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

Monday, March 26, 2012

Jim Leadon

March 16, 2012
Jim Leadon’s funeral

The language of Jesus is wonderfully direct and concrete. He doesn’t say “the objective consequences of economic marginalization can be indirectly causative of spiritual transformation.” He says “blessed are the poor,” as Luke tells us.

Blessed are the hungry. Blessed are those who weep.

And the actions that follow from those words are just as direct and concrete. In the way Jesus reaches out to the lepers and the outcast. In the way he treats women as equals. In the way he welcomes all of us, whoever we are. There is a coherence here. A logic.

Jim was a man of words, but a man of few words, and of precise words. He disliked jargon and cant. How are you, I’d ask him, and he’d always say “still kickin’.” That was Jim, in my experience, that precision, that dryness. And Jim was a man who admired the words of Jesus, and who took Jesus at his word. He was no literalist--his shelves were full of Biblical commentaries--but when Jim read the Beatitudes, he believed them. When he read the parable of the sheep and the goats, he did what Jesus commands us to do. He served the poor, as best he could, “the least of these.” In his commitment to racial equality. In his commitment to the rights of women. In his commitment to all the Church’s great teachings on social justice.

In a way Matthew’s version of the first beatitude fit Jim really well. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Matthew says, which is to say, blessed are the humble. And Jim was. He was a quiet and humble man. But he was also a man with a deeply-rooted sense of what is right, and he acted on that conviction, all his life.

Sometimes it’s hard for us to keep our perspective as believers, there’s so much phony language swirling around, so many false distinctions. What the press reports about faith is either scandalous or silly. What our friends seem to think about faith is often depressingly negative. What we often get caught up in ourselves is trivial, or divisive.

But Jim bought this coffin in front of us thirty years ago, Bruce told me, and he kept it in his bedroom. A plain, cedar coffin, with ropes for handles. In his bedroom. For thirty years Jim woke up every morning in the presence of his own death, and not because he was morbid or strange, but because he was Christian. Jesus says that we must die to our false selves before we can we rise into the freedom and grace of the Lord our God, and Jim really tried to do that, given all the failings he of course had, too, as we all have failings. At the end, Bruce said, when he had lost the ability to form sentences, he was still able to say all the words of the Our Father straight through. Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be by thy name. But this is where Jim was always tending, where his life was always leading him, towards these simple words and this simple faith: towards forgiveness, towards compassion, towards a living in the now. All his life he had been stripping things away. All his life he had been dying, and so all his life he had been rising, and in this sense his physical death only seems to complete a process—his rising wholly and completely into Christ, his fulfilling of who he really was.

Blessed are the poor and blessed are those who thirst for justice. Blessed was Jim and blessed is Jim and blessed are we who knew him. For now he has inherited the Kingdom prepared for him from the foundation of the world. Now he is one with the God he always knew and always served, the God of all justice and the God of all hope.

Convertible

March 18, 2012
Fifth Sunday of Lent
Romans 8:8-11 and John 11:1-45

I know two brothers who were estranged for years. There was a deep hurt there. But one day the younger brother felt something shift inside him, something move, and he called the older brother and apologized. He wanted to reconcile.

This is the resurrection: whenever something like this happens to us. Whenever something shifts inside us. Whenever reconciliation becomes possible.

I know a husband who lost his job. His wife had to work two jobs to survive. They had to sell their house. And yet even through the bad years there was always this odd cheerfulness in both of them, despite everything. There was this confidence, underneath.

This is the resurrection: this inner assurance, that no matter what happens, God is near.

Year after year we hear the voice of Jesus calling out his name: Lazarus! Year after year we see him stumble from the mouth of the cave, trailing strips of dirty cloth. But however dramatic this scene is in the gospel, it really doesn’t mean that much, except as a symbol of the deeper truth to come. It’s not as if Lazarus can walk through walls. It’s not as if he won’t have to die again. It’s not as if people don’t know who he is when they pass him on the street. His rising was a merely physical event. It didn’t change anybody else’s life.

But Jesus did walk through walls, and even his friends didn’t recognize him except through faith, and whatever happened on that day in Jerusalem, it changed the lives of people then and is still changing them. As the Catechism tells us, the resurrection wasn’t merely a physical resuscitation but a “transcendent event” “not perceptible to the senses.” History can record the remarkable behavior of the early Christians after the death of Jesus. And it does, clearly. Something really happened, and it had tremendous consequences. And yet the resurrection itself, the Catechism says, the rising of Our Lord, “remains at the very heart of the mystery of faith as something that transcends and surpasses history.”

The tomb is empty. Only Mel Gibson shows us what happened inside. The gospel writers never do, because they can’t. He is not here, they tell us. He is everywhere.

I think this is really, really important, that we not narrow down the idea of the resurrection. We’re talking about God himself here, the very nature of reality, not some weird, paranormal experience. Here’s how Pope Benedict puts it in his book, Jesus of Nazareth:

Naturally there can be no contradiction of clear scientific data. The Resurrection accounts speak of something outside our world of experience. They speak of something new, something unprecedented—a new dimension of reality that is revealed. Can there not be something unexpected, unimaginable, something new?

I love the Pope’s last question. It’s the question at the heart of our faith. It’s the question that defines who we are: Can there not be something new? And the answer is: yes.

The resurrection didn’t just happen once and didn’t just happen in Jerusalem but is best understood as the experience in the early Church of a radical new hope, a radical new confidence, something the people experienced not just in spite of the death of their beloved friend but somehow, mysteriously, because of it, a joy and an optimism so deep not even torture and death could shake it, a joy and an optimism that continues in all of us to this very day, this very moment, justifying and demanding our own courage, our own delight, our own steady, unwavering focus. Christ has died and Christ is risen. Is. In our families. In our jobs. In the Eucharist that celebrates and glorifies our daily lives, revealing what is always and everywhere working in them. This is what Jesus made happen and makes happen. This is the space he opens up and this is the power that pours through it, ever undiminished.

A few weeks ago Barb and I flew down to Los Angeles to see our daughter. The car rental place didn’t have the car we reserved, so they gave us a Ford Mustang convertible at the same price, and suddenly I discovered a whole new dimension of my personality. It was wonderful, driving around in the sunshine with the top down, the palm trees flying by.

I don’t mean to be glib. I mean this. This is the resurrection: whenever something new happens. Whenever we feel joy. Whenever the sun starts to shine again.

Actually, the logic of all this is explicitly stated in the reading from Paul today, both for this life and the life of the world to come. It’s a syllogism. An “if/then” statement:

if the spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.

Well, there it is. First, that the resurrection doesn’t just concern what happens to us after death but is a way of understanding the spirit that dwells in us now through faith. Here, with the top down and the palm trees flying past. Here, when the husband and the wife persevere. Here, when the brothers reconcile. This is the spirit of Jesus raising us from our psychological death, our moral death, our spiritual death, freeing us from all that binds us, releasing us from all our various tombs.

But then, given this, there must be an afterlife. There must be a resurrection after death, because how could this God we experience in our earthly lives, this God who is so loving and so pervasive, how could that God stop loving us and sustaining us and making us whole? If we experience this God in the flesh, and we know in the flesh what the Psalmist calls his steadfast love, his hesed, how could we ever doubt that he will be us even beyond the grave?

And note: when Paul talks about the resurrection he never talks about it as a single, isolated event. He never refers at all to the details in the gospel narratives. He’s talking about the energy, the principle, the reality that flows through that event.

And note, too: a reality. Not a symbol. Not an idea. A reality embodied once and for all in the life and the death of Jesus, and in the life that somehow continued, that somehow just kept growing and expanding, even after he died.

This is what Christianity calls us all to believe and this is what justifies the courage of the early Christians and the confidence that is available to all of us even now: not some isolated spookiness, not something exceptional and extraordinary long ago, but something in the very nature of the human person, something in the very nature of things, something we can believe in and hold on to no matter what happens: a love, a creativity, a mystery.

Here, with the top down and the palm trees flying past. Here, when the husband and the wife persevere. Here, when the brothers reconcile.

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world. Jesus Christ. Our life. Our question. Our hope.