at it.

We’re all invited.

And we’re all laughing and talking. We’re all listening. We’re all just there.

It’s like the pool. It’s like the Aquatic Center on a sunny day. Overflowing with people, all kinds of people, the rich and the poor, the old and the young, the fit and the lame. And we’re all laughing and shouting. We’re all diving in. Floating. And it’s wonderful. It’s really wonderful. The water’s fine. It’s really fine.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Great Divorce (homily)

August 19, 2010
Ezekiel 36:23-38; Psalm 51; Matthew 22:1-14

One of my favorite books by C. S. Lewis is a little book called The Great Divorce. It’s not about divorce at all. It’s about a bus ride to heaven.

There are all these people living in a shadowy city down below. Anytime they want they can get on a bus and ride up to heaven. It opens up before them. And when they get there and get off the bus and walk around on the grass, they can stay. Anyone who wants to can stay. No questions asked. No problem.

The amazing thing in the book, and the true thing, is that almost everybody gets back on the bus. They don’t want to stay. The angry person stays angry. The ambitious person stays ambitious. The petty person stays petty. For each person who comes there’s a heavenly soul, a kind of angel, who greets them and talks to them and encourages them to go further up and deeper in. But again and again Lewis shows these people clinging to their sins, refusing. They’d rather keep being their small, petty selves with their small, stony hearts, than risk the surrender and the freedom and the mystery of this beautiful place.

They turn around, get back on the bus, and go down to the sad, gray, empty city.

It’s like the wedding feast today. Everyone is invited. Everyone can come. But the rich people refuse and the busy people refuse. They’re too rich. They’re too busy. They even beat up and kill the messengers who’ve invited them. The king in the story is harsh. He kills people in return and casts them out, but only after he’s tried again and again to get them to come to the table. More amazing than his violence is his patience, I think.

The man who comes but doesn’t dress the part isn’t really trying hard enough. He doesn’t care enough to make the effort.

The parable ends with the scary line, “many are invited, but few are chosen,” but I think it should end, “many are invited, but few come.” Many take the ride, but few get off the bus.

And you might think, that’s crazy. Why would anyone not stay in heaven? Why would anyone refuse to come to the feast?

Well, why do we? Because we do. Everyday.

When we lie, when we gossip, when we complain, when we cheat, when we do the easy thing not the right thing, when we look at the screen. No one makes us do those things. We are completely free. That’s the point. That’s what this is all about: freedom. Our radical freedom. To do wrong and to do right.

And God’s infinite mercy. His infinite patience. Because even when we do lie, and gossip, and cheat, we can get off the bus, we can come to the feast. We don’t have to be good. We don’t to be perfect. We don’t to be worthy. We just have to say yes.

“A clean heart create for me, O God / and a steadfast spirit renew within me.”

Oh Lord, take away our stony hearts and give us new hearts, natural hearts.

In the last book of the Chronicles of Narnia a group of dwarves is sitting in a dirty stable, among the straw. It’s completely dark. Except it really isn’t. Really the stable is a gateway to heaven, like the stable in Bethlehem long ago, and all around them is a beautiful feast, all these wonderful foods. As readers we can see it. We know that Aslan is there, the great lion who is Christ, and beyond the stable beautiful trees and fields. But the dwarves just don’t see it. They won’t see it. They’re too petty and small. “The dwarves are for the dwarves,” they keep saying. They won’t be taken in.

Let us not be so small minded, so stonyhearted. Let us be taken in. Let us open our minds to see that the stable is a door and that heaven lies beyond it. That heaven is all around us.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Who Do You Say You Are? (short homily)

August 11, 2010
Feast of St. Lawrence
John 12:24-26

If President Obama summoned you to the White House and said, bring me all the riches of the Church, bring me all the Church’s wealth, what would you bring him?
Would you bring him all the art and all the stained glass?

Would you bring him the Catechism?

Would you bring him the Eucharist?

What do you think is most important about the Church, most defining?

Here’s what St. Lawrence, whose feast day it is today, here’s what St. Lawrence the deacon did, in the fourth century, when the Emperor of Rome summoned him and demanded all the riches of the Church in Rome.

He went out and rounded up all the poor and the sick and the lame, and he took them and brought them to the palace, and he said to the Emperor, here, here is the wealth of the Church. And he meant it. He wasn’t joking. And for this he was martyred, roasted on a spit.

We’re always talking about the Church. We’re always saying this about it or that. But what are we talking about really? What do we think the Church really is?


Say you’re at a dinner party with some people you don’t know very well and you’re making small talk the way we do. You’re telling each other what you do for a living and where you live and that kind of thing. There’s always a subtle element of competition in these moments. We’re always trying to assert ourselves, make ourselves look good.

So what do we talk about? Who do we say we are?

We can’t brag about our acts of charity, of course, or about our great spiritual poverty, because that would be an example of spiritual pride. Those things have to remain secret. But what are we feeling in that moment? What’s happening to us interiorly? Do we allow ourselves to be defined by our income or our possessions or our profession or our accomplishments? Do we subtly try to work into the conversation our latest triumphs? The important people we know? The important person we are?

What do we think deep down is our own true value? Our own true worth?


Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains a grain of wheat. Which is to say we have to fall to the ground. We have to die. It’s to say that the pattern of the Christian life is the opposite of the pattern of the life of the world. What is up for others is down for us. What is down for others is up for us. What should define us is our hiddenness and our obscurity. What should guide us is not ego and pride but listening and compassion.

Sitting at that dinner party we should be at peace inside. Because we know who we really are. We are the seed. We are the pearl beyond all price. We are loved by God, infinitely, as is everyone else around the table, everyone else. We are all the Church and we are all the riches of the Church.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Sun Will Rise (homily)

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ecclesiastes 1:2-23; Psalm 90; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

The readings today seem really depressing at first. But I don’t think they are. I think that really they should make us happy.

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity, Ecclesiastes says. Isn’t that wonderful? Our lives are nothing, they’re like a watch in the night, the Psalmist says. Isn’t that great?

Jesus calls us fools. He tells us this parable about how we’re all going to die and nothing we do will last.

Thank you, Jesus. Thank you.


One fall I was doing the TA orientation for new teaching assistants in the English Department and I was really worked up about it. There was a lot to do. The graduate students were scary smart. It was all very intense. And one morning that week one of the new TA’s, a young woman who has become a very close friend of ours—who has become a Benedictine nun, in fact, Sister Hilda—one morning Hilda came to my office before things started and gave me a little quote she’d found from the Talmud, the great Jewish commentary on the Torah.

It was just one sentence, on a little strip of paper: “The sun will rise without your assistance.”

I’m not sure why Hilda would give that to me. Or maybe I am. But it didn’t embarrass me and it didn’t depress me. It helped me. The whole rest of the week I let things go a little more. Enjoyed things more.

That’s the dynamic in today’s readings, too, I think. First, life is meaningless and then we die--but then, underneath that, life is wonderful and then we live.


It’s the great illogical turn in Psalm 90, a turn that isn’t illogical at all, in faith. We are like grass that springs up and dies in a day. Our lives are so short they are like a “tale that is told,” as the wonderful King James translation puts it.

But then, knowing that, fully aware of that, we suddenly feel ourselves filled with the “kindness of the Lord.” We “shout for joy.”

As the great Catholic poet Czeslaw Milosz puts it:

Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things,
For you are only one thing among many.

I just got this quote the other day, from another friend of mine. It’s a stanza from a poem, and I think it’s the saying the same thing as the psalm. We are all insignificant. We are all fleeting and small. But then the next move, the immediate consequence: “Whoever sees that way,” Milosz says, “heals his heart, without knowing it.”

Yes, we are only one among many--but we belong to the many. Yes, we are hidden, but we are hidden in Christ, Colossians says. In Christ!

Yes, yes. All those depressing philosophers are right, all the doomsayers. We don’t deny it. As Christians we don’t deny anything. But the sad philosophers are only partly right. The pessimists have only half of the truth. Because behind the nothingness there is really a beauty and a meaning. Behind the illusions there is love. To admit to the sadness and the loss—for us as Christians, as believers--is only to tear away the veil and the falseness and the illusion and to expose a marvelous reality, a final, joyous truth.

It’s the opposite of Freud, really. It’s the opposite of all the postmodern artists and intellectuals.

It’s the logic of Christ: that to die to what Colossians calls the false self, to the “old self with its practices,” is only to rise to the new self, to the self which is being “renewed . . . for knowledge, in the image of its creator.”


And now the burden is lifted, and now the weight is removed.

To seek “what is above,” to “put to death the parts of us that are earthly,” isn’t to walk around in sackcloth and to be sad all the time and pious all the time. It’s to be children again. It’s to be happy and spontaneous and free, because through Christ and the logic of Christ, through the Incarnation, what is above is now here, in front of us, everything that is earthly has been redeemed, and we can see it now, when we’re not distracted, when we’re not worshipping what is false. We can see it and taste it and feel it.

All the drinking and the eating and the sleeping around, all the buying of things and the accumulating—none of that really makes us happy. Just look at any crowded street. Just look at the quad between classes, any day. Does there really seem to be a conspicuous amount of happiness to go along with our conspicuous consumption? Is there really a lot of joy out there, as a result of our so-called freedoms? I don’t think so. I think people are lonely. I think people are afraid.

But through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the Spirit is moving everywhere, in everything, gently and quietly, beneath all the noise. “Christ is all and in all,” as Colossians puts it. And if that’s true, if Christ is present in everything, as He is, He is, everything is good and everything is to be taken pleasure in.

If only we will put down our cell phones. Our bottles. Our forks.


It’s like this moment last weekend, in Sisters. Barb and I were coming back from a little trip to see our daughter, who is working for a few weeks outside of Maupin. We were so relaxed. We were walking around town, going into bookstores and quilt shops. I wasn’t worried about anything. Barb wasn’t worried about anything. Nobody knew us, nothing depended on us, because nothing ever does, not really. It was wonderful.

The sun will rise without our assistance, and it does, everyday it does, and it was shining down us in Sisters that lovely afternoon, it is always shining down on us, and we are warmed by it and we are delighted by it and in the light of it everything can be seen, clear and sharp and real, everything is beautiful and bright, and we are flooded with gladness, we are filled with joy, and the beauty of the Lord is upon us, as the King James Bible puts it. The beauty of the Lord is always upon us.