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

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Jan. 29/30, 2011)
For the communities of Dignity/NoVA at Emmanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Arlington, VA and Dignity/Washington at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Washington, 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.

The Present Moment of the World in Which We Live: Homily for the 1st Sunday of Advent (2009)

For the communities of Dignity/NoVA at Emmanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Arlington, VA and Dignity/Washington at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC.

First Reading: Jer 33:14-16
Second Reading: 1 Thes 3:12-4:2
Gospel: Lk 21:25-28, 34-36

I was invited by a friend to join him and some of his family and other friends for Thanksgiving.  At one point in the conversation as one of the friends was trying to coax our host’s sister into telling us stories about him from childhood, we began to discuss some basic differences between individuals, including the degree to which someone is more of a “planner” or more “impromptu” and able to fly by the seat of one’s pants. Some of us clearly self-identified as ones who like to have things very ordered, structured, and planned out in great detail – while others of us were much more laid back, able to go with the flow, and take things as they come.

Well, regardless of our preferred way of approaching life, all of us know that things don’t always go according to plan and that what we envision things will be like at some point in the future often needs to be periodically adjusted with the passage of time and in response to the reality of changed circumstances.  This is a fact of life – true for individuals, for families, for companies, for societies, and even for communities of faith.  Although there are some who would like their community of faith – the Church – to be timeless and never changing, even our earliest scriptures tell us that this was never the way it was.

In fact, within the very first half-century of Christianity, our ancestors in the faith needed to make two very significant adjustments precisely because things weren’t going as they thought they would.  These two adjustments were rooted in their lived experience of life – in the reality that “Life Happens.” The first adjustment had to do with their understanding of when Jesus would come back – when his promised return to usher in fully the Reign of God, would take place.  The second – because of the first – had to do with their understanding of the steps required for a non-Jew, a Gentile, to become a Christian. Originally it was believed that in order to become a follower of Jesus and member of the Christian community, a gentile must first convert to Judaism, as Christianity was seen by those outside and inside the Christian community as a “reform of Judaism” movement.  Over time – this perspective changed. This perspective – which answered an utterly fundamental question – “what is Christianity?” – gave way to a new and evolved understanding, a different perspective that was informed not only by the passage of time, but by the lived experience of people unfamiliar with Judaism who heard the Gospel message. Our second reading today comes from what is probably the oldest scripture in the New Testament – Paul’s first letter to the community at Thessalonica. These were mostly gentiles who were not familiar with Judaism, yet who heard the preaching of Paul and were drawn to follow Jesus.  They were not required to convert to Judaism as part of their path to Christian discipleship – they were not required to follow the 613 Laws of Moses in order to be faithful Christians. Rather – they were simply to follow what Paul instructed them to do – to “abound in love for one another and for all” – essentially to live lives that were loving and just.

This change in how a gentile could become a Christian was partly influenced by the realization that the Second Coming of Jesus – originally thought to be just around the corner – was probably not happening any time soon. And so the first followers of Jesus – whom we can imagine as having both eyes gazing heavenward as they awaited Jesus’ return – began to realize that perhaps they needed to have at least one eye focused not on the skies above, but on the earth below, on the world around them.

Today we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of a new liturgical year. And while many around us are focused on putting the holiday shopping season into high gear, our history and liturgical tradition draw our attention to this period of four weeks which is often spoken of in terms of anticipation, expectation and hope.  Each of these is among the traditional words used to describe Advent.  From the Latin meaning a coming, or coming towards – Advent is a season that invites us to reflect not only on the First Coming of Jesus in time some two thousand years ago, but also the second coming of Jesus at the end of time.

I suppose that’s one of the reasons why we have for our gospel reading a passage that seems at first a bit out of sequence.  We have a reading that sounds like it belongs more at the end of the year rather than at the beginning. When we think of this time of year, we think about those scripture stories that prepare us for the birth of Jesus. This year – Year C in our liturgical cycle of readings – we will be reading largely form the Gospel of Luke.  And beginning next week we will start to hear some of those beautiful Lucan stories that are referred to as the “Infancy Narrative.” But today on this the First Sunday of Advent, we hear a passage not from the beginning chapters of Luke, but one from the 21st chapter. Luke presents Jesus telling his followers about the end of the world, speaking in an unusually apocalyptic tone. But even as Luke presents Jesus as saying these things – things that seem to direct our eyes heavenward – Luke also reminds of what is most important. Today’s Gospel reading leaves out a small parable that occurs between the beginning lines and the ending lines of what we just listened to. In the so-called “parable of the fig tree,” Jesus states that “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.”

Living that Word here and now is the challenge before every Christian. The Living Word is always found at the intersection between Faith and the present moment of the World in which we live. Bringing these together isn’t always easy. In some ways it seems particularly challenging this year, because at first glance, the present moment of the world in which we live doesn’t seem all that receptive to folks like you and me. In fact, in some ways one could say that the world and our Church are becoming less – not more – welcoming to the LGBT community.

  • On the political front, voters in Maine joined voters from many states around the country when they rejected same-sex marriage for their gay and lesbian neighbors;
  • The Vatican welcomes Anglicans who no longer feel at home in their own communion – not because the Anglican Communion has denied the divinity of Christ or abandoned the Nicene Creed, but because they do not like their church’s positions on women in ministry and same-sex unions;
  • In Uganda – where homosexual activity is already criminalized – there is strong support, even from those who call themselves Christian, for legislation that would expand this criminalization and impose the death penalty in certain circumstances;
  • And, closer to home, numerous Catholic bishops – including Washington, DC’s own Archbishop Donald Wuerl – have signed the so-called “Manhattan Declaration” which labels same-sex relationships as examples of “immoral conduct” and compares such loving unions to polygamy and incest.

Perhaps that’s why it’s so important that we take our Advent theme to heart this year.  That theme – “Dignity: Tell Your Friends” – invites us to tell our friends, our families, our colleagues and neighbors who we are and what we have to say to the world.  It invites them to come here as they are – to pray with us, to celebrate Eucharist with us, and to share in our faith which we experience as gift. As a community, we claim that we are a prophetic voice to the gay community and to the Church – a voice that says the arms of God are big enough to welcome all people – regardless of any category or label we might place on one another.  As we begin this Advent Season, this New Year in our own life of faith, let us with faithful hearts be attentive to the present moment of the world in which we live. Let us re-commit ourselves to telling our stories with others – our stories as lesbian and gay Catholics.

If any of you read the National Catholic Reporter, you may have seen a commentary by Nicole Sotelo, writing about the recent pastoral letter approved by the bishops of the U.S. on Marriage, which promotes – I think – an incomplete and at times incongruous theology of the human person.  She essentially writes about how our Catholic brothers and sisters – more so than Church leaders – are much more  like our Christian ancestors who were able to grow and change and evolve with the passage of time, being able to discern the difference between the essentials of faith and those things that are conditioned by history and culture and circumstance. In conclusion, here’s what she says:

“When one stops gazing only at the 258 active Catholic bishops, but instead takes a good look at the approximately 65 million Catholics in the United States and their growing acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, there emerges much hope for the future of our church and society.”

“Dignity: Tell a Friend.”  With 65 Million Catholics in the US … that’s a lot of friends to tell!