“Give them some food yourselves”

Homily for the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time – July 30/31, 2011
Dignity NoVA/DC

Readings: Is: 55: 1-3, Rom 8:35;37-39, Mt. 14:13-21

One of the inescapable aspects of human life is that we all wear many hats. Almost from the day we are born we play different parts and relate in different ways to the people and situations of our lives. We begin as children, sons and daughters of our parents or caretakers. We may have siblings with whom we relate as sister or brother. Later we become playmates and friends; students and athletes. As we grow older and mature, we become workers; boyfriends and girlfriends; perhaps even someone’s “significant other” or spouse, and maybe even a mother or father to children of our own. Some of these roles are relational, based on our connections with others; while some of them are more functional, based on what we do or activities in which we engage.

Today we have listened to Matthew’s accounting of a miracle story that must have been so important to the early Christian communities that it is recounted in all four Gospels. It’s the story of the feeding of the multitudes. As with many gospel stories that are so familiar to us, it’s very easy to miss some of the significant and very telling details. When I first read this particular passage in preparing for today, something struck me that I had never taken notice of before. It’s that first line, delivered almost parenthetically, in which Matthew says, “When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist…” It’s easy to miss that the reason Jesus gets into a boat and goes off by himself, alone, … is because he’s in mourning. He has just heard the sad news, delivered directly by the disciples of his cousin John, that his cousin has been brutally killed. Immediately before this sentence, Matthew tells of the terrible way in which Herod – fulfilling the request of his niece who danced for him at his birthday – had ordered John to be beheaded, his head presented on a silver platter. Hearing this news from eyewitnesses directly, is it any wonder that Jesus wants some time to be alone with his grief, and to mourn in solitude, the way any grieving family member would do?

And yet, the crowds who knew of his preaching, will not let him be. In the previous chapter, Jesus had delivered a number of sermons which biblical scholars call “Kingdom Parables.” Jesus gives numerous examples of what “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” It is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; it is like a mustard seed that grows to be the largest of plants; it is like the yeast a woman mixes with three measures of wheat flour; and it is like a treasure buried in field, or a net thrown into the sea.

This is the background of what we listen to today. And even though Jesus wanted to be alone, wanted to honor his role as the cousin of John the Baptizer, Matthew tells us that his heart is moved with pity at the sight of so many people who came to hear him, who knew him as the one who spoke of God and the Reign of God for which they longed. I don’t need to recount the story, but there’s another element that we can so easily miss. Up until this point, the disciples of Jesus, the ones who even now encourage Jesus to tell the crowds to go away, have largely been observers of his preaching and the miracles he has accomplished. The hat they have worn, the role they have played has largely been passive and receptive.

With this event, however, the disciples begin to take on a new role. They begin to mature in their role as disciples and become active participants in the miracle that unfolds. They bring to Jesus what little they have for just themselves; at Jesus’ direction they distribute the 7 items of blessed food – five loaves and two fishes – to the thousands now seated in this deserted place; and they gather up the leftovers, filling 12 wicker baskets. The symbolism of these numbers is important – for 7 was the number of known Gentile nations, and 12 the number of the Tribes of Israel. In short, Matthew is telling us that the message of Jesus about the Kingdom of Heaven, is for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike.  Matthew is reminding us that NO ONE – no nation, no race, no people, no tribe, no clan, no group, no person – is excluded from the bounteous goodness and reign of God. He is saying, in effect, that Jesus fulfills the word of Isaiah in that if we listen to Jesus, we will “eat well” and “delight in rich fare.” If we come to Jesus and don’t just merely “listen” but listen “heedfully,” … then we will have life itself.

Each week we gather here wearing the many hats of the roles of our current lives. At times, one such role may be more prominent than the other. But if we are to be faithful followers, faithful disciples of Jesus, we must do in our own lives what the disciples do in today’s Gospel. We must heed the command of Jesus to give food to our brothers and sisters who hunger. As we look at the world around us, let’s be careful not to spiritualize away the hunger that Matthew speaks of. Yes, the hunger of the spirit must be fed, and we must not be afraid to live in the light as disciples of Jesus. But so too must the hunger of the belly, the hunger of the body, be nourished. In saying that, I am so very mindful of not only the thousands and thousands of our fellow citizens – mostly children – who go to bed hungry every day; but I am also so very mindful of the millions upon millions of people around the world – especially in the drought-stricken countries of East Africa, where the lack of food has pushed hunger into starvation. Hunger and starvation in AfricaThe United Nations estimates that 12.5 million people in countries in the horn of Africa are on the brink of starvation, lacking water and the simplest of food; and, if aid is not increased to help, by the middle of September 2,500 women, men and children will die each day.

Like those first disciples, we too are called not simply to sit by the sidelines. Rather, Jesus speaks to us today, as he did two thousand years ago: “Give them some food yourselves.”

All Are Welcome — Homily for Trinity Sunday

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity
Dignity NoVA/DC
June 18/19 2011

This is probably one of the least “theological” homilies I’ve ever given. The homily, after all, is supposed to “break open the Word of Scripture,” it’s supposed to be the time when we explore the meaning of what we’ve just listened to, when we take time to reflect on God’s Word and try to come to deeper understanding of the stories of our ancestors in Faith, seeking to see the Hand of God at work in our lives today, just as they saw the Hand of God at work actively in their lives so many centuries ago.  The homily is an exercise in what might be called “theological reflection,” a time to reflect on and offer a lot of words about “The Word.”  And yet, today we celebrate what is formally called the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, this Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost that draws our attention to one of the most basic elements of our Christian faith, our belief that we express physically every time we sign ourselves with the Sign of the Cross and remind ourselves that the God in Whom we express faith is not just One, but rather Three in One.  Whether we speak of Father, Son and Holy Ghost or Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifying Spirit …. Christians believe that God is fundamentally Mystery, Three in One in way that we can’t fully understand and surely can’t adequately express in words.

In fact, there’s a story about St. Augustine, the great theologian, who was walking along the shore of the ocean, pondering the Mystery of the Trinity, trying to understand the Trinity in new and different ways.  He came across a child who had dug a hole in the sand and was busy pouring bucket after bucket of water from the ocean into the sandy hole.  Augustine asked what he was doing, the boy replied: “I’m going to pour all the water of the sea into this hole.” Augustine told him, “That’s impossible. The whole ocean will never fit into that small hole you’ve dug.”  The boy looked at him and said, “In the same way, you can never fit the Trinity into the smallness of your human mind.”  And with that … the boy disappeared.

And so, because at the end of the day there’s very little that can be said about the Trinity Who is Mystery, I’m not even going to try.  Instead, I’m going to tell you what happened to me last weekend! The Trinity may be about “Three Divine Persons in One God,” but my story is about “three priests in one weekend.”  And no, that’s not the beginning of a bad joke with an even worse punch line, but it sums up what I experienced a little bit last weekend as I headed home to Massachusetts for my nephew’s high school graduation.  It’s the story of three encounters with three very different priests. Each of these gives a little insight into the different ways in which “the Church” interacts with the community of which we are a part, God’s gay and lesbian children.

As I was waiting last Thursday to catch a flight to Boston, I had the thought that I would probably see a priest on my flight – Boston being such a Catholic city.  And, sure enough, I did run into a priest whom I actually knew, a man who had been a seminary professor of mine years ago.  And although we never discussed these matters at length, the only time the subject of homosexuality ever came up, even in a roundabout way, leads me to believe that he would probably be supportive of the Church’s official positions against things like same-sex marriage or a more progressive view of human sexuality. Priest Number 1.

After I landed and picked up my rental car, I began the 90 minute drive from Boston down to Cape Cod where my sister lives.  I hadn’t had any lunch, so I stopped south of Boston to get a bite to eat.  And as I paid for the burrito I had ordered at a Chipotle restaurant, I turned and saw Priest # 2 – a guy I had been in the seminary with me, ordained a few years after me.  Dan – not his real name – left active ministry more than a decade ago in part because he found he could no longer minister in a Church that denied the full humanity of LGBT people. In fact, the Church’s position on this left him so angered and hurt, it virtually caused him to turn away from faith almost entirely. To this day, faith and religion practically have no place whatsoever in the life that he shares lovingly and openly with his partner of six years.

And so now we come to priest # 3.  He’s the only one whose real name I’m going to tell.  He’s also a friend of mine, a guy who was ordained four years after me, and is now the pastor of a vibrant, inner city parish in Boston.  Some of you, I know, saw the newspaper stories about what happened at St. Cecilia’s parish last weekend, and what the pastor, my friend Fr. John Unni did in response.  As part of its Rainbow Ministry to the gay and lesbian community, St. Cecilia’s had scheduled a special liturgy for this weekend with the particular theme, “All Are Welcome.” Well, because this Liturgy coincided with the Gay Pride events celebrated during this month of June, some anonymous people thought this was just unacceptable, and their complaints apparently caused the archdiocese of Boston to intervene and force the cancellation of that Liturgy.  And, although that is indeed what happened, John still had the courage to stand up at Masses last week and preach the Gospel message that … at least in St. Cecilia’s Parish … ALL means ALL, and all indeed are welcome not as the Church or anyone else says they should be, but all are welcomed “AS THEY ARE.”  Essentially John was preaching the message that – just as the Trinity is a community of Persons most notably characterized by love – so too is the Church of Jesus called to be a community of persons brought together in love, brought together as we are, as God made us – young, old, male, female, black, white, gay, straight, rich, poor, immigrant, native-born – each and everyone of us is – or, better yet, should be – welcomed in the family of God.

During this past week, I’ve read any number of commentaries and blogs about what happened at St. Cecilia’s and its pastor. The conservatives condemn the parish and pastor for doing anything to welcome gay people; while the writers on the left condemn the pastor for not acting more boldly, for not defying the Archdiocese and going forward with the cancelled liturgy anyway.  I don’t envy my friend John, or the place he now finds himself in.  However, as another John, John the Evangelist tells us so powerfully in today’s Gospel reading, God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world.  Rather, Jesus came in the world as the very embodiment of unconditional divine love.

If Jesus came not to condemn, but rather to welcome, to accept, and to love – how can the Church of Jesus do anything less?

Homily for the 5th Sunday of Easter – May 22, 2011

Dignity NoVA/Washington

There is a story based on that line from today’s gospel about Jesus going to prepare a place for his faithful disciples.  It’s the story of a very wealthy man who died and went to heaven.  He was met at the gates of heaven by Jesus, true to his word that he would prepare a place for his followers.  Jesus led the man down many beautiful roads and streets, on the sides of which were beautiful homes. Each one was very different and unique, some larger, some smaller, some with beautiful gardens and landscapes – and as you looked at them, you could almost tell that they outwardly exemplified the character of the person who dwelled there. Finally they came to the end of a road and off to the side, behind some overgrown brush was a hut, a shack made of very cheap material, with no windows or even a door in the door frame. When the man realized that this was his new dwelling place, he asked Jesus why he was getting this rundown place when there were so many beautiful homes and dwelling places.  Jesus simply looked at him and sighed and said, “Well, we did the best we could with what you sent us.”

I tell that story not simply for the humor in it, but because I think it does, in its own way, have a message for us today, especially as we find ourselves living in what everyone calls “tough economic times.” In such a period some in our world see a growing disparity between rich and poor, between those who enjoy many of the blessings of this world and those who struggle day in and day out to have the most basic human needs met. And … lest we think that the recognition of such tensions are new, or that they came to be only with the writings of Karl Marx and are expressive of some sort of “socialism” which most Americans find anathema … we need only listen to today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles.  There, it is quite clear that there is a growing tension between one group and another, between those who have their needs met, and those who “are being neglected” in the daily distribution of the things that were held in common.  In this “daily distribution,” the Greek-speaking widows in this early community of disciples were clearly relegated to second class citizenship, not being treated as equals, not being treated like the widows from the Hebrew and Aramaic-speaking part of the community were treated.

I don’t think we have to look very far to see that the labels of “second-class” or “third-class citizenship” – or even “no citizenship at all” – apply to countless millions here in our own country.  There are indeed many who, like the Greek widows, “are being neglected” – a neglect that comes about because of the ways that we as a nation and as a world decide to spend our common and shared resources.  Perhaps you heard recently about a letter than some 70 Catholic theologians sent to John Boehner in the days before he gave the commencement address at Catholic University last Sunday.  While written very respectfully for the office he holds, the theologians representing a wide spectrum of views and approaches, pulled no punches in stating the following:  Mr. Speaker, your voting record is at variance from one of the Church’s most ancient moral teachings. From the apostles to the present, the Magisterium of the Church has insisted that those in power are morally obliged to preference the needs of the poor.” They then went on at length to point out some specific elements of the current budget process which – in their view – seem to be at odds with Gospel values and Catholic social teaching, and they called on the Speaker to sign what a number of Catholic Bishops and over 50 other Christian leaders of national organizations have signed.  A “Circle of Protection” is a pledge that seeks to put into practice at the national level Jesus’ call to treat “the least of these” as we would treat Jesus Himself, being sure that “the voice of those who have no voice” is heard when decisions that affect all of us are being made by those whom we’ve elected.

Now, I say all this not because I wish to make a political point, to say that the positions of Mr. Boehner are wrong and that the positions of those who oppose him are right. We all recognize the complexities of the issues and challenges that we as a nation and a world face. Would that they could be solved as easily as the Apostles dealt with the problem they faced, simply by appointing others from among the community to carry on a neglected ministry, the ministry of diakonia / of service.  Rarely do complex problems admit of easy solutions. Nonetheless, our Christian faith constantly reminds us that we must never lose sight of the simplicity of the goal … a goal which the Apostles achieved by ensuring that ALL in the community were cared for, were welcomed at table, and had their rightful share in that “daily distribution” of what was held in common.

And so, recalling that humorous story of the man disappointed with his dwelling place in heaven, let us take a moment today and in the days this week to ask ourselves, through our actions and our lives here on earth, what are we sending to Jesus who, even now, is preparing a dwelling place in heaven? What have I done today to care for the least among us, to care for those “who are neglected”?  What will I do tomorrow to express my faith and carry on the work of the Lord in the communities of which I am a part? And, believing in a God of infinite love as we do, I suspect there’s room not just for 144,000, but for all God’s children who, as Jesus says, have faith in him and do his works.

Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent

Third Sunday of Lent (Year A)
Dignity Nova/DC – March 26/27, 2011

Although we in this Dignity community hear these particular readings only every third year – following, as we do, the 3 year cycle of our Lectionary – there are many, many parishes that hear these readings and this Gospel story about Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well every year. The reason for that is those parishes have an active RCIA program – they regularly have adults who have either never been baptized or who are seeking to complete their initiation through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the RCIA. In those parishes, this Third Sunday of Lent marks the first of 3 very important “steps” in that ritualized process. Two Sundays ago, they would have gathered at their Cathedral with their godparents and the local Bishop, and the unbaptized would have declared in a public way their intention to be initiated into the death and resurrection of Christ through the Easter sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. While previously they would have been called Catechumens – students, really – interested in studying and learning about Christianity – now they are called the Elect, having been publicly accepted by those of us who already bear the name of Christian into these Lenten weeks of preparation of prayer, fasting, and the doing of good works.

This particular Sunday, the Third Sunday of Lent, those Elect are gathering at their parish’s principal liturgy, along with their godparents, and they are celebrating the first of what are called The Scrutinies. In two weeks they will hear perhaps the ultimate gospel story outside of the Passion Narratives that tell how Jesus’ has power even over death as they listen to the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Next week they will hear how Jesus brings vision and light to the Man Born Blind; and today they hear the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan Woman at the Well as he declares himself to be “Living Water.”

It sounds like such a cliché for me even to say this, but it really is true that we could spend hours talking about this Gospel story we just heard, so filled it is with depth and meaning.

  • We could, for example, take note of how the Gospel writer has Jesus speak 7 times in his conversation with the woman, using that biblical number of fullness, like the 7 days of a week, to symbolically suggest that an encounter with Jesus brings wholeness; OR
  • We could discuss how Jesus pays little heed to established gender roles by engaging an un-chaperoned woman in conversation in a public place and at a time of day where a woman would never be by herself; OR
  • We could see how these gender roles continue to be ignored as the Gospel author puts the woman in the role of evangelizer, being the one who bears witness to Jesus to the men in the town square.

However, the point I want to draw our attention to is neither of these, but rather to what the conversation these two have is all about. The instruction for the RCIA instructs the Elect to come forward after the homily. At that time special prayers – prayers which are rightfully called Exorcisms – will be prayed over them as the community encourages them to continue on their journey of faith, asking God to free them from sin and from all that hinders what the RCIA itself calls “progress in genuine self knowledge through serious examination of their lives and true repentance.”

When we think about it, isn’t that what not only Lent but the entire Christian life is all about – progressing in “genuine self knowledge through serious examination” of our lives, as we seek meaning, purpose, satisfaction and fulfillment? Our thirst that seems never to be satisfied is what makes us work so hard to succeed in this life – whether that be in school, or the workplace, in a sport we enjoy, or some other activity that gives us pleasure. That thirst is also what brings us here, week in and week out; it’s what underlies the longings of our hearts as we strive to do what is good and right; as we strive to seek justice in this world, and to be agents of change in the face of established, sinful social structures that all too often keep people from realizing their full humanity as beloved children of God, from their rightful place at the table of God’s People.

Certainly it is good and typical that we have such thirst. After all, is there anyone here who can honestly say that when you look at the entirety of your life, you are fully satisfied? Is there anyone here who has no unmet goal, no unfulfilled hope, no dream yet to be realized? Is there anyone here whose relationships are perfectly satisfying, whose health is without flaw, and who has achieved everything you ever set out to achieve? If there is, I suspect you’d be the envy of us all! Simply articulating those questions demonstrates that there isn’t one person on this planet who is not unfulfilled in one way or another. As this Gospel story unfolds, it’s clear that one of the main messages Jesus brings to this woman, and one which she in turn bears to others, is that it is Jesus himself who is Living Water and is the One who can and does satisfy every longing of our hearts, every thirst we have, if only we could be as open and honest and vulnerable as she is.

But before we jump too quickly to the end of this dialogue that Jesus has with this woman – a woman whose life and past and shortcomings he already knows – let’s pause for just a moment. What is the very first thing Jesus says to her, the first words out of his mouth? “Give me drink.” Give me a drink. The encounter’s focus starts out not with the thirst that the woman – and by extension we – have; but rather on the thirst that Jesus has. In reaching out to her – and to us – Jesus reminds us of God’s never-ending thirst for us; and not just for “us” in general, for “humanity” writ large. Jesus’s encounter with the woman at the well proclaims that God thirsts for and longs for and desires each and every one of us … including you and me and all those countless others whom society or church says “you’re not good enough.” Like his words, “I thirst” spoken on the Cross, Jesus – whom we believe is the en-fleshed presence of God in the world – became one like us precisely because of that eternal thirst of God to be loved by each and every one of us, the ones God created in Love.

Lent is a time when we are all called to be like that unnamed woman at the well in Samaria – a woman not perfect, a woman “with a past,” but more importantly a woman whose openness and faith satisfied the thirst of Jesus such that in turn she came to know his loving touch and was able to drink freely from the life-giving water he offers.

Homily for the 4th Sunday of the Year (January 29/30, 2011)

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Jan. 29/30, 2011)
Dignity NoVA / DC

Readings: Zep 2:3; 3:12-13; 1 Cor 1:26-31; Mt 5:1-12a

These Beatitudes from the Gospel of Matthew come at the beginning of what is commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount or sometimes “The Great Sermon.” The author of Matthew’s Gospel goes to great lengths to “set the stage,” as it were, like any good director of a play or movie, to make sure that the readers of his Gospel know how important these Beatitudes and this Sermon are to fully understanding the message of Jesus.  The Gospel writer, for example, starts off by saying that Jesus “went up the mountain,” consciously evoking the image of Moses who went up the mountain to receive the Commandments, to be the bearer of God’s Law to the Israelites.  No matter that the geography of where Jesus was at the time doesn’t really have a “mountain” per se … the point is that Jesus is the New Moses, the New Lawgiver … and that what he is about to say is a revelation from God.

The Gospel writer continues to set the scene by making the point that Jesus “sat down.”  Being seated is the position of a teacher, a rabbi, a wise person to whom others come to seek insight and understanding.  And that is, in fact, what happens next.  Jesus’ disciples come to him, they gather around this seated teacher and wait.  The translation we listened to then simply says that Jesus “began to teach them,” as it leads in to the Beatitudes themselves.  However, the original text paints a more descriptive picture. The Greek text says, “…and he opened his mouth and begin to teach them.”

All of this the Gospel writer does to make sure that Jesus has our full attention, that we are closely attending to what is to come. And the reason we need to pay close attention is because what Jesus says doesn’t seem to make sense. Like so much of what he says, these Beatitudes don’t seem to fit with our experience of the world.  In fact, one of the standard points one hears whenever there’s a discussion of the Beatitudes is that they turn upside down the values of the world.  They take what most would see as conventional wisdom and turn it on its head.  For example, what is so good about being poor or poor in spirit? Why would Jesus claim as blessed those who grieve and are in mourning? Where in your experience is meekness seen as a virtue, and why would Jesus proclaim as blessed those who are persecuted and lied about and condemned by others?

To be sure, our world does at least pay lip service to the virtues of being merciful and seeking peace, but do we really hold these in high esteem?  Do most people in our war-torn and violent world really live their lives by showing mercy when we have the chance, or by doing what we can do not only to pray for peace, but actually to promote peace in our actions as well as our words?

To get a bit of an insight into these Beatitudes and the “newness” of the law and message that Jesus was preaching, our first reading from the prophet Zephaniah may be helpful.  This prophet is not one we read very often.  There is heaviness in much of what he wrote, but one of his most enduring contributions to our understanding is his assertion that God is concerned for the poor ones of our world – in Hebrew, the anawim.  In the culture of the time, being “poor” isn’t solely about economic condition, though it’s certainly connected to that in some way.  Being poor, rather, is about having lost status in some way or another. It’s about being outside the social order, outside the group.  Thus, the widow or orphans were seen to be poor in this sense, because she or they lost their social status with the death of a husband or parents.

The question remains, however … why would the poor, or the poor in spirit, be said to be blessed or highly esteemed? What could possibly be so good about being considered without status or power or position in any group or culture or society? The answer is that such poverty, such lack of status means that the poor ones – the anawim – are freed from the illusion that status or power or position have lasting value. Jesus proclaims the poor as blessed, as honored – as the truly lucky ones esteemed by God – because they are freed from the burden of what the world and others say is important and are almost forced by the sometimes harsh and difficult circumstances of their lives to rely on the One who is always dependable and eternally reliable.

Perhaps the truth of this is most explicitly stated in the final beatitude in which Jesus first states a general blessing using the third person, and then speaks directly to his disciples using the second person. “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.”

This past week was a busy one for news.  We saw the President’s State of the Union address and the various responses to it; the bombing of the Moscow airport; the continued violence and unrest in Egypt, as well as the continued stories about our own troubled economy and what the newly-elected Congress may have on its agenda. In the midst of all these “big stories,” you may have missed the one about the murder of one man in Uganda.  David Kato was 46 years old. He was a short, very slightly built man who had become known as an activist within the Ugandan gay community – especially in the wake of having his picture on the cover of a Ugandan tabloid that called, literally, for the killing of homosexuals in that country where homosexuality is a criminal offense.  In its call to “hang them,” the newspaper provided the names and addresses of 100 gay and lesbian Ugandans. The paper’s call was fulfilled earlier this week when Mr. Kato was beaten to death, having been attacked with a hammer to the head.

It is coverage of the story, CNN interviewed another gay Ugandan, a lesbian named Stosh Mugisha, about her experience of also having been identified in that same newspaper story. At one point in the interview, as she told about feeling too scared to leave her home because neighbors had gathered outside and were shouting that she was a homosexual, and stones were being thrown at her house throughout the night, the interviewer asked “Was it sad for you” to see this happen in your own home, your neighborhood, your own community?  With tears in her eyes she responded, “Yes I felt so sad, it’s what made me want to leave the place, because these are people with whom I used to share … I felt I was betrayed.”  “But,” she said after pausing to wipe her tears, “I had to just understand that they didn’t know what they were doing…”

Does that sound familiar?  “They didn’t know what they were doing.” This woman – someone whom Zephaniah would clearly have named as among the anawim, the outcasts of society, someone who (in the words of St. Paul) was not powerful and whom her society counted for nothing – this gay Ugandan woman was able in the midst of her own persecution to see the humanity of those who literally sought to stone her to death.  I have no idea whether she is a Christian or whether or not she ever heard of Jesus, but clearly she carried the mind and heart of Jesus within her … and may those of us who call ourselves Christian have faith enough to do the same.

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!”