Faithfully Extending Faith: Will the Church ever recognize same-sex unions?

Monarch Butterfly

In a recent Daily Meditation (July 17, 2017) from Richard Rohr, OFM guest writer Brian McLaren makes this statement: “Jesus and Paul were not denying their religion . . . ; they were faithfully extending it [emphasis added], letting it grow and flow forward.” McLaren’s point is that Christians in every age must overcome the tendency to let their faith be just another ossified institution of rules, power structures, and laws that fail to fully meet the needs of the contemporary world. To do this, Christians must always look to Jesus. There, McLaren asserts, is where we see the overarching teaching of Jesus on the supremacy of love. “The new commandment of love meant neither beliefs nor words, neither taboos, systems, structures nor the labels that enshrined them mattered most. Love decentered [and] relativized everything else; love took priority over everything else.”

I remember first pondering the supposed conflict between my own sense of self as a gay person and the “long-held teaching of the Church” that homosexuality was sinful. How could this be?, I wondered. How could the Church’s teaching on the purpose and place of human sexual expression be so very different from my own growing understanding of myself as created “in the image and likeness” of God, of someone who is flawed, yes, but who is fundamentally good? I fed my reflections not only with my own lived experience, but with a knowledge base of philosophy and theology expanded throughout my college and seminary years.

The word that eventually came to mind to describe this tension was incomplete. As far as the Church’s main and positive notions about human sexuality were concerned, this made sense to me. The basic relational values of mutual respect, faithfulness, commitment, and openness to new life seemed spot on. But the other notions — those that are negative or proscriptive and which have the effect of being more burdensome than liberating  — these did not seem to fit with the radical message of Jesus to “love one another as I have loved you.”

Knowing that the Church holds to a belief in the Development of Doctrine — that the richness of the Gospel can yield new insights and greater understanding in every generation — could it be that our understanding of human sexuality was also growing, deepening, and extending as we became more aware of the natural (i.e. God-given) diversity in this dimension of human experience?

Take, for example, whether a committed same-sex relationship could be licit, valid, even sacramental. Church teaching holds that the two “ends” of marriage are its unitive and procreative ends — a loving union between two persons who are open to new life. However, the Church recognizes and accepts as fully sacramental those heterosexual unions where there is absolutely no possibility of “new life” in the form of biological children. Think of those with significant health conditions or couples who marry in advanced age. Here, a more generous theology is called for. A theology which sees “procreative” as more than just the begetting of biological children. This more generous theology recognizes how such unions can be procreative by the ways such couples extend themselves, give of themselves, and share their life with family, friends, community. Why could the same generous theology not also recognize the validity and sacramentality of similarly-committed same-sex couples?

Clearly the institutional Church is a long, long way from recognizing not only the sacramentality of same-sex unions, but even their civil legitimacy. All that notwithstanding, is it possible for us, in love, to be like Paul and countless others who have gone before us in faith? Can we lovingly, not fearfully, “read the signs of the times” and — with open ears, eyes, minds and heart —  be willing to see the ways in which the Spirit might be challenging us to extend our faith, so that the joy of the Gospel might be known to all peoples and in every generation?

Clinton/Kaine vs Trump/Pence – a study in religious contrasts

Hillary Clinton and running mate Tim Kaine

Hillary Clinton (r) and running mate Tim Kaine

From the perspective of Christian faith, it’s hard to imagine a more stark study in contrasts than that between the recently announced presidential/vice-presidential teams. Tim Kaine gave a rousing speech yesterday (July 23, 2016) when he appeared for the first time after being chosen by Hillary Clinton as her running mate. Kaine proudly declared, “Soy católico … I’m Catholic…” and his speech was filled with explicit references that show how deeply his Catholic Christian faith has formed his values and directed his life’s work. Kaine impresses as profoundly influenced by his Jesuit education, his missionary work in Honduras, and his commitment to the teachings of Jesus as a lawyer who worked to defend the housing rights of the poor. The Clinton/Kaine duo proclaim that their lives were formed by a faith that asked how they could help others. It is a faith that puts belief into practice, living out the social, communal dimension that Christianity absolutely requires.

Trump/Pence, on the other hand, seem to be much more formed by or comfortable with the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” (an oxymoron if ever their was one).  While there are some Christian leaders in the Evangelical tradition who recognize that this “gospel” is an aberration of historical, biblical Christianity, there are many others who have succumbed to its allure. This philosophy is uniquely American. It is the spawn of the marriage between 19th century Protestant fundamentalism and that brand of American individualism which puts the self before others, the individual before community, and one’s own success ahead of or at the expense of others’ success. Its focus is on “my rights” and not the common good. To be clear, this focus on the “rights” of the individual can be exploited on either end of the political spectrum. It’s the same right espoused by gun-owners, abortion advocates, and the increasing number of laws that permit assisted suicide. At its root, the “Prosperity Gospel” makes two basic claims: First, if your faith is strong enough, God will shower you with earthly riches, wealth, and worldly success; and, second, if you have earthly riches, wealth, and worldly success, then these are signs of God’s favor.

Perhaps it does need to be stated, but this view of the Christian Gospel — preached by such megachurch leaders as Joel Osteen (who, by the way, has no theological training) and Joyce Meyer — bears so little resemblance to the actual teachings of Jesus that it cannot be rightly called Christian. It is a “gospel” without humility, without prudence, without a sense of justice. It lacks a belief that the goods of this earth are for all God’s People, not just the industrious few who stake their claim first, whose might trumps right, or who know how to manipulate the economic and legal systems to their advantage. On the contrary, as Pope Pius XI wrote in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno (1931),

Therefore, the riches that economic-social developments constantly increase ought to be so distributed among individual persons and classes that the common advantage of all, which Leo XIII had praised, will be safeguarded; in other words, that the common good of all society will be kept inviolate. By this law of social justice, one class is forbidden to exclude the other from sharing in the benefits,” (no. 57).

To anyone schooled in the social justice tradition of Christianity in general and Catholic Christianity in particular, this quotation will ring true. Pius XI’s reference to his predecessor, Leo XIII, is a reference to that pope’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum, which is generally considered the first papal document in modern times to spell out some of the basic principles Christian faith requires for a socially just society. From the perspective of Christianity and its two-thousand year tradition, there is no doubt that the Gospel of Jesus does not exist without Jesus’ “new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” (John 13:34). Come November, each of us must decide which of these two teams contending for the highest offices in the land have lived lives that most exemplify the common good the Gospel requires.

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)

Richard Rohr: Patriotism as the False Sacred

Today’s meditation from Richard Rohr probably sounds like blasphemy to millions of American fundamentalists, especially those who believe in that oh-so-not-Christian idea of “American Exceptionalism.”

“Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10:9) was proclaimed by the early church, as their most concise creedal statement. No one ever told me this was a political and subversive statement, until I learned a bit of Bible history. To say “Jesus is Lord!” was testing and provoking the Roman pledge of allegiance that every Roman citizen had to proclaim when they raised their hand to the imperial insignia and shouted, “Caesar is Lord!” Early Christians were quite aware that their “citizenship” was in a new universal kingdom, announced by Jesus (Philippians 3:20), and that the kingdoms of this world were not their primary loyalty systems. How did we manage to lose that? And what price have we paid for it? (More)

Homily for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C)

Dignity NoVA/DC
January 26/27, 2013

Scripture Readings

Before I say anything about the scriptures we just listened to and what they might mean for us today, I think I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge that – as Americans – we are gathering today as a different people than we did one week ago.  While many people who listened to the President’s Inauguration speech on Monday may have had to look up what his references to Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall meant, no one could misconstrue the meaning of his words when he went on to say this:  “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”  Regardless of whether we voted for Mr. Obama or not, or whether we agree or disagree with his stance on this or that political issue, there can be no doubt that – for us as gay and lesbian Americans – a page of history turned last Monday.  There can be no doubt that his speech marked the dawn of a new era and the beginning of a new chapter in the long road of LGBT Americans to see our full acceptance and inclusion in American society.  For this, I’m sure you join me in being very thankful to God.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

View from Whiteface Mountain, New York

Sadly, the corresponding chapter in the history of our Church has yet to see the full light of day.  But let me suggest that the pages of that chapter are being written right here and right now, week in and week out, as we gather to celebrate in Word and in Sacrament the faith of our ancestors – a faith that, as today’s scriptures remind us, brings healing and liberation to those who both listen to and live God’s Word in daily life.

By now you all know that last fall marked the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.  One of often repeated beliefs frequently heard after Vatican II is that the Church is most fully itself when it gathers for Liturgy.  Today we have 3 scripture readings that remind us of this – two of them call to mind the Liturgy of the Word, and one of them reminds us of the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Ezra the priest reads to the people who have recently returned to Jerusalem form their long captivity in Babylon.  Jesus of Nazareth, “as was his custom,” entered the local synagogue, reads to a gathering of people who surely knew him well, and tells them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

And finally Paul, in that unusually long passage from his first letter to the Corinthians, reminds a somewhat troubled and fractured community that they are, indeed the very Body of the Christ in whose name they have been baptized.  When you hear those words, “Body of Christ,” I suspect that for many of us the first thing that comes to mind is the Eucharist – the bread which we will soon bless and break and share among us.  Those are, after all, the words to which we say “Amen!” when the minister of the Eucharist offers us the Communion.  Using the image of the human body, however, Paul provides us with a related and dare I say deeper meaning of what “Body of Christ” means.

Paul is writing to a group of Christians in about the year 55 – some 25 years or so after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  This small group of people – perhaps 50, but probably not much more – had embraced Paul’s message when he had traveled to the Greek city of Corinth the year before.  They had heard him preach, been baptized in Jesus’ name, and had made an initial commitment to what we today would call Christian discipleship.  In the year since Paul had gone to preach elsewhere, Paul has learned that things aren’t so good in Corinth.  He’s heard that there is tension and division and jealousy; that some people are straying from the message he had taught, that others are living what we can euphemistically call “less than virtuous” lives, and that they were neglecting the poor in their midst.

It is to this small group, this Church, that Paul writes. He probably knew all the people at least by face if not by name, just as we know one another gathered here.  He also knew that this was quite a diverse group of people – men and women; Jews and Gentiles; young and old; married and single and widowed; rich and poor; some free and sound bound in servitude and slavery – each with their own gifts and shortcomings, their own weaknesses and strengths. Knowing all this, Paul goes on great length comparing this community, this local Church, to a body.  Just like any human body has different parts that all must work together for the good of the whole, so must every member of this body work with all other members for the good of the whole.  And just like every part of a human body as its own unique purpose and function, so too does each member of this body have his or her own unique talents and skills and blessings to contribute to the greater good of the whole.  And so for Paul, the Body of Christ refers to you and me, gathered as we are in the name of Christ.  His words are clear: “… you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.”

Even though the Church today is very different than it was in Paul’s day – much larger and even more diverse than two thousand years ago – Paul’s message remains unchanged:  Through Baptism into his death and resurrection and through the sharing the One Bread and the One Cup, we are all members of the One Body of Christ.

As LGBT Catholics, we’ve often heard quite a different message from many quarters within our Church, haven’t we?  We’ve been told in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that we either are somehow de-formed parts of the Body of Christ, or that we aren’t even a part of that Body at all.  You and I know in our hearts that such claims are patently false.  We reject positions that would disparage our full humanity or our full Christianity – positions that would seek to exclude us from the Body of Christ.  And yet, hearing such claims as we sometimes do, we can feel like the hand or the foot or the eye that says to those other parts, “I do not need you.”  In our anger at being rejected, we can reject in turn those who dismiss us … especially those who wield great power within the Church and who … unlike the President in his speech … would never even speak the word “gay” let alone engage in fruitful dialogue with God’s LGBT sons and daughters.

And so for us, if God’s Word is to be fulfilled in our hearing, then there is a new challenge.  Like our Corinthian ancestors, we are called to see fellow members of the Body of Christ not only in the faces of one another gathered here – people whom we know and care for and even call friend – but also we are challenged to see as members of the Body of Christ those who may still be blinded by prejudice and bound by ignorance.  And … if our blindnesses are healed … we may even have cause to see some signs of hope for our Church.

Some gay Catholics were pleased, for example, to see seeds of hope in this week’s statement from the Bishops of France where, as you probably know, the issue of same-sex marriage is being hotly debated.  While their statement would hardly be endorsed by gay rights groups, the French bishops’ statement at least:  Recognizes that homosexuality has always existed; Rejects homophobia in any and all forms; Recognizes that there can be value in loving, committed same-sex relationships; and Recognizes that the concerns and needs of gay people themselves must be listened to directly.

The passage of Scripture that Luke tells us Jesus declared “fulfilled in their hearing” was from the prophet Isaiah.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.

May these same words of Scripture reminding us that we are Members of the Body of Christ, united in love for one another and called to bring God’s love to a world and a Church that is broken, be fulfilled in our hearing and usher in a new era of healing and liberation for all God’s holy people.

(material for parts of homily is drawn from a variety of sources, including homilies by Fr. Joseph Komonchak, In verbo veritas).

(c) Copyright 2013 – Timothy J MacGeorge

“The mystery of the Incarnation…..”

FeetCloseup“….is precisely the repositioning of God in the material world once and forever. Continual top-down religion often creates very passive, and even passive-dependent and passive-aggressive Christians. I know this as a Catholic priest for over 40 years. Bottom-up, or incarnational religion, offers a God we can experience for ourselves. We have nothing to fight or prove, just something to know for ourselves. This is what we are about to celebrate at Christmas.”

from Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation

“What should we do?” – Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent

Note: As I was heading out the door last night to church, I was moved almost to tears by the words of a young father, Robbie Parker, whose daughter Emilie was killed in Friday’s horrible event in Newtown. He began by extending his own family’s condolences to the many families who lost loved ones — including the shooter’s family!

December 15, 2012 / Dignity NoVA

I’ve been thinking and praying this past week about what words I might offer on this, the third Sunday of Advent.  As you know, I sometimes like to begin with a little levity, a little humor… and so thought about coming up with something humorous to say about the unique Liturgical color we have for today and our gathering as a community of LGBT Christians, because there’s no doubt something “gay” could be said in that regard! Some clergy, by the way, go to great lengths to make the point that the color is rose and not pink!

I also thought about pointing out that we have a unique Liturgical color because today, this Third Sunday of Advent, is also known in the Liturgical Calendar as “Gaudete” Sunday … Gaudete being the first word of the opening prayer of the Latin mass:  “Gaudete in Domino semper – Rejoice in the Lord always!” “Iterum dico, gaudete! – I say it again, Rejoice!”

But then … yesterday happened.  I had taken the day off from work on Friday, and I was proud of myself for not sleeping in too late and for going to the gym in the morning.  But then, on the way home, I heard the first coverage of the horrible tragedy that had only just occurred in Newtown, Connecticut.  I heard first on the radio, and then I turned on CNN as soon as I got inside.  I spent much of the day absorbed by the media coverage of that awful tragedy.  I also watched and even participated in various conversations online as people expressed their outrage, their anger, and their thoughts about the issues related to inadequate gun control laws and the insufficiencies of our fragmented mental health system.

And so, as I thought further about the liturgy for this evening, it didn’t seem like the appropriate time to be making light of things or trying to be humorous.  And, it seemed even less appropriate to be speaking about “Rejoicing” when there was clearly no rejoicing, but in fact just the opposite – such incomparable sadness and grief and a whole host of “non-rejoicing” emotions – unfolding in that small New England town, and dare I say, around the country and beyond.

The sudden and tragic deaths of twenty-eight people – most of whom were little children less then ten years old – have caught the world’s attention, as the emerging news of this sad event continues to do so even now.

And so I found myself – appropriately – focusing even more closely on the scriptures. The one line that I kept returning to over and over again is in that opening exchange in the Gospel of Luke where Luke has the crowd put this question to John the Baptist:  “What should we do?”  It’s a question that was spoken by many seeking to find some way to respond to yesterday’s sad event.

In the passage immediately preceding the Gospel passage we just listened to, followers of John the Baptist heard him speak forcefully his message of Repentance. They heard him minimize the significance of their claim to being “children of Abraham” – as if being “children of Abraham” would be enough to bring them to salvation.  But John tells them that God can raise up out of the very desert stones countless “children of Abraham,” so there’s really nothing special in that! They also heard him say that the ax is at the ready – ready to cut down those trees that do not produce good fruit – knowing full well that they were the trees about which he spoke.

And so they ask, “What should we do?”  They come asking not what we should believe, or what we should think.  They come not with a question about what is in the mind or even in the heart … but wanting to know what action they should pursue in order to come to know the salvation that the Baptizer proclaims.

John does not disappoint. And though it is certainly not meant to be exhaustive, he gives a list of things to do, actions to take, in order to be the true “children of Abraham.” These actions are ones that many – even many Christians – would reject out of hand.

  • Got two cloaks? Give one to someone who has none.
  • Got more food than you need? Give it to someone who has none.
  • Even to the tax collectors and soldiers who also ask what to do, he admonishes them not to abuse their power, but to use their authority with restraint, with honesty, and to be content with what wages they earn.

In short, John tells all to be attentive to the needs of the less fortunate, to be content with what we have so that others might not go without; and to use power and authority with restraint, free from abuse, and never use it to meet selfish or self-serving interests.  John’s “to do list” is rooted in a biblical sense of what is right and what is just, understanding that ultimately we can claim nothing as our own, that all is from God. To use language of a later theology, John reminds us that all is grace, and that if we are to live grace-filled lives, we must never forget the graciousness and justice of God.

I’m sure that this time of year – and even all year long – most of us try to support those in need and to be attentive to helping the less fortunate.  But the crowd’s question asked of John is one that we also ask, especially when faced with situations of confusion, of hurt, of anger, of rejection, or even of violence:  What should we do, how should we respond as people of faith and children of God?

Specific answers to that question each of us must find for ourselves. But, regardless of what struggle we face, what tragedy we encounter … we should remember this:  It is a fundamental truth of Christianity that no matter what has happened in the past, what might happen in the future, or even what is happening however horribly in the present, the Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, this very Jesus is in our midst right here and right now. It’s a Truth we proclaim so loudly every time we gather to break open the Word and to share in the Eucharist. This belief in the ever-presence of Jesus whom we call Lord should guide us in whatever we choose to do and in every action we choose to pursue. As Americans, we know that greed, selfishness, and abuse of power and position are still with us – and all-too-often with us in abundance. Where, we may ask, in our day is there a voice crying in the wilderness?  Perhaps what we should really ask is a question of ourselves:  What am I doing and what choices am I making to live a life of grace, turned always toward God by looking squarely in the eyes of my brothers and sisters, trying each and every day to live as fully as I can the Good News that John and Jesus proclaim?

(c) Copyright 2012 – Timothy J MacGeorge

Apocalypse and Presence: Homily for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dignity NoVA/DC – November 17/18, 2012* 

Rugged hills at Joshua Tree National Park

Readings

Apocalyptic.  That’s the word that describes the readings we just listened to, as we hear both Daniel and Jesus speak about “those days after the tribulation.” And if you have any doubt that these are, indeed, times of tribulation and impending doom…well, just listen to the news.  We can’t listen to the radio, or pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV without hearing of the impending “fiscal cliff” that lies ahead for the US economy and the dangers that await us all if we plunge off that cliff into some unknown abyss.  Some in our country who may have a particular outlook on politics and society see in the outcome of the recent elections signs that the end of civilization as we know it is surely in sight … After all, the presidential election did not go as they had hoped; the first openly gay woman has been elected to the US Senate, and the citizens of four US states voted either to recognize same-sex marriage explicitly, or at least not to prohibit it constitutionally.  But for me, however, the clearest signal that the end of the world is in sight came this week with the horrific news that Hostess is going out of business! What could be a more clear sign that the tribulation is at hand than the fact that Hostess Cup Cakes, Ding Dongs, Ring Dings and Twinkies are no more?!

Clearly, I’m joking.  But it is true that all of these things are happening in our world today, just as it’s true that they are reported or discussed with great urgency and angst.

It’s also just as true that these types of readings that we have on this, the second to last Sunday of our Liturgical year, can be difficult for many people, especially those who don’t understand what the Bible really is.  Those who think that the Bible is a single book and who take literally all that it contains fail to understand that the Bible is actually a collection of books – a small library, as it were – of books that were written over the course of many centuries, in different times and places, even in different languages, for different audiences and with different purposes.  Biblical literature comes in many genres – including poetry, history, gospel, as well as the type of apocalyptic literature that we have today.

Today’s first and third readings are clearly apocalyptic writings. Historically, this type of literature seems to arise in unsettled times, times when the authors experience either imagined, exaggerated, or very real tribulation and crisis.  It’s the kind of writing that comes about when people who are experiencing great hardship need to know that the hardship will not last forever and that they will survive.

Specifically, the passage from the Book of Daniel describes the time in the 2nd century BCE (Before the Christian Era) when Israel was occupied by the Syrians under the Syrian King Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Under his leadership, the Syrians tried to impose their language, culture and religion on the Jews. The Jews did not have the political or military strength to defeat the invaders, so they found solace in the belief that someday the Syrians would be defeated and leave. That belief gave them courage to endure present trials.  They clung to what we as Christians, speaking of the Resurrection, call the “sure and certain hope” that God and God’s goodness would ultimately prevail.

Our Gospel passage from Mark was written when the community of Christians was still quite young.  Christians were outsiders – and therefore despised by people and persecuted by the government. Although they were not seeking to replace Roman rule with Christian rule, it was this same experience of being excluded from the wider community that directed their vision to a world beyond the present day, to a time when their faith would be vindicated and the Reign of God, ushered in by God’s Son, would prevail.

I have to be honest and say that I typically pay little heed to Apocalyptic literature – even in the Scriptures.  Probably that’s because it seems to attract an odd type of person, but also because they tend to generate in us a sense of anxiety and worry over things that we can do nothing about.

And yet, I also have to wonder if there isn’t a message for us in our own day about what these sorts of writings have to say, some two millennia further down the road of history?  Is there a lesson to be learned, a truth to be uncovered, a pearl of wisdom to be appreciated in such writings?

Obviously the answer is yes.  Two things come to mind.  First, these writings, in drawing our attention to the future, remind us that the present day is passing away and that the world as we know it will not last forever.  Our experience of life and the world tells us that all things evolve and change and ultimately pass away … pass away into we know not what.  And so whether our future lasts for one year – or a trillion years – it really doesn’t matter, does it? Whether the Second Coming of Jesus happens in our lifetime or not – as it probably will not – it really doesn’t matter, does it?  What matters is, as one scripture scholar put it, we need to see these apocalyptic writings “not so much [as] a warning about the end of the world, [but rather] as … a commentary on living in it. This day, this moment, this life, … NOW is the time to bear the fruit” as faithful disciples of the Lord. Now is the time for us to live lives rooted in justice and charity.  These writings may draw our attention momentarily toward the future; but they also serve as a reminder that the only real moment we have is NOW.

And so NOW, we believe that life is meaningful and has purpose.  We believe that in some way unknown the hand of God is at work in human history.  We believe that goodness and not evil will have the last say.  And most especially – coming from our own experience as outsiders, as individuals and as part of communities who know what it means to be excluded – we believe that every person on the face of this earth reflects the eternal beauty of the Divine Image and is worthy of dignity, respect, and love.

As we come to the end of this church year, as we celebrate our national day of Thanksgiving this week, and even as we struggle as a Church, a Nation and a World to work together for the good of all, let us make our own the words of the Psalmist:  “You are my inheritance, O Lord! You will show me the path to life, fullness of joys in your presence, the delights at your right hand forever.”

*I typically draw upon many sources in preparing my homilies. But this one owes a particular debt to Roger Vermalen Karban and James Smith, Preaching Resources for the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Celebration Publications (www.celebrationpublications.com).

(c) Copyright 2012 – Timothy J MacGeorge

Homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Dignity Nova/DC – September 15/16, 2012

Readings

Our first reading for today should be very familiar.  It’s part of a long section from the prophet Isaiah that includes what scripture scholars refer to as the “four servant songs.”  Beginning in Chapter 40 and going through Chapter 53 of “second Isaiah” or “deutero Isaiah,” these poetic passages introduce the Servant of Yahweh in what we as post-resurrection Christians see as prophecies about the Messiah.  The sacred author describes this Servant:

  • First, as Chosen – “My chosen one in whom my soul delights.”
  • Second, as Missioned – “I will make you a light to the nations.”
  • Fourth, as Suffering – “He was oppressed and afflicted; … like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.”

It’s from the third of such poetic songs that we hear today, as the Servant of God is described as steadfast and obedient. Even when faced with the violence and cruelty of rejection, God’s Servant has set his face “like flint,” trusting in the presence and promise of God, believing that whatever may befall him, God is there.

That’s the backdrop by which we must hear the words of Mark in today’s Gospel. Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” It’s a prelude to the real question that the disciples must answer – and one that we must answer as well:  Jesus wants to know, “Who do you say that I am?” This is a question not of Identity, but of Being.  Jesus wants to know if they have yet grasped who HE IS?

And while Jesus must surely have been pleased with Peter’s quick declaration, “You are the Christ – the anointed one – the Messiah,” we know that Peter the Rock quickly becomes Peter the stumbling block.  In not wanting to accept the fact that Jesus’ Messiah-ship is different than what he (Peter) thinks it should be, Peter in that all-too-human, cocky, “just like a guy” kind of way, stops being a disciple, a learner, a follower … and figuratively jumps out in front of Jesus.  Peter at least did have the good sense to rebuke Jesus in private – and you can almost see the two off to the side with Peter saying some version of, “Hey, look Boss, you’re supposed to be the Messiah, not some common criminal who is going to suffer and get rejected and get killed. Where’s the victory in that? Where’s the Kingdom in that? You’re sounding not like a winner, but like the worst possible loser.  C’mon, get with the program!”

But Jesus will have none of it.  Then, Jesus does an interesting thing.  He “turns around” and looks at his disciples, and then he rebukes Peter.  It’s almost as if both by his actions and his words, Jesus teaches Peter the lesson he needs to learn.  Jesus rebukes Peter, calling him “Satan” and telling him to “get behind me.” In doing so, Jesus is telling Peter that he has forgotten who is the leader and who is the disciple.  What Jesus is saying is that ‘on this, my journey of doing the will of the Father – a journey that leads ultimately to rejection and pain and suffering and even death – you as my disciple belong behind me, not in front of me. I am leading the way, because I am doing the will of my Abba/Father. ’

And then, Jesus speaks in a way that certainly must have been confusing to those disciples and the crowd that heard him – as it’s certainly something confusing to us.  The Christian scriptures and the teachings of Jesus are often filled with paradox.  Paradox is the sort of statement that seems contradictory; it’s the type of statement or declaration that makes no sense to our rational, logical, Western way of thinking – to what many spiritual guides calls the dualistic mind.  If the way we experience life and the world and others and reality is dualistic – namely, always in terms of right and wrong, good and bad, yes and no, in and out, included and excluded, black and white … or, for that matter … Democrat and Republican, male and female, American and foreigner, rich and poor, gay and straight, young and old… the list could go on and on! … if we experience the world only on this way, then we will never fully understand and grasp the many paradoxes of Christian faith.  In this instance, Jesus proclaims what is perhaps the ultimate paradox of Christianity – life means death, and death is life. “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.

Earlier this week I was listening to an audio book by a psychotherapist who has worked in the gay community for a long time.  He made a comment almost in passing that struck me.  He said that we as gay people – especially gay men and women of a certain age, though I suspect it’s true of many of us regardless of age – sometimes have difficulty accessing our feelings, sometimes have difficulty being fully aware of our emotional self.  And, he pointed out, when we do have access to that side of ourselves and are “in touch with our emotions,” the feeling that very many of us have the easiest access to is our anger.  The therapist was making this point in the context of gay men and their relationships, having grown up largely in a society and culture that was, more likely than not, unwelcoming. Having to hide who we are for much of our lives, being taught by the dominant culture that we are some sort of abominable aberration, and having the experience of being rejected in so many direct and indirect ways – it’s no wonder that many of us have such anger.  As I heard that, what struck me was not only the probable truth of his observation, but also how equally true it probably is for us as Gay Catholics in our religious context of “the Church.” Perhaps I’m just speaking for myself and engaging in a little projection, but I know that I have anger – dare I say, a “righteous anger?” – toward the institution I love so dearly called Church.  I suspect I’m not alone in saying that.

Whether we can see that in ourselves or not, each of us is challenged by the Gospel of Jesus to follow him even when and perhaps especially when we experience anger, when we feel hurt, when we know pain, and when we are rejected.  In those situations our first tendency is to be not like Jesus or the Servant of God, but rather like Peter, isn’t it?  Our inclination is to put up our defenses, saying this isn’t how it’s supposed to be, and change the game plan to what we want. Now … don’t get me wrong… I’m not saying that situations that give rise to anger and hurt and pain and rejection are necessarily part of God’s plan and that we should simply be passive and docile in the face of what may truly be situations of injustice or even evil.  What I AM saying is that the mind and heart we must bring to those situations – and really to every person and every situation in life – is the mind of Jesus, the heart of the one sought always to know and do the will of God.  After all, doesn’t the passage from the Letter of James remind us that action is essential to a life of faith … that claims of faithfulness are empty and meaningless if we don’t put that faith into concrete practice that make better the lives of others in need? Let our prayer this day and every day be that we do, indeed, have what it takes to be faithful disciples of Jesus, following him wherever the Spirit of God may lead us.

(c) Copyright 2012 – Timothy J MacGeorge