Stones to Build With
Thirty First Sunday in Ordinary Time
Psalm 131, 1st Thessalonians 2:7-13; Matthew 23:1-2
In September, as some of you know, about forty of us went on pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi. It was a wonderful trip for all of us, I think, full of surprises, and one of the biggest for me was that I got to preach at St. Peter’s.
I didn’t preach to the Pope or to the Cardinals, just to the people in our group, and we weren’t at the main Bernini altar, beneath Michelangelo’s magnificent dome. But we were directly underneath it, in the crypt, in the chapel of the tomb of St. Peter—of St. Peter himself--and the ambo was marble and the pews were marble and all around us were the marble tombs of the Popes.
And I stood there in that place, and I preached the gospel, in a quavering voice, and the walls didn’t come tumbling down and I wasn’t struck by lightning.
There was a tremendous thunderstorm that night—there really was—a tremendous storm, in the skies above Rome, but I don’t think that was because of me, and in fact, I think I was the perfect person to preach that day, in the church named after Peter.
Poor, manic-depressive Peter. Peter, who declares his undying faith, and then turns around and denies Jesus three times. Peter, who jumps out on the water, confident and unafraid, and then sinks like a stone. Peter, that flawed, ordinary human being. I’m exactly like him, I could be his twin, and so could you. We all deny Jesus, three times and more than three times, we all jump out and sink, and yet Jesus has chosen me in my ordinariness and my blockheadedness, as he chose Peter in his and you in yours, and he never stops choosing us.
We fit right in to St. Peter’s. We all did. We belonged there.
“We are frequently tempted to censor difficulties, to hide them even from ourselves,” Monsignor Massimo Camisasca says. But this self-censoring, he says, is a “diabolical act,” “born of the fear of losing the positive image that others have of us.”
Our stature before Christ has nothing to do with this image, nor can it be measured in terms of the mistakes that we make or avoid making. Rather, it is decided by Christ himself and by our belonging to him. So to hide your own limits, your own problems, really doesn’t make any sense. You do not find freedom from your own miseries by censoring them but by handing them over to Christ, which is to say, by letting him embrace them. This embrace is like the one with which the mother enfolds her child in her arms.
I love this. It’s not that we should stop trying to defeat our sinfulness but that we should admit we can never succeed—not without grace, not without Christ. It’s not that sin is a good thing. It’s that we must first admit to it, honestly, before we can understand our need for God. And in this sense our sins and limitations don’t have to discourage us anymore. We don’t have to despair of them. In this sense, Camisasca says, we can see our sins and limitations as the very “stones to build with.”
These are the stones that Michelangelo used to build St. Peters. These are the stones of the Church.
And notice how Camisasca’s other image, of the mother’s embrace, echoes Psalm 131 today. When we surrender to God, the Psalmist says, we are “stilled and quieted,” like a “child on its mother’s lap.” It’s not that we have to wallow in our sins or be full of self-loathing. It’s that we have to realize that we are loved, loved anyway, loved first, loved for who we really are, and so we don’t have to pretend, we don’t have to cover up.
Now, I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I don’t mean to imply that the people on the pilgrimage were running around Rome and Assisi sinning all the time, because the best thing of all about the pilgrimage was being with these people and getting to know them better. It’s just like in the parish. When you start to talk to people and hear their stories, you realize what faithfulness there is and what heroism, going on behind closed doors: people taking care of their mothers or their disabled children or their husbands or their wives, really sacrificing themselves, quietly, heroically, when no one is looking. People working at the soup kitchen or St. Vincent De Paul’s or the homeless shelters, giving away their time and their money, and never calling attention to that, the way the Pharisees do, not preaching at all, just practicing.
I keep hearing people talk about how corrupt the church is and how terrible it is and I’m really getting tired of it. What do they mean by “church” anyway? Who are they talking about?
We had several afternoons of free time in Rome and Assisi, on our own, and I kept coming around corners and seeing people from our group, when they couldn’t see me, and they were helping someone get up the steps, they were praying the rosary, they were giving money to a beggar.
Sure, we are all sinners, sure, we are all hypocrites, but that’s not all we are. The best thing about Rome wasn’t seeing the Pope, though we did see the Pope, and that was great. The best thing was seeing Jon and Ann, and Joe and Sue, and Barbara and David. The best thing about Rome wasn’t the Pantheon or the Coliseum. It was Leleli, and Walt and Carmela, and Mary Alice, and Chuck. Everyone.
“I give thanks to God for all of you,” as St. Paul says to the Thessalonians, so “dearly beloved have you become to us.”
And it’s the parish, too.
I came around the corner once at St. Mary’s and saw a parishioner raking leaves and a homeless man sitting on the curb. I was at just the right angle so that I could see them but they couldn’t see me. And the man raking leaves was talking to the homeless man, pleasantly, the way he’d talk to anybody else. They were just passing the time of day. The homeless man had long, stringy hair and he was missing some teeth and he probably hadn’t showered in weeks. But the man raking leaves stopped and asked his name and chatted with him for a few minutes, just like he was anybody else. Because he was.
We all have one master.
And no one was looking.
It was a sunny fall morning, and the light that was falling through the leaves was just like the light in Rome, that wonderful light that fills up the piazzas.
There are fountains in Rome, too, everywhere. The water flows down from the Apennines, following the course of the ancient aqueducts, and it bubbles up in these beautiful stone fountains, on every corner.
But every place is holy, Rome is everywhere, and the water that wells up is welling up in us. It’s inside us all.
The sun is pouring down and the fountains are welling up and everything is grace.
Everything is grace.