“False values that surround and blind” — Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent

March 29, 2014

Readings

In those Catholic parishes that have an active RCIA program, these readings to which we just listened – including the long Gospel story from John about the Man Born Blind – are read not just every third year in the Church’s 3-year Sunday cycle, but they are read every year on the Fourth Sunday of Lent. It’s during the Lenten Season when the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults – reclaiming the Church’s ancient practice of welcoming new members through a very thoughtful and prayerful process of initiation – welcomes adults who have been preparing for many months, sometimes years, to become Christian through the Easter Waters of Baptism.

ManBornBlindOn this Fourth Sunday of Lent, those adults – now called The Elect – will come forward for what’s called the Second Scrutiny, a ritual in which they, accompanied by their Godparents, are called to a deeper conversion of heart and mind to continue with their resolution, their decision, “to love God above all.” It’s a ritual in which the Community prays that they will be given “a sense of repentance, a sense of sin, and strength of will to live in true freedom as children of God.” Then, during the ritual itself when the Godparents place their right hands on the shoulders of the person with whom they have been walking this journey of faith, the celebrant prays these words: “God of mercy, you led the man born blind to the kingdom of light through the gift of faith in your Son. Free these elect from the false values that surround and blind them. Set them firmly in your truth, children of the light for ever.”

“The false values that surround and blind them.”

Most of us, probably, have a sense of what values are, let alone what values might be true or false, or perhaps what values appear true, but, when brought into the light of faith, are seen for what they truly are. I had an experience recently that made me wonder how common such an understanding is. Recently I had the occasion to speak with someone and I asked this person what values he was handing on to his children by certain actions he was engaging in. I almost was caught off guard when the response came, “what do you mean by values?” I tried to find a way to say what I meant, to get him to think of what is important in his life, what he finds to be of worth and lasting significance. He was able to say “family” was important to him – but knowing a bit about his family – I pressed further. “What about ‘family’ is valuable and important?” After all, I thought – even Vito Corleone or his real life counterparts in the contemporary Mafia – a crime organization whose members Pope Francis forcefully addressed this past week – would also have expressed belief in “family,” wouldn’t they? And, in our own country and culture wars, how often do we see bumper stickers promoting “family values” by those whose life choices make one ask whether Jesus would have chosen similarly.

When we listen to today’s readings, it doesn’t take a degree in theology to understand what their real meaning is all about. As we listen to this story of the man who, blind from birth, is given physical sight by Jesus’ actions, we also know that those religious leaders of the day, gifted with physical sight like most of humanity, have become blind to what is truly important, what is truly real, what is truly good, what is truly of value. Through the false values they have subscribed to, they seem chained to a rigid understanding of human rules and laws and regulations, for the Gospel writer tells us they cannot see what is plainly in front of them. Not only do they fail to stand back in awe and in wonder at the miracle of healing that Jesus has brought about, more importantly they fail to see who Jesus is. Blinded as they are by pride, power and position, they fail to see the identity of this miracle worker from Nazareth, the one who not only demonstrates power now over human ailments, but who soon will be shown as the One Who has power of death itself.

How often do we, too – or religious leaders in our own day – succumb to the same temptation? How often do we fail to recognize the Hand of God at work in the world simply because what we see does not fit with our preconceived notions of what is good and right? How often are we blind to the face of God in other people – either in our own backyard or across the globe – simply because they do not look like us or have lives which have traveled a different path? Do we have eyes to see that we are created in the Image of God, or do we prefer to limit our vision to a god created in the image of ourselves?

Today’s first reading from Samuel says it very clearly. In a line that seems uncannily similar to that famous line in the children’s book, “The Little Prince” about what is essential being invisible to the eye, the author of Samuel says this of Jesse’s eldest son, the one whom everyone expected would be anointed king: “Do not judge from his appearance or from his lofty stature, because I have rejected him. Not as the human person sees does God see, because the human person sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart.”

As we move toward the end of our Lenten journey, what still blinds us to seeing, like God, into not only the hearts of others, but into our own hearts? Let us pray that, as our gathering song prays, our eyes might be opened to see the face of God in everyone, our ears might be opened to hear the voice of God in the cries of God’s people, and that our hearts might be opened to love one another as God loves us.

Will I live for God or mammon? – Homily for the 8th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Cycle A)

March 1/2, 2014 — Readings

When I first looked at the readings for today, I couldn’t help but focus on that word “worry,” which we hear Matthew place on the lips of Jesus in this passage that comes in the middle of Matthew’s long Sermon on the Mount.  Some scripture commentators refer to this as “The Great Sermon” because it includes so much of what is at the core of Jesus’ message and because it presents Jesus’ teachings in such a straightforward way.  So it is in this “Great Sermon” that we hear Jesus tell us not to worry about our lives or any aspect of our lives. We are not to worry about food or drink or clothing, because worrying about these things will, as Jesus suggests, “add not a single moment” to our lives.  I think this word, “worry,” grabbed my attention for two reasons.  First, it reminded me of that little prayer which comes right after the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer that includes the line, “… and protect us from all anxiety.” Worry, after all, is anxiety. It’s that experience in which we get all worked up about one thing or many things and we dwell on difficulties or problems that are either real or imagined.  The second reason I was drawn to this word is because I spend much of my time as a therapist working with people who suffer not just from “ordinary worry” – if there can be such a thing – but who are so filled with worry and anxiety that it gets in the way of their ability to function fully in daily life.  You may be surprised to know that Anxiety is so prevalent in our culture that in any given year, over 18% of American adults have a diagnosable anxiety disorder.  That’s a lot of worry!

Although Matthew places this passage in the middle of The Great Sermon, it wouldn’t be out of place if it came at the Sermon’s beginning. It is in The Great Sermon that we hear Jesus’ teachings about who is truly blessed in the Beatitudes; we hear Jesus call upon his followers to be “salt of the earth” and “light of the world”; and, it is in this Sermon that we are challenged by Jesus’ command – not suggestion, but command – to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  I suggest, however, that before we can understand true blessedness, or begin to be light and salt for others, and especially before we can allow our hearts to be softened so that we do love our enemies and pray for those who despise us – before we can do any of this we must first ask and answer a basic question. For us and for every Christian that question is the one that Jesus suggests in today’s Gospel passage:  Will I live for God or will I live for ‘mammon’?

‘Mammon’ is an Aramaic word and while it does mean money or property, it also more broadly means anything in which I put my trust and in which I find my security. For many ‘mammon’ might actually be money or tangible resources, for others it could mean professional success or accomplishments or reputation or another person or – as we are reminded this weekend as Oscar’s Red Carpet is rolled out in Hollywood – it could even mean my looks and outward appearance.

Now professional success, accomplishments, reputation, relationships and even caring for our physical bodies – these are certainly not bad things nor are they values to be disdained. They can, however – if we let them – distract us from what is most important in our lives – our lives as individuals and our lives as a community of believers. Only when God is valued above every other value will the subordinate but necessary values of food, shelter, livelihood, and human relationships fall into their proper place.

We must never forget that those first persons who heard Jesus preach this and other sermons were probably quite poor. As he taught them about genuine values and priorities in one’s life, they may have heard these in the midst of experiencing want. For some, their poverty may have predisposed them to seek God’s reign with pure, unencumbered hearts.  For many more, I suspect, their poverty and desperate need for the essentials of life became obstacles from focusing on God, trying simply to survive in a world and culture that had little room for them and their needs.  As I thought about this, I tried to place myself in the shoes of an individual or community who knows first-hand the pangs of hunger or the lack of adequate shelter. I wonder what it would be like today for such a person or community who is hearing these words just as we are, words of Jesus telling me not to worry about the things I don’t have yet sorely need, wondering when God will provide for me enough food to eat and clothes to wear, just as God provides for the birds of the sky and the flowers of the field?

While you and I are hopefully filled with gratitude for the food and drink and clothing and shelter and every other blessing that we do have, what are we to do when we know that others in our world are not so fortunate? In remembering that Jesus calls both poor and rich alike to trust in the love of God and not be consumed with fearful fretting and useless worrying, perhaps we should also remember that the God of Isaiah and the God of Paul and the God of Jesus promises to love us and all creation with a love that goes beyond even the greatest of human loves we can imagine. This God knows the needs of the hungry, the homeless, the addicted, the refugee, and those on the margins of society. This God knows the needs of the aging, the dying, and the victims of injustice, violence, and greed.  And so the question, “Will I live for God or will I live for ‘mammon’? remains for us to answer each and every day.  If I choose to live for God, what then does this mean not simply for what I believe, but what does it mean for what I do?  How will I live for God today? If I do live for God, then how does God’s care for all creation inspire me to similar caring and compassion for others?

Live in the Light — Homily for the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time

January 25/26, 2014

 Readings

CSC_0044Listening to that first reading from the prophet Isaiah, you might wonder whether or not we had forgotten to turn the pages of the lectionary from a few weeks ago, as this reading and its memorable phrases are so very reminiscent of the readings from Christmas. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone. You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing.”  In fact, those are the very words which open the reading from Isaiah for the Christmas Liturgy at Midnight.  How appropriate they are for that particular liturgy, celebrated as it is in the darkness of night and drawing a stark contrast between the literal darkness of that time of day, and our belief that in Jesus darkness is dispelled and God’s Light – more so than the dawning of daybreak – enlightens the world in a new and permanent way.

We then hear – as we do during these early Sundays of this Cycle A Liturgical Year – a passage from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians. The Christian community in the Greek city of Corinth was founded by Paul during what is known as his 2nd Missionary Journey – probably around the years 50 to 52. This Corinthian community – which probably numbered in the hundreds – was clearly very important to Paul, who lived and stayed with them for over a year. They would gather for prayer not in the synagogue or some church or other public building – for there were as yet no such places – but rather they would gather much like we are doing today, in the home of someone who has opened their doors in hospitality and welcome.

Because Paul was so very fond of this community that he founded, it should be no surprise that he writes such a challenging letter to them.  He writes about many things in this relatively brief letter, especially when he hears that there is division and in-fighting among them. Having heard that they have divided themselves into factions and cliques, Paul wastes no time in telling them why he is writing, urging them to have no divisions among them, to be of the same mind and the same judgment. It’s not difficult for us – some two millennia later – to see how the issue Paul addressed head on way back then must somehow be inscribed in the very essence of what it means to be human. After all, has much changed since then? Aren’t we, no matter what the context, so very good at putting people into categories and camps – labeling others and even ourselves so that our attention is on what separates us rather than what unites us?  Is human society or even the Christian community any more united or “of the same mind” today than it was two thousand years ago? For those of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus, are we following someone – or, more likely something – else more closely than we are following the One in Whose footsteps we claim to walk?  If we were to look at a “Family Tree of Christianity,” we would see that there are some 1,200 organized Christian groups or churches in the US alone, and over 30,000 such groups worldwide. What do you suppose Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, would think of that?

If the evidence seems to show that divisions among Christians have not diminished but have increased, then what does this say for us who gather here today, allowing ourselves to be challenged by the Scriptures and nourished by the Eucharist?  For Paul, what was important was not being part of a certain group, but rather being a Christian meant dying with Christ so as to live in his Light.

But what does it mean to “die with Christ”? What does Paul’s vision of Christianity say to us who, believing that Jesus has dispelled the darkness and brought his saving Light to the world, are called to bear forth the Light of Jesus and the Peace of Christ? How can we – how can I – make that Light and Peace of Christ more present in a world which, at times, seems so filled darkness? We need not look far to see a world still burdened by wars and the lust for power, by senseless violence and death, by poverty and suffering that cry out for relief.

In the Gospel reading we hear Jesus call his first disciples, men who gave up all that they had – however much or little – to follow him. Jesus’ call to Peter and Andrew to “Come after me…” is no less our call today.  As Jesus’ own ministry will show, the “Kingdom of Heaven” he preaches refers not to some heavenly after-life, but rather to daily life lived here and now.  That Kingdom, that Reign of God, is much less about the future than it is about the very real presence of this day, this moment. However, in order for God’s Reign to be revealed in the present, Jesus calls us to repent. Repentance means ensuring that our values are in sync with Jesus’ values, that our words and our actions are truly “what Jesus would say and do.” Like those first disciples, we are called to make people, not things, the focus of our lives. Nothing – no thing – can ever be more important than the relationships we have with one another, and nothing should ever blind us to seeing the face of God in every human person.

I’m sure you’ve all heard the song that begins with the words, “Come! Live in the Light. Shine with the Light and the Love of the Lord!”  It goes on to state what it means to live in that Light, who is Christ. As we go about our lives this week, let us keep in mind the challenge of those words to be the Light and Presence of Christ to all we meet. As the hymn says:

Come! Open your heart! Show your mercy to all those in fear!
We are called to be hope for the hopeless, so all hatred and blindness will be no more!

Sing! Sing a new song! Sing of that great day when all will be one! God will reign and we’ll walk with each other as sisters and brothers united in love!

We are called to act with justice. We are called to love tenderly. We are called to serve one another, to walk humbly with God. (We are Called, by David Haas)

The Ascension: God’s Faith in Humanity

Solemnity of the Ascension – May 11/12, 2013
Dignity NoVA/Washington

Readings

As I was thinking about this day’s celebration of the Solemnity of the Ascension, I came across something by theologian Fr. Ron Rolheiser. In commenting that most of us don’t really understand what the Ascension is all about, he said this: “The Ascension names and highlights a paradox that lies deep at the center of life, namely, [there are times in life when] … we can only give our presence more deeply by going away so that others can receive the full blessing of our spirits.” … At times we can only give our presence more deeply by going away.

I suppose the bumper-sticker version of a part of this insight is, ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder,’ … but I think this insight is more profound than that. It reminds us first of all that from the very beginning to the very end of every human life … life is filled with transitions and experiences of moving on and letting go. That is, after all, the essence of growth. Every life and every relationship is filled with beginnings and endings and new beginnings after that. Every human experience is filled with the “interplay of life and death, of presence and absence, of love and of loss.”

heronIn celebrating the Ascension today, we hear two accounts from the same biblical source – accounts that exemplify that interplay of endings and beginnings. First, we hear the opening words of the Acts of the Apostles in which two mysterious figures ask the Apostles, “Why are you standing there looking up into the sky?” And then, in Luke, we hear the very last words of that Gospel which presents a very similar scene. Luke presents the Ascension as occurring on the same day as the Resurrection and the Easter appearances of Jesus to his disciples. The Resurrection and the Ascension are different facets of that same reality which is the core of our Christian belief. That reality is this: In Jesus the Christ, the experiences of pain, suffering, separation and even death itself are transformed into joy and happiness and unending new life.

This transformation is not unlike so many other  transformations and experiences occurring all the time and throughout our lives:

  • It’s the experience of a child going to school for the first time, even as his parents with reluctance let go of his hand on that very first day;
  • It’s the experience of removing those training wheels from a child’s bike – cautiously running after her as she wobbles from side to side and eventually finds her stride;
  • It’s the experience of saying “Yes” to one person in a loving and committed relationship, even though this also means saying “No” to all others and to letting go a former way of life;
  • It’s the experience of students who – having embraced the challenges of learning, of study, and intellectual growth – come to the end of either one academic year or academic career – and face the prospects of a new world of work or even more advanced academic challenges;
  • It’s the experience whenever we close one chapter of life – with all the mixed feelings and emotions that closing might bring – and begin to write a new chapter that might lead in directions we can only imagine.

Letting go and moving on isn’t always easy – but it’s something we know we must all do, from time to time, if we are to remain alive. The Ascension of Jesus – his “letting go” of this world – reminds us as disciples of something else we must be careful not to overlook. The disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ Resurrection from the Dead and Ascension into Heaven was primarily not sadness that he was no longer with them, but it was marked by joy because they knew the opposite was true. They knew that instead of Absence, they experienced a New Presence. This Presence of God’s Spirit deep within was an empowering Presence and an energizing Spirit Who would give them what they needed to do the work that had yet to be done. They knew that the Presence of Jesus would strengthen them not just to Believe, but also to Act. They would be strengthened to preach the Good News, to feed the hungry, to comfort those in need, and to seek a world marked less by selfishness and self-centeredness and more by charity, justice, and a way of seeing that recognizes the Face of God in every human person.

Me and Sophie - 1995

Me and Sophie – 1995

It’s been quite some time since I had a dog. The last dog I had was an Old English Sheepdog named Sophie. Although the history of the breed isn’t perfectly clear, it’s likely that the breed developed in Southwestern England sometime in the early 19th century. They were bred as working dogs … helping farmers to drive their herds of sheep and cattle to market. Being a good urban dog owner far removed from farms and fields, I was always very careful to keep Sophie on a leash when we went for our walks, keeping her close by my side. When Sophie was about three years old, a neighbor of ours on Capitol Hill got a puppy, and so one day we took the two dogs to a park on the Hill. The park was fairly large and on this particular day there was no one else around or even very little traffic, so we let both dogs off leash for a little exercise. As you can imagine … as youngsters of any species tend to do … the puppy began to run around exploring all the new sights and smells and sounds of the park. What fascinated me most, however, was what Sophie did. She ran and played with the pup, to be sure … but whenever he would run off too far, or get too close to the street, she would do an end-run around him and bring him back to the center. He would then run to the other side of the park, heading toward the street and the park’s edge on the opposite side. And Sophie would do the same thing … running after him, getting between him and the street, causing him to turn around and head back once again. It was fascinating to see! Never before had I seen her do what appeared to be an innate, natural behavior … this herding instinct that kept both her and puppy close by at all times, even while allowing themselves the freedom the run and play. From that memorable experience, I learned an important lesson: Only by letting her go … even in this small way … was I able to see her actually be who she was meant to be and do what she was meant to do.

The Ascension is a celebration of faith – but it is less a celebration of our faith in God as it is a celebration of God’s faith in us. Jesus’ departure from this world is an expression of His belief that the work entrusted to His followers will not end with His moving on and letting go. No, it is a declaration that His work will continue through the words and deeds of His followers – words and deeds which must continue to transform the world. As his disciples – and especially as his LGBT disciples with the particular mission that we have both to society and to the Church – it remains our work to go into that world and to bring the Good News to all creation. We are called to be the voice and hands of Jesus. We are called to relieve the sufferings of those in need; we are called to be instruments of peace and not of war; we are called to respond to violence with non-violence; to promote understanding in the face of ignorance, and in the presence of hate – including hatred for who we are as gay and lesbian children of God – even there we are called to be bearers of God’s love for all. As followers of Jesus, let’s make sure that are not caught staring up into the sky; let us be about the work that Jesus has entrusted to our care.

When Every Voice is Heard

Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter
May 5, 2013 – Dignity/Washington

Readings

My favorite line from today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles is this:

Because there arose no little dissension and debate….”  

Other translations say it more clearly, referring to the “sharp dispute” that Paul and Barnabas had with those unnamed Jewish-Christians who had come to Antioch from Judaea and who were preaching that in order to follow Jesus, one must first follow all aspects of Judaism, including circumcision, the rules about ritual purity, and all the dietary restrictions found in Mosaic Law.

photo(3)Now if they were here, my parents or brother or sister, or some colleagues from work, or perhaps even a few of you who know me well would not be surprised to hear me say this … to say that I like this line about dissension and debate. Ever since I was a child I always liked a good argument. I’ve always enjoyed the back and forth of a well-thought-out discussion, and found the process of logical reasoning to be stimulating and energizing. But before I say more about why I like this line so much, let’s take a closer look at this reading.

It comes from the 15th Chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, about two-thirds of the way through this very important document about the life of the early Church. As you may know, the author of the Acts of the Apostles is probably also the author of the Gospel of Luke, and so scripture scholars will often refer to “Luke / Acts” as a single entity. The passage we hear today begins with the first two verses of Chapter 15 and includes the reference to that “dissension and debate” that I mentioned earlier. Then, unfortunately, the reading skips 20 verses and tells us the result of what many commonly call the “Council of Jerusalem.”  I say “unfortunately” because – as is so often true – what’s just as important as the outcome of a discussion and debate is the process of how that outcome is reached. How we get somewhere is often just as important as where we end up.

The question those early Christians faced was this:  Is it necessary for Gentiles who wish to be baptized and become part of the community as Christians … is it necessary for them also to follow all the rules of Judaism?  It was a debate between so-called Jewish-Christians and Gentile-Christians. Twenty centuries later, we know the outcome; we know the result.  We know that the burden of following the Mosaic Law was not placed on the shoulders of Gentiles who sought to become Christian, and so for over two thousand years we as Christians have not felt obliged to follow those practices.

Although the issues of circumcision and Mosaic Law have long been settled, every century and every generation throughout Christian history grapples with its own “issues of the day.” Christians in every age struggle with making choices about how our Christian faith guides us, about what that faith might ask of us in all spheres of life – from the most intimate and personal to the most public and communal.  How DO we … or rather, how SHOULD we make those choices and decisions as the community of the followers of Jesus? Looking at those 20 verses that we did not hear gives us some insight. In those verses …

  • We’re told that the whole Church in Antioch sent Paul and Barnabas and others to Jerusalem to confer with the apostles and elders about this issue.
  • We’re told that the “apostles and the elders” came together to “look into the matter.”
  • We’re told that Peter spoke to the group, reminding all that the Holy Spirit had been given to the Gentiles as well, and asking the very legitimate question of why Jewish-Christians should impose on Gentile-Christians a burden that they themselves have not been able to bear?
  • We’re told that the gathered group listened as Paul and Barnabas related the many signs and wonders that God had worked among the Gentiles.
  • And finally we are told that it was James, the leader of the Church in Jerusalem (not Peter), who – after all the discussion and prayer and all voices were heard – pronounced the decision that no extra burden would be placed on Gentiles.

Clearly that Scriptures tell us that openness to the guidance of the Spirit is called for when faced with difficult or divisive issues. They demonstrate that we must be open to listening to the Spirit, the Advocate, the One Whose gifts we hope and pray will guide us in making good choices and in choosing the best path.

But the Acts of the Apostles and this glimpse at the “Council of Jerusalem” tell us something else, as well:  They tell us that good decision-making is not only about listening, it’s also about being heard.  It involves finding our own voice and not being afraid to take ownership of and responsibility for the Baptismal Faith that is ours. In that Faith, we are confirmed with the Gifts of the Spirit. In that Faith we gather each week to share the One Bread and the One Cup. In that Faith we are all called to share in the ministry of preaching the Good News … including our Good News of the working of God’s Spirit within us as evidenced by the way we live our lives. Yes, we certainly must listen, not only to one another, but also to the countless ways in which the Voice of God speaks to us every day.  But just as there is a time to listen, so too is there a time to speak up.

As the political successes of the LGBT community continue to increase in the public square, at the same time we are seeing some very strong reactions of many Catholic bishops and even some Catholic lay people who do not like those successes. Most recently, the Archbishop of Detroit and the Bishop of Providence have made headlines with their not-so-veiled warnings to Catholics regarding their thoughts and actions concerning same-sex marriages. Using language of what we had thought was a by-gone era, the Bishop of Providence said that Catholics who attend a same-sex wedding could possibly “harm their relationship with God and cause scandal to others.” The Archbishop of Detroit went even further, stating that Catholics who support same-sex marriage should not receive Communion, because to do so – he said in a rather convoluted argument – would be to renounce one’s integrity and show a disconnect between belief and action.

Thankfully, many priests and many more lay people are finding the courage to stand up and have their voices heard. Individuals and groups across the country are choosing – with faith and with respect – to speak out with a different message, a different story.

And so, I like that line about debate not merely because I like a good argument, but because the story of the early Church reminds us of a Truth that those in power can tend to forget.  It’s the truth that says that the best decisions are always made when every voice is heard. From the weakest to the strongest, from the most vocal to the most reserved, God’s Spirit dwells within us all. It’s a Truth that even the institutional Church has tried – though with limited success – to recognize.  In the half-century since the Second Vatican Council, as the Church has tried to move from the absolute monarchy of the papacy to a more inclusive Body of Christ, we’ve seen the rise of parish councils, parish finance councils, diocesan presbyteral councils and pastoral councils and other bodies seeking to allow greater participation by all. Despite the limited success of those efforts, individually and collectively, we should heed the words of Jesus not to let our hearts be troubled or afraid. We should listen to the Voice of the Spirit Who speaks in the depths of every heart, and we should not be afraid to let that Voice speak its truth in our lives… a truth that tells even those who don’t yet want to listen, that we, too have something to say.

Sede Vacante and the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent (Cycle C)
Dignity Washington/NoVA (March 9/10, 2013)

Readings:

Sede Vacante

Sede Vacante

I feel privileged today.  By now we all probably know what the phrase sede vacante means. The chair of St. Peter – representing the special place of the Bishop of Rome within the community of Jesus’ followers – remains vacant and empty for the second Sunday in a row.  These days between the pontificate of one pope and his successor are rare and brief, and so it’s a unique time in the life of the Universal church. And, while our attention is drawn by media coverage to the Conclave of Cardinals scheduled to begin Tuesday in Rome, to the actions of a particular Cardinal who has opted not to participate, and to the views of potential future-popes and what they have said in the past about LGBT people, the role of women, and other church issues … we are still invited on this Fourth Sunday of our Lenten Journey to listen not to the media coverage of bloggers and bookies, but rather, to listen to and reflect on one of the most beautiful and powerful parables in all of Scripture – the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

And so, as we ask the question that we must always ask – namely, what do these Scriptures mean for me and for us today – the richness of this parable is so great that it’s almost hard to know where to begin. In fact, a friend of mine told me that one of the reasons this is not a favorite of his is because there seems to be so much going on. To get a handle on all that we can do what commentators often invite us to do, namely put ourselves in the story as either an observer or participant, and thereby come to some insight of our own.

  • We can put ourselves in the shoes of the younger son who feels that natural though somewhat exaggerated pull to seek his own life, doing so basically by telling his father he wishes he were dead, demanding now the inheritance that would only come to him on his father’s death. In doing this he turns his back on family and friends and home; and acts in a way that shows he fails to appreciate not only those truer gifts that he has been so lucky to have, but also fails to appreciate the gift of his financial inheritance, squandering his money (as this translation says) “on a life of dissipation.” And so, after failing miserably “in a distant country” and suffering the humiliation a Jew would suffer by feeding a herd of swine owned by a Gentile, the scripture tells us that he comes to his senses – literally comes to himself. Still burdened with guilt and shame, however, he decides to return to his father’s house not as his son, but as a hired hand, a servant.
  • We can reflect also on what it means to be the older, dutiful son; the one who has always done what was expected of him, always followed the rules and played by the book. On learning that his brother has returned home, however, this big brother isn’t happy and filled with joy, but rather is so caught up in his own world that he becomes angry and resentful not at his brother, but at his father’s generosity – so angry and resentful in fact that he refuses to enter the family home, refuses to join in the celebration at table.
  • Finally, and perhaps with the greatest difficulty, we can try to put ourselves in the shoes of the father – a figure who represents the deepest and truest expression of unconditional love – the love of a father or mother who doesn’t get lost in what his or her children have or haven’t done, who doesn’t get lost in the mixed bag of goodness and brokenness that these two sons show themselves to be … but who simply offers a welcoming and open embrace, saying “I love you… you are with me always.”
Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son

Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son

Perhaps you are familiar with the famous reflections from the late Henri Nouwen in his two books, “The Return of the Prodigal Son” and “Home Tonight: Further Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son.” His reflections were prompted by the painting of this parable by his fellow Dutchman, Rembrandt, which hangs in The Hermitage museum in St Petersburg, Russia. If you’re not familiar either with Nouwen’s reflections or with Henri Nouwen himself – I encourage you to become familiar with him. Nouwen reminds us that this is fundamentally a story of how God so loves humanity that nothing – absolutely nothing – can get in the way of that love. Despite the obstacles and walls that we ourselves put between us and God – God is always ready to welcome us, to embrace us, and to lead us home with joy and celebration.

As an exercise in personal prayer, meditation and spiritual growth during this Lenten season, nothing could be more appropriate than for us to do what Fr. Nouwen suggests in taking time in quiet and solitude to think about this story, reflect on the ways we can identify with one character or another, and learn what it has to teach us about how we recognize our own failings, yet even more fully receive and share God’s unconditional love for each of us.

There’s also the question, of course, of what this story might mean for us as gay and lesbian people – a people who so often feel disaffected from our Church and its leaders. Today the Chair of Peter sits empty. That chair, however, is not the only seat at the Table of the Lord.  For too long that Chair of Peter has been seen more as a regal throne than as the chair of a loving parent who gathers his or her children around a family table – much as I imagine the father in today’s gospel gathered all his household around a table of celebration when his younger son – who was dead but has come to life again – is welcomed home. Also and for too long our experience at the hands of Church leaders has sadly been unlike that of either sons in today’s Gospel. Instead of being welcomed and invited to come to the Table just as we are, we have been turned away precisely because we have tried – imperfectly perhaps, but with honesty nonetheless – to embrace our own inheritance as beloved children of God. By this time next week, I suspect that the Vacant Chair of Peter will once again have an occupant, a new Bishop of Rome, a new Pope who is called to be the Servant of the Servants of God. Let us pray that he, whoever he is, will have the faith and the courage to model his ministry on that of the father in today’s Gospel story, preaching the good news that God’s love for humanity knows no bounds, that there’s room enough for all at the Table of the Lord, and that those who’ve experienced rejection or abandonment will discover a table where bread is broken, where lives are shared, where burdens are diminished and joys are multiplied – and that at this Table there is indeed a seat for everyone.

(c) Copyright 2013 – Timothy J MacGeorge

“Into deep water” — Homily for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dignity NoVA/DC
February 9/10, 2013

Readings

DeepWaterMost of us are familiar with the word “vocation.” When we hear that word, many of us might think of it in its limited notion of a “vocation to religious life or the priesthood” or other ministerial vocation. That’s certainly a very legitimate use of the word, and it’s understandable that our own idea of “vocation” might be so limited because that’s how we’ve heard the word used. How many of us have heard in various parishes frequent prayers for “an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life”? How many of us might even have been asked by a friendly religious sister, brother, or priest when we were younger, “have you ever thought you might have a vocation”? And, of course, there are a fair number of us here in our own gathering who either explored or lived that type of “religious vocation” for a significant part of our lives, and so it’s very understandable that this legitimate, but more narrow concept is what comes to mind when we hear that word.

Today’s scriptures, however, speak to us very poignantly about a much more fundamental and basic understanding of vocation. The word itself comes from the Latin word, “vocare” – meaning to name, to summon, to call, or to invite. All of those ideas are wrapped up in the biblical calls that we hear today from all three readings — from Isaiah, First Corinthians, and the Gospel of Luke.

Although the calls of Isaiah, Paul, and Peter are different, they each have some common elements that can help us understand our own calls, our own vocations. What are some of those elements? Well, to begin, the person called usually has a sense of unworthiness; a sense of “Oh no, not me! You’ve got the wrong guy, Lord. I don’t have what it takes!” We hear that reaction from Isaiah who says, “I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.” Paul describes himself as “one not fit to be an apostle,” and perhaps most dramatically, Peter falls at Jesus’ feet and says, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

This sense of unfitness, sinfulness, and unworthiness is not some sense of pathological self-hatred. It’s not an expression from people whose self-esteem and self-worth have been so damaged by life that they don’t see in themselves any goodness at all. No, this reaction is honest and real. It’s rooted in a deep and utterly honest understanding of who they are. As I was reflecting on the scriptures for today, one of the phrases that I kept returning to was Jesus’ command to Peter and his fellow fishermen, “Put out into deep water.” To know ourselves, we need to go deeply into our hearts and souls. Knowing one’s self as fully as Isaiah, Paul, and Peter surely knew themselves certainly required self-awareness at their core. And so, when they find themselves in the presence of something much greater than themselves, in the presence of what is Good and True and Holy, a humility that comes from having looked at themselves honestly and deeply causes them, at first, to turn away and to feel deeply their own unworthiness. Humility is not a virtue that I don’t think is in very high regard in our day and age — and perhaps that’s especially true for this city if Washington, DC. Humility is a virtue that reminds us we are limited, imperfect, and that we cannot save ourselves; that we cannot have and do it all. And yet, such true humility in knowing oneself seems to be a requirement for discerning the call of God in our lives.

Fortunately for Isaiah, Paul, and Peter however, what they see of themselves, though accurate, is not complete. For them — and for all of us if we have the courage to listen and to hear God’s calls in our lives — that sense of unworthiness is not where the story ends. What happens next is that God or Jesus responds in a way that heals or removes that sense of unworthiness… what was lacking has been provided, what was limited has now been made whole. Isaiah speaks of the burning ember that touched his lips, but Jesus simply says to Peter, “Do not be afraid.” It’s almost is if Jesus is saying, “Yes, I know you are a sinful man. I know your shortcomings, your weaknesses, your limitations. I know you more deeply than you know yourself because I see beyond those shortcomings, weaknesses and limitations and see the great possibility that lies in the depths of your soul.”

Because they did not get stuck in seeing only their limitations, but were able to let go of that limited vision of self and begin to see themselves as God sees them – each of these: Isaiah, Paul, and Peter – was able to respond almost immediately with a response that embraced that divine call. Isaiah responds in words: “Here I am; send me!” while Peter and his companions respond in action: Luke tells us that they simply brought their boats to the shore, left everything, and followed Jesus.

I suspect that very few of us have ever had such a dramatic encounter with the Divine as those we hear today. And because God’s presence in our lives is rarely made known in such grand epiphanies, it might be a bit more challenging to experience God’s call in our lives. Some of us might even wonder what our call is, or whether we are called at all? Although the specifics differ from each of us one to the other – surely our common call to follow Jesus is the same. At its core, that call is a call to Love. It is a call to live each day with kindness and compassion and understanding – especially for those in our world who are most in need. Right now, God is calling each of us in one way or another to live the Gospel more fully, more faithfully, with greater humility, and with greater love. What that call sounds like, only you can tell. The only question is, how you will respond?

(c) Copyright 2013 – Timothy J MacGeorge