A God for All People – Homily for the Epiphany of the Lord

Homily for the Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord
Dignity NoVA/DC – January 7/8, 2012


Today the Church invites us to continue reflecting on the Mystery of the Christmas message as we celebrate the Feast of Epiphany of the Lord.  The traditional day for this celebration is January 6, and in some cultures it’s commonly referred to as Little Christmas. The word “Epiphany” means a “manifestation” or a “showing forth” and it commemorates the visit to the infant Jesus by the “astrologers” from the east, the Magi of whom Matthew speaks in today’s gospel.  When we examine this passage along with the other Scriptures that are before us, we see that the theme and message of this feast is really very simple. Essentially, this day reminds us that the salvation which is to be bestowed on the House of Israel is not restricted to the House of Israel – that the gift of God’s very self is intended for all nations and all peoples.  I suppose the message can be summed up quite easily in that one line from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, which he describes as his “insight into the mystery of Christ.” Paul tells us “… that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

The dawn of a new day and a new year - sunrise at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, January 1, 2012.

“So what?” you might ask.  “What is so new about that? After all, our tradition for over two thousand years has acknowledged that the message of the Gospel is to be shared with all people.”   The answer for us today, I think, can be found when we really reflect on the question, “What does it mean to be ‘members of the same body’ and ‘copartners of the promise’?”

The people of Jesus’ day believed that God would one day save his people – and so they looked forward with hopeful expectation to the coming of the Messiah.  But for many the Messiah for whom they looked was not the apparently powerless infant of Bethlehem, but rather they awaited the coming of a powerful descendant of the House of David who would free his people from the oppression of foreign domination, bringing judgment and condemnation to those who were not of the Chosen People.

This feast we celebrate today reminds us that such a limited hope was misguided.  It reminds us that the great gift of God in the person of God’s Son is not given merely to a single person, a single family, a single town, a single culture, a single nation, a single religion, or a single Church.  No one – no priest or pope; no president, politician or presidential candidate; no bishop or pastor; no woman or man has a monopoly on that presence of God now Incarnate in the world.  Epiphany reminds us that all peoples are the intended recipients of God’s gift of self and all that flows from this connection with the Divine.  At is core, the message of the Lord’s Epiphany reminds us that the Gospel is characterized by inclusion, not exclusion; letting us not forget that there is more than enough room for all at the Lord’s Table and in God’s Kingdom.

Such a realization has great implications for those of us whom Paul refers to as “copartners,” or sharers, in the promise of the Gospel.  We believe that we do indeed share in the gift of God’s promise to Israel and that the blessings of new life in Christ are ours. But there are two dimensions to that sharing. We are not only sharers in that we have received this gift in the passive sense; but we are also called to be sharers in the more active sense, being called to share this great gift of faith and of life with one another.  We are called to share our gifts and our talents, to share all that we have and all that we are, to open the doors of our hearts and our lives to be a people who welcome and embrace others.

That’s not always an easy thing to do.  One thing that can help us live up to that call is to develop a keener sense of being able to see – as did the Magi – the presence of God Incarnate in our world.  Yes, it’s very, very easy to see situations in which God seems to be absent … but can we develop our senses of the soul so that we see and hear and touch the Divine so very present in the world all around us?

I don’t profess to be any better at this than anyone else, but here are just two examples from this past week in which I recognized God’s presence.   I was fortunate enough to get away for a couple days last weekend and see the beauty of the dawn on New Year’s Day as the sun rose over the horizon.  That sunrise – including time spent with a few special friends – was clearly painted by the hand of God, and for it I am very thankful.  More recently I think we need to recognize the presence of God as seen in the very public apology delivered by a Cardinal of the Church, something that doesn’t happen very often.  Chicago’s archbishop Cardinal Francis George publicly recognized the harm and hurt his words had done a week before in comparing the LGBT community to the Ku Klux Klan.  Just as I had been shocked by his initial comparison, I never expected that he would apologize has he has done. The cardinal said:

“I am truly sorry for the hurt my remarks have caused. Particularly because we all have friends or family members who are gay and lesbian. This has evidently wounded a good number of people. I have family members myself who are gay and lesbian, so it’s part of our lives. So I’m sorry for the hurt.”

May our prayer this Epiphany day be that we are a not only able to see and name God in our midst, but that we may also be more faithful copartners in the promise of the Gospel by sharing God’s love, hope, presence and peace with everyone we meet every day of our lives.

Homily for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dignity DC/NoVA — Oct. 30/31, 2010

Readings: Wis 11:22-12:2; Ps 145:1-2, 8-14; 2 Thes 1:11-2:2;  Lk 19:1-10One of the persistent themes in the writings of Franciscan Richard Rohr is summed up in the title of one of his books, “Everything Belongs.”  This basic concept – which is truly at the heart of not only Christianity, but also at the center of all great religious and spiritual paths – involves recognition of the fact that we truly grow only when we begin to move from seeing the world in a “dualistic” way to seeing it in a “non-dualistic” way. When we are able to move beyond the categories and boxes and labels that we use in almost every dimension of daily life, when we can begin to see what mystics of all spiritual traditions speak of as God or the Divine or Mystery or simply Love, then we are becoming more fully human, more fully ourselves, more fully alive.

Today’s Gospel passage tells a story in which it’s so easy to use categories and labels, to see things with “us and them” eyes.  Even commentators who write about this story and probably most homilists are usually quick to point out that Zacchaeus was a bad guy. There are lots of reasons for giving him this label and putting him in that box. By being not just a tax collector but a chief tax collector, he had opted to side with the Roman occupiers of Israel, those who oppressed his own people. Being a tax collector wasn’t just a job, but was something that he would have had to seek out as an enterprising businessman, an entrepreneur, a skilled negotiator and dealmaker. Because he is described as wealthy, he most likely had a lucrative arrangement with the authorities from Rome in which he paid the area’s taxes for the year up front, and then had the right to collect taxes from the people throughout the year; including whatever percentage markup or profit he could get. And of course, the fact that “the crowd” grumbles and refers to him as a sinner is further indication that Zacchaeus was seen as “the bad guy” and certainly not “one of us.”

Looking more deeply, however, some scholars suggest there is evidence that Zacchaeus wasn’t so bad after all. There are several indications in the text itself that suggest this. First, the Greek verb that is here translated in the future tense in the second part of this conditional sentence – “If I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over” – could also be translated with a more present, ongoing meaning, in a way that indicates that such repayment, if it were necessary, had been his practice all along. Plus, there’s the fact that Zacchaeus is committed to repaying extorted funds not just in full, nor with a 20% penalty – as would have been required by Jewish law – but rather is committed to repayment “four times over,” which is what Roman law required, but required only for those who were convicted criminals. In addition, his very name – Zacchaeus – which occurs in the Scriptures only here and two other places – comes from a Hebrew word which means, “clean, pure, innocent.”

So … perhaps in his own way, our Gospel author is trying to tell us that things aren’t always as black and white as they seem. Even Zacchaeus … the traitor to his people by his chosen profession … may actually have carried out his work in a way that was fair and considerate and respectful. This is not to say he was perfect; by no means.  Even he recognizes his need and is drawn to Jesus.  And, in the presence of Jesus to whom he is open and whom he seeks out, Zacchaeus is transformed. For his part, Jesus sees Zacchaeus in all his fullness, in the totality of who he is. Jesus sees him as both good and not-so-good; honorable yet sometimes shady; generous yet highly tempted by money; a Jew as well as a collaborator.  Because Jesus sees with the eyes of God, he is able to proclaim Zacchaeus as a man of faith and a “son of Abraham.” In the midst of what seems black and white – there really is a lot of gray!

You know, it’s be been said that if any community should be a model of inclusivity and openness, it should be ours. As members of the LGBT community we individually and collectively know what it’s like to be excluded, to be rejected, to be told we’re no good, to be told we’re bad, or that we’re sinners not because of anything we’ve done, but because of who God has made us to be. And even while much of institutional religion and many loud voices in the public square continue to demonize us, aren’t we called – in turn – to be better than that?  Aren’t we called not to exclude, but to include? Not to close, but to open? Not to turn away, but to welcome? Not to hate, but to love? Not to demonize others, but to speak the truth in charity? Shouldn’t ours be the loudest of all voices in proclaiming that not only do we have a rightful place at the table, but so too does every man, woman and child on the face of the earth?

Here’s an example of what I mean about speaking the truth in charity. Even though some of the most vocal catholic bishops – like John Nienstedt from Milwaukee – continue to speak untruths about God’s gay children and our relationships – thankfully there are people like Fr. Michael Tegeder, pastor of St. Edward Parish, Bloomington, Minnesota.  After Bishop Nienstedt and the other Minnesota bishops sent a DVD to all parishes in the state, a DVD in which same-sex marriage was described as “a dangerous risk” for society, Fr. Tegeder had the courage to speak up, saying that the real danger to marriage was not the loving unions of same-sex couples; he voiced the truth borne out by evidence from so many sources, namely that biggest danger to stable relationships is poverty and the many stresses that come to couples and who are not able to take care of their families due to lack of financial resources.

This city was a busy place yesterday [“Rally to Restore Sanity“], as it was a number of weeks back when a similar event [“Restoring Honor” rally] was held. These two rallies – representing different aspects of the political spectrum – were both held on the Mall, that place that those of us from New England would call “the common.” The common is that public space in every village, town, or city where people could gather to express their views, to hear those of others, and where everyone was welcome. Certainly many of us would find ourselves more drawn to the views expressed at one of those rallies than the other. But regardless of our views on this or that public issue, and regardless of whether we express those views in simple conversation or the voting booth, shouldn’t those conversations and those votes be rooted in our belief that we are ALL children of the one God, the one God who calls us to love others as God loves us?

Let me end by reading once again part of that passage from Wisdom, asking each of you to remember that in God, everything, everyone does belong … and that in faith, we are challenged to do our part to ensure that no thing, no one is excluded from the banquet: “For you, God, love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned. And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it; or be preserved, had it not been called forth by you? But you spare all things, because they are yours, O LORD and lover of souls, for your imperishable spirit is in all things!”